Zimbabwe – Walking among giants

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The unforgettable landscape of Matobo Hills has been held sacred for thousands of years, and its spiritual importance has been documented in some of the area’s 3000 rock art sites. Today, animal encounters here can leave just as big an impression on visitors as the epic surroundings.

HR-NO-CREDIT-shutterstock_5869699I sat entranced in the grass. Mere metres away was a three-tonne white rhino whose breathing appeared to be even more excited than mine. “Don’t worry,” said my guide, Ian Harmer, “he’s only in the mood for love.” We were in the Whovi Wild Area, a 105-square-kilometre intensive protection zone for wildlife in the western quarter of Matobo National Park. The backdrop is the enchanting, granitic landscape of the Matobo Hills. The fractured boulders, which perform impossible balancing acts, reminded me slightly of the area around my home in Dartmoor, England. But similarities end there. Often mimicking weathered human faces, the Matobos are a mind-boggling 1.7 billion years older, and during the day the bronzed kopjes and smooth whaleback ridges bake in the dry heat, dazzling with starbursts of sulphurous-
yellow lichen.

The hills are also an artistic canvas with myriad caves richly decorated with art dating back thousands of years. The fact that some of these ancient Bushman paintings depicted rhinos actually played a pivotal role in the decision to reintroduce the species here in the 1960s. The park now has 114 of the hulking beasts.

Earlier in the day, before we started following the telltale midden piles of white rhino, Ian bellowed, “Welcome to my little piece of paradise,” with Boy Scout enthusiasm. He clearly loves his job and the surreal working environment. He went on to explain that we’d need to move quietly and carefully if we were to be safe and successful tracking rhino. “Although, we might have to run like hell if we encounter black rhinos,” he added. “They’re far more aggressive, and can charge. I was once trapped in a tree for four and a half hours.”

It wasn’t long before we’d encountered a 15-year-old female white rhino and her 18-month-old calf. We edged closer. Ten metres… Seven metres… Five metres… The mother ignored us completely, grazing avariciously. Yet baby swivelled its eyes up at us and stared intently. “If baby squeals, mother might flatten us, so let’s stop here,” Ian cautioned.

I was absolutely buzzing – it was an intense experience I can equate only to sitting with mountain gorillas in the jungles of Uganda. Ian then motioned towards the long grass. It was 45-year-old Swaziland IV, the biggest rhino in the national park. He paid us no attention, having eyes only for the female. Unfortunately for him and his heavy breathing, she kept her distance in a ‘not tonight dear’ fashion.

Ian’s rhino walks embody the raw, in-your-face wildlife encounters Zimbabwe offers best. This has as much to do with the wildlife as it does with the quality of guiding – the training in Zimbabwe for guides is rigorous and demanding.

That evening at Big Cave Camp, where little stone cottages nestle between kopje boulders, I sat next to the campfire within a shallow natural cave and looked out over the hills. As night fell I felt a mystical aura descend over the Matobos, almost sensing the shifting spirits of Ndebele warrior chiefs and their gods, for whom these hills were a sacred place.

Mark Stratton stayed in Matobo National Park with thanks to Big Cave Camp (www.bigcave.co.za). Thanks to Nesbitt Castle (www.nesbittcastle.co.zw) for accommodation in Bulawayo.

 

Quirky Bulawayo
Bulawayo is the jumping-off point for Matobo National Park. There’s a new walking tour of the city’s heritage sites, which explore its colonial architecture and history. Some of its quirkier attractions include:

• The Bulawayo Club  This bastion of stiff British upper lip opened its doors in 1895 but has recently been impressively refurbished. Its columned atrium (pictured) is a great place to lunch in airy splendour. Upstairs hosts priceless memorabilia from Rhodes’ era, while the plush Lobengula Lounge celebrates the great Ndebele chief.

• Natural History Museum  Taxidermy has never attained such giddy heights. This cracking museum houses a mind-blowing 100,000 animal specimens, including the second-largest elephant ever mounted and a rugby ball-sized egg of an extinct aepyornis. Its star turn is a coelacanth, one of the world’s oldest species and its rarest fish. The museum was once voted in the top five in the world.

• Nesbitt Castle  This early 20th-century gothic castle was built by Thomas Holdengarde and was later renovated into a hotel by Digby Nesbitt. Crenulated walls, turrets, dungeons and a liberal sprinkling of swords, suits of armour and red telephone boxes combine to create one of Africa’s most bizarre and surreal accommodation options.

 

Did you know?
Resting place
Cecil Rhodes’ remains are not the only bones resting in Matobo. Buried in secret caves, lost deep in the leaf mould of clefts and crevices or scattered in the thick grass of the valleys, are reminders of those who have made the hills home over thousands of years.

Rock art
There are over 3000 registered rock art sites here, with the main periods of painting being between 320 and 500 AD. In some of the caves and crevices, clay ovens have even been found.

Balancing act
The balancing ‘castle kopjes’ have been formed by billions of years worth of erosion exposing natural lines of weakness in the rock. As these lines in Matobo run north to south and east to west, it makes the kopjes look as if they’ve been carefully constructed. Because the boulders on the summits are more exposed to nature’s weathering, they are more rounded than the angular blocks at the base of the hills. That’s why many outcrops resemble human shapes.

All in the name
The park’s current name dates back to Mzilikazi, founder of the Ndebele kingdom. He believed the rocks here resembled bald heads, or matobo in the Ndebele language.

Ancient tools
Stone tools excavated from rubble in Bambata Cave have been estimated to date back 20,000 years, while crude scrapers and knife-like tools from deeper layers may be twice as old. However, archaeologists believe humans have been here for 300,000 years.

Flagship species
Matobo’s flagship species are black eagles, rainbow lizzards and rock hyraxes. The abundance of the latter not only feeds the eagles, but it also nourishes Africa’s densest population of leopard – although, with so many places to hide, you’ll see few of these big cats.

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