Mighty Mapungubwe

This story was updated on 11 February 2019.

Say ‘Vhembe’ out loud and you can hear the low rush of swelling flood water as the Sashe River washes away any image of a grey-green greasy Limpopo. Where Anita de Villiers finds South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe converge, in Mapungubwe…

Mapungubwe2016_3268Here, where the Sashe River joins the Limpopo, their connubial bed occasionally erupts in an all-consuming force of nature. A force that hints at the magnitude of the energy that shaped this ancient stone and baobab landscape.

Vhembe is the name of the bush camp in Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site. Situated in the Limpopo basin at the converging cusps of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe is split into an eastern and western block by private commercial farms in between.

One of these farms, on which the self-catering Tshugulu Lodge is situated, is part of Mapungubwe. Vhembe and Leokwe are the two camps in the eastern block. On the western side are the Limpopo Forest Tented Camp and the Mazhou Camping Site.

In Search of the Lost City

At the heart of this 28 000ha park is Mapungubwe Hill, also referred to as the Lost City, the raison d’être for the World Heritage status Unesco bestowed on the park in 2003. The archaeological wealth that had been unearthed on and around Mapungubwe Hill tells of an advanced society that lived and traded there between 1075 and 1220.

Generations of local people knew about the legends surrounding this sacred Hill of the Jackal, that, according to oral tradition, no person could approach and live to tell the tale. But in 1932 a local farmer and his son learnt of the archaeological wealth of this site, and the University of Pretoria became custodian.

A few months before South African National Parks (SANParks) opened Mapungubwe to the public in September 2004, I was there on assignment for Country Life, the sole visitor in this remote and ruggedly beautiful place.

On that occasion, I had pledged to return to Vhembe, that small camp I had then described as ‘sitting isolated on a hillock, just breathing in and out with nature’.

The Return

This year, the gravel road to Vhembe took us into a vast amphitheatre of sandstone formations that the falling sun turned to shades of rich ochre and burnished gold. Some of the oldest rocks on Earth were enfolding around us like old parchment, and by the time we arrived at the camp, we were bowed into stillness.

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Rapt sensations begone! The hillock on which the camp sits seemed to have grown in height in the interim. Fading light, plus the fact that yours truly plus friends Friedi Arthur and Jane Bedford were completely alone in what looked like prime cat country, challenged us to make haste in trekking food and cameras and stuff uphill, along the winding path.

The camp has a central enclosed kitchen and lapa, plus four two-bedded, en-suite tents on wooden platforms, which sit like sentinels on the edge of the hill, watching over the valley. Each tent also has its own lapa with skottel braai.

Happy to be settled in our tents, we started the primitive ritual of making a fire. The wood huffed and puffed, sending smoke signals into the night sky, announcing our arrival. A Fiery-necked Nightjar gave a welcoming call.

Next morning, the near-full moon was still hanging in the inky-blue west when the east turned crimson. Travel mugs with steaming coffee eased the pre-sunrise chill as we headed out to navigate the 4×4 routes in the area. We did not get far before the sandstone sculptures halted us, abstract voodoo figures and Matisse’s reclining nudes dancing and posing for our attention. It was going to be a long day.

There are two 4×4 routes in this far-eastern part of Mapungubwe – the 7km Kanniedood and the shorter loop traversing the Khongoni (wildebeest) Plain. In the Tshugulu Lodge area is a 45km eco trail.

For us, the challenge of the day was Kanniedood. Kanniedood is the Afrikaans name for the hardy family of corkwood trees, distinguished by the papery bark that flakes off the trunk and, in some species, the central branches as well. The genus name, Commiphora is from the Greek words kommi, meaning ‘gum’ and phoros, meaning ‘bearing’.

‘Gum-bearing’ refers to the resin that seeps through lesions in the trunk and solidifies into rock-hard balls and strips. Several of the corkwood species pepper the Kanniedood route landscape, the most striking the zebra-bark (Commiphora viminea or merkeri).

The trail started deceptively easy, winding through mopani bush, and we were happy to be the only people in the world on the Kanniedood. But the terrain changed radically, the road narrowing to two tracks cutting over and along steep, ascends and descends.

My hand gripped the steering wheel as tightly as the wheels kept traction on the declines, and our combined focus must have matched the engine’s torques up and up until the Jeep’s nose dipped out of sight over a summit, and only the blue heavens were framed by the windscreen.

On what felt like the narrowest stretch, a corkwood had fallen across the road. To the left was a sharp decline. The bulk of the tree had been chopped away, but a sizeable piece still protruded into the track. On the first attempt the back wheel lodged solidly against the branch. Jane got out to direct me, while Friedi hung out of the back window to check the inch-by-inch manoeuvring around the branch. We live to tell the tale.

Climbing up the steep wooden steps to the top of Mapungubwe Hill that afternoon was a breeze in comparison. Because of the archaeological sensitivity and cultural heritage of the hill and surrounding landscape, public access is restricted.

A qualified guide took us into the area up the hill on an extremely informative tour of three hours. Cedric Setlhako unveiled not only the historical narrative told by the archaeological artefacts, but his passion for this piece of the country’s multi-cultural past.

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This was my third visit to Mapungubwe Hill in twelve years, and every time another facet of its story strikes me. This time, it was the grave where, on 20 November 2007, the skeletal remains excavated in 1933 were reburied, according to indigenous tradition. Not all the skeletons could be reburied as some disintegrated when exposed to light. But this ceremony, this proper reburial of the ancestors, appeased the local people.

Cedric led us to the north-eastern cliff overlooking a landscape defined by baobabs thousands of years old. In the distance to the left, he pointed out a black dolerite dyke, a number of which occur in Mapungubwe. Volcanic activities that started during the Late Triassic Period more than 200 million years ago, and continued for 100 million years over the subsequent Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, had pushed this molten rock to the surface where it solidified. These three geological periods are grouped together as the Mesozoic Era. And the creation of these sandstone formations also dates back to this era.

As we sat quietly on the sharp edge of the high hill, it felt as if the substance of this place in the Limpopo basin was ingrained in its textures. As if the slight wind whispered about the rocks, the plants, the animals and the people who had dwelled here. ‘Vhembe’ it breathed… A gust of wind suddenly kicked up dust around us. ‘Eish!’ it sighed. ‘Three gogos on the Kanniedood?’

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Mighty Mapungubwe
  • Mapungubwe is a nature, wildlife and cultural destination. The Interpretive Centre and guided heritage tours introduce visitors to the cultural landscape. Guided walks and game drives are also offered. The three 4×4 trails are self-drive – and for 4×4 only.
  • More than 90 animal species occur in the park, including the Big Five, and 456 recorded bird species. SEE MORE > Mapungubwe’s Rare Birds
  • Mapungubwe camps are all self-catering. There is no shop that sells food, wood or ice, and there is no fuel. There is a restaurant and small souvenir shop at the Interpretive Centre.
  • The nearest towns where groceries, fuel and other necessities can be bought are Musina (83km) and Alldays (50km).
  • SANParks > 012 428 9111, [email protected]

READ MORE: Mapungubwe’s Treetop Walk and Baobabs, The Giants of the Bushveld

Words and Photography Anita de Villiers

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