OUR MAPUNGUBWE TRIP DECEMBER 2008
We did not have Mapungubwe in our plans this year but after what was probably a very stressful year for most people, the lure of the bush became too much and we decided to fit in a six night trip in December. Initially we booked the campsite, but after looking around on the website we decided to move to Vhembe Trails camp and invite four friends with us who we knew would love Mapungubwe. We had heard about this camp, but could not find out too much information on it apart from the odd bit on the forums. One thing we knew was that it would be hot! Just how hot was a surprise to all of us.
We left home in Pietermaritzburg at 4h30 on the 12th December 2008. There was some consternation about the volume of traffic in the Joburg area and we even considered going via Ermelo to get away from this problem. It turned out that the road through Joburg was fairly quiet and by the time we got onto the Platinum highway everyone was starting to get quite excited. We have places we really like going to, and frequent them whenever possible, but the fun of travelling is to see new places and that excitement before arriving at a new destination is really hard to replicate once you have already been to a place. Mapungubwe is not a new park for us as we were there a year ago and had a really good time. However the level of excitement in our vehicle was almost as if we had never been there before!
After an uneventful drive we arrived at the gate at around 15h00 and checked in at the reception. After sitting in an air-conditioned car for ten hours it was like getting into a sauna when we got out! One of the things no one can change however is the weather and with this in mind we made our way through the park to our accommodation. The road leading to the camp is surrounded by some of the best scenery that the park has to offer. Eventually we got a glimpse of the huts which were located on a small hill overlooking a flat bowl shaped valley with rocky cliffs all around the perimeter, what a setting to spend the next six nights. A shock awaited us however! The huts were at the top of a winding rough gravel pathway and we had brought everything including the kitchen sink and it all had to be manhandled up to the top! After an hour or so we had everything unpacked and had cracked open some cold drinks, we were here at last.
A view across the camp
Vhembe trails camp consists of four A frame log cabins with two single beds in each. The toilet and shower is at the entrance to each one, which allowed them to design it so that the veranda is on the front of each hut and has a wonderful view from each one (except number two which has a big tree in front of it.) They are laid out in a wide arc so that although they are close to each other the view from each balcony is of your own patch of bush and you can’t see your neighbours very easily. The power is from solar charged batteries and each hut has a very effective ceiling fan and lights. The kitchen area is also lit and has some plug points as well, but they are not suitable for running anything more than battery chargers etc. The kitchen has a gas fridge with a freezer compartment which was not working when we arrived. This was rectified a few days later when we complained to the camp ranger Leonard. Each hut is serviced daily and we were very comfortable in general.
After a long trip we decided to have a braai as it was the easiest thing to do and still the nicest way to start a trip to the bush. At 21h00 that night the temperature was still hovering around 34 degrees, thank goodness for the fans in the huts! After the effort of carrying all our things up to the huts, and an early start that morning, we all got to bed early and slept like logs. It cooled down during the night and we rose fairly early and were raring to go out and see what Mapungubwe had to offer this time.
Early morning visitor in front of our hut
Two beautiful Kudu bulls on an early morning drive
On the drive in the day before, I had noticed how dry everything was and this was a concern for me as far a birding was concerned as the water holes were dry and there was no sign of the many water birds which we had seen a year ago. We took an early drive to the confluence decks to let our friends get the feel of the park and they were really impressed. The Limpopo was hardly running but there was lots of activity down on the river banks in the shade with baboon and warthog going about their daily chores. A stiff breeze was blowing which made things quite pleasant and allowed two white backed vultures to give us an impressive aerial display. Took a slow drive back on the Poachers Corner route and looked for the pregnant lioness which Leonard had told us about. He said he had seen it near the Venetia mine pumping station a few nights before. He thought it was probably looking for a place to have her cubs. This area was hardly recognisable from our last trip here as there is very little grass along the river fence. After a light lunch we had a rest and tried to sleep through the 40 degree plus afternoon heat. In the late afternoon I was fortunate enough to be sitting on the balcony of my hut and watching the rocks on the other side of the valley for some signs of life. I heard a lot of lot grunting noises coming from that area and quickly homed in with my binoculars. I was amazed to see a Leopard running across the rocks dragging a baby Wildebeest between its front legs. In hot pursuit was the whole herd of adults. I am not sure if they actually made contact with it but the leopard dropped its prey and ran for cover. I was shaking so much I could hardly hold my binoculars. After looking around for a few seconds I could see the cat lying next to a large round rock surveying the scene. The baby which could not be more than a few days old was nowhere to be seen and the herd was making its way down the rocks into the cover of the bush on the valley floor. I can only assume that it survived the ordeal. The leopard lay around for quite some time until a pair of black eagles arrived and started bomb diving it. I don’t know why this happened maybe someone can tell us. The leopard moved a few metres and lay down and stretched out on its side and went to sleep! We sat and watched until it was almost dark before it disappeared.
Over the next few days we made a trip across to Maloutswa hide which was quite interesting because it was so dry. I am not sure if water is being pumped into this hole because it seems disproportionate to the amount of water in the veld. My wife spotted an egret which had caught itself a frog which was way too big for it to handle. We all enjoyed watching as it first took off across the water to get away from other interested birds and then slowly tenderised its meal before very slowly swallowing it whole!
The baby baboons were also comical to watch.
When water holes are fairly dry it’s understandable to think that there isn’t much to see, but sometimes these times can be very rewarding to sit and watch. By this time we were so hot we went to the limpopo forest tented camp and asked if we could have a quick dip in the pool. There were only two people staying there so the camp attendant said we could. We went in clothes and all and what a pleasure that was. On our arrival back at Vhembe we found that the splash pool was being filled up as per our request to Margaret, the camp attendant. I was asked to turn the water off when it was full enough as the staff had to go home. At around seven that night one of our friends needed some water to cook with (we took our own drinking water for various reasons.) and on opening the tap discovered that there was no water! I ran up the rocks to the pool like a klipspringer because I had forgotten to turn the tap off. I was relieved to find that the pool was hardly full and that the problem was because the tanks were dry. We drove to the gate to get some assistance and were told that someone would come and sort the problem out. Two technical guys arrived at around 21h00 and said that the elephant had pulled the cable off the pump and that it could only be fixed the next day. They stayed the night in accommodation which is provided for trails rangers. We understand the problems that can occur in remote camps like this and it was not a problem at all. The next morning we were actually followed on our morning drive by the repair man to tell us that he had duly fixed the problem. He drove off muttering something about those damn elephant! The pool was filled properly by then and we had quite a few dips in it when we felt hot and bothered. The view is stunning from where the pool is situated and we watched elephant and other animals walking in and out of `our` valley quite often. Almost daily the elephant walked past in front of the huts as well. It is really special to be able to sit so close to such large animals and hear every noise they make whilst walking. Vhembe has a really wild feel to it and is for the exclusive use of the people who are booked in there. The road has a sign saying for `residents only` and only once did we see another car in the area.
The other visitors we had were two honorary rangers from Polokwane who were in the park for the week. They chatted to us about various things and were very informative about the area. We didn’t know at the time but it would be these two rangers who would take us on a night drive on our last night at Mapungubwe.
One of the highlights of this park is the 4x4 eco trail in the Western Section. We left this until near the end of the trip and luckily we had some cloudy and slightly cooler weather by then. We left early and saw some giraffe in the area just inside the park on the Den Staat road. We headed for Little Muck which is a lodge owned and run by De Beers. It is in a small pocket surrounded by the national park and I am not sure what the arrangement is with Sanparks but it lies on the trail route itself. We knew that because of its elevated position, it offers a great place to get a good look at the whole area. After asking the attendant we had a quick look around and were lucky to see a whole herd of elephant drinking at a reservoir about 50 metres below us. The birding here was excellent and this is why Mapungubwe is so special for us. In one tree we saw a pair of Meyers parrot, red headed weaver, cut throat finch, orange breasted bush shrike and a number of other species.
We were eager to get on with the trail so made our way down the hill and got sandwiched between two herds of elephant. They were heading in the same direction and the one section of road offered us no escape route if they decided to stop walking so we decided to turn around and go another way. The elephant here are far from docile in my opinion and we had quite a few anxious moments when some youngsters put on a show for us. One of the two couples who joined us has travelled extensively through many game parks in Botswana and SA. We are inexperienced with elephant and their behaviour so we got some advice about how to react when elephant get upset. We kept our distance as well as possible, but sometimes you can’t tell when an elephant will charge your vehicle. On two occasions elephant ran at us completely unprovoked. We have been told that these are just mock charges and the animal will not harm you, but who wants to hang around and find out that it’s not a mock charge! Maybe tempers were flared because of the dryness and heat?
Some of the scenery on the trail
The best part of the trail is when you drive in the rocks near the end. The scenery is breathtaking and it would be difficult to find a place like this anywhere else.
We were lucky to see more giraffe which seem to be resident in this area and some more elephant – right in our path! These ones moved off though and didn’t bother us at all.
We booked our night drive on the way back through the gate and went back to the camp. Vhembe is really nice because you have no one else around you (except people you are with of course). It was great to sit in the lapa each evening and chat. We had one incident with a scorpion which gave us a big fright. It crawled over my wife’s foot in the dark. Her natural reaction was to kick and the result was that it flew across the circle and landed on me. Once I had got it off myself we had a good look at it. It had thin pincers and a THICK tail. This is normally indicative of it being very poisoness! Musina is a long way away and thank goodness no one was stung.
All holidays go by so quickly and this one was no exception. On our last day we took a drive to the pinnacle lookout deck which we had not seen before. It was quite windy and cloudy, but the view from here is really fantastic. The strange rock pinnacles are something we have seen nowhere else. We saw eland and impala from directly above which was different. Also a lone elephant on top of a rocky hill in the distance. After spending some time at the pinnacles we drove down to the treetop hide. The original hide is no longer there as the Limpopo destroyed it last year. It has been rebuilt, but is a lot smaller than the old one. We saw black crake, greater painted snipe and a number of other birds here.
A disturbing thing happened across the river while we were there, a group of people in Botswana were hunting with a pack of dogs and there was pandemonium as they chased animals through the bush. I don’t know the outcome but we saw them walking back up river a little later. This is not a nice thing to see and our children were very upset by what we had witnessed. There also seemed to be a lot more livestock near the river this year.
Later that afternoon, we had cooked our potjie early as it was finally the night for our drive, we got prepared for our 19h00 departure. Normally the drive starts at 19h30, but we had asked to be picked up slightly earlier as we has to get up early the next day to drive home. I was back on the balcony at about 18h00 looking for the leopard as I was sure that it would come back to finish its business with the wildebeest. I could not believe it when right in front of me about 100 metres away it burst out of the bush and chased the wildebeest again. After much dust and noise everything went quiet. Unfortunately the chase ended behind some bush so we could not see what had actually happened. Slowly the wildebeest walked back into the open area in front of us and I think that this time the leopard had been successful. All this action and we still had the night drive to do! The two honorary rangers arrived quite early and we piled our cameras etc onto the game viewer. We have never been on any game drive before this one and I can safely say to anyone that it is really worthwhile. As we left camp there was a commotion in front of us a big male baboon reprimanded his troop for something they had done which he disagreed with. They scampered up sheer cliffs and hung there terrified as the big male scolded them. When we returned a few hours later we found them still hanging there and learnt that they actually sleep like this to stop the leopards from catching them.
It wasn’t long before we saw our first owls, two pearl spotted owlets, and shortly thereafter a Verrauxs eagle owl which was great.
The rangers pointed out a lot of bush babies which are quite incredible in the way they jump around in the dark. We also saw springhares and quite a few spotted genets. Unfortunately we did not see any leopard but I don’t think we should be complaining about that! We learnt some interesting things about Mapungubwe which we didn’t know and we will certainly do the heritage walk which is offered. We also learnt that a baobabs age can be roughly calculated by multiplying its diameter in metres by 165. The answer will give you the trees age. A baobab is fibrous and does not have tree rings like most other trees.
There are some really big trees in this park
This was a good way to end our trip and we returned to camp at around 22h00. On our arrival we told the rangers about the day we arrived and had to lug all our things up the hill. We were shattered when they said ` oh didn’t you see the trolley in the store room you are supposed to use that, it makes it easier! `
The next day we were up early again, finished packing and reluctantly left Vhembe. This was a really enjoyable trip and apart from the heat which was regularly over 40 degrees we will definitely be back. We would like to try May which will be cooler and will give a different perspective on the area. The birding wasn’t great but we saw about 10 lifers which can’t be so bad!
We had a wonderful trip and it was so special to be able to show other people this special place. They were really taken with it and we will all go back without any hesitation. I have heard that the new cultural centre will be ready this year and we would like to see that as well. It is being built just a few hundred metres from the gate and replicas of the treasures found on Mapungubwe hill be displayed here. Vhembe is fantastic and although very different from the western side of the park it offers so much if you want that real bush feel. Maybe next time we will stay at the forest tents, we have to see that tropical bou bou! Hope this report helps to get people interested to go to this world heritage site. Dave, Nicki and family.