Mapungubwe National Park
50TH BIRTHDAY TRIP REPORT 08TH APRIL – 17TH APRIL 2022
After fitting in a couple of hours of early morning work, we hit the road with extra big eyes keeping a watchful eye on the road – that’s Owly, my first 50th Birthday present from my girls. We left in a rush as it had been a super busy week, and without taking along our caravan = 2nd home = for this trip it was difficult to plan what we needed to pack / unpack from van to car. And of course, going in my little T-Cross was interesting fitting in all “essential” items which would normally be so “normal” for the Landy & Caravan. But off we went, super excited to be seeing parts of our country we hadn’t seen before.
First stop over for the night was the Road Lodge in Kimberley. I had intrepidly booked it the night before not really knowing what to expect, but wow, we needn’t have worried. Very efficient service when we arrived which was only at about 21h30. Wonderful clean and modern room, tea & coffee in room, TV, desk, cupboard space, extra chair/sleeper, small but adequate shower & toilet. We had an excellent night’s sleep and were out early 06h00. Sadly the garage across the road had not yet opened their coffee station ☹
We made a quick stop in Thabazimbi at The Braai Box to buy our wood – definitely recommended (unfortunately they are closed on Sundays and Mondays else we would have bought more for the rest of our trip). We arrived in Marakele National Park at 13h30 in a light drizzle.
The park is divided into 2 sections, the first has the camping section, Bontle camp, no dangerous animals on this side. We were met by a huge and beautiful giraffe close to the road…. Can’t call it a road… it was a muddy river !! Amazed that my car managed to get thru all that mud and we crossed under a bridge to the second section which fortunately had more tar roads, arriving at Tlopi Tented Camp by 14h30.
We got the “Cormorant” unit which was the 3rd last one in the row. Some of the units are close together sharing a “drive-way” but not ours. The unit is well equipped, the kitchen which is separate had everything you could possibly need. The bathroom area is spacious, there were 3 beds and shelfing racks for luggage. The drizzle continued, so my hopes of sitting on the lovely balcony overlooking the dam were a little dashed. We decided to braai early before the rain got worse and thought we’d play our boardgames in the kitchen area which had a big glass window and sliding door…. Unfortunately there were so many leaks that there was not even a single dry spot in the kitchen other than the sink itself, so we moved the kitchen table and chairs into the bedroom section.
Now I had read on social media a complaint about the wind and the tent and the guy was very upset by how much noise it made. We are seasoned campers, done the tent thing, the trailer tent and various caravans, we know what it’s like so I didn’t think much of his complaint. My apologies to that gentleman – you were absolutely correct – we had a horrendous night! The storm had picked up so much and the tent was so loose that the sides were bashing against the bed, my head, the shelving rack, the flaps blew open (Velcro too old to keep them closed and because the tent was out of shape the hooks didn’t all reach). There was no chance of sleeping when every few minutes your bed moved and there were loud bangs as the tent hit against the wooden items inside.
We had booked 2 nights at Marakele, but honestly just could not bare another experience like that. We went for an early morning drive to see some of the park, up to the Lenong View Point from which you should be able to catch sight of the 800 pairs of Cape Vultures, however it was completely out of sight in the clouds and rain. Got to see a buffalo though and various other animals like kudu, stunning waterfalls along the way. Make no mistake, Marakele and Tlopi is beautiful, but I’m very happy that we dashed out and arranged to check in to Mapungubwe 1 night earlier = best decision ever.
Never believe your GPS ! Or at least make sure you have set it with the right parameters and know what route it is going. So it was tough going, you suddenly appreciate the Western Cape roads. There were long distances where the gravel verge was the only drive-able part of the road… road itself had more than just potholes, but huge dongas with a splattering of a few tar spots…. It was just crazy!! So if you’re planning on driving between Marakele and Mapungubwe – go the LONG SAFE way around via Polokwane.
We filled up at Alldays as per everyone’s suggestions (or you must fill up at Mussina if travelling the recommended route), next time we will follow through with our plan to pack in a jerry can, petrol only just lasted us the week inside the park.
We “quickly” made our way to Vhembe Bush Camp. The roads inside the park are in a better condition than the potholed roads outside and the TCross handled it all very well.
There was no caretaker to meet us, but we had been given our keys for unit 1 (1 of 4 units) and excitedly walked UP the steep incline from car park to the units. Keys require a bit of jiggling to get doors open, but WOW !!! The views are to die for…. This was perfect !!! Baring a couple of holes in the mesh “windows” and once you get over the fact that these mesh sides of the A-frames don’t close and you are in an unfenced campsite, it’s all good.
Cell signal can be found if you climb up above the pool area or look for the caretakers chair up on the hillside 😊 Oddly enough on the last day there, being my 50th Birthday there was a bit of signal at my bedside 😊
I actually can’t rave enough about Vhembe. The caretaker who arrived back from leave the next day (the day we were supposed to arrive) sorted out the swimming pool and we had a magical little splash around and looked out across the stunning valley. Their communal kitchen (once you get the door open) actually has everything you could need. There’s a bit of solar powered electricity in the units, for the lighting and to charge your phones etc. Individual braai areas are lovely and the views from your own private balconies is once again just utterly amazing. As soon as the local spurfowl wake you at the crack of dawn, I was enticed to get up and start watching the bush surrounding us come alive. Best views of elephant and kudu passing us, along with impala, zebra, eland and entertaining baboons which thankfully kept their distance and don’t seem to be a problem at this camp.
Vhembe camp is near to the River Road and therefore there was always good sightings nearby. Not the least of which was a female leopard with her 2 grown up cubs. We hired Luula Leonard to show us the Pel’s Fishing Owl and he did not disappoint. We had an excellent morning with him and got to see so much. He is extremely knowledgeable and experienced, so we highly recommend doing the game drives in this Park.
Leonard was also our driver for our Bush Braai (part of my big 50th birthday present) This was the most amazing experience. Leonard took us on a 2 hour sunset drive (4pm-6pm) and brought us to the Limpopo Riverbed where other members of staff were busy with the braai and had set up a table with chairs and a huge bonfire to add to the atmosphere. We were served a huge starter platter – we couldn’t even think of finishing all the food – and it was all so yummy, our pick of cooldrinks & water arrived in an ice bucket. And then delicious rump steak, chicken, veggies and salads. I certainly felt extremely spoilt on my birthday. Then to top it off we still had the night drive back to our camp so another hour of animal spotting including a herd of elephant and the very funny springhares that look like miniature kangaroos and of course a host of nightjars along the way. A Birthday never to be forgotten.
Almost forgot to say, we had moved camp from Vhembe to Leokwe during the day and I had even managed to fit in a swim in Leokwe’s stunning pool – no elephants though, but this pool was a lovely size and wonderful for a nice cool swim which we fitted in to our schedule every day – just amazing to watch the wildlife from in the pool. (very sporadic cell signal near to the pool… there’s a bit more closer to the driveway of units 17 & 18)
We were put into unit 10 at Leokwe. What can I say, just as the pictures and reviews on You Tube show. It is a cottage with kitchen/lounge, balcony with braai area, bedroom and bathroom which has the toilet and basin inside and the shower outside. The shower area is surrounded by wooden poles, of which a couple were missing and necessitated the use of their towels to hang in the open spaces. Again the kitchen has it all including a microwave. We had a unit with TV with some DSTV channels (I don’t know why people waste their money with this, there was nothing to watch). Our balcony was completely private, could not see any other buildings from it, however the area in front of it is fairly “small” before the rock cliff face so not much passing through that we saw compared to Vhembe. But we did have Dassies, Kudu and Baboons (again none that bothered to come to close). I did however appreciate the privacy compared to some of the other units.
We had spent a morning on the Western side of the park by exiting the park and using the R521 towards Pontdrift (road condition not too bad). This side of the park is very different, first impressions are that it’s very flat and not as interesting. We went to the bird hide which had a bit of life along with a gigantic troop of baboons and now we understand why they have been reported as such a gigantic problem at the camps on this side there just seemed to be hundreds of them. The bird hide also had a surprise water-monitor which was a cool sighting. As for the rest of our drive – thank goodness the ground was dry else we would not have made it in some parts, the “roads” are not very obvious and we could definitely not drive along the river side. We left the Western side using the “shorter” Den Staat private road that runs between private land and the park. Interesting road with elephants either side (no fences, but you’re on an “outside” road), super corrugated for a lot of the way, so would suggest the Pontdrift road.
Our first 2 nights were wonderful and peaceful at Leokwe, but unfortunately the last night was marred by a group of very rowdy and drunk neighbours blaring music (hence switching on the TV to drown their noise, it didn’t help). You would think that people would respect and appreciate their natural surroundings and not book into a SANParks to have a drunken party.
Sadly, the next morning we had to leave and start our trek home. But not before we got to be entertained by the troop of baboons and klipspringer from our balcony.
So our return journey was definitely going to be via Mussina as we had read reports that this road had just been redone. Well not the first 10km from the Gate…. OMG we were dodging not only potholes but huge elephant poops all over the road !! And this was outside the gates …. Just where were the elephants hiding? It was all fresh poop and lots of it. The potholed, pooped road gave way to some decent tar, shortly followed by torrential rain storms for about 7 hours of driving time ! Can someone please invent “rain-flaps” for the trucks tyres…. Scary stuff trying to pass a truck with zero visibility.
Researched accommodation in Bloemfontein, this time the Road Lodge was a bit off our path as it was located near the airport on the other side of Bloem. Found a guesthouse instead: Emtonijeni Country Lodge http://www.emtonjenicountrylodge.co.za/ Quaint country lodge with a very attentive owner, Henry. Lovely big room and bathroom, beautiful gardens and delicious breakfast. A bit of a muddy potholed road to get there, but we were used to that by now. And off we set for our last leg of our road trip – thankfully without much rain.
Always great to enter the Western Cape and to finally see our Table Mountain again – there’s no place like home 😊 except that it comes with a reality check… we need to go to work and make up for lost working hours. Still it was an amazing 50th birthday trip, one never to be forgotten. Thank you to everyone who made it possible.