Mapungubwe – The Hills of the Jackal

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The first stories relating to the sacred hills of Mapungubwe also known as “the hills of the jackal” were spread by word of mouth over generations of San people, the original inhabitants of this land. The traditional song below that describes the realities of ancient life in this semi-arid land was told to an old Boer farmer who translated it.

“ …For the offering of rain,

Clay pots are filled with sorghum,

And if it does not rain?

Then the last offering is a ten year child.

When the Jackal begins to call,

“Mapungubwe, Ma-pun-gub-we, Map-pun-gub-we”,

And many children are dead it is the season of drought.

Many people gather,

And call upon the Rainmaker,

Then clay pots are filled with sorghum.

And women carry these pots,

To the summit of the hill via the secret ladder,

Then place the pots on the ground,

And then the snake comes to bite them,

Some survive,

Some do not.

Singing and dancing takes place,

And a ten year goat is killed and cremated,

And placed in a clay pot.

Then the young girls place more pots on the ground,

And the Vultures come and peck their eyes out.

Then there are festivities,

Dancing, eating, drinking.

And the Witchdoctor comes,

To sniff out the young boy of ten years old,

He is burnt and placed in a pot.

Once again the young girls carry the pots up the hill…

 THEN IT RAINS….”

The hills of Mapungubwe overlook the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet in a sacred wilderness that today forms the heart of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. It’s a desolate place, but one of indescribable serenity and beauty.

Rocky hills that literally glow red in the afternoon sun rise up sharply from the flat lands of the Limpopo valley which in the dry season is devoid of all grass forcing the wildlife to trek tens of kilometers to graze. In the dry valleys and gullies ancient Baobabs stand as lone sentinels; tree’s of life in what is basically dead red valleys. Rock Figs, their roots clawing like hands to the cracks and crevices of the hills provide a splash of perennial olive green color to the otherwise brown and red cliffs and sustenance for baboons and birds.

Debilitating drought has come early to Mapungubwe this year. It is at least four months before there is any hope of rain. Aside from some small pools in the Shashe river, water is very scarce. When we were there in mid August the Limpopo was all but a kilometer wide dry sandy desert. Fortunately perrenial streams still perculate from the rocky cliffs in the eastern section of the park providing some sustinace for the game that  inhabits this area. At first glance the perception is that the valleys of eastern Mapungubwe are devoid of all life, but then you notice the trails heading up towards green gulleys and hidden canyons that hide Kudu, Impala, Waterbuck and Eland, some residing within close proximity to the Leokwe camp. Each night during our short stay we spotted Civets as well as Spotted Genets within meters of the outside deck. Judging from volume of spoor in the sand outside the hut every morning these sightings were only small indicators of a much larger population of various cats that prowl the camp each night.

The cliffs surrounding Leokwe camp are home to huge Baboons, and Klipspringers. Rock Rabbits or Dassies as they are more commonly called can also be seen and like the Klipspringers are easily photographed as they keep watch from high vantage points.

In contrast to the eastern Leokwe section of Mapungubwe, the western section along the banks of the Shashe River bordering Botswana is typical low riverine forest comprising Fever and Leadwood trees that are home to herds of Elephant, Impala, Kudu, Eland and small antelope such as Bushbuck and Duiker. Unfortunately it has been the worst hit by the drought and in many parts grazing is non existant. Whilst the Shashe still supports isolated pools of water and some waterholes, while shallow, also  still have water, it is the lack of grazing that is the most shocking. Many areas are basically sandy wastelands and the acacia thorn trees below 2 meters in height are devoid of any leaves. Basically the wildlife in this area is desperate and in extremely poor condition. As the summer heat really takes hold over the next month one can expect to start to see massive loss of wildlife throughout the region before the rains fall in November. If they fall at all!

As the ancient song says……this is the time of drought! Mapungubwe has obviously been through this before many times over the centuries and of course it will survive.

If I have one complaint, it was the lack of bird life. Mapungubwe was supposed to be a bird haven that would deliver species not easily found elsewhere. But it was not. Maybe it was just the wrong time of the year. That said, we did come away with some shots of a variety of nice birds.

First up were a pair of Mocking Cliff Chats who’s colors blended perfectly well with the rocks that are their home.

Another bird that made itself comfortable near our hut was this Creasted Barbet who’s plumage was perfectly suited to the dry surroundings.

One of my favorite birds has to be the White Crested Helmet Shrike. It’s a target that is hard to pass by, so when a bunch of them came past it was all go to try and get a few shots.

Mapungubwe is not a place where you find high densities of game. It’s a place where you go for solitude, to be alone in the bush. The accomodation in Leokwe and the Limpop Forest tented camp is absolutely superb and Sanparks has to be congratulated for what it has done in Mapungubwe. It’s guarding an ancient site, yet at the same time making it available with a high standard of luxury for a very low price, to anyone who is interested in the natural surroundings of this remote corner of Africa.

In a first for us in a Sanparks camp,  we were surprised to be the only occupants in the Limpopo Tented camp. We lived in isolated luxury that across the border in Tuli would have cost us US$ 1,000/person per night and all for less than the cost of an average meal in Kuala Lumpur.

Would I go back. Certainly. Would I recommend this to others. Of course!

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