The hot, dry lowveld of south-eastern Zimbabwe is the Africa of poster images; red earth and silhouetted baobabs against a fiery sunset sky. Granite domes dwarf the spreadeagled msasa trees and private ranches and game conservancies sprawl over the malarial plains protecting, among other large mammal species, the endangered black rhino. This region is home to private game farms and sugar-cane plantations, several National Parks and one of the country's best-known World Heritage sites.
© Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe.
By Laurianne Claase
Great Zimbabwe is 28km from Masvingo, the only sizeable town in the region. If you find yourself in Masvingo, you'll probably just be passing through. If you have an idle hour or two check out the Church of St Francis of Assisi.
Constructed by Italian prisoners of war during the 2nd World War, 71 didn't make it and their bodies lie interred in the walls. It's located opposite the military barracks. Just ask for directions.
Just past the Publicity Association, the Masvingo Craft Village has an extensive range of carvings and sculpture. There are roadside crafts out of town on the Beit Bridge road where you'll be able to bargain for a better price. Capota School for the Blind has a world-famous choir and cane crafts are also sold.
The historic site is made up of three complexes. Visit the on-site museum or do some research first or the stones will not give up their tale. The Acropolis on the hill was the Royal enclosure. It was probably built first and there is evidence that it was occupied for three hundred years. Spirit mediums and oracles occupied the ritual enclosure and gold and metal craftsmen supplied the kingdom with jewellery and spears.
The Valley Enclosures yielded the famous Zimbabwe soapstone birds but it is the conical tower of the Great Enclosure that visitors will recognise from the postcard images. No mortar has held these stones together over the centuries.
Speculation has it that this was the royal harem which would make the largest ancient stone structure in sub-Saharan Africa all the more impressive. It is the conical tower of the Great Enclosure that visitors will recognise from the postcard images. The stone towers and walled enclosures are relics of a powerful medieval African kingdom.
The Karanga came from the north across the Zambezi and found life easy here amongst the fertile soil and rocky hills. The story goes that the thirteenth century king nicknamed 'the Stone Man' was the 'mambo' responsible for the building of the walls.
It was to him that the people paid tribute in stone to add to the defensive walls. Upon his death, a spirit medium carved the image of the bird that has become a national symbol of modern day Zimbabwe. The original seven can be seen at the museum on site.
The granite blocks still stand, five centuries later, without the benefit of mortar. The energetic can clamber through the rocky Acropolis built into the granite boulders of the hill and wander through the Valley enclosures. Guided tours however are advisable to get the most out of the experience.
There is a good camp site and hotel on the premises. The peacocks in the garden strike an incongruous note amid the marauding monkeys who have developed a sweet tooth. If eating on the hotel terrace, guard your sugar sachets.
When visiting Great Zimbabwe, the lakeside shores of Lake Mutirikwe provide a scenic alternative to over-nighting in Masvingo. After Kariba, it is the second largest dam in the country and the surrounding 18, 000 hectare (50 acres) National Park shelters white rhino as well as lesser game.
National Parks have guided horseback rides which allow close-up viewing in the game park and bird-watching trips and lake cruises can be arranged through tour agencies in Masvingo and hotels in the area. In addition, there are regular displays of traditional dancing at the Mutirikwe Lakeshore Lodge. here are a number of hotels, lodges, self-catering chalets and a campsite, scattered throughout the park.
Mushandike National Park
If you prefer soaking up the African experience and a little sun in splendid isolation, Mushandike offers back-to-nature camping opportunities far from the tour-bus crowds. The steep granite hills and quiet lake of this reserve lie 25 kilometres from Masvingo, on the Bulawayo road.
Antelope, zebra and leopards live in these hills and there is an eland research institute on site. Self-sufficiency is the order of the day here. Facilities extend to hot shower camping only. This is provided by a wood burner and there is no electricity.
All supplies must be brought with you from Masvingo and access is by private vehicle only. You'll probably have the grassy campsites and the view of the lake all to yourself.
Gonarezhou National Park
Gonarezhou's 5,000km² (2,000 mi²) of scrubland and sandstone, make it the country's second largest game reserve after Hwange. It borders Mozambique's wildlife reserves and South Africa's Kruger National Park in the south-east corner of the country.
Animals, of course, know no boundaries and they move freely between the three sanctuaries. There are plans afoot to formalise this in another Transfrontier game park which will involve all three countries, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa in its management.
The Mwenezi, Save and Runde rivers, whose name means 'the river of great floods' wind like an arterial life-line through the dusty bush, helping to support the elephants in whose honour Gonarezhou National Park is named.
Game-viewing in 'The Place of the Elephants,' (and the antelope, the hippo and the lion) takes the form of 4x4 and horseback excursions, backpacking safaris and guided day walks. Fishing is permitted only at the campsites. The rare Suni antelope and striped King Cheetah may also be seen.
Both the Save/Runde area in the north and the Mwenezi region in the south are accessible from May to October but during the summer rainy season, access is limited to the southern parts of the park. A 4x4 is required year-round and all supplies must be brought in. Remember to pack the malaria tablets. Accommodation runs only to camp-sites but there are a number of luxury lodges outside the park.
Copyright © Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.