Nowhere in Zimbabwe captures your heart like the Matobo Hills. Violette Kee-Tui makes the case for it to be top of everyone’s itinerary.
This is a love story. Not a love story in the traditional sense, but certainly more enduring than most. It’s a love story that started more years ago than I can remember, when the image of an endless granite-domed wilderness first inspired the playground of my imagination: huge mountain-like presences stretching as far as the eye could see, topped with strange boulders tipped out like building blocks from my toy basket. And it has stayed with me for over four decades, growing in intensity, if that is possible along with my sense of my own self and my mortality.
This is the Matobo Hills National Park in southeastern Zimbabwe. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 for its deep natural and cultural significance, this is the spiritual centre of the local Ndebele people and, today, a critically important sanctuary for rhino. The Matobo Hills have stolen many hearts and dreams… not only mine.
I’ve probably visited the ‘Matopos’ (as the locals call it) at least 200 times in the last ten years alone. Its extraordinary granite landscape, often moulded into fantastical forms by fire and wind and ice, still has the power to affect me: that first skipped heartbeat when I stand on its threshold… the tingling of excitement in my stomach. My latest visit takes me along a much-loved ribbon of tar winding through flat, fairly unexceptional plains from Bulawayo, roughly 35km away, to just beyond the Rhodes Estate Research Station and Cecil John Rhodes’ former Dutch-gabled home.
And then, quite suddenly, the granite outcrops start to appear, like goose bumps. At first they’re fairly scattered, but soon after entry into the National Park they start to increase in height and grandeur until one rolls into another and then another, layer after layer, an undulating ocean of rock, tree and shadow stretching to a distant horizon. Vast bald domes (the word ‘matobo’ means ‘bald heads’ in the Ndebele language), weathered over millennia, dominate valleys of grass rippling lazily in the breeze. Absurd balancing rock formations punctuate the sky, with the occasional rock hyrax basking in the sunshine.
It’s the morning after one of the first big storms of the season, a night shaken by lightning, thunder and hail such as only Africa can deliver. “Ah, it really rained,” says the National Parks officer, putting the palm of his hand to his forehead. “It was too much.”
It’s his way of saying ‘a lot’. This semi-arid wilderness can never have ‘too much’ rain. Water feeds the tiny seasonal springs and waterfalls that course down the rocks and form natural pools in the eroded basins that lie at their feet and, in turn, spill over into streams and eventually rivers.
There’s beauty in its stark winter face… tawny savannah bush the hue of a young lioness, and red-gold leaves dancing among the rocky outcrops. I’m seeing the place just waking up to the rainy season and it’s a beautiful sight: there are tufts of new grass, fresh shoots on the trees and the magic of the ‘resurrection plant’, which grows, against all logic, out of tiny fissures in the granite. A week ago it was dry and frizzy like a bleach job gone wrong; now, after just one rainfall, it’s green and lush again.
I visit Efifi, one of my favourite dwalas (Ndebele: ‘bald-faced mountain’) and a perfect vantage point, offering a 360-degree view of the unending hills. With the storm’s dying fury blowing a gale across the top of Efifi, I seek shelter from the wind under an overhang of a towering rock, shaved by the elements so strangely that it leans off the crest at an almost impossible angle, wide-waisted and determined like the largest in a set of Russian nesting dolls. The smell of wild sage hangs in the air; I hear a baboon’s bark echo off the granite walls. When I trail my fingertips through shallow pools of rain collected from the night before, it’s luxuriously warm.
This early in the morning the sky is low and heavy, and from far off in the distance comes the deep rumble of thunder, like huge boulders bumping. Bright brushstrokes of lichen – yellow, silver, bright orange, as striking as graffiti – decorate the rockface, and I lie on my back, looking up, watching as the wind blows the blanket of clouds first into long shreds of white and blue, then into cotton candy tufts that break off and drift overhead, leaving flimsy shadows on the flinty rocks. By mid-morning the clouds have all dispersed and the sky is the colour of the Mediterranean. The wind finally dies and I watch as the lizards, incandescent against the granite, cautiously venture out into the open again. An eagle calls, and everything is at peace.
To feel how the Matopos’ energy – whether in its turbulence or its tranquility – breathes through and tempers and shapes you is to understand why it has exercised such a strong spiritual and cultural significance since early man first traipsed across its stony altar over 100,000 years ago. Nor is it hard to fathom why Cecil John Rhodes, who gave the fledgling country of Rhodesia his name, chose the Matobo Hills as his final resting place. There are people who believe that, like the meridians of the body that intersect at our energy or pressure points, the globe is covered by invisible grids that converge at places of deep spiritual significance… and, if this is so, the Matopos is surely one of them.
Pathisa Nyathi, one of the foremost cultural historians in the area who runs the Amagugu Heritage Centre on the Kezi Road set up to promulgate and preserve the culture and tradition of the Ndebele people, says that what sets the Matopos apart from other tourist attractions in Zimbabwe is that it is both a cultural and natural heritage site of massive significance. “The Matobo World Heritage Site was inscribed on the UNESCO List in June 2003 on the basis of the 1972 Convention on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage and in recognition of the fact that it has been a cultural landscape for over 20,000 years. The site has been and continues to be an important carrier of African spirituality. The San hunter-gatherers and the Bantu pastoralists who succeeded them both resorted to supernatural powers to encourage the environment to offer sustenance, mainly in the form of food provision and rain. Even today there are sacred sites and shrines preserved for communion with the spirits, especially before the start of the rainy season,” says Nyathi.
This strong link between man and his environment is evidenced through the area’s legacy of fine prehistoric rock art, the highest concentration of any in southern Africa. Some of the most impressive works, created during mankind’s long journey from the Stone Age to recent historical times, are etched on the walls of Inanke Cave, a four-hour trek across river streams, granite ridges and deep valleys, along barely visible paths that deposit you, finally, at the mouth of the cavern and its mysterious secrets.
Figures representing eland, kudu, giraffe, ostrich and duiker speak of the herds of wildlife that once roamed the grassy basin below. Among the paintings is a painstakingly rendered yellow and white giraffe that has been declared possibly the best example of animal rock art in the country. Intermingling with the animals are men marching with weapons on their shoulders, a familiar hunting scene found in other rock art sites in the area.
But then the walls give up deeper secrets: there towers the figure of a man, his head shrunken, stick-like arms protruding grotesquely out of his upper torso. He seems to be struggling to stand, leaning precariously forward and balancing on two large ovals, filled with dots, a pattern repeated at least sixteen other times around the cave. Historians have surmised that the figure represents a witchdoctor or, in the Ndebele language, an inyanga, in the midst of a ritual-inspired trance, the effort of gathering the spirit forces so intense that his body has been bent out of shape. The dotted ovals appear to represent the life-giving potency that endows the inyanga with his power.
At other sites, like White Rhino Cave, the painted figures of rhino alerted early historians and ecologists to the fact that the animal had once inhabited the area, and plans were undertaken to reintroduce them from South Africa in the 1960s. This has led to an intense and determined challenge to preserve the rhino in the area, despite an increasingly difficult battle being waged against poaching and smuggling.
Says John Burton, who runs the Farmhouse Lodge and is current chairman of the Matobo Rhino Initiative Trust: “The beauty of Zimbabwe is in its diversity; from the lush Eastern Highlands to the stark beauty of Hwange, each place is unique and beautiful in its own way. But the thing about the Matopos is its variety of attractions – the rhino, the rock art, the fauna, the flora, the birdlife – all set in one truly spectacular landscape.”
If I were to take something from my love for the Matopos, it would be this: much like the stony sentinels that watched over me as a child and have always harboured and protected my inner self, the lichen, the black eagle, the large and small mammals, the precious plants and springs seem to me still to love selflessly, to give unconditionally, and never change.
Essential things for all visitors to do
• Rhodes’ Grave and World’s View Is there a more dramatic burial spot than that chosen by Cecil John Rhodes, hewn into the rock atop Malindidzumu (‘the dwelling place of the spirits’). An interesting historical display will greet you at the start of the gentle climb, and vast panoramic views are to be had from the summit.
• Explore the rock art In caves and on rock faces throughout the park there are an estimated 3000 registered sites where you can appreciate some of the best examples of rock art anywhere in the world. Some are more accessible than others (start with Pomongwe, Silozwane and White Rhino Caves), some require a more challenging walk (Bambata and Inanke, as examples), and who knows how many more remain as yet undiscovered. Seek and ye shall find (and enjoy amazing views along the way).
• Walk with the rhinos Enjoy a rare privilege to get up close to these endangered animals, with a qualified guide (organised through most lodges) or a National Parks ranger (hire direct). A highlight for many visitors.
• Relax beside Maleme Take a picnic or a cool box and chill out at Maleme Dam, wander around and be amazed by the tumbledown chaos of the boulders below the dam wall. Other dams worth visiting are Mpopoma, in the Whovi Wilderness Game Park, and Mtsheleli.
• Check the bins In some of the more isolated caves you might find the remains of ancient clay grain bins, many of them used in the Matabele rebellion of 1896.
• Explore! The unbridled joy of Matopos is the ability to wander at will. You’re free to walk, cycle and climb to your heart’s content – and, boy, what a playground! Scramble up one of the vast whaleback hills for views you won’t ever want to leave. Take a turn down an unidentified track and you’ll discover hidden nooks and dells. Nowhere else will you feel this close to nature.
Enraptured with raptors
Forty-six species of raptors live in the Matobo Hills, 15 of which are eagles. That’s a pretty astounding figure when you consider that there are only two eagle species native to the US, nine to Central and South America and three to Australia. Among the eagles of Matopos is the black eagle, recently renamed Verreaux’s eagle, with the Matopos recording the highest population density in the world. The topography provides excellent habitat for their primary prey, rock hyraxes, locally known as ‘dassies’.
“At one time we felt that the numbers of black eagles were decreasing, related largely to the dassies themselves being in decline,” says Colin Gillies of the Matabeleland Black Eagle Survey, started over 50 years ago and believed to be the longest-running raptor survey in the world. “But in recent years the situation has stabilised and we’re happy with the data gathered on breeding patterns in the area.”
Twenty-two teams monitor over 60 nests scattered throughout the park, particularly during the breeding season of March to September, and record nesting and breeding patterns. Two eggs are laid at a time, but only one chick will survive, the stronger overpowering the weaker.
Other eagles common to the area include the African fish eagle, whose calls echoaround the granite gorges, the magnificent Marshall eagle, so powerful it has been known to take small antelope, the crowned eagle and a goodly number of snake eagles. Scan the skies and you’ll seldom fail to see a raptor scanning for prey.
Winning the rhino war
John Burton, chairman of the Matobo Rhino Initiative Trust (MRIT), can’t, or won’t, tell you how many rhino there are in the Matobo Hills. He fears putting the rhino at further risk from poaching. But what he can say is that 2014 could be the first time in 15 years that there has been positive growth in rhino population in the Park.
The rhino of the Matopos have not always been under threat. In fact for many years the Whovi Wilderness Game Park within the wider National Park remained a safe sanctuary – until 2000, when the area became a target for poachers. Between then and 2012 half of its rhino population was lost to poaching.
Why did it take so long to take action? “There were a number of factors,” says Burton. “Lack of finances was obviously one of the most important, but more than that was the fact that Zimbabwe was in no political or economic state for us to start a project of this kind. The last two years have seen an upturn in the country’s economy that has paved the way for progress.”
The thrust of MRIT is, initially, to fence the entire Game Park area. The US$180,000 needed for the 52km of fencing has now been raised and the project was on course for completion by the end of 2014. Thereafter it will confine the rhino to an Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ).
“The involvement of the community has been key,” says Burton. “The local chief gave his immediate support. He now serves on our board and, through his lead, the entire rural district is involved.”
Local labour was used to erect the fence and members of the local community have agreed to patrol and maintain it.
Kevin Wilson uses the term ’pristine habitat’ when describing the Matopos as an ideal environment for the leopard, and the reason why the cat does so well here. The rocky outcrops, sheltering caves and thick foliage offer perfect terrain for the stealthy predator – and make it incredibly rare for visitors to see them.
Numbers? Well that’s hard to say, which is one of the reasons why Wilson, with funding from the Oregon Zoo, has undertaken the Chipangali Carnivore and Conservation Research Project.
To date three leopards have been fitted with radio collars, and 32 camera traps have been set up to track wildlife activity. As a result, data is being gathered on territory ranges and hunting and breeding patterns which will help to manage conservation programmes in conjunction with local communities.