Most people have at some stage in their lives been or known a wallflower. The quiet guy at the braai who doesn’t have an opinion about last weekend’s game. The shy girl at the high school sokkie who sits on the side-line when everyone else dances. As backward as society usually is, wallflowers mostly get overlooked. But they shouldn’t. Braai guy might well be a most interesting photographer and shy girl might be an accomplished jazz musician who merely despises sokkie music. More often than not those same flowers bloom most beautifully when they are only given the chance.

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Gemsbok / Kgalagadi
Lioness / Marakele
Gemsbok / Kgalagadi

Marakele National Park seems to be a SANParks wallflower. We have visited it twice, once just after lockdown and again more recently as the start of our extensive Botswana-Namibia trip. Going back to a place usually says something about it in itself. Rightfully so, because there is something about Marakele that we just cannot get enough of.

Some people base their opinion of a national park solely on the number of animals they see, and those people should avoid Marakele and rather visit a zoo where you are guaranteed sightings. However, if the idea of spectacular mountains, extensive valley views, elephants by the dozen, unexpected big five encounters, unfenced campsites, remarkable birdlife, diverse trees and grasses, and the most beautiful Waterberg view from your water-side canvas tent appeals to you, then you should pay attention.

Male lion / Kgalagadi
Agama / Kgalagadi
Jackal tracks / Kgalagadi

Marakele is just outside Thabazimbi in the Limpopo province. This means it is a 3-odd hour drive from the Gauteng weekender hub. The wonderful Waterberg is its main cover page feature. A very steep but well-maintained road takes you right to the top where a mountain top viewpoint overlooks the valley and the outstretched surrounding bushveld for you to see everything the light touches (cue Mufasa). Here you can also get up close to a breeding colony of threatened Cape vultures, one of the few left in the country. It is a rare privilege to behold their mighty 2.5m wingspan at eye level.

The park is divided into two sections, the bigger area containing the big five and the other being where the wonderfully unfenced Bontle campsite is located. We camped here for a few nights and enjoyed the inquisitive local birdlife including cheeky hornbills, chattering white-browed sparrow weavers and beautiful crimson-breasted shrikes. Wildlife roams lazily through the camp so we had a group of blue wildebeest over as dinner guests and listened to the kudus browsing next to the tent at night. The ablutions are neat and clean, and the honorary rangers added a nice touch by labelling most trees around camp for those attempting to learn new tree names.

Elephant / Mapungubwe

If possible we also recommend a stay at the Tlopi tented camp in the larger section of the park. We spent a few nights in one of the simple and very tidy safari tents, all of which overlook a dam with the majestic Waterberg mountain cliff faces rising in the background. This is the type of place where you can easily spend the entire day relaxing, reading or getting acquainted with the birds and animals slaking their thirst. Enjoying a late afternoon sundowner on the patio with a herd of elephants while the sun sets against the mountain seemed to us like we just walked into an Amarula commercial.

Drives around the park are always a highlight. The dramatic landscapes are enough to keep you awe-struck and whilst the animal densities are not very high, we have had very memorable sightings. A beautiful lioness once emerged from the golden-lined late afternoon grasslands next to us. In fact, we have encountered most of the big five here. Various other highlights abound such as surprisingly patient klipspringers on the mountains, banded mongoose colonies browsing the campsite undergrowth, and the uncommon Shelley’s francolins calling in the early morning sun.

Elephant / Mapungubwe

For some reason, the park doesn’t get as many visitors as some of its more famous brethren. People overlook it and rather point to Kruger for a long weekend. We say, make time to talk to braai guy and ask shy girl to dance. Go to Marakele, and give the wallflower a chance.