Intrepid adventurer Mike Slater is at it again, this time finding three “lost cities” in three countries – and a meteorite crater. Part one covers Africa’s first kingdom – the Lake of Tigers and an ancient path to the crater. On the route are Mapungubwe in SA, Great Zimbabwe and Mozambique’s MassanganoPart one (of two)
Most well-travelled folk who live in this part of the world will have at least heard of (and quite likely visited) the Great Zimbabwe monument near Masvingo in Zimbabwe. However, my own research – asking friends and family and people I meet on the bus – shows that only a few have heard of Mapungubwe, and no one has any idea what Massangano might be.
A few weeks ago that old adage: “Have Isuzu, will travel” came true when I was put in charge of a nice new KB300 Tdi LX double cab with “take me away from all of this” written all over it. So I had no choice but to go where those north winds do blow.
My destination of choice nowadays is almost always Mozambique (via Zimbabwe) but this time I looked at a map of South Africa’s Limpopo Province and just to the west of Beit Bridge I noticed a strange and mystical name – Mapungubwe, or “The Place of the Stone of Wisdom”. It is also the name of South Africa’s newest national park.
When planning a trip to some of the most fascinating (and in the case of Muambe and Massangano) remote places in southern Africa, always remember three things: your passport, extra fuel and malaria tablets. For this trip the passport was needed to cross three borders: Beit Bridge from South Africa into Zimbabwe (and back), Mekumbura/ Mucumbura from Zimbabwe into Mozambique and finally Machipanda/Forbes Post from Mozambique back into Zimbabwe.
With diesel and petrol supplies erratic in Zimbabwe, and costing more than R10 a litre, those jerrycans or long-range tanks become essential (the latter are better as you then avoid queueing to pay the ridiculous though presently very cheap “‘carbon tax” at the Zimbabwe side of Beit Bridge). Although the central highlands (Masvingo to Harare) of Zimbabwe are malaria-free, the Limpopo lowveld (where Mapungubwe is) and all of Mozambique are “pop those malaria pills” zones.
Getting to Mapungubwe from Johannesburg is easy enough – simply head north on the N1 until you get to Polokwane. Then follow the signs to the R521 and Dendron and Alldays, towards Pontdrif, turning right onto the R572 towards Musina.
It was raining when my son Daniel and I left Johannesburg, and it continued to pour. By the time we got to Mapungubwe, just over 100mm had fallen there in 24 hours.
Mapungubwe’s roads have been upgraded to gravel suitable for normal cars, but at the gate the ranger told us that, due to the unusual showers, only 4×4 vehicles were being allowed to travel to the newly opened Mazhou campsite.
And so it was that when we turned off the gleaming tarmac onto a slimy strip of sludge that just a day before had allowed “ordinary cars” access to the mysteries of Mapungubwe, I knew this shiny-blue (and very new) Isuzu was going to be covered in mud.
Leaving nothing to chance, I pressed every button on the dashboard, causing the display to light up with all manner of comforting words such as “low range”, “4WD”, and “diff lock”. Perhaps Isuzu’s technical people should have added “close your window, you idiot!” as I was drenched at the first water splash and needed to dry my glasses before driving to the campsite, a short walk from the Limpopo River and Botswana.
Mapungubwe is still “a work in progress” as evidenced by remnants of pumps, pipes and irrigated fields and also by the “No Entry” signs at turn-offs leading onto the private land that National Parks hopes to buy and incorporate in the near future.
We had an amazing contraption designed in Australia and called an Oz-tent. Even though this was our first attempt to use it, the lady was right – we had it up in just 30 seconds, with not a drop of water inside. But yes, the canopy and pegs did take another couple of minutes.
Mazhou is a charming little camp, with excellent ablutions, a kitchen and a washingup area. There are just ten sites, all with power, available on a first-come basis.
Mapungubwe already boasts the “big five” and if you add a birding list of over 400, and the Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site, we have a serious contender for South Africa’s most unusual national park.
There are also self-catering lodges, and more up-market fully catered and serviced options are being built. The nearest proper supermarket is in Musina, about 130km away, so bring along all of your provisions. After a warm, dry and comfortable night in the Oz-tent, which is high enough for even the tallest adult to stand in, we rose before dawn, packed in less than five minutes and headed back to the main gate. It was raining again, but we hoped to convince someone to take us on a guided (this is obligatory) tour of the historic citadel.
There are daily tours at 07h00 and 10h00 and I strongly recommend the earlier departure as by 10am the sun is high and harsh, even when it is cloudy.
As if by order, at about 06h45 the rain stopped and a game-viewing vehicle arrived, driven by one of the best and most knowledgeable guides I have ever had the good fortune to meet.
The trip to Mapungubwe hill costs R85 per person and takes visitors into the most scenic part of the park where the red sandstone domes and cliffs exude primal energy and the stoic, shiny baobabs stand like groups of elders along the track leading to the “lost city”.
Our guide opened the covering over some of the archaeological diggings that have been turned into a little museum and showed us the various phases of occupation, ranging from the Stone Age in 900 AD to the “golden age” of Mapungubwe – from 1200 to 1300 AD when it was centre of the gold and ivory trade in southern Africa.
There are 142 steps on the way to the top of the hill where the rulers lived. Besides the wonderful 360-degree view, there are remains of water and grain storage chambers, as well as a clearly etched “board” game called “tsoro” in these parts, but also known as “bau” or “ndibau” in Malawi and Mozambique.
The famous golden rhino and sceptre, as well as thousands of gold beads, have been excavated from Mapungubwe. These are now kept in Pretoria but there are plans to return them once a proper museum has been built.
Turning east on the tarred R572 leading to the N1, Musina and Beit Bridge, we stopped to use the excellent rest rooms at what is probably South Africa’s prettiest service station – the aptly named Palm Service Station, boasting palms from all over the world.
There is a petrol station just before the border. Be sure to top up your tank and jerrycans, as you may not be able to find any fuel in Zimbabwe.
The mere mention of Zimbabwe these days elicits responses such as, “You must be mad, the place is a mess”. For the last 20 years I have travelled through Zimbabwe at least twice a year and while I am only too aware of the desperate situation the country is in, I still feel strangely relieved once through the border disorder and motoring along the excellent and very quiet roads.
Actually, the biggest barrier is the chaos on the northern side of the Beit Bridge border post, where visitors often have to queue for hours to pay the exorbitant fees such as R150 “carbon tax”, R60 “road accident fund”, R69 bridge toll and R150 for the compulsory third-party insurance, on top of the levies on extra fuel and groceries that you inevitably have to carry.
I opted not to declare the extra 60 litres of diesel we were carrying (there is a separate queue to pay for this, and it was moving backwards!) and managed to talk our way through the exit boom. We motored towards Masvingo, and the rain followed us all the way to Great Zimbabwe. I decided to fit the monument into our return trip and we headed straight to the “Inn on Great Zimbabwe” which is a colonial-style (but very unpretentious and completely child-friendly) lodge – part of the “Inns of Zimbabwe” chain.
I was surprised to learn that the Inn still did very well out of tourists from Europe and local conferences. Supper and breakfast were generous and tasty.
With the rain still drumming down we left very early the following morning for Lake Cahora Bassa via Harare and the Mukumbura/Mecumbura border.
In Harare the first service station had only petrol, the second only diesel at 20 000 Zim dollars (or R10) a litre. Thankfully we had left the rains behind us as the scenic roads that wind down the escarpment to Mozambique via Mazowe, Mount Darwin and Dodito can become precarious when wet.
As one often finds in Zimbabwe, road works are (amazingly) continuing and the road from Dodito to Mukumbura is being tarred.
It was close to the 18h00 closing time when we reached the border, but on both sides the officials were all smiles. Note that during rains (not much falls here) you probably will not be able to cross the wide, sandy Mucumbura river that forms the boundary between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Magoe is in the far north-western part of Mozambique, close to the southern shores of the gigantic lake Cahora Bassa. The Mucumbura to Magoe lakeshore route must be a nightmare when it rains, with numerous low-level river crossings and deep gulches in the dried mud evidence of how the vehicles battled.
With the Isuzu’s excellent suspension working overtime, it took us just an hour to reach Magoe and then another couple of hours to get to the lake – in the dark, as we stopped often to ask the way, with so many tracks branching off.
We found a cosy little spot just after Gazindila village that was almost surrounded by water, and had the Oz-tent and easy chairs up within minutes. With the croaking bullfrogs eventually surrendering to our rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”, we spent a quiet night.
The lake was too high for us to drive into the wilderness area to the west of Panhame, where large numbers of game are normally found. We backtracked to Magoe to head east on a very good and stunningly scenic gravel road towards Songo.
At a sign reading “Africa Hunt” we turned north and at the end of a challenging little trail through very dense bush, found a great little hunting camp with 270 degree views of the lake. Here we heard about another camp on the shore named Skip’s, and set out to find it.
Vila de Chicoa should go down as this trip’s fourth “lost city”, as this little Portuguese village was completely flooded by the rising waters of Cahora Bassa in the 1960s. Only the water tower is sometimes visible when the water level is low.
At the end of the road there was no sign of Skip’s, but we carried on regardless and found it at the top of a hill overlooking the water – a perfect little fishing camp started by someone called Skip but now run by South African Annemarie Beukes and her partner, Leo.
There was DStv, much to my son’s delight. In fact, Skip’s is a real find for the tired traveller. The chalets are all positioned to catch the cool on-shore breezes, have fans and the nicest bathrooms this side of the Moravia Plateau. A huge restaurant and pool-deck are under construction and soon Skip’s will be offering fishing and game-viewing cruises along the length of the lake in a comfortable houseboat. I must mention, too, that Annemarie’s meals are real homefrom- home boerekos.
We did look over the very mediocre and badly laid-out Ugezi Tiger Lodge which is close to the dam wall.
We filled up with diesel and caught up on e-mails via TDM in the very nice Songo village (Mozambique’s equivalent of Kariba town).
The “old” (and clearly seldom used) road that goes down to Tete town has many delightful (and challenging) river crossings, and passes through stands of baobab trees and patches of stunning riverine forest.
But it is the imposing Boroma Mission Station (Missao de Sao Jose de Boroma) that makes this diversion worth the wear and tear on your vehicle. It took 17 Jesuit priests (and countless local labourers) five years to build this seminary and cathedral, from 1885 to 1890. Apparently due to a lack of converts it was abandoned in 1964, yet remains remarkably intact. The location is at the junction of two rivers (a virtual island in the rainy season) just before the spot where they enter the Zambezi, and this was probably a site of spiritual significance long before the Catholics arrived.
We drove up to the hilltop on a shockingly rocky road only to find that the Cathedral’s magnificent interior is accessible only during Sunday services when the priest comes up from Tete with the keys.
With our next objective being a “probable” meteorite crater about 50km south of Moatize on rarely used tracks, we raced to cross the Samora Machel suspension bridge over the Zambezi at Tete, to make it to Monte Muambe before nightfall.
I steered the Isuzu down a route that threatened to become a footpath, and was happy to see the village of Njereje (the closest settlement to Muambe). We asked the “chefe” for a place to camp and negotiated with two guides to take us to and up the rim of the crater.
In the next issue of Leisure Wheels we will feature the second and final part of “Three Countries, Three Lost Cities” which is titled: Of meteorites, renegade colonisers, rescued reserves and African empires: The Muambe Crater, Massangano Citadel, Gorongosa Reserve and Great Zimbabwe Monument.
Mapungubwe National Park:
Mazhou campsite: 015 534-2014. SANParks: 012 428-9111 Fax: 012 426-5500.
Inn on Great Zimbabwe: Rob on 00263 39 76-1766. 00263 39 26-5083. [email protected].
Skip’s Camp: Annemarie Beukes on 00258 82 526- 2900