Wonders of nature and a compelling history have conspired over the years to turn the Mapungubwe landscape into a hotbed of intrigue and natural treasures…
Follow the N1’s curves through the Soutpansberg or pass it along the R521 where it flattens out in the west, and before you unfolds the landscape of Greater Mapungubwe, which straddles South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe and Botswana, and is filled with surprises.
At the heart of it is Mapungubwe National Park. The 30 000-hectare park anchors the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (600 000 hectares), which extends to protected zones on both sides of the Shashe River that separates Botswana and Zimbabwe, as it sweeps down from the north to its meeting with the Limpopo River. With the addition of sizeable private reserves on the South African side, and conservation projects in progress in Botswana and Zimbabwe, it is a cross-border scheme rich in promise.
A place of wisdom
Dinosaurs once roamed there, Stone-Age beings chipped their way into mankind’s ancestry and San painted their haunting pictures on rock walls, all adding to the region’s mystique. But with Mapungubwe started a history that still resonates with today’s Southern Africa.
It goes back a thousand years to when kings ensconced on the hilltop – from which the park takes its name – presided over a remarkably structured African community for Southern Africa at the time. They left behind the famed gold-plated rhino, and a golden sceptre and beads, for archaeologists to puzzle over.
Their legacy served to get the area proclaimed a World Heritage Site. Politically they gave cause to African-renaissance President Thabo Mbeki’s government to splurge on a posh interpretive centre for proving the long-ago sophistication of African settlements in the region.
For all this, the name Mapungubwe then kicks up this oddity. Some declare it to mean ‘Place of the Stone of Wisdom’. Others say it means ‘Place of Jackals’.
Across the Limpopo on the Botswana side, the transfrontier scheme takes in the 70 000-hectare Northern Tuli Game Reserve. The group of wildlife estates is the legacy of Cecil Rhodes who, in the late 19th century in pursuit of his dream of linking the Cape to Cairo, created the corridor between the then Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and the Bechuanaland Protectorate. The area was later divided into farms for British settlement, to halt the Boer Republic’s expansion.
Further north is Zimbabwe’s most tangible contribution to the conservation scheme in the shape of the 50 000-hectare Tuli Circle that cuts across the Shashe River into Botswana. It was crafted by Rhodes to keep the locals’ cattle at a radius of 16 kilometres from his outspan to prevent his oxen from contracting animal disease.
A meeting of minds
In June 2006, dignitaries from South Africa stepped over the trickle that was the Limpopo River – at the point in the dry Limpopo-Shashe river bed where the three countries meet – to join the signing of the memorandum of understanding to create the transfrontier reserve.
Now, Patience Gandiwa, the project’s international coordinator, wants to get the treaty signed to formalise the arrangement. She let me know by email from Harare that the cross-border conservation and tourism arrangements have been firmed up enough to do so.
It was at the signing ceremony of 2006 that I chanced upon another of the region’s surprises. It concerned an island in the confluence of the two rivers, that had a cottage rumoured to be a hideout for crooks. A delegate from Botswana named Hendrik Coetzer told me the real story.
On the island was a large Bechuanaland farm Coetzer’s father had bought in 1952. It wasn’t clear which country it belonged to, which prompted his father to declare it the Independent State of Shasheland. That moved the British colonial government forthwith to declare it part of Bechuanaland.
But it is south of the Limpopo where history played its weirdest tricks. It saw one of the most bitter Nat-Sap clashes over whether to establish a park there.
The fight for conservation
Mapungubwe’s propensity for controversy had conservationists and neighbouring landowners calling themselves the Save Mapungubwe Coalition, and fight a losing battle against coal mining close to the border. The mining company got the go-ahead by entering into a ‘biodiversity offset agreement’ with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and SANParks, whereby it will pay R55-million over 25 years, to be spent on the park.
Whether the anti-mining campaign had anything to do with it, there has since taken root a new community spirit in the shape of an organisation called the Greater Mapungubwe Network. The livewires behind it are Wendy Collinson, project executant of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s wildlife and roads project, Rox Brummer of Green Dogs Conservation that provides dogs to keep livestock safe from predators, and Caroline Kruger, manager of the Mogalakwena Research Centre.
Five years ago, they initiated a meeting that had about 50 people attending, including representatives of SANParks, plus the transfrontier-park committee and De Beers, whose enormous open-cast Venetia diamond mine has a 36 000-hectare nature reserve attached to it.
Wendy paints the picture. “We found people to be passionate about the area… The vision was to share ideas and information… We now have about 500 members, four meetings a year and a regular newsletter… It’s not only about wildlife. Presentations will, for instance, also be about how to set up a blog…”
The three were later described to me as the ‘Mapungubwe Google’ by Coba Rohm, manager of Mopane Bush Lodge. “You want to know something, that’s where you will find out.”
The network helps coordinate the region’s plethora of research projects, ranging from mopane worms and trapdoor spiders to lion, elephant and community aspects. Just how taken academia is with the region is underscored by the presence of two major research centres, one named Lajuma and the other Mogalakwena.
Wendy intimated that behind the network lurks a bigger ideal. “We have started to work together and share ideas. The breakthrough will come when the fences come down. People must get a collective idea of ownership… They must stop saying it is your lion that’s come onto my place, or it is my lion… They must start talking about our lion…” Added Rox, “Farmers are already getting there. Rather than shoot predators, most now call and we provide dogs to drive them off.”
Later that day I gazed across Venetia’s gaping hole that was dug after a visiting geologist in the 1970s noticed a kimberlite rock used as a doorstop for a pit toilet. I was given a ride on a mammoth truck that trundled up the incline to deliver 235 tonnes of rock to the crusher where a tiny handful of diamonds might be retrieved.
That night I was woken in Mapungubwe’s tented camp on the bank of the Limpopo by a cacophony of lion roaring, elephant shrieking and the insane laughter of hyena. I knew not what caused the commotion, but it was exhilarating to think that it was happening much as it would have, in times before human boundaries were drawn.
On the Political Football Fields
The Mapungubwe saga goes back to the 1920s, when the region was buffeted by National Party-South African Party politics, as the power tussle between the National Party (Nat) and the old South African Party (Sap) and its successor, the United Party (UP) went on in those years.
Prominent historian Jane Carruthers, in a paper titled Battle of Dongola, describes how the issue generated some of the most acrimonious parliamentary debates and one of the biggest select-committee reports of the time.
In 1922, Prime Minister Jan Smuts had his Sap government set aside land as a botanical reserve. He did so at the behest of Dr Illtyd Buller Pole Evans, a botanist from Britain who worked for the Department of Agriculture. They became friends due to their shared love of nature.
AB Emery, the manager of a copper mine at Musina, helped choose the farms, including his own, for what was named the Dongola Botanical Reserve. He was appointed honorary caretaker by Pole Evans, who described the reserve as “fit for nature, nature left alone as man first saw it, in balanced equilibrium”.
Smuts lost the 1924 election to the National Party of Barry Hertzog, who was taken enough with the reserve to add another farm to it. It was when Smuts returned to power in 1939, by defeating Hertzog in a parliamentary vote in favour of joining the Allieds in the war against Nazi Germany, that the idea of upgrading the reserve to a national park took off.
Pole Evans did the pushing. He told Smuts that the administrations of then Rhodesia and Bechuanaland were interested in establishing an international game reserve that would straddle the Limpopo Valley. This so appealed to Smuts’s love of nature and his vision of creating a united states of Southern Africa that he had his government add more farms to the reserve.
But there was so much bitterness over the war issue that the National Parks Board, at the instigation of a Nationalist, refused to take it over, arguing that the region was too arid and that the reserve would offer nothing more than nearby Kruger National Park.
It did not help that Smuts’s Minister of Lands, Andrew Conroy, was in charge of the project. Already no favourite of the Nationalists, he forged ahead, announcing plans to buy more farms for what he renamed the Dongola Wildlife Sanctuary.
Objections came from outside Nationalist ranks as well. Even Emery organised vociferously against the park after Pole Evans scolded him for bringing his livestock into the reserve during a drought.
A select committee appointed to hear submissions took two years to produce a 1 500-page report. The major objection listed was the alienation of agricultural land for wildlife purposes. It was a remarkable turn, notes Carruthers, as the farmers had initially succeeded in getting the government to reduce the price of the land on the grounds that it was such worthless farmland.
The Nationalists accused Smuts of internationalism for wanting to co-operate with Bechuanaland and Rhodesia in expanding the park across the Limpopo. American support for the project was counter-productive as, to Smuts’s detractors, it fitted with his tendency to strut the world stage rather than tend to home problems.
Objections were raised to the fact that Africans had been consulted about the park and that they had declared their support for it. Opposition was stirred in the Afrikaans community as well, by questioning the bilingual abilities of the officials who stood to be deployed to the park.
Despite all, the Smuts government passed the Dongola Wildlife Sanctuary Act in 1947 to give the reserve national park status. It became a hot issue in the following year’s election, which Smuts lost. This resulted in DF Malan’s new Nationalist government immediately stopping funding for the reserve, and the next year repealing the Dongola Wildlife Sanctuary Act after a bitter debate.
The farms were returned to their owners. Only one, called Greefswald, on which archaeologists were conducting their Mapungubwe excavations, was retained. Even the botanical reserve established back in 1922 was scrapped.
Carruthers writes, ‘Perhaps a little surprisingly, there was no great public outcry in response to the ‘breach of faith’ as the Wildlife Society called it. Settlers returned to carp about the poor farming conditions of the area, Emery to entertain his friends with shooting parties and dances at Skutwater (his farm) – indeed it was soon as though nothing had ever disturbed the tranquility of the far north-western Transvaal’.
The park idea refused to die. In 1976 the administrator of the then Transvaal province added two farms to Greefswald and proclaimed it the Vhembe Nature Reserve (now the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve). The following year, in keeping with the place’s quirky history, Greefswald was turned into a military base and a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts.
Ironically, again, it was mining company De Beers that set the park back on course. Having created a nature reserve from land owned by its Venetia diamond mine, De Beers suggested that the long-disputed area adjoining it be turned back into a national park. This came about under the Mandela administration in 1998.
Words Leon Marshall
Photography Leon Marshall and Caroline Kruger