We awoke on our 10th day on the Shongololo Express near the city of Bulawayo in South Western Zimbabwe. Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe with an estimated population of 1.2 million. It was founded in 1840 by a Ndebele King and was captured in 1893 by soldiers from the British South Africa Company in 1893. The Ndebele besieged the city in 1896, but in doing so neglected to cut the telegraph lines into the city. As a result, the British were able to send for reinforcements and the siege ended in 1897. Bulawayo has historically been the industrial centre of Zimbabwe, producing cars, electronic products, furniture and food products. As such it is nicknamed “kontuthu ziyathunqa"—a Ndebele phrase for "smoke arising" because of the smoke stacks from the coal powered electricity generating plant in the city center.
We left the train at 9:00am and drove for about 20 minutes from Bulawayo before arriving at the entrance to Matopos National Park. Once we were registered at the park office, we were loaded onto our open safari vehicles - a fleet of aging, but well-maintained Range Rovers. One was a vintage 1960’s model and it was amazing that this vehicle that was more than a half-century old, was able to handle the rigours of everyday use, surviving the African heat and “barely-there” roads. Apparently, Range Rovers are used by this company because of their reliability and easy maintenance.
The park was established in 1926 and was named Rhodes Matopos National Park after the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), Cecil Rhodes. The park is situated in the Matobo Hills, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, so designated because the area exhibits a profusion of distinctive rock landforms rising above the granite shield that covers much of Zimbabwe. As we drove through the park we admired the myriad rock formations that had been formed by the eroding effects of the harsh African weather. Some formations seemed to defy gravity with teetering boulders, stacked one on top of another.
As we drove through one area of the park that was relatively flat and covered in grasses and low-lying bush and trees, our guide stopped the small convoy of land rovers near a pair of armed uniformed men. These were anti-poaching rangers and they were protecting a herd of Rhinos that were in the area. Our guide instructed us to turn off our phones, as poachers are known to track tourists’ cell phones to determine current locations of rhinos and elephants.
We disembarked from the safari vehicles and followed our guide and the rangers off the road and into the grasslands.
We walked in silence for about a kilometer, traversing from the grasslands into a bushy area and proceeded for about another 500 meters. Finally, we came to a stop and our guide pointed to a group of small acacia trees about 20 meters away. Just behind the acacias, was a group of 5 White Rhinos. While this wasn’t our first sighting of Rhinos on our African adventure, it was the first time that we weren’t sitting in a safari vehicle and viewing from a relatively safe distance. What an awesome experience!
We stayed with the Rhinos for nearly half an hour before making our way back to the main road. As we headed back to our vehicles, our guide revealed to us that most parks will remove the horns of adult rhinos (which grow back over a period of time) on a regular basis. They do this in a way that doesn’t harm the animals. This is to try and prevent poachers from killing rhinos in order to harvest their horns. The horns that are removed by the parks are stockpiled. Many African countries have been lobbying to allow the sale of the stockpiled horns in an effort to curtail the prevalence of poaching. Creating a legalized market for horns and tusks that have been humanely removed would satisfy the black market since there are hundreds of tons currently stockpiled. They argue that the proceeds from the legalized sale of horns and elephant tusks could go back into the preservation of diminishing rhino and elephant populations. So far, the western world has resisted those proposals.
When we returned to the vehicles, we continued our drive through the park and moved into hillier terrain as we approached our destination - a visit to one of the many spectacular bushmen caves that are dotted in the Matobo Hills. We parked in a small opening and dismounted the vehicles. We walked along a stone path, lined by thick bush and vegetation, that led upwards to an opening in the side of the granite hill. The cave opening was large and led into a natural, amphitheatre-like room. The curved ceiling was nearly two stories high at its centre. The walls and ceiling were covered in faintly-coloured paintings that depicted the life of the San (bushmen) who had last occupied these hills more than 2,000 years ago. Relics, clay ovens and other artefacts have been found in the hills that date back to the Pre-Middle Stone Age around 300,000 years ago.
Our guide, Ian, had been visiting and studying the bushmen and their caves for nearly 30 years. He was extremely passionate about the San and has spent time with them, even learning their unique language which consists entirely of clicking sounds. While there are still a few San left, they have been nearing extinction, still preferring to live in nature and away from urban areas.
We walked back down the hillside toward the parking area and entered a small block building that served as a museum and housed many of the artefacts that had been discovered in the surrounding area. After a brief visit, we climbed into the Range Rovers and drove further down the hillside eventually coming to a road that followed a meandering river. We drove along the river to a camp site surrounded by a group of large trees. Tables had been set under a couple of the larger trees and hot and cold buffet dishes were spread across the tables. We helped ourselves to the food and found a spot in the shade to sit while we enjoyed our lunch.
After lunch, we boarded our vehicles and drove to Malindidzimu, the hill on which Cecil Rhodes is buried. The hill is also a traditional indigenous burial ground and the legendary place of benevolent spirits. This is where Rhodes used to rest and dream of his beloved Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His grave, and several others from his era, are dug into the granite at the top of Malindidzimu, surrounded by giant granite boulders.
There is a magnificent 360-degree panoramic view of the mountains and valleys that surround this hill. While the graves are quite simple and their location not easy to get to, the trek is well worth it. He once described the view from this hilltop as “the view to the world” - after being there, we would wholeheartedly agree.
We left the gravesite in mid-afternoon to return to the train which was about a 1/2 hour drive away. We capped off another wonderful day in Africa with a traditional gin and tonic in the observation car before preparing for our meal in the dining car.
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