Did you know trees can talk? Okay, maybe not in the conventional sense like you and I, but they can certainly communicate. If a giraffe munches on an acacia tree, it releases chemicals warning nearby trees of the hungry herbivore, so the trees can fend it off by producing strong, unpalatable tannins.
Driving through the arid scenery of the northernmost parts of South Africa, I can’t help but wonder what the baobab trees would have to say about Mapungubwe. Perhaps I can catch them whispering in the wind with my window down. Many of them would have witnessed the rise and fall of South Africa’s first sophisticated empire. Or spotted Jan Smuts walking about, most likely examining the veld for different grass types (he was adamant this region needed to be protected). Or heard the thump of mining machinery at work before the land was finally left to return to its natural state – save for a few visiting cows that cross over from Zimbabwe. Now they watch tourists, visiting since its official reopening in 2004.
More than 10 years later, I’m driving the roads that wind their way between the eastern and western sections of this park, separated by private land, and they vary from lazy gravel loops to rocky 4×4 tracks.
There are several theories about what the word ‘Mapungubwe’ means, but my favourite by far is ‘place of the stone of wisdom’ – this is surely a place of spirit. There’s a true wildness about South Africa’s northernmost national park. It’s remote and untamed, on the brink of feeling menacing, but there’s a palpable ancient presence here that is equally peaceful.
It’s an enchanting feeling and I found it most stirring when quietly walking along the Treetop Boardwalk beside the Limpopo riverbank. Home to nearly 400 bird species, I reckon the trees whisper to the flying folk too. Creeping gently, I could get close enough to a pair of golden-tailed woodpeckers to feel the vibrations as they worked away at the wood of towering Ana trees, and through my binocs I spotted a broad-billed roller perching in the heights of a leadwood. Even in the parking lot beside the boardwalk, trees tower above the car enforcing their impressive scale.
I wake at dawn after a night spent at Leokwe Rest Camp and while driving up dirt tracks to find the best sunrise spot, I find my road trip is blessed with baobabs in flower. What a lucky encounter because the heavy, drooping white bulbs last just one night and sometimes a small part of the day. They are pollinated by fruit bats who can better locate them by their bright colour against the darkness of night.
Once the sun is properly up, it’s a steady climb up Mapungubwe Hill (you cannot drive yourself to this site) and then I’m walking where royalty once lived, who played games and grew crops. But now it’s time to follow the birds, baobabs and the lazy Limpopo River east, towards the Kruger National Park and another late Iron Age stone site called Thulamela.
The drive is easy, but a little potholed on the tarred section between Mapungubwe and Musina. I drive past farms and southern yellow-billed hornbills float in the wake of the wind thrown off by the brief sections that permit 120 kilometres per hour. I pass villages and roadside markets, then drive slowly between kraals (careful not to kick up dust) to reach Pafuri River Camp. Home for the night is a treehouse, nestled beneath an expansive nyala tree.
It offers a thick block of shade against the summer heat and an exceptionally perfect life-sighting of a narina trogon showing off its unmistakable red breast in the golden morning glow.
The northern part of Kruger National Park is equally breathtaking and although it shares the same river as Mapungubwe, it’s not nearly as rugged. Instead, there are more jungley riverine forests of fever trees, jackalberries and thick, yellow-trunked sycamore figs heaving with birdsong. Driving along the river bends, I expect an elephant lurking behind each expansive trunk and I never reach third gear.
After an early breakfast at Luvuvhu picnic site, local Shangaan guides Carel Nkuna and Daniel Shibambu lead a group of us around the Thulamela Ruins. They have been faithfully reconstructed by local masons and are heavily reminiscent of the Great Zimbabwe Ruins further north. The guides are an absolute delight – passionate, easy conversationalists, they’re happy to offer as much insight as they can, telling the story about ‘the Leopard King and the lady who measured 1,7 metres in height’.
Thulamela forms part of what is referred to as Zimbabwe culture, which is believed to have started at Mapungubwe then moved to the Great Ruins before relocating here in northern Kruger. I am interested to hear that Carel and Daniel are scheduled to visit Mapungubwe and the Zim Ruins to learn more about the heritage of the area, courtesy of SAN Parks.
The two-hour Thulamela Trail is over quickly and after taking in a lofty view of the Luvuvhu River (you won’t find another public viewpoint of it elsewhere in the park).
I bid Carel and Daniel goodbye and make my way to the mopane-veld south, leaving the baobabs behind. Along the way, I scan the last lower branches of the forest for sleeping Verraux’s eagle-owls, and listen out for the Tarzan-like calls of African green pigeons, who can’t resist the delectable figs along the river.
I stick to the tar for the most part, until I branch off on the riverside loops around Sirheni Bushveld Camp – they are more productive in terms of seeing game than the mopane flats. At Sirheni, the camp groundsman tells me about a nesting site and I’m treated to the sight of a trio of fluffy southern white-faced owls at sunset.
My plan was to return to Johannesburg via Punda Maria Gate, but feeling dispirited at the thought of having to leave, I decide to drive a little longer and exit at Phalaborwa Gate, adding two more hours to the trip.
I wind down the window and cruise slowly south… maybe I’ll catch more of what those trees have to say.
Need to know
A 4×4 or high-clearance vehicle is best to explore Mapungubwe property and it’s ideal to have height for game viewing in Kruger Park. However, Mapungubwe’s camps are accessible by normal sedan vehicles. There is no filling station or ATM available here, so you need to fill up in Musina or Punda Maria and stock upon self-catering supplies and wood before you leave town.
Day 1: Joburg to Mapungubwe
Allow 5-6 hours
From Joburg, take the N1 north all the way to Makhado (roughly 440km) and turn left on the R522 (towards Leshiba Wilderness) to Vivo and then right onto the R521 to Alldays (you can see the beautiful Blouberg in the distance if you look left). Fill up at the Alldays fuel station – both your tummy and the car (the card machine didn’t work when I was there, so carry cash in case). Drive the remaining 80km to the main Mapungubwe Gate and then on to Leokwe Rest Camp. Be sure to visit the Treetop Boardwalk at sunset.
Day 2: Mapungubwe to Pafuri
Distance Around 200km (depending on how much driving you do in Mapungubwe)
Allow 2 hours (Mapungubwe Gate to Pafuri River Camp)
Take a flask of coffee to the confluence point and then explore Mapungubwe on the heritage tour before it gets too hot. Leave Mapungubwe on the R572 heading east, then right on the N1 into Musina. Stop at the Engen to refuel and then take the shortcut (R50S) towards Tshipise. At the T-junction 40km later, turn left onto the R525 which goes straight to Pafuri Gate to enter Kruger, but just before the gate turn right up a gravel road and follow the signs for four kilometres to reach Pafuri River Camp.
Day 3: Pafuri to Sirheni
Allow 7 hours
Leave Pafuri River Camp as early as you can, depending on when the gate into Kruger opens (this varies), and spend sunrise at the Luvuvhu Bridge for the best birding. Then have breakfast at Luvuvhu picnic site before starting the Thulamela Trail. While in the area spend time at Crooks Corner, before heading south on the tarred H1-8 and H1-7 to Sirheni Bushveld Camp. There are gravel loops around Sirheni that take you along the riverbed for game drives.