The Blogitects Do Limpopo: Mapungubwe National Park

by | Jan 10, 2024 | Limpopo, Parks/Nature Reserves, The Blogitects | 18 comments

Mapungubwe National Park was the second stop on the Blogitects’ Limpopo road trip. Read about our first and third stops.

I’ve been procrastinating on this post about Mapungubwe National Park because I don’t know where to start. Mapungubwe, which is at the far northern tip of South Africa, across the border from both Zimbabwe and Botswana, was the whole reason we planned our Limpopo road trip; I’d been wanting to go there forever. There is a lot going on in Mapungubwe and it’s a difficult place to explain.

Elephant at Mapungubwe National Park
A giant tusker emerges from the bush. Mapungubwe is a land of giants.

Mapungubwe is best known for its archeological history: It’s the site of Southern Africa’s first kingdom and class-based society (predating Great Zimbabwe), which existed here during the 13th century, and it’s the original home of the famous golden rhino of Mapungubwe.

Walking toward Mapungubwe Hill, site of the ancient kingdom and where the golden rhino was found.

But Mapungubwe is also full of natural wonders: soaring rock formations, millennia-old baobab trees, neon-green fig trees clinging to the sides of cliffs, great herds of elephants, roaming lions, surprisingly speedy tortoises, and technicolor birds.

Enormous baobab with a kudu underneath
An enormous baobab. Look carefully: Can you see the kudu (a giant animal — easily taller than I am and weighing more than 500 pounds) dwarfed underneath?
Elephants under baobab
A family of elephants hogging the shade under a baobab. As you can probably see, the bark of this tree is badly damaged — that damage comes from elephants eating the bark during the dry season, and it’s gotten worse as local elephant populations have grown. I got really curious about this issue and found a great 702 interview about it with baobab expert Dr. Sarah Venter. The interview is only eight minutes long, if you’re curious.
Giraffes under baobab
More giants under giants. Look carefully and you’ll see the trunk of this tree is wrapped in wire mesh: This is a strategy to prevent elephant damage and we saw dozens of baobabs wrapped this way. Apparently, according to the interview with Sarah Venter, this approach really works.

Mapungubwe offers unique accommodation, one of the country’s prettiest swimming pools, a fascinating cultural tour, and an architectural-award-winning interpretation center, which, while worth visiting, has a few issues.

The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre.

Before I tell you all about our visit, I’d like to recommend this excellent post about Mapungubwe by maverick travel blogger Roxanne Reid. Roxanne’s post, aptly named “Mapungubwe National Park: everything you need to know”, will answer any questions you have that I don’t answer below.

Our Visit to Mapungubwe National Park: The Basics

Mapungubwe is about a six-hour drive from Joburg. We could have done the trip in one go but chose to break it up with a stop in Magoebaskloof, which is a little more than halfway. We spent four nights in Mapungubwe, which was cool but I think we could have done everything we wanted to do in three nights.

We took a big risk going to Mapungubwe in December. The week before we went, the area was experiencing high temperatures close to 40°C (well over 100°F), which I think would have been pretty unbearable. It was several degrees cooler when we were there but still extremely hot, to the point that we could do nothing but nap and read between noon and 5:00 p.m. It was great being there during the rainy season when everything was green, but winter temperatures are probably more pleasant.

Heather under baobab
I had never seen baobabs with leaves on them before — one of the benefits of Mapungubwe in summer. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)

Technically you don’t need a 4×4 to drive around most of Mapungubwe or to get to Leokwe Camp. But I was glad we had Greylene; there are a lot of 4×4-only roads in the park and even the main roads are rough in spots. Almost none of the roads are paved.

The Leokwe Camp

Mapungubwe has several accommodation options but we stayed in the main camp, Leokwe, which is 11 kilometers (about 30 minutes drive) from the park entrance. The camp is a collection of thatched chalets surrounded by the most beautiful rock formations, which were populated by all sorts of animals: lizards, dassies, klipspringers, tortoises, baboons, ground squirrels, many birds, and even the occasional elephant. The chalets are self-catering and equipped with very basic cookware and a braai (barbecue) in the outdoor area. We paid R1600 (about $85) per night, plus the park conservation fees (R67 per person, per day, for South Africans).

Chalet at Leokwe Camp
Our Leokwe chalet.
Bedroom at Leokwe
The round bedroom, which I really liked. It was the only room with an air conditioner, which we really needed, and it also had a good ceiling fan. The bathroom was spacious with a pleasant outdoor shower. There was also a small kitchen and living/dining area in the chalet.
Outdoor area at Leokwe
The outdoor area, which was very nice except we were frustrated by the roof beams that blocked our view of the cliffs.
Dassie in the cliff
An adorable baby dassie that I spotted in a crevasse on the cliff.
A klipspringer just outside the camp.

We loved the pool at Leokwe, which is nestled between the rocks near the entrance to the camp. We went a couple of times just before sunset and it was very relaxing.

Thorsten in the pool at Leokwe Camp
Thorsten cooling off after a hot day.

Driving in Mapungubwe

Mapungupwe is a great self-driving game reserve, and there are several interesting sights in addition to the main archeological attractions. “The Confluence”, where the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers meet and you can see across the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana, is one of the coolest parts of the park, with a beautiful trail around several different decks with views over the rivers. There is a nice picnic site surrounded by baobabs, and another viewpoint on the other side of the Confluence parking lot that looks out over an eerie group of fossilized termite mounds.

Thorsten at the Confluence
Thorsten on one of the Confluence viewing decks.
Heather at the confluence in Mapungubwe National Park
Standing on the edge of a cliff at the Confluence. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)

On the way to the Confluence (which is a short drive from Leokwe Camp), there is a “treetop walkway” that takes you out closer to the Limpopo River. But the walkway is damaged and not super interesting, in my opinion. I would skip it if you’re short on time.

One morning we took ourselves on a long game drive to the western section of Mapungubwe, which is separated from the eastern section by private land. (This means you have to drive out of the park and back in again to get there.) The western side is super wild and we saw lots of interesting animals, including many elephants and a pair of lions.

jackal pup
I was very excited to spot a family of jackals — two adults and two pups. Here is one of the pups.
A passing tortoise. They move faster than you might expect.
Carmine bee-eater
The most beautiful bird we spotted in Limpopo: a southern carmine bee-eater, who was hanging out with some friends outside the bird hide.
Pretty bushbuck
A shy but pretty bushbuck.
Lions in Mapungubwe
The most exciting wildlife sighting I’ve had in a while, which Thorsten and I were able to enjoy with only one other person watching (the only other car we saw in the park all day). I think we might have caught this couple in the middle of a date.
Male lion walking
We were so close!

The Interpretation Centre and Tour of Mapungubwe Hill

I had been really excited to visit Mapungubwe’s interpretation center, a famous building by South African architect Peter Rich.

Thorsten‘s sketch of the Mapungubwe interpretation center.

The building is indeed very cool-looking and has some interesting artifacts inside, including a replica of the golden rhino (which, to most people’s surprise, is small enough to fit in your hand). We also really liked the outdoor café. But the interpretation center itself was a little disappointing because: 1) the air conditioning didn’t work on the main floor, and there were no open windows or ventilation of any kind, and we nearly suffocated; and 2) I was told photos aren’t allowed — a rule that immediately turns me off to any tourist attraction I visit.

Inside Mapungubwe
A photo I took before I was told not to take photos.
Sketch of Mapungubwe artifacts
Thorsten suffered the heat for a bit longer than me so he could make these cool sketches of some artifacts in the museum. Luckily sketching is allowed.

There is a short walking path behind the interpretation center that leads to a lookout point over Mapungubwe Hill, which you can walk to without paying for admission to the center. Admission to the center was about R85.

Sketch of Mapungubwe Hill
Thorsten’s sketch of the Hill.

We also did the heritage walking tour of Mapungubwe Hill, which I really enjoyed. The tour leaves from the park gate every day at 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., and lasts for about two hours. (If you go in summer, definitely plan on 7:00 a.m. and bring water to avoid heat stroke.) The tour costs about R350 per person and involves a short walk through the bush and a climb up Mapungubwe Hill. Wear sturdy shoes.

Path up Mapungubwe Hill
The path up the hill was steep but mercifully short — anyone with an average level of fitness can make it.
Thorsten sketching Mapungubwe
Thorsten sketching before the climb.

Our guide, Johannes Masalesa, grew up in the area. He told me that that his grandfather was the person who tipped off the white farming family who “discovered” Mapungubwe in the 1930s.

Johannes the Mapubgubwe guide
Johannes at the top of Mapungubwe Hill.

Johannes explained the history of the hill — which is really more of a plateau — during the brief reign of the Mapungubwe kingdom, when the king and his family and court lived on top of the hill and everyone else lived down below. The king arranged for massive amounts of soil to be carried up the hill for agricultural purposes, which changed the geography of the plateau.

Mapungubwe plateau
The plateau felt far more grassland-like than the surrounding area.

I was fascinated by the ancient grain and water storage containers dug into the rock, which have survived up there for almost 1,000 years. There is also a moruba game board carved into one of the rocks.

Ancient Moruba game board
How amazing is this? Moruba is still played in various forms all across Africa.
Mapungubwe plateau sketch
Thorsten’s sketch of the plateau.

All in all, I loved our visit to Mapungubwe and it was totally worth the journey. It’s wild and far-flung and culturally important and weird. Highly recommend.

The end.

Next up in the Blogitects’ Limpopo adventures: Leshiba Wilderness.


  1. dizzylexa

    Great blog and photos, glad you both survived the heat it can be so uncomfortable. I only discovered how fast a tortoise can move when we had one. Looking forward to the next part of your trip.

  2. AutumnAshbough

    That carmine bee-eater was beautiful! And you don’t realize how big the baobab trees are until you see giraffes underneath them–fantastic photo.

    • 2summers

      Thanks. I don’t think I’d ever seen a giraffe sitting down before!

  3. Barend van der Merwe

    One of my biggest dreams in life is to go there one day. This was such a treat to read thank you very much.

    • 2summers

      You’re welcome! I hope you get to go soon.

      • Barend van der Merwe

        I wish! From Cape Town it is too far. I should maybe fly to Jozi. Then get a lift that side.

        • 2summers

          Yes, that would be a serious journey by car.

  4. Lani

    Wow. Just wow. You two are so lucky to have experienced what feels like a rare treat. I loved all the photos, especially the huge baobab tree, which I’ve never seen. Lucky we get to live vicariously through you 😀

    • 2summers

      You’re right, we are very, very lucky! Going to Mapungubwe felt like visiting another planet. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Paul Nicholas Zille

    Lovely piece. Describes the place perfectly.

    You should now visit Thulamela in the northern Kruger Park. This was a key cog in the global Ivory-Gold-Ivory trade network that for a 1000 years was part of the Indian Ocean trading system and fed the main centres of demand in Arabia, Persia and India. In its short life, Mapungubwe was part of this system too – until the Kingdom died mysteriously (and decamped to Great Zimbabwe?)

    As a site, Thulamela knocks the spots off Mapungubwe. The Royal Citadel has been partially reconstructed and is interspersed with giant baobabs which overlook the Luvuvhu and Limpopo floodplains. It is SA’s best-kept archaeological secret, continuously occupied for 400+ years since 1250AD and a core part of an astonishing 1000 year history which we are only beginning to uncover now.

    Origin Safaris is offering exceptional specials to Thulamela until end April. Have a look and contact me if you are interested.

    • 2summers

      Thanks Paul. Yes I definitely need to get there soon!

  6. Leslie

    Do yourself a favour and bisit the Blouberg Reserve near Levubu. Best kep secret in Limpopo

    • 2summers

      Wow. Sounds intriguing! Need to get back up there soon.

  7. Jeroen

    That brings back nice memories from when I visited about 10 years back, in cooler weather, when the Leokwe pool was freezing cold. It’s a slightly odd park, really far away from everything, rudely split in half and with culture competing with nature. Getting back in the jeep after the hill tour, we saw a huge 3m black mamba snake slither into a bush… seconds later a dozen terrified birds exploded from the bush. On a night drive from the main gate, we were lucky enough to spot an aardvark from nearby, which apparently is a very rare sighting, the first one our guide had seen in 15 years, so he said. The treetop walk you mention was great for us, because while we were up there, a herd of elephants (who had broken through the fencing) was right underneath us – no drone required.
    Next time you head up Limpopo way, I can recommend the Modjadji Cycad Reserve, a really special place!

    • 2summers

      Ahhh, that’s all very interesting. I think they’ve taken down all the fences now and the elephants just go wherever they want. And an aardvark sighting is indeed very rare! I actually looked up the Cycad Reserve before we went up – I’ve always wanted to go – but I read several reviews saying it’s become really neglected and overgrown and hard to find 🙁 I don’t think it would have been possible for us to to go anyway because it poured the whole time we were in the area. But maybe I’ll try one of these days just to see if the reviews are exaggerated. Hope you guys are well! xx

      • Jeroen

        There was a pretty decent road up to the cycad reserve entrance, and it was staffed as it needs guarding, but it’s not a pretty botanical garden, it’s a somewhat unkempt patch of hilltop forest consisting mainly of these amazing prehistoric trees. There’s a farm famous for it’s hollow baobab nearby too, with a bar inside the tree. Wonderful place, Limpopo.
        We’re good, come visit us when the cold hits Joburg!

        • 2summers

          I also researched the baobab bar but, tragically, the tree split in half a few years ago and the bar is no more. You’ve convinced me that I should try to visit the cycad reserve next time though – maybe it’s not as bad as people say.


Leave a Reply