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Zimbabwe: Matobo Hills
Matobos National Park was established in 1926 and is the oldest national park in Zimbabwe. It is known for its impressive rock art paintings and the site of Cecil John Rhodes' grave.
We had travelled from Victoria Falls in the north of Zimbabwe down to Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city. The main reason for coming to this area was to visit Matobos National Park.
It is a popular destination for tourists, both international and local. Many people come here to hike and ride horses in the beautiful landscape. Unfortunately, we did not have time to enjoy these outdoor activities. So, instead, we booked ourselves on a jam-packed day tour. Around 8:00 am our guide Andy picked us up to begin the day.
Walking rhino trek
Our first activity for the day was to track white rhinos. This required us tracking on foot – which was best done before the day got too hot! Andy pulled off the road through a gate and spoke briefly to a man armed with a rather old-looking rifle, who turned out to be one of the rangers who were there to protect the rhinos from poachers. We drove for another few minutes before Andy pulled over and we all jumped out of the vehicle. Whilst the rhinos are obviously large animals, they can be difficult to spot among the hills, bushes and tall grass of Matobo. So, Andy decided we needed to climb a small hill to try and spot them. The hill he chose was not too high, but the climb was steep and there were several rocks we had to scramble over. I was also worried about finding snakes hidden in the rocks – but luckily if they were there, they stayed hidden. The view from the top across the park was lovely and it was not too long before Andy’s beady eyes spotted a small group of white rhinos, a mother, a baby and a second female who was also the daughter of the older female. We were about to set out when Andy spied two things that stopped us from setting out to see the rhinos. The first was a line of local people who were apparently part of a religious sect who were noisily walking through the park – something they were not supposed to do (the walking – not necessarily the talking). Their chatter was loud and potentially scared the rhinos off. The second thing was another group of visitors, led by their guide and the armed ranger we had seen earlier. Andy was pissed with both groups – he was a man of strong opinions. He was annoyed with the guide who was using the ranger to track the rhinos. The job of the ranger was to protect the rhinos, not help visitors find them – the guide should do this on their own. Anyway, we had to wait for this group to reach the rhinos and do their photo taking. We sat down and patiently waited, which gave us more time to talk to Andy and find out more about the white rhino and Matobo National Park.
Eventually, the other group was done, and we climbed down the hill and set out to meet the rhino. By now it was getting hot, and the rhinos were not particularly interested in running off, preferring to sit in the shade of a tree. As these animals are quite used to people, we were able to get close, within about 30 metres and take some photos – although the grass and bushes made it difficult to get a clear view. The rhinos have poor vision but good senses of hearing and smell, so they knew we were there but remained quiet so as not to distress them too much. After about 10 minutes we left these amazing animals to continue their siesta and started to walk back to the car. Along the way, Andy explained more about the birds we could hear and see and the plants and fauna around us. He was a font of knowledge and a great storyteller! After we reached our vehicle, we jumped in and set out for the main gate of the Matobo National Park.
Cecil John Rhodes grave
Next up on the schedule was to visit the grave of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia – which is now known as Zimbabwe. Cecil John Rhodes was the son of a Hertfordshire clergyman. Born in 1853, Rhodes was an asthmatic child, and his family believed a warm, dry climate would improve his health. In 1870, he was sent to live with his oldest brother Herbert in South Africa. There he was to help his brother on a cotton plantation in Natal. A year later, Cecil and his brother invested in the newly opened Kimberley diamond fields.
Cecil Rhodes returned to England in 1873 to attend Oxford University but he did not receive his degree until 1881 due to his repeated business trips to South Africa. Rhodes was extremely prosperous in the diamond mining industry and in 1880 formed the DeBeers Mining Company, which owned 90 per cent of the world’s diamond mines by 1891.
While travelling through the rich territories of Transvaal and Bechuanaland, Rhodes was inspired by the dream of British rule over southern Africa. His vision was British dominion “from the Cape to Cairo”. He entered the Parliament of Cape Colony in 1881 and stressed the policy of containing the northward expansion of the Transvaal Republic. In 1885, Great Britain established a protectorate over Bechuanaland, due largely to Rhodes’ persuasion. Cecil Rhodes became the prime minister of Cape Colony in 1890 and was responsible for educational reforms and for restricting the franchise to literate persons, which reduced the African vote. Rhodes’ bias towards the British victims of discrimination encouraged him in the conspiracy to overthrow the government of Paul Kruger, thus resulting in the Jameson Raid of 1895. The raid ended in complete failure and the British House of Commons found Cecil John Rhodes guilty of grave breaches of duty as Prime Minister and as Administrator of the British South Africa Company. Rhodes was forced to resign as Prime Minister of Cape Colony.
Following his resignation as Prime Minister, Rhodes devoted himself primarily to developing the territories collectively called “Zambesia,” after the Zambezi River. In May 1895, the name was officially changed to “Rhodesia”, after Cecil John Rhodes. Nearly 100 years later in 1979, a new constitution providing democratic majority rule was established and “Rhodesia” became “Zimbabwe” in 1980.
Cecil John Rhodes died in 1902 as one of the wealthiest men in the world. Having no family, Rhodes provided in his last will and testament a large portion of his estate to the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarships. Rhodes Scholars study for one to two years at the University of Oxford in England.
Also buried on the mountain, just below Cecil Rhodes, is Leander Starr Jameson. He was a contemporary of Rhodes and led the infamous Jameson raid, where he was commissioned by Rhodes to raise a private army to suppress a Boer uprising. The raid was unsuccessful, and he ended up back in England, went on trial and ended up in prison for only 4 months. He eventually returned to South Africa and eventually went on to serve as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony after Rhode’s death.
The final monument on the mountain is an ugly 33-feet tall, oblong, granite memorial with bronze reliefs to the Shangani patrol – whose remains were buried in the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe until Rhodes willed that they be re-interred alongside him.
The incredible scenery of Matobo National Park
The Matobo Hills are some of the most beautiful rock formations in the world.
Formed about 2 billion years ago, these granite boulders and rocks lie atop kopjies and inselbergs and smooth ‘whaleback dwalas’’. The Ndebele nation gave the name Matobo meaning bald heads and the highest point Gulati is just outside the official park (1549metres).
Thousands of distinctive tightly compacted rocky outcrops lie across the land with valleys running between them like veins. A vast landscape of low lying hills show boulders balancing on top of each other that defy belief that they can manage to keep holding onto precarious footholds. Natural weathering has created stunning forms and designs of rocks where rock hyrax, black eagles, klipspringer antelope and leopard live.
The Matobo Hills have perhaps the best-preserved San Bushman paintings anywhere in the world. There are over 3,000 Rock art sites in the hills, some inside massive, cavernous caves, whilst most others are paintings or sketches on the side of a rock or overhang.
Ancient people probably started painting in the caves of the Matobo Hills around thirty thousand years ago but the art we see today would be no more than two to three thousand years old at most.
The cave Andy had chosen for us was Nswatugi Cave which is one of the most accessible caves in the Matobo Hills. Located just behind Maleme Dam. The cave was a relatively short 15-minute walk from the car park, up a hill and across some rocks – but nothing too tricky. The cave is small, but the paintings are stunningly beautiful. There is one wall of wondrous animal and camping scenes which dominates the cave. The paintings are very well-preserved in dark red and orange shades. Several antelope can be seen hopping across the wall as well as a delicate zebra near the entrance. It was incredible. This cave has been excavated twice. The oldest deposits date back around 8,000 years. One interesting discovery during the cave’s excavation was a young female skeleton.
This cave is one more popular with visitors, but because we had gone at the end of the day, we had it to ourselves. It was getting dark, so we had to hurry back down the hill to the car
About the Matobo National Park
Matobo National Park lies in southwest Zimbabwe covering an area of about 424km2. It’s known for the Matobo Hills, a range of balancing rock formations created by the erosion of the granite plateau. The park extends along the Thuli, Mtshelele, Maleme and Mpopoma river valleys and is one of three intensive rhino protection zones within the Parks Estate.
Matobo has over 200 species of tree recorded including the mountain acacia, wild pear and paperbark acacia. There are also many aloes, wild herbs and over 100 grass species.
Matobo boasts various animal and bird species including black and white rhinos, sable antelopes and impala. The park also contains the world’s densest population of leopards due to the abundance of hyrax, which makes up 50% of their diet. One will also find hyenas, hippopotami, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and ostriches. In addition, Matobo National Park contains the highest concentration of black eagles, and breeding pairs of these birds, worldwide.
The grave of Cecil Rhodes, founder of the former British colony Rhodesia, is carved into the summit of Malindidzimu. Also known as World’s View, this is the place where Rhodes was buried, together with two of his friends; Sir Charles Patrick Coghlan and Sir Leander Starr Jameson. On the same site, a stone monument was erected to honour 35 British soldiers killed in a battle with the Matebele army who were thrown into the Shangani River. A small gallery also provides a chronology of Rhodes’ life and his exploits as a businessman, explorer and politician.
Planning your visit to Matobo National Park
The nearest airport to Matobo is Victoria Falls Airport which is situated near the town of Victoria Falls. From there you can take a drive that takes about six and a half hours to reach the national park. You can also fly to Harare International Airport and drive from there to the park.
Matobo National Park can be accessed via road from Bulawayo. Take the Robert Mugabe way which continues south of the park boundary. It is a two-lane tarred road that continues to Maleme Dam and the rest camp. You can also reach the park from Gwanda by taking the Thuli Makwe road which will take you directly to the national park.
|Phone:||+263 4 707 6249|
|Hours:||Open all year round 9 am – 5 pm|
|Fees:||Adults: $15 Vehicles: $10|
Best time to visit Bulawayo
The dry season from April to October is the best time to visit Matobo National Park. It is the best time to spot wildlife and also view animals migrating to the waterholes. There is less vegetation and more greenery allowing the visitors to explore the place without any hassle. During the wet season, you can spot an abundance of bird species and newborn animals while on your tour.
Where to stay
FARMHOUSE LODGE, MATOPOS
We stopped for 2-nights at the Farmhouse Lodge, which was about a 10 minute drive from the park entrance.The lodge managers were lovely and very helpful.
In 1996 the original farm homestead was converted into a restaurant, bar and lodge reception. Now known as the Farmhouse, it is located 48 Kms from Bulawayo on the Matopos road, in the heart of the Matopos World Heritage site. The restaurant veranda overlooks the indigenous garden and rock swimming pool, where guests can relax by the poolside or spend the evening around the open campfire in the enclosed traditional boma. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the restaurant, where our chefs specialize in healthy, home-cooked meals which can be catered to personal dietary requirements. Some days we offer a braai dinner where food cooked on an open fire whilst sitting outdoors on a warm evening under the stars can be enjoyed. Guests are accommodated in 12 thatched Cape Dutch style cottages, which are built on the fringe of a majestic granite outcrop. Each individual cottage has a twin bedded, bedroom, en-suite shower, toilet and wash-hand basin, open plan lounge with tea/coffee facilities and fridge.
The Farmhouse Lodge and Restaurant provide the ideal location from which visitors can discover the many natural wonders of the Matopos. Guests can participate in the many activities offered at the Lodge or arrange their own trips in the area. The Farmhouse is pleased to announce that we have a conference facility offering an ideal getaway conference venue in the spectacular surroundings of the Matopos only 30 minutes drive from Bulawayo. The conference room is 10 m x 5 m, built under thatch with French doors opening on to the garden and charming courtyard. The Farmhouse offers accommodation for 24 persons, meals in the restaurant, and conference teas and coffees are served in the courtyard. The lodge has basic conference facilities which includes a computer projector. The lodge is equipped with Wi-Fi internet services
LUXURY - AMALINDA LODGE
Set amidst the granite domes and kopjes of the Matobo Hills, Amalinda Lodge is a characterful safari lodge housed within an ancient bushman’s shelter.
The thatched dining and lounge areas are spread across different levels of rock and offer a laid-back, rustic African atmosphere, with stripped down tree branches acting as pillars, wooden furniture and colourful sofas set within quiet alcoves in the rock, and a cosy library offering a good selection of African classics.
There’s also an infinity pool with a bar area where guests can relax on warm days, while in the evening everyone gathers around the campfire to share sundowners and stories.
MID-RANGE - BIG CAVE CAMP
Situated on a private estate in the extraordinary Matobo Hills, Big Cave Camp is a unique lodge built onto the granite hillside. It has eight simple A-frame thatch chalets, each with its own en suite bathroom and private balcony with panoramic views of the surrounding hills and valleys. The central living areas are designed around the natural position of some massive boulders. The Leopards Lair includes a teak bar, lounge and communal dining area. The adjacent library is a cosy retreat for those wishing to spend a quiet moment learning more about the history of the area.
The emphasis at Big Cave is on outdoor living with breakfast and lunch served outside. At night dinner is served around a traditional campfire with the magnificent backdrop of the Matobo Hills behind. Refuge can be taken during the midday heat in the nearby pool boma area where ice cold drinks are served.
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