Matobo Hills Zimbabwe | The Spirit of Matobo

Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe.

There can be fewer finer examples of the beauty and mystery of the natural world than in Zimbabwe's Matobo Hills. Add to this the intrigue of man's existence among the balancing rocks and bald hills, and you will see why the Matobo should be on every visitor's itinerary.

Story by Andrew Campbell, with photographs by Eric Gauss.


As I stand on the summit of Malindidzimu, the 'Place of Benevolent Spirits', with the sun's first pale rays starting to take the night's chill from the granite beneath my hiking boots, I really envy Cecil John Rhodes. No man could ask for a more dramatic burial site. His grave, hewn from solid rock almost a hundred years ago and topped with a simply-inscribed slab of bronze, is a modest memorial to an empire-builder who left an indelible imprint on the continent of Africa. But the setting is incomparable.

To my right the sunrise flashes fire from the cross atop Inungu, 'The Porcupine'. In the valley far below a herd of sable antelope makes its way to water, shouldering aside the head-high summer grass. Into the silence a lone baboon barks a challenge. Another day has dawned in the Matobo Hills.

Rhodes is not the only man to have felt the magical attraction of these hills. And his are not the only bones to have found their final resting place here. Buried in secret caves, lost deep in the leaf mould of clefts and crevices, or scattered in the thick grass of the valleys are reminders of those who have made the Matobo Hills their home over thousands of years.

The present peace and serenity of the area belies its turbulent history. From the Stone Age to recent times, it has been both a place of worship and a place of refuge during rebellion, a hunting ground and a battleground.The key to the inexplicable attraction of the hills lies in the dramatic, tumbled landscape itself.

Looking at the rock formations one might imagine they were the result of some tumultuous eruption or explosive force. In fact, they were formed by imperceptible erosion over two thousand million years. The hills have been sculpted by the elements from massive blocks of granite that originated deep within the Earth's crust. Heat and cold, freeze and thaw, wind and rain all helped.

First the outer blanket of earth was stripped away, then valleys were carved out along natural lines of weakness. As the surrounding landscape was eroded, hills began to stand proud and to take on their present-day shapes.

The hills, known locally as kopjes, fall into two main categories. The balancing 'castle kopjes' are formed by the rock splitting along natural lines of weakness, or joints. In the Matobo these joints run noticeably from North to South and East to West. So the balancing piles of 'building blocks' that look as though they have been carefully constructed from the ground up are, in fact, constantly forming themselves from the top down. And because the boulders on the summit are more exposed to nature's weathering effects they tend to be more rounded than the angular blocks at the base of the hills.

The great smooth 'whalebacks' or 'dwalas' were formed by a similar process of faulting, but along curved joints running parallel to the surface. Great slabs or sheets of rock peel off and slide down the hills in a process known as 'onion skin layering'. These forces of erosion, invisible but inevitable, are constantly at work and the wearing away of the granite creates the characteristically sandy soil of the area. So it is conceivable that, in millions of years to come, this dramatic landscape will return to the flat, featureless plain it once was.

In the meantime, though, the valleys act as natural sponges, trapping rainfall that runs off the huge expanses of granite and holding it in 'vleis' or marshes between the hills. The water seeps out slowly to feed the hundreds of rivulets and streams, so that there is surface water in the hills for many months after a good rainy season.

The high water table supports grassland and woods, in contrast to the surrounding semi-arid acacia scrub and mopane country. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this oasis has provided a haven for man and wildlife over thousands of years.

When man first came to the hills he found not only permanent water and a wealth of game but ready-made homes in the many caves. The dating of his arrival is still a matter for some debate. Stone tools excavated from the dust of Bambata Cave have been estimated at 10,000 - 20,000 years old, while cruder scrapers and knife-like tools from deeper layers may be as old as 50,000 years. However some archaeologists believe the hills may have been inhabited by man for 100,000 years.

The Stone Age craftsmen who fashioned the artefacts were primitive hunter-gatherers whose evolution can be traced through the range of tools found in successive layers of the cave floors. The use of crude spears for hunting gave way to the bow and arrow, later refined by the use of poison. Relics from the most recent era of Stone-Age occupation include small, flat beads of ostrich eggshell, pendants, delicate stone points less than 2cm in length and a polished stone ring.

This period of occupation of the caves is known as the Wilton Period and it dates back at least 6,000 years. Archaeologists have linked this era with the paintings that are to be found in almost every rock shelter of any size. The 'Bushmen' or San who executed the paintings were peaceful nomads who lived off wild fruits and game. Around 2,000 years ago the first Iron Age people, the Bantu, arrived in the area from the North. They were pastoralists, bringing with them livestock and the art of making iron weapons and pottery. The San were gradually forced out as the Bantu took over their hunting areas and cleared land for agriculture.

Turbulent times followed as the original Bantu of the Kalanga tribe gave way to the Torwa Dynasty from Great Zimbabwe, which based itself at the stone city of Khame from 1450 to 1683.

They in turn were overthrown by the Rozvi State, which made the Matobo Hills its religious headquarters. At around the same time there was an influx of Venda and Sotho people from the South and West. The Rozvi State weakened and the empire collapsed in the early 1800's. The Swazis, sweeping up from the South-east, held sway briefly, but were supplanted by Mzilikazi's mighty Ndebele tribe, moving North to escape the autocratic rule of Tshaka, king of the Zulu nation.

In 1840 Mzilikazi settled on the fringes of the Matobo Hills and there is a legend that he gave them the name they bear today. It is said that when he first saw the great bald dwalas and was told they were called Madombo, meaning simply 'the rocks', he said: 'But we will call them Matobo', meaning 'the bald heads'. This later became anglicised to Matopos. Mzilikazi is also associated with a legend that relates how the hill Bambata got its name, which means to pat or caress with the hands. The chief is said to have climbed the hill and then found that to descend the steep face he had to get down on all fours, in doing which he caressed the rock with his hands.

In 1868 Mzilikazi died in the hills and was laid to rest there in a walled-up cave with his wagons and personal effects. He was succeeded by his son, Lobengula. The Ndebele used the Matobo area mainly for grazing cattle and for hunting, but it also held deep mystical significance for them. Njelele hill was one of their holiest sites and the home of Mlimo, the tribal oracle.

Rain dances and other religious ceremonies were held there. To this day Njelele is one of a number of hills that no Matabele should point at, lest ill befall him.

The Mlimo is credited with formenting much of the anger that led to the Matabele Rebellion. In 1893 an armed column raised by Rhodes' Chartered Company had driven Lobengula from his royal headquarters at Bulawayo. In 1896 the Mlimo convinced the tribe the white men were responsible for the drought, locust plagues and the cattle disease rinderpest ravaging the country at the time. He decreed they should be attacked and driven from the country through the Mangwe Pass on the Western edge of the Matobo Hills, which was to be left open and unguarded for this reason.

When the rebellion erupted the white settlers gave no thought to leaving the area. A laager was built in the centre of Bulawayo and mounted patrols under legendary figures such as Baden-Powell and Selous rode out to suppress the revolt. It is estimated that up to 50,000 Matabele took refuge in the Matobo Hills, which were the scene of fierce fighting.

A great deal of the pottery and artefacts found on cave floors and most of the clay grain bins in the hills are remnants from the rebellion era. There are other reminders too - bronze plaques dotted here and there in the bush mark the location of armed forts or brief skirmishes.

When a truce was finally called, the Matobo Hills were the scene of the peace talks or 'indabas' between Rhodes and the Matabele chiefs. It was on one of his frequent riding excursions into the hills that Rhodes found Malindidzumu, the hill he referred to as 'one of the views of the world'.

He decreed in his will that he was to be buried there, so when he died in the Cape in 1902 his body came up by train and wagon to Bulawayo. His burial was attended by Matabele chiefs, who asked that the firing party should not discharge their rifles as this would disturb the spirits. Then, for the first and probably the only time, they gave the white man the Ndebele royal salute 'Bayete'.

Later the bodies of Rhodes' right-hand man Leander Starr Jameson, Southern Rhodesia's first Prime Minister Charles Coghlan and the members of the Shangani Patrol who died in the pursuit of Lobengula, were also interred on the hill. Another of Rhodes' decrees was that his land in the Matobo Hills should be given to the nation for recreational use. Thecentral Matobo area became known as the Matopo National Park, although it had not formally been declared as such. In 1946 it was handed over to the government Department of Irrigation to develop for public use. Controversially, because it was overpopulated and overstocked, hundreds of families had to be removed.

In 1953 an area of almost 250,000 acres was officially proclaimed a National Park. The control of this was later given to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management and the section to the West of the Kezi Road was game-fenced and designated a game park.

The hills, because of their thick vegetation and abundant water, had always supported a high population of animals and birds, but hunting , trapping and other human pressures had taken their toll. Giraffe, zebra and some of the previously common antelope were seldom seen. The white rhinoceros, portrayed in cave paintings throughout the area, was no longer to be found.

Under National Parks' protection, wildlife flourished. White rhino were successfully reintroduced. The hills are now home to the country's largest population of white and black rhino and the game park is designated an Intensive Preservation Zone for their protection.

Sable antelope are found in the valleys, with herds of up to 40 animals not uncommon. Klipspringer inhabit the hills, bounding from rock to rock and scaling apparently vertical faces with ease. Evolution has equipped them with rounded, rubbery hooves for better grip and hollow quill-like hair to cushion them from falls and scratches.

The balancing castle kopjes are the domain of the rock hyrax. Like city-dwellers in high-rise flats, they are often seen taking the early morning sun on their balconies, but are always back indoors before the first thermals of the day tempt birds of prey into the air.

Another major threat to a dassie's safety is the leopard. Research puts total leopard numbers in the park at between 100 and 150 - a concentration of one every five square kilometres. When compared to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, where the figure is one in 26 km2, it looks as though there may be substance behind the claim that the Matobo Hills boast the highest concentration of leopard in the world. Regrettably, though, they are comparatively seldom seen.

The key to the dense population is abundant food. Hyrax make up almost 50% of a Matobo leopard's diet. Researchers believe leopards account for up to 30,000 hyrax a year in the hills.

Also common among the rocks are vervet monkeys and chacma baboons. The latter turn over stones in their hunt for grubs and beetles and have perfected the art of killing scorpions before they have a chance to sting. And guests at the Maleme Rest Camp will often find their evening barbecue being surveyed from the darkness by the watchful eyes of the small spotted genet cat.

The bird population is large and varied and by sitting quietly on a hilltop you will hear dozens of calls floating up from the trees below. The Purple-Crested Lourie, which has an irridescent green body and crimson underwings, makes a rather hoarse, croaking call. Other sounds evocative of the Matobo are the liquid warbling of the golden oriole, the plaintive triple note of the red-chested cuckoo and the high fluting whistle of the red-winged starling.

Nearly one third of the world's 47 eagle species nest in the hills. African hawk eagles and martial eagles are among the most spectacular, while yellow-billed kites scavenge the picnic sites and roadsides for scraps. Caves and ledges are home to a number of owls, including the rare Mackinder's eagle owl, a sub-species of the Cape eagle owl.

Snake eagles are drawn to the hills by the reptiles that abound. The rocks are the perfect habitat for Egyptian cobras and puff adders, while pythons are found in the river valleys. Lizards, including the five-striped skink and the multi-coloured Platysaurus capensis, will be found in every crevice. Like the kites, the lizards have become adept scavengers. Gangs of them will scramble for food thrown to them and, with their blue-green heads and red and yellow bodies, they make excellent photographic subjects.

The lizards' colouring may help them blend in with the vivid hues of the lichens that cover every rock face. Close-up thebright neon speckles of orange, yellow, blue and green look as though a painter has run amok with a spraygun, but from a distance they give the hills their characteristic orangey-red tint.

Soil that collects in cracks and crevices in the rocks support growths of clubmoss, palm-leafed ferns and the fascinating resurrection plant. This bush, which appears dry and dead throughout winter, turns green almost overnight after rain. The unusual shapes of the candelabra euphorbia and tall aloes with striking red flowers are also found among the boulders. The Matobo area is believed to have the greatest diversity of trees in Zimbabwe, with over 200 species, but in the plains and valleys various species of acacia make up the bulk of the vegetation.

Some of the largest trees in the hills are the mountain acacia and the pod mahogany, whose large black and red seeds look like sweets and are used by curio-sellers to make necklaces. Very shallow pockets of soil can support surprisingly large trees. Members of the fig family grow in the smallest cracks and send aerial roots down sheer rock faces until they reach the ground.

The paperbark tree has bark like thick onion-skin parchment which peels off in strips and flaps in the breeze, and the sickle bush with its pink and yellow powder-puff flowers is dotted here and there. The Rhodesian wattle makes a splash of yellow on the landscape when it is in flower and the lucky-bean tree contributes bold red flowers and seeds, also used in curio-making.

The creamy-white blossom of the wild pear hums with the activity of thousands of bees. The wild teak is one of the largest trees on the plains, dropping pods shaped like fried eggs with spiky centres. Large isolated stands of mopane occur throughout the park and their butterfly-shaped leaves are often a help to antelope in surviving the dry seasons. But while the purpose of the National Park is to preserve this wealth of fauna and flora for people to appreciate, its success in doing so has brought problems for the park.

Since Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980 the number of tourists visiting the Matobo Hills has increased dramatically and the pressure on a relatively small number of sites on the regular tourist route has created conservation problems.

Vandalism and graffiti in the painted caves spurred the formation of the Matobo Conservation Society. Chairman Gavin Stephens said: 'Without doubt the damage that has been done to the Matobo art in the last five years is greater than in the previous 100 years.' With an education programme targeting the schools around the park and brochures aimed at visitors, the association is trying to halt this damage.

Pressure by the Matobo Conservation Society has led to the appointment of more custodians at the major caves and a permanent guard at the View Of The World where the bronze grave slabs were defaced by graffiti. The society is pushing for National Parks to undertake a formal study on the impact of increased tourism on the environment in the hills. Whereas visitors could once park their cars anywhere they wanted and hike off into the hills, it is now a requirement to advise a member of National Parks staff if you are walking anywhere other than on a designated path.

The roads in the park were not built to handle the present volume of traffic. Although the tar roads are still of a good standard, the gravel roads require frequent grading and maintenance. Funds raised through the introduction of park entry fees have been used for this purpose and for upgrading the facilities at Maleme Rest Camp. More rest camps are to be built to take the pressure off Maleme.

One of the Matobo Conservation Society's biggest undertakings has been to have the hills declared a World Heritage Site. This plea has now received approval in principle, and the hills have at last been placed on the tentative list of sites. Stephens said: 'World Heritage status would make it easier to market the hills and attract tourists. It would also ... give access to UNESCO funds for scientific research, secure the future of the National Park and increase the pressure for conservation in rural areas.'

The Matobo Hills are a rich tapestry of history and prehistory, fauna and flora, myth and legend. There can be few other places in the world that are so deserving of protection.

Ancient Treasures

Rock Art

Hidden in the caves and rock shelters of the Matobo Hills are over 3,000 registered rock art sites, giving it the greatest density of such art anywhere in the world. The most intensively decorated sites are the large domed caves like Silozwane and Nswatugi, which were formed by the process of 'negative spheroidal weathering'. This was the reverse of the 'onion skin layering' of the whalebacks and led to the collapse of the rock's internal structure.

However, there are also some superb pictures in isolated rock shelters or overhangs like the frieze in a small cave nearWhitewaters Dam that shows a cheetah hunt in minute detail. The materials used to create the paintings were obtained from natural minerals. Reds and yellows were derived from the oxides of iron, haematite and limonite and the purplish-black is thought to have been salt of manganese. Black was mainly soot and white may have been kaolin clay, talc, lime and even bird droppings.

Exactly what the minerals were mixed with is not known for certain, but is likely to have been gums from acacia trees, latex from euphorbias, blood, urine, animal fat or marrow, egg white or yolk or a mixture of any of these substances. The dating of the paintings is still debated, with some experts suggesting an age of up to 20,000 years. However, it is likely that the majority of the paintings that have survived to the present day are less than 2,000 years old.

Some researchers have categorised these into different styles. The earliest is the simple silhouette using one colour. Style Two silhouettes show more movement. Style Three was an experimental phase of outline-only drawings. Style Four are polychrome images full of movement and are the last works of the Bushman artists. Style Five are crude copies by Bantu artists. And Style Six are pale figures created by using acidic kaolin clay to etch the rock.

It is generally agreed that some had religious or spiritual significance. Many would have been painted by the shaman, or witchdoctor, possibly during self-induced trances. Others may simply be records of events; message boards full of information for other nomadic bands or boastful portrayals of a hunter's cunning and bravery.

However, the tiny flying ant at Silozwane, the snakes with animal heads and the mysterious 'formlings' or tectiform compositions at Nswatugi and Inanke still defy explanation. It should be remembered that the floors of some of the caves would have been considerably lower when they were excavated then they are now. As some of the works are far above modern-day head height, it is assumed that the artists used branches or ladders to get above the existing paintings to find a clean piece of rock. It is assumed that the large, highly decorated caves were in fairly frequent use by families.

Grain Bins

In some of the more isolated caves, clay grain bins can still be found in remarkably good condition. These were generally built at the back of caves where they were sheltered from the elements and were used to store maize, sorghum or millet. Flat rocks served as a base for the bins. Clay from termite hills was used to fashion the walls and roof, reinforced with reeds or sticks. The square opening at the front was closed with a grass or reed mat to keep rodents out. It is likely that most of the surviving grain bins date back only to the Matabele Rebellion of 1896.

Black eagles

Black eagles have been studied continuously for 34 years by the Matabeleland branch of the Ornithological Association of Zimbabwe, amounting to one of the most successful amateur efforts in ornithology. Key Notes: Black eagles nest among the safety of the high rocky outcrops offered by the Matobo Hills. Breeding starts in April. Normally two eggs are laid, but only one chick survives, as the older 'Cain' kills the smaller and younger 'Abel' a week after hatching. - Ron Hartley

Published in Travel Africa Edition Three: Spring 1998. Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)



Destination Specialists providing tailored
African Travel Experiences
"travel planning done expertly"

Siyabona Africa: Your Informed African Travel Partner

Siyabona Africa Travel (Pty) Ltd