IT is early in the morning as the sun hesitantly climbs out of the womb of its wise mother from the east. Grass and tree branches sing notes from the sunrise wind, helped by a cacophony of singing birds, yonder in the hills and hillocks.
The multifarious array of balancing rocks stands unveiled, blushing in the sunrise, amid fluffy savanna grass heads, that ripple across the plains in a rusty – golden hue.
Somewhere in the mind, there is a tickling taste of how Africa must have been a century ago. Matobo, Matopos or even without a name, must have been some heaven on earth, given the wild animals you see as soon as you enter.
Shaggy waterbucks display their large lyre-shaped horns on the watery fringes of Lake Matobo, a rhino runs in athletic gait intermittently looking sideways and forwards, giraffes glide across the grassy hills, between grazing zebra herds, while pairs of wide-eyed dik-dik dart into scrubby bush like overgrown hares on spindly legs.
When driving past hillocks squadrons of banded mongoose dart between trees, while rock rabbits hoist their heads up to look, before going down under the caves. A klipspringer stands silhouetted on the rocks seeming ready to dance with the rocks.
After clearing one of the sharp curves, a kudu bull stands in the middle of the road, ears well-pronounced behind its iron-polished corkscrew horns.
Off it shoots into the bush, head turned into a spear-like stance. It is a perpetual bullet flight.
As the road serpentines further inside the park, life becomes a mystery wreathed in dotted balancing rocks, uncharacteristic rock outcrops and fear of the wilderness. Matobo National Park is a scenic gem.
Matobo National Park forms the core of the Matobo or Matopos Hills, an area of granite kopjes and wooded valleys commencing some 35 kilometres south of Bulawayo.
The hills were formed over two billion years ago with granite being forced to the surface, this has eroded to produce smooth “whaleback dwalas” and broken kopjes, strewn with boulders and interspersed with thickets of vegetation.
Mzilikazi, founder of the Ndebele nation, gave the area its name, meaning “bald heads”.
The hills cover an area of about 3 100km², of which 424km² is national park, the remainder being largely communal land and a small proportion of commercial farmland. The park covers some beautiful scenery including some spectacular balancing rocks and impressive views along the Thuli, Mtshelele, Maleme and Mpopoma river valleys.
Part of the national park is set aside as a 100km² game park, which has been stocked with game including the white rhinoceros. The highest point in the hills is the promontory named Gulati (1 549m) just outside the north-eastern corner of the park.
The national park is the oldest in Zimbabwe, established in 1926 as Rhodes Matopos National Park, a bequest from colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. The original park borders extended well to the south and east of the current park.
These areas were re-designated for settlement as part of a compromise between the colonial authorities and the local people, creating the Khumalo and Matobo communal lands.
The park area then increased with the acquisition of World’s View and Hazelside farms to the north. The current name Matobo reflects the correct vernacular pronunciation of the area.
The Matobo Hills were designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003. The area “exhibits a profusion of distinctive rock landforms rising above the granite shield that covers much of Zimbabwe”.
The Matobo Hills is an area of high botanic diversity, with over 200 species of tree recorded in the national park, including the mountain acacia, wild pear and the paper bark tree. There are also many aloes, wild herbs and over 100 grass species.
Matobo National Park has a wide diversity of fauna: 175 bird, 88 mammal, 39 snake and 16 fish species, which the visitor could easily see.
Game includes white rhinoceros, sable antelope, impala and leopard. The park contains the world’s densest population of the leopard due to the abundance of hyrax, which make up 50 percent of their diet.
The game park in the west has been restocked with white and black rhinos, the former from KwaZulu Natal in the 1960s and the latter from the Zambezi Valley in the 1990s. It has been designated as an Intensive Protection Zone for the two species, as well as the giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and ostrich. The park contains the highest concentration of black eagles, and breeding pairs of these birds, worldwide.
The Matobo Hills are composed entirely of granite, which weathers into fantastic shapes, such as the balancing rocks known as Mother and Child Kopje. Between the granite mountains narrow valleys form. These are often swampy valleys known as dambos or vleis, due to runoff from the whaleback mountain.
These valleys form the headwaters of the Maleme, Mpopoma and Mtsheleli rivers, and the source of the Thuli River is just east of the park.
San bushmen lived in the hills about 2 000 years ago, leaving a rich heritage in hundreds of rock paintings. There are over 3 000 registered rock art sites.
In the many crevices and caves, clay ovens and other historic artefacts have been found and various archaeological finds date back as far as the pre-Middle Stone Age.
Bambata Cave is also a major archaeological site, located in the west of the national park, north of the game park on the Kezi-Bulawayo road. The frieze includes elephants, giraffes, warthogs, tsessebe and mongoose.
Inanke Cave has the most extensive paintings, located in a remote cave accessible by a three-hour hike from Toghwana Dam. Along the route of the hike is an iron-age furnace.
Nswatugi Cave contains beautiful friezes of giraffes, elephants and kudu. Access is from Circular Drive, west of Maleme Dam.
Pomongwe Cave, near Maleme Dam, was damaged by a preservation attempt in 1965, where linseed oil was applied to the paintings.
The grandeur and stillness of the hills has contributed to their hallowed reputation, especially to the Shona and Ndebele people.
Many rituals and other religious activities are performed in the hills. Before the colonial era, it was the headquarters of the spiritualist oracle, the Mlimo.
Malindidzimu Hills were the scene of the famous indaba between white settlers and Ndebele leaders in 1896 – the Second Matabele War, known in Zimbabwe as the First Chimurenga – which ended with the assassination of the Mlimo by Frederick Russell Burnham, the American scout, in one of the Matobo caves.
Cecil Rhodes, Leander Starr Jameson, and several other leading early white settlers, including Allan Wilson and all the members of the Shangani Patrol killed in the First Matabele War, are buried on the summit of Malindidzimu, the “Hill of the Spirits” – this is a great source of controversy in modern Zimbabwe as this is considered a sacred place by nationalists and indigenous groups.
There are several campsites for the visitors. All accommodation is self-catering. There are 18 lodges and six chalets, the former fully equipped and the latter with communal ablutions and without crockery or cutlery.
Three of the lodges — Imbila, Black Eagle and Fish Eagle — have fantastic views over the Maleme Gorge. Imbila Lodge offers a higher standard of luxury with en suite bathrooms and teak furniture. Camping and caravan sites are situated along the eastern shores of Maleme Dam. This is the place to be.