Mapungubwe 2018

Part 2 of a 3 Part Series

The powerful historical relevance of this life-changing journey and, an elephant encounter. Entries for the 2019 edition will open just a few weeks from now.

Day 2 – 34km

The same wonderfully simple routine as the morning before; headlamp, running kit, sunscreen and chafe cream then toilets and off to coffee and breakfast. The atmosphere was light, full of laughter and relaxed, friendly banter. Without the distraction of social media and phone connectivity, conversation became blissfully present and focused on the people in our company. Our group grew, with Henko and Carl, as well as the honeymooners, Joe and Caroline, joining us. Still a small and manageable group, still consistent banter and laughter.

From base camp we followed the Limpopo River west a short way before taking the line of least resistance up a ravine between two basalt ridges. James pointed out leopard tracks first, educating us on the difference between male and female tracks and showing us that the leopard had been dragging prey along. Then hyena tracks, about a day old.  From there we found our way over to the top end of the ‘hyena maze’. Negotiating the maze we arrived at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. We crossed over to Botswana’s ‘Shalimpo’ island and the infamous Tuli Game Reserve. Here we were told was high chance of a Pels Fishing Owl spotting. To be honest, and to my avid bird watching mother’s dismay, I had never heard of one. But others in our group had, and were determined to catch a glimpse of this famously reclusive bird. The second largest owl in Africa, it feeds almost exclusively on fish and prefers dense forests near rivers. We were in Pels heaven, but even after backtracking 2km because one of the groups behind us thought they might have seen one, we came away with that box still to be ticked.

After traversing Shalimpo Island we accessed the eastern edge of a series of basalt ridges. And finally, word of elephant ahead. We spotted them from afar, only a km from our tea stop. “Would you like to get closer?” asked James. A unanimous yes from the group. He and Lovemore guided us within about 100m from a breeding herd. They pointed out the calm demeanor of the elephants, indicating that they were aware of us, but unthreatened. We stayed put for a while, using binoculars to see the tiny baby suckling from her mother. An unbelievably special bush experience. After a snack at the aid station we headed north to the big baobab trees. The heat was rising fast. From there, northeast through the plains of sesame trees and the edge of the riparian forest that lines the western shores of the Shashe River. We cross the Shashe River back into Zimbabwe, and made our way back to base camp through the Maramani Community land. A fast, flat final 3km gave us an opportunity to up the pace a little, and stretch the legs.

Zambezi lager, shower, two helpings of a delicious lunch, then nap time under the trees. Four fat crocodiles sunned themselves on the opposite side of the river bank. A Fish Eagle devoured a large fish a few metres from them. I wished I could show my children all I was seeing. I wished I could bottle that calm, uncomplicated feeling.

A yoga class, led by Fran, took place each afternoon at 4pm. Yoga with the Limpopo River as a back drop. Yoga with the local cows wandering past. Gin at 5, sunset at 6pm.

That evening we watched a historical documentary on the Kingdom of Mapungubwe. We would be visiting the famous Mapungubwe Hill the next day.

 The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a pre-colonial state in Southern Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe. The name is derived from either Venda or Shona and may mean "Hill of Jackals". The Kingdom of Mapungubwe existed for about 80 years, and its population was around 5 000 people at most. The residents of Mapungubwe were the ancestors of the Shona people of Southern Africa. The first people in Mapungubwe were early Iron Age settlers. 

The king and an estimated 50 of his family and / or servants lived at the top of Mapungubwe Hill and their followers stayed in the surrounding area. There is only one safe way to the top of the hill, and guards stood by with a pile of rocks to protect the king from anyone who might have tried to climb up there illegally. There is no specific explanation for the desertion of Mapungubwe. Some archaeologists think the kingdom began to decline in the 1100's because the climate changed. The weather became colder and drier, reducing the grazing land and making cattle farming difficult. Others think there was a change in trade routes. Mapungubwe relied on trade and any shift in this activity would have forced people to move away. From about 1220 to 1300 Mapungubwe was an advanced trading centre, its inhabitants trading with Arabia, China and India through the East African harbours.

Mapungubwe was 'discovered' on 31 December 1932, when a local informant, Mowena, led E.S.J. van Graan (farmer and prospector), his son and three others, to Greefswald farm on Mapungubwe Hill.  It is said that he did so reluctantly, after years of pressure. The van Graan family caught wind of the potential archaeological site after being served water in an interesting clay pot. On the hill they noticed stone walls and on closer inspection, they recovered gold and iron artefacts, pottery and glass beads. Van Graan's son contacted the head of History Department at the University of Pretoria, Professor Leo Fouché. As a result of his intervention Greefswald was bought by the Government and excavation rights were granted to the University of Pretoria. The University established an Archaeological Committee, which from 1933 to 1947 oversaw research and excavations.

I fell asleep within minutes of climbing in to my sleeping bag. Hippo song was our lullaby.

The powerful historical relevance of this life-changing journey and, an elephant encounter. Entries for the 2019 edition will open just a few weeks from now.


Words by Kim Stephens