Discovering Marakale National Park
The sandstone formations of the Waterberg
It’s quite surprising that there are only three national parks in South Africa which has the Big 5 of lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. Kruger, Addo, and now Marakele!
This relatively small national park of about 70,000 hectares is also the only one that features typical highveld bushscape; it also includes the beautiful Waterberg mountains, which makes for an unexpected surprise for those people used to the endless plateauscape of the highveld. The lowest point in the park is about 1,000 metres above sea level near the entrance gate, and the highest is the impressive Lenokeng view point at about 2080 metres, the very top of the Waterberg.
But visitors shouldn’t expect to see loads of animals – or all of the Big 5 (although white rhino is almost guaranteed!). Marakele is very much a developing park, and is one of the newest in the country, only proclaimed in 1994, although the first farms were bought in 1986 by SANParks. Many of the animals are still getting used to their surroundings, and they are low in number per hectare, compared to a Kruger or Imfolozi. But the park is looking to expand it’s footprint and in a few years’ time, it should be brimming with wildlife. This national park is only a three hour drive from Johannesburg, which should make it a firm weekend-getaway favourite among “The Big Smoke” folk.
Mom and some youngsters...one of which was only a few weeks old, as the umbilical chord was still attached.
Marakele is important to conservation, because it’s a diverse place, with examples of bushveld, mountains, forest and believe it or not, fynbos! Yes, up here in the highveld are some pockets of fynbos, including protea species which live on similar sandstone soils that occur in the Cape.
There are also some specimens of a cedar tree species – Widdringtonia nodiflora – which are related to the cedar trees in the Cederberg! I took a photo of one…check it out below. Then there’s very rare cycad Encephalartos eugene-maraisii which grow only on the highest points (named after the naturalist and writer Eugene Marais, who spent many years in the Waterberg studying baboons and everything else…I can see why he loved it here.)
A lonely cedar tree stands atop one of the Waterberg mountain's peaks...
At Marakele there’s also the largest breeding colony of Cape vultures in the country (about 800), which nest in the high cliffs of the Waterberg. And of course there’s a viable population of both black and white rhino in the park.
Wild dog were introduced a few years ago, but have now been removed, because of fears that they will get into neighbouring farms, many of which stock wildlife.
Field guide Fhumulani Mikosi told me that the park has recently reintroduced about 15 buffalo, after the park had to remove all of them for a few years because of them carrying corridor disease. Sidney also told me that the lions are also due for a genetic boost, because there has been some inbreeding, and the current cubs are not that healthy. So there should be some new males arriving soon…
Park manager Claire Ntshane says there are between 130 and 140 elephants, although they tend to stick to the northern part of the park, and so I have yet to see them. (Most of the tourist roads traverse the southern part.) Rhino number are kept hush-hush, for obvious reasons.
The highlights of a trip to Marakele include staying at Tlopi Tented camp, which is situated on a dam where animals come to drink regularly, while the Waterberg stands tall against the sky. Visitors must also do the drive to the Lenong viewpoint at the top of the Waterberg, courtesy of a beautiful road that was built so that a few TV masts could be erected before there was a national park (they’re still there, and it does kind of detract from the ‘wilderness’ experience). Be sure too, to go on a rhino walk with head field guide Fhumulani Mikosi, it’s one of the best things I’ve experienced on my Year in the Wild.
Tlopi Tented Camp
Baboons having some lunch at the dam near Tlopi Tented camp, at the base of the Waterberg