THE five-hour trip to Limpopo on the N1 was a breeze. Maybe that was a sign of the fun we were going to have. I had heard Vhembe Dongola National Park had been renamed Mapungubwe National Park in 2004, but never had the opportunity to visit this heritage site. I was looking forward to the serenity of a girls’ weekend away in the bush. I had only two areas of concern while driving there: fear of snakes and whether I would be able to rock my red lipstick, all glammed up out in the wilderness. We weren’t planning on looking like those girls in the National Geographic documentaries. Still, we six were ready to paint the bush red.
The sun was blistering overhead as we drove through the gate. There was an impressively large baobab next to the parking lot and, after checking in, we drove 22km to Tshugulu Lodge. Tucked between sandstone rocks, the luxury thatched-roof chalets blended well with the thick bush and Mopani trees. Wasting no time, we dived into the pool to cool down. I soon realised there was more to this park than animals. We had an impromptu mini-pool party, seeing as we had the whole place to ourselves. A fully equipped kitchen and braai facilities are on the site. Monkeys peeked at us through the bush while birds sang “welcome to our neighbourhood” tunes.
The itinerary was jam-packed with activities for our three-day stay. It turns out the park caters for all types. Those who enjoy roughing it will enjoy the three tent camps, while those used to luxury might prefer Tshugulu Lodge or cottages at Leokwe rest camp. You need never be bored at Mapungubwe. Besides all of the activities available, the people who run this national treasure made our trip memorable. Our rangers were so passionate and knowledgeable about their park that it was impossible not to fall in love with the scenic home for the big four. Here are just some of things you shouldn’t miss: Heritage tour We were up early the next morning for our first excursion, a visit to historic Mapungubwe Hill.
The notion of following in the footsteps of the ancients who lived on the hill in AD900-1 300 was surreal. At its height, the Mapungubwe kingdom was the most potent in southern Africa. Our game ranger was a Mapungubwe descendant. With passion, Johannes Masalesa narrated the tale of the kingdom as we walked up the wooden stairs to the top of the hill. Apparently the royal family lived on the hill, which is flat on top, while the subjects settled around it. People would carry water and grain up the hill for the king. Having exerted ourselves to reach the top, we were well aware that we had just stepped onto “holy” ground.
Our ranger pointed out grooves dug into the rock for the foundation of the huts. We also saw the waterhole and the grain storage space the people had to fill up for the royal family. It was here that 23 graves of the royal family were discovered by archaeologists in 1932. The king and two women were each buried in clay pots, kneeling, facing west. The queen was found buried with 100 gold bangles, 26 000 glass beads and 12 000 gold beads. The king had been buried with a golden rhino, bowl and sceptre. We saw these artefacts in the museum later in the day. The graves of another 20 people were also discovered up on the hill, believed to be the rest of the royals. This is evidence of a wealthy African tribe suspected of trading with the East. For a long time after the kingdom’s fall, people in the area believed the mountain was enchanted and no one was allowed to go there. It’s said that when white settlers arrived, they were curious and tried to bribe King Mabina Mokoena to take them up. The king’s son was eventually tempted and took them to the path that led to the mountaintop. His disobedience left him blind from the age of 21 until he died in 2010 at 102. “At the time the people had reverence for the hill, believing that if you went up you might not return.
They thought the hill had special powers because it was where their ancestors were buried and they did not want their spirits disturbed, ranger Masalesa told us. Rituals have since been carried out and the spirits appeased. Even Masalesa had to undergo traditional rituals to enable him to take people up the mountain. Words cannot adequately express the feeling you get on top of the hill – the rich history and breathtaking view are beyond description. We were sure we could see as far as Zimbabwe. Many baobabs stand majestically as if they too can tell the story of the Mapungubwe people.
Sunset drive and bush braai
A game drive is just another drive unless you have a great tour guide. Zoos and television have made many of us lose our awe of wild animals. Ranger Leonard Lula restored our respect for wildlife. During one of our sunset drives, we’d hoped for a glimpse of one of the big cats and Lula told how he’d seen a leopard chase down a buck in front of his car. “Those with me in the car had fancy cameras, but none managed to take a photo,” he said with a chuckle. The sunset drives are aimed at catching lions hunting. We hoped to see a lion and came to accept seeing a lion in the bush was a privilege, not a right. On a 5am walk in the bush once, Lula’s party stumbled on a pride of lionesses with their cubs. He said one charged a colleague and he could not shoot because he would have killed both. He resorted to firing into the air to scare the lioness. The trick worked, but he said it was not advisable to fire blanks as the lions would come to perceive no danger in gunshots. The drive ended with a braai in the bush under the stars. A table for six was set on the end of a large rock. Soon it was pitch black and we could only see the food on our table by the light of two lamps. We enjoyed braaied T-bone, chicken and boerewors, with chocolate cake for dessert.
The bush can present a range of experiences, although the prospect of living with lions, elephants, zebras and giraffes will not appeal to everyone. The first animal we saw on our way to the heritage tour was an elephant. A large herd blocked the road and we had to wait for nearly an hour before they moved on. Their size is intimidating even if you’re in a car. We next saw elephants during our bush breakfast. One suddenly appeared through the trees and cooled himself down with water before he spotted us in the distance and took off. Although we did not get to see lions, we did come across tell-tale paw prints during our sunset drive. And even that was enough to get our hearts pumping. We did watch two male giraffes fight for territory, and there were zebra and other buck. Once we even spotted a crocodile basking in the sun.
At the Confluence viewpoint decks, you get to see Botswana and Zimbabwe while standing on South African soil. This is where Zimbabwe’s Shashe River meets the Limpopo. We were told many couples booked the place to take their wedding vows. The deck visit is usually accompanied by a treetop walk to the edge of the Limpopo. There is a “silence” sign as you enter the 200m decking walkway with wooden railings. Recent rains had resulted in a good flow into Zimbabwe. I was reluctant to go up because of my fear of heights, but the view at the end was worth it. With a pair of binoculars, you can appreciate the many birds of Mapungubwe.
Tshugulu has seven self-catering rooms with a lapa and communal area overlooking the pristine swimming pool. The kitchen has a fridge and there are walk-in fridges for large groups. If you don’t feel like preparing your own meals, you can always make your way to the main gate where they have a restaurant with an a la carte menu. Groups can also book specially catered menus. The night before we left, we checked into Leokwe rest camp, which is modelled on a Venda village. I liked the thatched family rondavels tucked into the rocks. But this camp is not fenced in, so we were not allowed to walk around. The view from these cottages is amazing. On a clear day, we were told, you could wake up to find an elephant or giraffe nearby. We were treated to a lovely farewell dinner on the deck of the Leokwe camp next to an infinity pool set between two rocks.
Kim Jayde, a fashion and travel blogger, shares her experiences of the trip: