On the edge of the Kalahari Desert, between Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone and its second-largest city, Francistown, lies the little known town of Mahalapye. Often overlooked as simply a convenient stopover on the way to and from Botswana’s larger cities, Mahalapye, in fact, has more to offer than what first meets the eye.
The town is the headquarters of Botswana Railways, and the railway line running through the town forms an important part of Mahalapye’s history. The line, which transverses Botswana from Ramatlabama in the south to Bakaranga in the north, was originally part of Bechuanaland Railway Company’s line from Vryburg to Bulawayo (later to become Rhodesia Railways), and was an important section of the unrealised vision of a ‘Cape to Cairo’ railway. The railway line currently forms a direct link between South Africa and the countries lying to the north, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Mozambique.
In May 1897, the line from Mafikeng to Palapye (north of Mahalapye) was completed, and by November 1897 the line had reached Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and it was opened to traffic. Meanwhile, the town of Mahalapye came into being in around the 1920s as a result of the development of the railway line, attracting construction workers from far and wide.
The town also became an important stopover point, both to restock on coal and as a changeover for traffic and train crew of South African Railways (coming from the south) and Rhodesia Railways (travelling north). The Tswana people from surrounding areas used this stopover as a chance to trade, and eventually set up temporary and then permanent homes in the area. The town grew, and, interestingly, some of the first electric lights to flicker in Botswana (after Lobatse) were in this town, earning it the nickname of ‘Ko Diponeng’ – the place of lights.
The result of all the construction and trading that took place in the area is that today, Mahalapye is an ethnically diverse area, with many Xhosas from South Africa – who came as staff to work on the railway – as well as Tswanas, Lozi people from Zambia, and the Baherero who fled the Germans in Namibia in the 1920s, making up the approximately 40 000 people who live there. The modern village, while not front of mind as a tourist destination, certainly has a few noteworthy attractions that are definitely worth seeing.
To the south of the village, just off the A1 highway you will find the southern-most naturally occurring baobab tree in Africa, an immense and long-standing specimen that has been declared as a national monument.
More natural beauty can be found along the dry river Mahalapye River, where you can take a walk among the impressive granite boulders – it may be a good idea to take your bird books and binoculars along, as the bush is home to many species of birds, and perhaps also a picnic for an African alfresco dining experience. Another option is to take a drive to Palapye and walk along the Lotsane River.
About 45km from the town are the Shoshong Hills, where some of Botswana’s richest history can be discovered. These hills were home to mineworkers as far back as the 8th century, and today feature stone-walled ruins from early tribes, as well as the fascinating remains of the Hermannsburg and London Missionary Society mission stations.
Looking further afield, the Central district of Botswana has many unexplored corners and attractions just waiting to be discovered. Old Palapye, about 100km north of Mahalapye, is a fascinating historical site containing artefacts from the middle Stone Age, the late Stone Age and the early Iron Age. More recently it was the 19th century capital of the Bangwato people, a major tribe in Botswana, who occupied the area from 1889-1902. Here you can see stone walls, historic graves, rock paintings and the remains of rondavels, a prison and market centre, as well as the remains of the London Missionary Society Church, which was built between 1891 and 1894. You do, however, need to approach the village headman for permission to visit this site.
The current capital of the Bangwato is Serowe, which is home to the Khama III Memorial Museum. Travel about 120km north of Mahalapye to explore the history of the Khama royal family, one of southern Africa’s most important dynasties. The museum includes the personal effects of Chief Khama III and his descendants as well as various artefacts illustrating Serowe’s history. Also on display are exhibits on African insects and snakes, San culture and temporary art displays.
Just 25km north-west of Serowe is the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, a community-based wildlife project established in 1992 to help save the vanishing rhinoceros and restore an area formerly teeming with wildlife to its previous natural state. Visit for the day or take more time by spending a night or two at one of the campsites or chalets. The park is home to white and black rhinos, giraffe, zebra, various antelope, ostrich, black-backed jackals, warthogs and more, as well as a plethora of birds.