“Do you have Ebola?” asked the official at the Plumtree border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe. “And are you seeking work? I hope not, because you won’t find any here. Are you here to conduct business? Or are you a missionary? Do you have a spare tee shirt for me? No? Then maybe a cold coke? That would be nice, yes? It’s very, very hot today.”
When I responded “No, no, no, no, no, no, yes,” to his barrage of well-mannered questions, he simply smiled and said, “Marvelous. Then please state your purpose for coming to Zimbabwe.”
He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him I was here simply for a holiday.
“Well then, welcome,” he said, beaming convivially. “Welcome very much, and please bring all your dollars and rands and spend them all here. We very much need your dollars and rands in Zimbabwe. More so the dollars. Yes, we need them very much.”
I gave him my half-finished Fanta for his smiles and promised to spend lots of money whilst in Zim; and that is how I passed through customs, surprisingly unscathed, ready to commence a thirteen-day, twelve -night expedition through some of the country’s most iconic and beautiful regions.
“Well, that went smoother than expected,” I thought to myself as we pulled away from the gate. I had assumed that the process of getting into Zim (accompanied by a nine-car convoy of big white, and mostly hairy, South Africans) would be rife with corruption, and ineptitude, but apart from the brazen soliciting of soft drinks and garments, the border officials had been polite and as efficient as one could expect from a backwater post like Plumtree. And what’s more, they had been very, very friendly.
And so our journey began.
We were to commence our odyssey in the south-west of Zim, among the boulders of Matobo National Park, before travelling east to the ruins of ‘Great Zimbabwe’. Next stop, Mana Pools in the far north and the Kariba dam, before finally finishing up in Hwange National Park: A place, or so I had been told, where elephants roam aplenty. At the head of the convoy, guiding for the Bhejane 4×4 Adventure tour company, was Paul Wigley, a freelance guide with a particular love for Zimbabwe, its history, people, landscapes and wildlife.
He was a tall guy, full of easy confidence and humour with a shock of gravity-defying hair that gave him the appearance of an incompetent electrician. “Headlights on,” he announced over the two way radios we all had in our cars. “Convoy rules apply. Stay in formation and try to keep the front and rear vehicles in sight at all times.”
There is a sort of unofficial rule when it comes to driving yourself around Zimbabwe; try to travel in a convoy.
“There will be lots and lots of police checks throughout our journey,” Paul had warned us. “They will be searching for the slightest misdemeanour for which they will charge you an on the spot fine, or else threaten to impound your car and drag you off to the police station. However, if we travel together, there will be many witnessing eyes and many cell phones to capture the corruption and lies. The police will more likely behave themselves.”
Woe betide the friendless driver who wishes to explore Zimbabwe alone. These demeanours and ‘felonys’ of which Paul had warned us about are often made up on the spot and are a complete fabrication. They can range in scope from the mildly reasonable (such as not stopping at a traffic light, even if the traffic light is clearly not working) to the utterly ridiculous.
“Sir, your headlights are on during the day, and that can blind oncoming traffic” and “There are too many dead flies on your windscreen. That’ll be $50, please.”
So, forewarned and in solidarity, off we went to explore this marvellous but often derided country.
Our first port of call was to Matobo National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, and arguably home to the most beautiful landscapes in all of Zimbabwe. It’s also the resting place for the political hot potato that is known as Cecil John Rhodes (for which Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was named). Just 90 km from the border along mostly tarmac and well-graded roads, it took us no time at all before reaching our campsite overlooking majestic forests and oddly shaped rock formations.
“Go take a hike,” said Paul to the group while he and his staff of bush chefs and camp hands set about erecting tents and setting up bucket showers and a fire.
“It’s awe-inspiring territory out there. And, what’s more, all of the predators have been poached or poisoned, so there’ll be no risk of getting eaten by lions or gored by a buffalo.”
And so, off we went for a stroll. The smooth Granite hills which typify Matobo were easy to walk upon and the scenery was simply to die for (especially if one were to get too close to some of the more precipitous drop-offs). Impossibly poised boulders, some as large as houses, sit like ill-balanced eggs atop smooth grey domes which are in turn surrounded by flower infused forests.
The larger of these geological specimens are known as whale backs because, um, well, they look like whale’s backs arching from a sea of trees. My wife and I chose one of these to sit upon, and there we rested after our brief hike, beneath the shadow of a massive split boulder, and watched the African sun disappear below a horizon cluttered with bizarre and beautiful rock formations.
It was magical.
Back at camp, Paul and his team had made a roaring fire around which the convoy group sat, supping wine and enjoying the ambience of such a lovely little wilderness. I say ‘little’ because Matobo (which means bald heads- because of the smooth Zuma-cranium shaped rocks that typify the park) is only around 450 km2. But what it lacks in size, it certainly makes up for with superlative scenery.
“Wildlife is sadly rare though,” Paul announced whilst we tucked into a fire cooked meal. “As I earlier mentioned, most of it has been poached, and Zim doesn’t have a lot of spare cash or resolve these days for animal conservation. However, tomorrow, if you wish, you are welcome to visit a fenced in intensive protection zone where big game still survives. Don’t get out of your car there though. Not even for a pee” He continued with a stern look on his face “The guards there will assume you are a poacher and shoot first and ask questions later.”
The following morning, after breakfast, Paul led us to the entrance gate and into the park proper, where we were set loose to explore on our own steam. I drove around all day with my wife, away from the leading group, marvelling at the scenery, and then looking for (and failing to see) some game in those above intensively ‘protected’ zone. Later that day, we hooked up with Paul who took us on a short but steep hike to a place called Nswatugi cave, where we witnessed a remarkable art gallery of prehistoric paintings, splashed all across the walls.
There, we saw ancient depictions of Kudu and zebra and lions that long ago tribal folk had painted and etched into the walls, some of which Paul told me could be as old as 13000 years. But it was the renditions of leopards that’s really caught my eye.
“Matobo’s rocky terrain is home to thousands of hyrax,” said Paul as we walked back down to our vehicles. “And that means lots and lots of leopards.”
There are higher concentrations of leopards in Matobo than anywhere else on earth, despite all the poaching and poisoning. Well, at least that’s what Paul told me. I’m not sure I was buying it though as I didn’t see a single spoor, spot or scat that would vindicate such a claim.
Throughout the rest of that day, we explored the park in our vehicles on easily traversed dirt roads, visiting lakes and viewpoints before meeting up with a locally based guide named Rob who took us on a short(ish) hike into the veld. He assured us we would encounter black rhinos. But of course, we didn’t. Mind you, we did see a sable antelope, and later, towards evening, he found us a ‘dehorned’ white rhino who glared at us with a measure of malcontent.
I could hardly blame the poor beast. We humans probably don’t have a good reputation with rhinos these days. On the third day of our tour we departed Matobo for Bulawayo, and then east on the A6 and A9 to the busy little town of Masvingo. It should have been a quick enough drive. The tar roads were in excellent condition, but the route was so congested with police checks that our progress was severely forestalled.
They stopped us at every opportunity and checked our vehicles with all the diligence of professional forensic investigators. Headlamp strength was tested, tire tread measured, indicators checked, and fire extinguishers searched for, all in the name of road safety, I’m sure. They rarely found anything untoward, despite their best efforts, and as such, no punitive fines could be issued…Like the white rhino, we had seen just the day before, the police glared at us with a measure of malcontent.
Next stop. The Great and Ruined City of Zimbabwe.
Lovejoy met us upon arrival; a charismatic local guide who walked us around the thick set ramparts, maze-like alleys and rock-hewn spires of what was once a thriving city and palace of perhaps some 18000 people.
“At 800 years old, it’s still very much intact today,” he informed us as we stood at the base of a robust circle shaped wall. “And it’s very likely to remain here for countless generations to come.”
Great Zimbabwe (built by ancestors of the Shona people) was designed with defence in mind and is every bit as complex, sophisticated and solid as any European castle of the age.
The central complex has very high walls of unmortared stone, taken and shaped from the surrounding whaleback granite domes.
Above the main walled complex, a palace sits atop a steep and inaccessible cliff.
“That’s where the king lived,” said Lovejoy as we huffed and puffed our way up myriad rock-hewn steps.
“As you will notice, the ascent is very steep and narrow, forcing those who might have attacked to come up in single file.”
There were intentional dead ends, thick walls, mazes and areas which were deliberately exposed to defences placed higher on up the trail.
“No one but a Ninja could have gotten in,” said Lovejoy
At the top, he showed us a metalwork smelting area, an elaborate amphitheatre, abodes of royalty, and various chambers and mysterious tunnels; all fashioned from hand-hewn bricks and naturally occurring features such as sheer cliffs and big granite boulders.
“There are more than 200 sites of similar architecture spread throughout Southern Africa,” said Lovejoy “But mysteriously, people stopped building them at around the same time that Great Zimbabwe was abandoned.”
No one knows why the residents left, but archaeologists speculate resources dried up, water became scarce, and trading died off. Now all that remains of that once mighty culture are a series of walls and ruins and mysteries.
That night we stayed at the nearby Norma Jeane’s resort close to the shores of Lake Mutirikwi before spending most of the next day driving approximately 300kms north on mostly tar roads from Masvingo to the outer suburbs of Harare. Our overnight stop was at the lovely Kuimba Shiri bird park where we met Gary Stafford, a jovial Zimbo who had dedicated his life to rescuing and displaying birds of pray.
“There are more fish eagles here on the shores of Lake Chivero than anywhere else in Africa,” he told us. On his hand was a leather gauntlet upon which was sat an impressive fish eagle. He hefted his arm and let her take to the wing. “Now watch,” he said while hurling a piece of fish into the water. I had seen this trick before in many places, but it never gets boring. Splash! The eagle swooped out of the sky to claim her fishy prize.
That evening, Gary treated us to a falconry display involving owls and eagles and hawks and buzzards. The following morning we all rose from our domed tents to the sounds of dozens of wild fish eagles. Hippos grunted. A campfire smoked. The smell of bush coffee permeated the air.
Lovely! Lovely. Lovely.
Zimbabwe is indeed a beautiful country.