Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park – a place of beauty and spirituality

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Wayne Grant, owner and operator of Ventures Wild African Adventure Safaris, brings the majesty of the Matabo hills to life.

There are many areas in Zimbabwe where massive granite formations dominate the landscape, and, as regards size, some of the features in the north-east and east of Zimbabwe, are larger than those found elsewhere. But when one hears the words, “granite hills, castle kopjes, dwalas (‘whalebacks’), balancing rocks, Bushman paintings” your mind, and imagination, immediately swings to the word ‘Matobo’.

The Matobo range – rugged, picturesque granite hills adorned with uncountable impossibly-balanced boulders – lies in south-western Matabeleland, about 30 kilometers south of the city of Bulawayo.

These hills stretch from the Balla-Balla, Gwanda area in the east, all the way to the Botswana border in the west, a distance of about 120 kilometres.

When one views these fascinating formations it is easy to assume that they were formed by ancient volcanic activity – the hot granite oozing and steaming up to the surface, and cooling into the higgledy-piggledy fractured, balanced landscape that we see today.

But that is not the case.

The craftsmen here were wind and water. Aeons of erosion is responsible for this magnificent landscape now recognised as a World Heritage site.

Two thousand million years of relentless erosion displaced rocks and soils that once lay more than two miles deep on top of the granite shield. But erosion never ceases. Not only did it remove the covering earth, it then went on, breaking, splitting, abrading – shaping the raw granite into some seemingly whimsical fancy.

But the Matobo is so much more than striking scenery. It has meant so much to so many different cultures over thousands of years. They have become shrouded in mystery, magic, sorcery, and a spiritual power that still influences people’s beliefs today.

It is widely accepted that the nomadic hunter-gatherers – who we know as the ‘Bushmen’ or ‘San’, inhabited most of east and southern Africa, long before the arrival of Bantu people, and later, people of European heritage.

Widely differing theories and dates have been used when trying to draw up timelines by which human history in the Matobo Hills can be measured.

In Elspeth Parry’s book A Guide to Rock Art of the Matopo Hills, she mentions that fractions of pigment used in cave paintings have been recovered from sheltered deposits, and dated to 125,000 years ago. Those who have studied the Matobo paintings agree that most of the paintings we see now are around 2,000 to 3,000 years old, and that natural weathering prevents any paintings from lasting more than about 8,000 years on the walls on which they were painted.

Think about that number. Consider that the Bantu people only started trickling south into this part of the world 500 to 900 years A.D. The stone-age hunter-gatherers called the mystical Matobo home for hundreds of thousands of years before they were driven into the semi-desert thristlands by the new arrivals.

But the Bushmen left a rich record of their time in the Matobo. Hundreds of caves, overhangs and other surfaces protected from the weather, are adorned with their intricate, accurate paintings. Those paintings are spellbinding. With just a few simple strokes they capture the characteristics and movements of various animals perfectly.

Not only do the paintings show us the animals encountered by the Bushmen – they show us scenes from everyday life, including dancing, interacting with one another, preparing food, butchering animals. But there’s another fascinating side to the paintings – the spiritual world. Specialists in their field have spent years trying to understand, and decipher the meanings of the paintings, and their theories are certainly thought-provoking. Here we see what looks like lines of blood pouring from this person’s head; there we see emblems attached to a hunter’s sexual organ; in another we see a man seemingly changing into an animal.

When the first Bantu people arrived on the Zimbabwe plateau, they soon felt the spiritual pull or influence of the brooding Matobo Hills, and the Matobo was recognised, and revered, as the dwelling place of the ‘Mlimo’ – the supreme spiritual leader. When the Ama’Ndebele arrived in this area in 1838, they too accepted the Matobo as a spiritual place, home to the Umlimo, and other lesser gods, including he who influences rain.

So much of south-central Africa’s early history is tied to the Matobo Hills. The stone-age Bushmen, the early Bantu tribes – such as the Karanga (later known as the Kalanga) the Rozvis, the Torwas, Sothos, Vendas, Swazis – and finally, the Zulu clan under Mzilikazi – who changed their name to the Ama’Ndebele.

But recent history too, has been tied to, and influenced by the Matobo. When the MaTebele –(Ama’Ndebele), dominated western Zimbabwe, white hunters had already been operating as far north as the Zambezi, but now the MaTabele king decided to control this influx of whites into his country, and any prospectors, traders, hunters and missionaries were forced to ‘laager’, or camp out, at what we know today, as the Mangwe Pass – until the king granted them permission. This encampment at Mangwe grew into a small settlement, which at one time or another – housed such luminaries as Thomas Baines the famous painter, and Frederick Courteney Selous, the famous scout and hunter.

Cecil John Rhodes, the British mining magnate and businessman, who had been the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, and who was responsible for the pioneer column which brought the first permanent white settlers to Zimbabwe – had great influence in the Matobo area during King Lobengula’s rule, and is buried there on top of what he named World’s View, not far from where Mzilikazi was buried.

 

The brooding secret hills, with verdant fringes of thick vegetation around the edges of many of the big dwalas (large exposed dome-shaped sheets of granite) caused by rain run-off – are home to large and diverse numbers of fauna and flora. For many years the Matopas National Park was said to enjoy the highest density of leopards anywhere on earth, and sightings were not uncommon. The granite hills are also home to the dainty little klipspringer – nature’s petite little gymnast who, after a sneeze or two (his alarm call) bounces up into the granite rocks like a rubber ball.

The Matopas National Park, and the Matobo Hills in general, to a lesser degree, harbour a wide variety of wildlife including white rhino, and the beautiful sable antelope.

Over four hundred bird species have been recorded here, (representing 60% of the total bird species recorded in the whole of Zimbabwe), and the king of them all is the majestic Verreaux’s (Black) eagle.

Ornithologists and casual birders travel from all over, to enjoy the thrilling, awe-inspiring sight of a black eagle soaring effortlessly over its kingdom, a kingdom of rugged bush-choked gorges, hidden valleys, sheer granite cliffs, impossibly balanced boulders – and many, many secrets.