Year in the Wild Blog

The wild side of Mapungubwe – and the challenges of conservation

Mapungubwe offers so much more than just rich cultural history. Although the archaeological aspect certainly makes this national park famous, the scenery and wildlife is spectacular too.

One of the very best views in all of South Africa is at the lookout decks on the high ridge above the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers… you can gaze across the vast floodplain, seemingly almost all the way up Africa, where hundreds of baobabs stand guard, as huge herds of elephants rumble through the golden mopane trees, a trail of golden dust in their wake.

Every time I go there, especially at sunset, I can’t seem to look away… it’s a hypnotic view, and just inspires me to continue my adventure, exploring more of Africa and its secret wild places. Up here in the far north of South Africa, the landscape is more representative of the vast southern reaches of Botswana and Zimbabwe than the lowveld or highveld of South Africa.

Mapungubwe National Park forms part of the Greater Mapungubwe Peace Park, a transfrontier conservation initiative that is working to formalise the co-management of Botswana’s, Zimbabwe’s and South Africa’s game reserves in the region. The idea and theory behind it – which makes absolute sense to me – is that animals, birds and ecosystems aren’t delineated by man’s random political boundaries, and conservation areas should be managed according to natural landscapes and animal migrations.

Of course, this makes sense in theory, but practically it’s tough to implement – Zimbabwe isn’t exactly the most stable of countries, and Botswana has its own ideas about what’s best, but the fact is that people are trying to make it work. Fences are slowly being dismantled so animals can move where they wish, game rangers are swapping notes and contact details, and things are moving in the right direction. The Peace Parks organisation is doing great work all over southern Africa, and deserves to be supported fully by all of us.

There are challenges: elephants keep pushing down the veterinary fences which are supposed to keep Zimbabwe cattle out of Mapungubwe National Park; rangers have to regularly clear the area of snares which are set by local people who are some of the poorest in the region; surrounding hunting farms provide valuable revenue to the area, yet the same animals are what draws nature-loving tourists; old military fences which were erected during the border war are still not dismantled, trapping unwary animals in its barbed wire.

And most vexing of all is the imminent establishment and operation of several large coal mines near to the transfrontier conservation area. The Vele coal mine is just a few kilometres from the eastern fence of the national park, and has been the subject of much debate and concern. It’s an open-cast mine, and the strong prevailing winds will most likely blow all the dust over the park.

Should a massive coal mine be allowed so close to one of our country’s World Heritage Sites, and a unique conservation area? In this day and age, should the country be developing coal mines, when we all know that South Africa is already one of the world’s worst polluters of the atmosphere, because of our reliance on coal-fired power stations?

The Venetia diamond mine, operated by De Beers, already operates south of the national park, and in fact one of its storage dams is located in the middle of the park, drawing water from the Limpopo River. You can see the water pipeline from Mapungubwe Hill itself. Now, coal mines need lots of water too, and even more will be drawn from the Limpopo. But what about the wildlife? What rights do they have to the water? In winter, the Limpopo River is a dry, sandy bed. In times past, it used to flow all year round. But upstream utilisation has sucked it dry. Now, it will be placed under even more stress.

These are all challenges which conservationists have to deal with…and often with the least money and resources! Let’s support them! And one of the best ways to do so, I think, is by simply visiting the national parks. By doing so, you’re confirming for government that Mapungubwe NP can create sustainable, long-term revenue, and that everything should be done to prevent the degradation of the fragile ecosystem with mining and industrial development.

Mapungubwe NP offers some excellent accommodation. At Limpopo Forest Tented camp, where traditional safari tents stand in the deep shade of nyala trees, and at Leokwe Camp, where comfortable, fully-equipped chalets are surrounded by low sandstone-cliffs. At both camps, elephants are regualr visitors, as are hyenas, civets and genets. The camps are unfenced, making it a real adventure, and a nice change from places like Kruger. Last night, I had a hyena come visit me, as well as a breeding herd of ellies.

But the highlight of my stay so far at Mapungubwe has been the view of about 250 elephants crossing the Limpopo River. At sunset a few evenings ago, I was alone at the viewpoint overlooking the confluence, and I saw a long black line slowly extending across the vast landscape. I rushed to get my camera, and took a few photos. It was incredible…the elephants looked like ants on the massive tapestry of sand, trees and bushveld. I got goosebumps…

One of the best things I've seen so far on my Year in the Wild journey...elephants crossing at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers

Sunset, Mapungubwe-style

Panoramic photo of the tree-top canopy boardwalk on the Limpopo River...a must-do!

The view from the tree-top boardwalk with bird hide

Panoramic of the confluence of the two rivers

This genet and civet came to visit me one night at Leokwe Camp!

Mapungubwe National Park offers an interesting mix of wildlife, where both gemsbok (an arid-type antelope) mixes with impala, more used to lowveld-type habitat.

So much for elephant-proof fences!

A bull ellie ponders the military fence from the border war in the 1980s, which still hasn't been dismantled yet.

White rhino in the Greater Mapungubwe transfrontier conservation area...the living version of the golden symbol of Mapungubwe in the photo below...

Leokwe Camp at Mapungubwe NP

Limpopo Forest Tented Camp

For more, go to and Thanks again to my sponsors for making it all possible. CapeNature, South African National Parks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks, iSimangaliso Wetland ParkFord, Total, Evosat, Conqueror TrailersVodacom, Digicape, Lacie, Frontrunner, Safari Centre Cape TownK-Way, EeziAwnNational Luna, Nokia , GarminGoodyear, Global Fleet Sales, HetznerClearstream ConsultingEscape Gear and Trailcam Adventures.

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