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The Lost Kingdom of MAPUNGUBWE

We went to all of South Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Everyone wants to know what the highlights were. So honestly… this might be the best one. Maybe by far. But you didn’t hear that from me. A friend in Hoedspruit gave us directions and warned us to get going – the roads near Mapungubwe […]

The Lost Kingdom of MAPUNGUBWE

We went to all of South Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Everyone wants to know what the highlights were. So honestly… this might be the best one. Maybe by far. But you didn’t hear that from me.

A friend in Hoedspruit gave us directions and warned us to get going – the roads near Mapungubwe aren’t safe after dark. I thought he was talking about crooks, but I’m not used to places where actual elephants roam the roads. The sky turns and giant baobabs line the horizon. At this time of day, in this part of the world, Africa smells like fresh potatoes. We hit our first stretch of potholes just West of Musina. A hyaena casually trots across the road. Now I understand the warning. This place is wild.

All 10 of South Africa’s World Heritage sites have something that makes them of universal significance to all of humankind. Mapungubwe is one of the coolest national parks in the world before we even start to talk about UNESCO. It is wild, beautiful and unique. And then it has this crazy story of a golden hill just sitting there in the background of a lion kill. Like a Picasso on the wall at a dinner party.

This particular Picasso’s importance was such that the apartheid government hid its story from the mainstream for ages. A great African civilization. A thousand years ago. While Europeans were hitting each other over the head with clubs in the Dark Ages, us Saffas were trading with the East and wearing glass and golden jewellery. Mapungubwe means Place of Wisdom or Hill of the Jackal, depending on who you ask. Climbing the 147 steps to the top you get an eerie feeling. Royalty once lived here. They played games. They grew crops. They had a justice system. And anyone who looked directly at the hill would be punished by the ancestors forever.

We cruise along, dodging potholes and stealing glances at the milky way through the sunroof of our Subaru Forester. Everything in Africa is a day trip away, I hear my mother’s voice echo in my head.  We should have planned better.

We arrive at Rhato Bushcamp and rekindle last night’s fire. Wood burns differently here. Longer and hotter – just like the days. I don’t get much sleep because I’m too excited about the sounds of hippos, elephants, lions and hyaenas.

Cruising into Mapungubwe National Park  early in the morning is like driving onto the opening scene of The Lion King. Doubly so if you listen to the soundtrack. There is so much game hanging around we wish we could ask what they all appear to be waiting for.

The Subaru Forester nonchalantly pushes through the gravel loops and 4×4 tracks that make up the many self-drive game viewing options. We stop at a bird hide in the Eastern section of the park. There are two male impalas fighting to the left, Pumbaa is drinking water right in front of us, giraffes graze in the background and there is a sudden loud ‘Kwê’, as a Grey Loerie, also known as the go-away bird, warns the animals that there’s trouble lurking.

As we leave the hide, we accidentally drive in between a mama Elephant and her baby. Everyone knows this can only mean trouble so I step on it – Kim almost jumps on my lap as the sound of the angry mom’s trumpet thunders from just a few meters away. The elephant rushes towards us but she is no match for our Forester. Hasta la vista, baby!

Subaru Forester Adventure Blog in Mapungubwe

We meet up with Park Manager, Conrad Strauss, who has an exciting ‘challenge’ in mind for the Forester. We are going to drive into the confluence area where the Shashi and Limpopo rivers meet – right where South Africa borders on Botswana and Zimbabwe. There are no roads here, only sandy riverbank. No-man’s-land. Challenge accepted, sir, the Subaru is all-wheel drive after all.

On the banks of the river we pull out the Front Runner canopy and drink warmish G&T’s from tin cups on the banks of the mighty Limpopo as the sun sets over Botswana.

Just another day in Africa.

Favourite things to do in Mapungubwe:

  1. The Cultural Tour at Mapungubwe Hill with Johannes Masalesa. Johannes is a passionate field ranger and a direct descendant of the people of the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe. He grew up in the area and has been guiding heritage tours for over 15 years. He loves the stories of Mapungubwe, as told to him by his parents and grandparents, and makes you realise how important it is to keep stories alive. He is the author of the book ‘Mapungubwe: Place of Ancestors’.

    Forester Adventure Mbungubwe

    Subaru Forester Adventure Mapungubwe

  2. The treetop boardwalk. Hidden away between massive quiver trees, this raised canopy walkway leads to a hide overlooking the Limpopo river. Ambling along the Limpopo riverbank, this place is home to more than 400 bird species. A short hike leads you to a small bench where you can admire the river view.
  3. Game drives and 4×4 trails. The many self-drive trails through Mapungubwe – some 4×4 only and some you can do in any old jalopy. The park is so big that the habitat literally changes around you. In the Eastern part of the park, Kannidood is a great little 7km loop with radical landscape changes and plenty of game. We stayed at Tshugulu lodge in the Western part of the park and did part of the 45km Eco-Trail. This was one of my favourite parts of this whole trip because it’s so untouched.
  4. Confluence view point – where three countries meet. There are four decks looking out over the area where the Limpopo and Shashi rivers meet. To the East you have the sunrise deck looking out over Zimbabwe, and to the West there is the sunset deck that looks out over Botswana and standing there you are firmly planted in South Africa.
  5. The little 5. The big 5 are easy, and Mapungubwe is abundant with wildlife, but there is a challenge in finding the little 5: the Elephant Shrew, the Buffalo Weaver, the Leopard Tortoise, the Antlion and the Rhino beetle.