Mapungubwe NP, Ratho and Golden Gate NP

Report by Paul and Sally Bartho

9 to 13 September 2018

Pel’s Fishing-Owl

Sally and I have just spent four nights camping in Mapungubwe NP at the top-most part of RSA bordering Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Mapungubwe NP

We went there between the Bird Fair (at Walter Sisulu Gardens) and the Getaway Show (at the TicketPro Dome) – both in Jo’berg on consecutive weekends. It was the first time we had been to either show.

Our first issue was to find a campground within easy distance from each location. At first our search on Google Maps showed that there were no campsites reasonably close to either venue. However after much searching we did find one campsite – The Guest House @ Country Lodge in Muldersdrift situated between each venue and within 20 kms of each.

We went to the Opening Day of the Bird Fair – Saturday 8 September – in Walter Sisulu Gardens. This is a very appropriate venue in a wonderful setting. The Fair was equally as interesting. It had stands with everything appropriate to birding as well as talks from a variety of people – even a puppet show for the kids which the adults enjoyed equally. Faansie Peacock’s new book – “A fully fledged field guide… for kids” – was for sale. What a well written book and appropriate not only for kids but new and old adult birders as well.

Walter Sisulu NP is renowned for its Verreaux’s Eagles and their nest in the cliffs. We were not disappointed and had views of them on their nest with their offspring as well as in the air.

Then on to Mapungubwe NP to fill in time between the shows. Another 550 kms drive!!

Mapungubwe NP is divided into two sections – the Eastern and Western sides – with Den Staat Farm in between. See map above. The campsite is in the Western section and the reception is in the Eastern section – some 34 kms apart.

The Den Staat Farm has always had interesting ponds to search for amazing water birds. Permission to enter required. However, when we inquired about going there we understood that the farm had changed hands and the ponds are now all dry. No longer a special birding spot.

Right now both sides of the Park are extremely dry and dusty. The fences are broken in long stretches and cattle wander across the river from Botswana to forage in the Park. Sad that management appears to not have the funds needed to maintain the fences.

Some camp birds.

Our first afternoon and next day we spent driving round the Western section, spending time at the Maloutswa Hide overlooking a patch of wetland (water supplied to maintain the wetland).

Perhaps the best sighting at the water hole was a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl nesting in a Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver’s nest.

In one spot we confronted a few elephants by the river.


Then we came across a Holy Tree.

After that, this juvenile Bataleur nicely framed.

At another spot we found a very rough access point to the river and picked up a few water birds amongst others on the way there.

Limpopo with a small stretch of water

In all we identified 92 different bird species. Our bird list for everywhere we visited can be seen later in this report.

One of the highlights of our time there was to see a Bushpig in the daylight. It had a lovely white mane which went from neck to rump. Most unexpected sighting.

Bush Pig

Another day was spent in the Eastern section. The first bird we saw as we entered was a Red-headed Weaver which flitted about making it impossible to get a photo. A bit further along we came to a lookout point set high above the valley below where Baobabs appear in a barren landscape.

Barren Landscape

We headed for the chalet accommodation at Leokwe nestled in a boulder strewn enviroment.

On the way to Leokwe, Splat (our life-like Platapus furry toy) waved at a passing Park’s vehicle. It screeched to a halt. Out jumped the driver who came running up to our car. Oh-oh I thought. Well the driver, Leonard, immediately said, “I know you. You were in the Kruger Park at Pafuri 7 years ago driving a Kia”. We were astonished that he had remembered us – it must have been Splat whom he recognised.

Anyway he told us to follow him as he had something to show us. So we followed him virtually to the far end of the park to the old SADF bunker.

SADF Bunker

We had been there some 7 or 8 years ago and had intended to go there again during our visit. The benefit this time was having Leonard with us as we were able to get out of the car and walk around the area.

Under the trees by the Bunker

Specifically beneath the two large Nyala trees where we had seen a pair of Pel’s Fishing Owls all those years ago. And sure enough he pointed out another (or the same?) pair. What a wonderful happenstance meeting Leonard.

Pel’s Fishing-Owl

Sadly, we later learned that this wonderful spot at the SADF Bunker is being considered as a future picnic site. If this goes ahead then Goodbye to the Pel’s Fishing-Owls (and their likely breeding spot). Can we afford to let this happen? We have let Mark Anderson know about this and hope he has some influence with SAN Parks to avoid this going ahead.

Close to the Bunker the river did have a large area of standing water in it where we saw a small variety of waterbirds.

Yellow-billed Stork

We went for a walk up to the viewing point overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers. As you can see the rivers at this point were absolutely dry and cattle could be seen wandering into the Park from the opposite side.

From there we went to the tree top boardwalk and hide. The photo below shows the damage the elephants have caused to part of the entrance.

What next
Elephant Exclusion Zones

Some birds and other colourful critters photographed.

In all we identified 71 different bird species during the course of the day there.

On our final day we visited Ratho camp – due west of Pontdrift which is the border crossing into Botswana near the western-most edge of the Park. This crossing enters into the Tuli Block in Botswana. Should you want to visit the Tuli Block for a day visit we were told that it would cost you R700 to enter. Not sure if that cost applies per person nor if it applies if you simply want to drive through into other parts of Botswana.

Ratho sign to turn off the main road going to Pontdrift.

We had stayed at Ratho many years ago so it was interesting to see if it had changed much. At that time they had a 4×4 bush camp atop of a hill with a scenic loo overlooking the valley below. This has now gone, the area having been sold. However a new 4×4 camp has been established in the area next to the river.

Riverside 4×4 Camp

There are now several drives alongside the river where elephants were seen to roam. The main camp has a deck overlooking a waterhole where the elephants often are seen.

Viewing Deck

However the most interesting thing we learnt from the owner – Sandra- was how the whole camp was submerged after the floods one year. In the pictures below you can see me pointing to the height of the water level marked on the tree. Surprisingly the essence of the camp remained and was refurbished. It was quite unimaginable to visualise the extent of the area under water.

Pointing to the height of the river

We had a short drive along the riverside and identified 40 different bird species.

Grey Heron in breeding plumage – red beak

Eventually it was time for us to leave and head back to Jo’berg and the Getaway Show. We stayed at the same campsite as we had the previous weekend. This time without power nor water. Broken transformer and water shutdown. Fortunately we had own supply of both.

The Getaway Show covered everything associated with 4×4 camping. There were displays of all the main offroad campervans for people to examine. Probably the best way to assess which one you prefer.

At lunch time we visited Isdell House in Pinegowrie where we were treated to a full hour and a half tour guided by Mark Anderson. It was very impressive what they have done there. The whole concept is “Green” at its best. One day soon they may even be off the grid.

The support they got from various donors – the Isdell’s in particular – has been very generous. Virtually all the furnishings, building supplies have been donated by various companies keeping the cost of rebuild to an absolute minimum.

And the paintings, sketches, photos and prints – most signed by the artists – are extremely valuable. The library has a large selection of books donated by members. The policy of donated books is to offer the Orthonological Library first choice, then books come to Isdell’s library where some are kept, field guides donated to guides and schools, and the rest sold on – the proceeds of which go into the capital fund.

Such a well run operation with a very dedicated and happy team. It was a pleasant surprise to be guided around by Mark and to glean first hand of the story of Isdell House.

To break the journey home we decided to go to Golden Gate and camp for 2 nights with the hope of seeing vultures at the vulture restaurant, and Cape Eagle-Owl(s) along the cliffs bordering the campsite.

The first thing we realised when we got to the campsite was the noisy people. Friday and Saturday nights are party nights and all passing traffic had their music at full blast. It is also a place for bikers.

There are two loops to bird along. One loop goes up tp 2150 metres while the vulture hide is on the other lower loop. Most of the habitat is high grassland with bordering cliffs. Bird variety is therefore limited.

Devil’s Tooth

Our bird list for here and Mapungubwe can be seen by clicking here. Our afternoon and early morning bird list amountes to 23 different bird species here at Golden Gate.

We dipped on the Cape Eagle-Owl – not even hearing it. Not surprising really as the camp noise drowned out all other wildlife calls.

Black Wildebeest, Blesbok and Zebra were plentiful on the mountain slopes. Eland and Mountain Reedbuck were also seen.

Mountain Reedbuck

The vulture hide was relatively quiet. No vultures, just White-backed Ravens, Cape Crows and a lonely Southern Bald Ibis.

Bald Ibis

The weather was very windy – perhaps that was why there were so few sightings. However we did see one Bearded vulture fly over the hide just as we had returned to the car.

Bearded Vulture

All the other birds we had seen there took to the skies. So we raced back in the hope that the Bearded Vulture had landed – unfortunately it turned out to be another breathless walk 400 metres back to the hide to no avail.

African Stonechats were everywhere but this one had us fooled for a while.

After our morning’s drive round both loops the wind picked up. That was enough for us and we packed up and returned home a day early.

Hope you enjoyed the account and photos.

Paul and Sally Bartho



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