So you’ve seen a lion kill in Hwange National Park, and you’ve been at Nyamandlovu Pan at sunset watching herd after herd of elephant come down to drink. They are experiences that will remain with you forever. But don’t think for a minute that now you have truly felt the essence of Africa, because for that you need to be on foot, maybe even alone, drinking in the sounds, the smells, the sheer majesty of one of the least visited true wildernesses of this multi-layered continent.
The Matobo Hills are less than an hour’s drive out of Bulawayo. And from the moment you leave the main road and make your way into the labyrinth of those immense granite kopjes, sculpted naturally into fantastic forms and shapes, you have entered another world – a world that weaves a powerful enchantment over all who know it.
Here there is something for everyone – you may want to do no more than spread out a picnic on top of a kopje, watching the changing moods of these timeless hills that stretch far and beyond until they melt into the sky. Or go hiking for hours and never see another human being.
Over 200 species of birds occur in the Matobo, and it’s reputed to host the most concentrated population of large eagles in the world, for conditions here are ideal. Miles of rugged terrain offer not only suitable nest sites, but shelter and food for the ubiquitous dassie (hyrax),which make up more than 98% of the diet of the Black Eagle, aristocrat amongst the raptors. This is home, too, to the elusive leopard – so seldom seen – whose tracks you may well discover along a dusty road and whose rasping cough echoes through the stillness of the night. And the klipsringer, a compact little antelope, who can scamper up the sheerest rock on tiptoe.
You may choose to hike, to cycle or to climb but for me, the greatest joy is simply to wander. Go slowly, look under that rocky overhang, or behind that tangle of trees, and you may well find one of the thousands of Stone Age paintings that have made the Matobo famous throughout the world.
The Karanga people of ancient times worshipped Mlimo, the sky god, in these caves and even today, local people sacrifice black bulls at traditional rain dances held in the rocky shrine of Njelele. But it was the Bushmen, the aboriginal inhabitants of Southern Africa, who truly learned the secrets of the hills. They hunted with bows and arrowheads dipped in poison; they gathered the annual harvest of fruit and marula nuts; slept in caves around a blazing fire on bitter winter nights and then, incredibly, managed to enhance the natural beauty of the kopjes with painted images that are as powerfully evocative as the rocks themselves.
It’s essential to visit some of the best known sites like Nswatugi or Inanke, but you might well come across other small sites on an afternoon’s stroll. And who knows? You may be the first to person to see them for hundreds of years. Or even longer.
Excavations of some of the larger caves have unearthed fragments of painted rock dating back at least 12,000 years, and yet here are images so clear and fresh that you wouldn’t be surprised to see the artist’s fire still smouldering at your feet. Although we will never know for certain, the paintings appear to be a blend of mysticism and reality. In one shallow overhang on Stone Hills, we have found people who may be in a trance – weird figures sprouting tails and horns, with lines of potency streaming from the tops of their heads that may depict the spirit leaving the body.
The place is alive with history. Today the ancient hills are silent, but not long ago they echoed with the rumble of wagon wheels and the sound of gunfire. Stories and legends run through the kopjes like a river, but still, it remains a place of profound tranquillity. Somehow, these ageless hills seem to be at the centre of the earth as it ought to be – wild and yet comforting; a place where at last, you feel you belong.
Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Bulawayo & Matobo Hills
Read more from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 06, Sept 2011)