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Mapungubwe National Park is one of South Africa’s lesser-known gems. Now part of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area and located in the north of Limpopo province where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet, the park is a place of outstanding natural beauty, significant biodiversity and cultural importance. For these reasons, it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and yet it receives far fewer visitors than many of the country’s more popular parks.
The majority of the region’s large mammal species are present, and elephant, giraffe, zebra, eland and impala are all common. Present but more rarely spotted are white rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs and hyenas. Over 380 species of birds, up to 32 types of snake and nine species of scorpion have been seen in the park. Nile crocodiles are also present.
The park boasts varied scenery and diverse habitats, and is known as a particularly attractive place to go on safari. Within the park, you will find dramatic sandstone formations, woodlands, riverine forests and a range of different vegetation including the iconic baobab trees.
- Wilderness factor:
This park is one of the lesser-visited parks in the country and is never overly busy. Accommodation is limited within the park and you will see fewer other vehicles than you would in more popular parks. Most of the roads are accessible only by 4x4 which adds to the feeling of being out in the bush.
The primary attraction is self-drive or guided safaris. There are only 35 km of roads suitable for regular cars and for the rest, you will need a 4x4. All roads are gravelled. Once in the park, you can realistically expect to spot elephants, wildebeest, zebras, giraffes and many others. To catch sight of lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas or white rhino, you will need to be much luckier. Special guided sunrise and night drives are offered.
- Varied scenic landscape home to diverse plant and animal species
- Over 380 species of birds have been spotted in the park
- UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for biodiversity, scenic beauty and cultural significance
- Museum tour in a museum building voted World Building of the Year in 2009
- The place where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet
- Limited roads suitable for regular road cars
- Fewer facilities and accommodation options than in more popular parks
- Mapungubwe is significant for its human history as well as for its animal life, and a highlight is a visit to the museum, housed in an award-winning building, which showcases human occupation dating back to the iron age. The star exhibit is the golden rhino figurine uncovered at Mapungubwe Hill.
- Another place of interest is the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers at the point where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet.
- Guided morning walks are available, as are walks to see dinosaur footprints, rock art and particularly large baobab specimens.
- There is a tree top walk where visitors can walk along raised platforms in the forest canopy to observe bird life in the treetops.
- Bush braais are also possible.
The best time to visit is from March to May. The park is dry year-round with an average of only ten days of rain per year but at this time, the weather is cooler and more pleasant than during the hot summer months (November to February). Summer also sees the most rainfall, and animals are harder to spot.
It is possible to enter the park as a day visitor but staying for at least two or three nights will allow you time for several drives out into the park to try to spot some of the more elusive residents. You will also be able to partake in some of the other activities available as well as enjoy the sensation of sleeping out in the African bush, a world away from busy city life.
There are five accommodation options in the park:
Leokwe Camp is the main camp and is located in the eastern section of the park, around 11 km from the main gate. Accommodation is in cottages or family cottages and there is also a swimming pool, sundeck and braai area. The treetop hide and confluence view site are nearby.
Limpopo Forest Tented Camp is located in the Limpopo riverine forest area in the west section of the park, around 40 km from the main gate. Accommodation is in forest tents. The camp is located near to the Maloutswa Pan hide.
A camping site is available for caravans and tents at the Mazhou Camping Site. Power points are available on the site. It is located close to the Limpopo Forest Tented Camp in the western section of the park.
For a taste of the true bush, the Vhembe Wilderness Camp offers basic accommodation in wilderness cabins. Rooms include two single beds with private bathroom and shared kitchen facilities. Electricity is from solar power and there are no plug sockets. There is no pool and the camp is not fenced. This camp is not suitable for families with children and can only be reached by 4x4.
At the other end of the scale, those looking for a more luxurious stay might consider the Tshugulu Lodge. Located around 23km from the gate, accommodation is in high-end guest cottages or guesthouses.
- There is nowhere to buy petrol within park boundaries. Fuels are only available some 65–70 km from the park.
- The park is divided into an eastern section and western section. You need to drive outside of park limits to travel from one to the other.
- This park is one of the few places in Africa that is home to both meerkats and Nile crocodiles.
For those willing to sacrifice extra facilities, a Mapungubwe National Park safari promises exciting animal encounters against the backdrop of evocative sandstone formations and rich riverine forests — all with far fewer other tourists to have to share with.