The Matobo Hills are an extesive granite landscape, charactised by a sea of rocky peaks and undulating plains.
The term ‘Matobo’ is plural for rocks and since these rocky hills have been inhabited by man for millenia some of you may be wondering what they are actually called.
Here’s a look at only five prominent granite peaks in Matobo and the meaning behind their names.
The Njelele Hill is the sacred site of the traditional rain making ceremony conducted by locals every August to ask the gods for good rains. It is located outside the south western fringes of the Matobo National Park in the Khumalo communal area approximately hundred kilometers south of Bulawayo.
According to authors Burret, Fitzpatrick and Dupree, the name Njelele is thought to be a corruption of the name of the founder of the Mlimo cult, Njenjema.
Njelele Hill is a granite Kopje that looks solid and similar to several others in Matobo. However it houses the Njelele Shrine and cave in which an assortment of skulls and horns of big game, iron hoes, clay pots containing water, cloth and beads, piles of tobacco, hatchets, and spears are kept.
Malindidzimu Hill is the granite landform upon which Cecil John Rhodes and other leaders from the pre-colonial era are buried.
Malindidzimu means ‘dwelling place of the benevolent spirits’. Rhodes loved the panoramic view at summit of the hill and named it View of The World.
Malindidzimu is one of the most visited sites within the Matobo Hills and has been a source of controversy over the years with some nationalists calling for the removal of the remains of Rhodes and other white settlers.
Inungu Hill is the landmark in the Matobo Hills with a cross on its summit. The Hill lies just outside the Matobo National Park on private land.
The Hill is said to resemble a Porcupine, hence the name.
The Cross on Inungu Hill is a statement of Christian presence within the Hills. Erected in 1982 by parishioners at Christ the King Church in Bulawayo, the cross stands as a memory to a Catholic priest, Father Odlio Weeger who is said to have loved the Matobo Hills and its people, Christian and non-Christian.
The Hill is the landmark upon which the famous Bambatha Cave is perched on.
It is located on the northern flanks of the Matobo Hills just off the main Kezi road.
Bambatha derives from the Zulu/Ndebele term meaning “to caress or stroke with hands”. It is upon this hill that most archaelogocial activity in the Matobo Hills has occured.
Ntunjambila is a hill on the eastern sideo of the Matobo Hill. It’s name means “the split rock” .
The hill is home to the Ntunjambila Cave, a sacred cave that is used for traditional rain making ceremonies.
Ntunjambila cave is also the site in which ZIPRA military hardware smuggled from Zambia via Bulawayo was hidden.
Like every other Zimbabwean, Given Ngulube loves to call himself by his totem.
He refers to himself endearingly as “uMkhwebu, uJama, uMabuya”, a personification of the wit and sociability of a swine/pig.
His totem is a pig and it is for this reason that he does not eat pork.
A totem is an animal, plant or natural object serving among certain tribal or traditional peoples as the emblem of a clan.
Upholding such high totemic traditions tells that Given is proud of his Ndebele identity, culture and heritage.
As a proud native of Matobo, he says he chose to work in the hills because he adores the area.
“Matobo has a lot of hills and the views from the summit of the hills are breath-taking,” explains Given.
He is a shuttle driver @Matobohillslodge, the man you can count on to pick you up from Bulawayo City or even the airport and take you to Matobo National Park.
Given was born in Matobo, in the Dula area and attended Matopo Mission School, which is in the vicinity of Mzilikazi’s grave.
Mzilikazi Khumalo ( c. 1790 – 9 September 1868) was a king who founded the Matabele Kingdom now known as Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. His name means “the great road”.
Many consider Mzilikazi to be the greatest Southern African military leader after the Zulu king Shaka. In-fact, Mzilikazi was originally a lieutenant of Shaka but had a quarrel with him in 1823 and rebelled. Rather than face ritual execution, he fled northwards with his followers.
King Mzilikazi’s grave is on the site of his former royal town, Mhlahlandleia, according to the ZimFeildGuide.com. The memorial was unveiled by Sir Herbert Stanley, the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, on 17th June 1941.
The Inscription on Mzilikazi’s memorial reads: “Mzilikazi, son of Shobana, the Matabele hail you. The Mountain fell down on 5 September 1868. All nations acclaim the son of Shobana. Bayete.”
The memorial was built beneath the tree where Mzilikazi held court, met many of the early European travellers to this country and conducted the affairs of state. However, the Indaba tree died because people used to strip off its bark, which they believed had curative powers.
Given opines that Mzilikazi’s final resting place in the Matobo Hills is special, particularly to the Ndebele because “it’s important for people to know where their ancestors lie.”
For Given, it’s imperative for the local community to visit the memorial so that they appreciate the culture of their ancestors.
He adds that, “When travellers visit Matobo, they want to appreciate history of the Ndebele people, that’s where their legacy lives.”
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Peppered with stunning caves, rock art, and sacred hills and shrines, the Matobo Hills represent a blending of traditional Khoisan, Bantu and settler European values.
The Hills setting on 3100 km² of land, which comprises a National Park, communal land, granite kopjes and wooded valleys, offers a stunning panorama of constantly changing landscape around the area.
Lying just 35 km south of Bulawayo, the Matobo Hills were declared a world heritage site in 2003 for their high concentrations of rock art and the long-standing religious traditions still associated with the landscape.
Archaeologists say man has inhabited Matobo since the stone age.
The San Bushmen
Stone tools as old as 50 000 years, have been excavated from the floors of the caves, and the 13 000-year-old paintings in those caves and rocks still illustrate a vivid picture of San culture.
For instance, Bambata Cave has been excavated to 15 meters providing incredible deposits of remains, dating from around 2000 years ago to some material dating over 250,000 years old!
The cave wall is littered with wild animal outlines, paintings and sketches such as Elephant, Zebra, Rhino, kudu as well as a plethora of other animals. The wall is adorned with mystic and ancient abstract paintings done in a wild variety of dazzlingly beautiful colours.
Some of the paintings are suspected to be part of mystical trance ceremonies that took place.
The paintings that are more telling are the ones that are at Silozwane cave. They are even more beautiful and delicate, illustrating paintings of giraffe as well as traditional hunting scenes.
There are also paintings of very large humans, up to four feet in length, painted in a dark red ochre.
In Silozwane Cave you will find all the traditional scenes that can be seen in rock art sites throughout the Matobo Hills.
The Hills and Bantu Tribes
Towering above the caves, the hills beckon visitors to explore the surrounding areas.
The hills in Matobo have been the religious headquarters of many Bantu tribes since the 15th Century.
Rain dances and other religious ceremonies were held there and to this day, some still believe that a number of hills should not be pointed at, that would just bring bad luck.
Before the colonial era, Matobo was the headquarters of the spiritualist oracle, the Mlimo.
In fact, it is said that Mlimo, the spiritual leader of the Ndebele people, used Silozwane Cave as a shrine.
The Hill of the Benevolent Spirits or Malindidzimu offers an epic 360-degree view of the Matobo National Park.
White Settlers in the Matobo Hills
Cecil Rhodes, Leander Starr Jameson, and several other leading early white settlers, including Allan Wilson and all the members of the Shangani Patrol killed in the First Matabele War, are buried on the summit of Malindidzimu.
Rhodes fell in love with this hill hence he named it the ‘View of the World’ and it is easy to grasp why he chose this spot as his final resting place – unbelievably beautiful views surround you in every direction.
A memorial shrine, erected by the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), an organization that seeks to commemorate the sacrifice of Rhodesian servicemen and women during World War One and World War Two, can also be accessed within the Park
There’s a reason Matobo (sometimes spelled Matopos) has drawn a growing stream of visitors in recent years.
It is a land that has it all: A rare combination of natural and manmade splendour with rich spiritual and cultural traditions that appeals equally to the pilgrim, the backpacker, and the ecotourist.
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. This is because of all the weathering that has taken place of the millennia. The oldest dated San Bushmen paintings in the Matobo Hills are around 13,000 years old, these were found at Pomongwe cave.
There are many magnificent caves in the Matobo Hills, here we have picked out what we think are the six best that you should try and visit.
Not only are these caves beautiful in their own right, they also contain the best preserved and most unique paintings.
PRO TIP – It is important to remember when visiting any pre-historic San Bushman site not to touch the paintings, the oils from your skin do permanent damage to ancient artwork that is thousands of years old, so please be careful and respectful at all times.
6 – Pomongwe Cave
Pomongwe Cave is very easy to access, being situated on ground level very close to the Maleme Rest Camp and the main tarred road. Pomongwe cave is gargantuan in size, it is a marvelous cavernous cave. Unfortunately nearly all of the artwork has been destroyed by early misguided preservation attempts in the 1920s, when linseed oil was applied. If you are looking for great cave paintings then this is not the cave unfortunately.
Pomongwe cave has been excavated several times throughout the last 60 years with some of the oldest deposits dating back 16,000 years – an incredible length of time when you think about it.
The positives about this cave is its accessibility and grandeur but sadly the pre-historic paintings have all but disappeared.
We definitely recommend visiting Pomongwe but only if you have seen another cave on our list.
5 – Gulubahwe Cave
Gulubahwe Cave is well off the beaten track and you have to be pretty determined to get there on a corrugated dirt road but it is a real hidden gem of the Matobo Hills. Hardly visited, you will find it a rewarding trip. The cave lies just off the Old Gwanda road outside of the Matopos National Park itself.
Perhaps the most compelling single painting in all of the Matobo Hills lies here (literally). A monstrous sketched snake measuring 15 meters long crawls and slithers across this small cave. Painted in a red outline, filled in a pink hue, this mythical snake has the head of an dog with ears and a main. All along the back of the snake, humans, animals and ancient mystical creatures seem to be riding it.
There are many competing theories and myths as to what this snake represents. One story says the snake was used by elders as an ancient watch dog of sorts, a story was told to the young herd boys making sure they did not fall asleep whilst herding because if they did the snake from Gulubahwe Cave would come and feast on the goats and then the young sleeping boys themselves.
It is hard to be sure of the exact meanings behind these paintings at Gulubahwe Cave but they are well worth a visit.
A great reason to visit Gulubahwe Cave is to see the paintings but if you don’t have much time in the park there are other caves that would be better suited to you.
4 – Bambata Cave
Bambata Cave is the most excavated cave in the Matobo Hills and much of our pre-historic knowledge of the area comes from this very cave.
Bambata Cave has been excavated to 15 meters providing incredible deposits of remains, dating from around 2000 years ago to some material dating over 250,000 years old! This cave is worth a visit for its history that has stretched over epochs, as well as it’s beautiful and unique paintings.
The cave wall is littered with wild animal outlines, paintings and sketches such as Elephant, Zebra, Rhino, kudu as well sa plethora of other animals. The wall is adorned with mystic and ancient abstract paintings done in a wild variety of dazzlingly beautiful colours. Some of the paintings are suspected to be part of mystical trance ceremonies that’s took place.
Bambata is a huge cave perched on a hilltop just off the main Kezi road.
Unfortunately, the main entrance to the cave is now inaccessible by road but you can still access the cave by going through the White Waters Game Park and walking to the cave from the back side.
Bamabata is a fascinating cave but perhaps not the ideal one to visit if you have not seen any of the other caves in the Matobo Hills.
3- Nswatugi Cave
Nswatugi Cave is one of the most accessible caves in the Matobo Hills. Located just behind Maleme Dam, this cave is staggeringly beautiful and definitely the best example of San Bushmen paintings you will see without having to do a big hike. The cave is a relatively short 10 to 15 minute walk from the car park.
If you are not looking to do a lung busting walk, then this is perhaps the finest example of ancient artwork that you will see. Nswatugi Cave is one of the most well visited caves for all of these reasons.
Nswatugi Cave is not large, one wall of wondrous animal and camping scenes 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.
This cave has been excavated twice. The oldest deposits date back around 8,000 years. One interesting discovery during the caves excavation was a young female skeleton.
We highly recommend this beautiful cave.
2 – Silozwane Cave
Just the drive to Silozwane Cave makes it worth it! The cave is located outside of the Matobo National Park in the Silozwe rural area. Along the way you will see perfectly set villages nestled amongst the granite wilderness in what is one of the most ravishingly beautiful natural areas anywhere in Zimbabwe.
It must be noted that the cave is quite a long drive and once in the car park, it will be a steep and strenuous 20 to 30 minutes to climb to the top. Reaching the cave does require a certain level of fitness.
It will take you about an hour and a half to get to the Silozwane car park from them main Matopos gate entrance. The cave lies on top of a massive granite dome that you will see from a long way off. The mountain on which the cave lies is unique, even amongst the other hills in the area.
Silozwane Cave has some of the best preserved and largest murals of ancient San Bushmen paintings in the Matobo Hills. The cave was also used as the shrine by “Mlimo” the tribal oracle and spiritual leader of the Ndebele people.
The cave boasts a variety of traditional scenes and mind bending murals. Beautiful and delicate paintings of giraffe as well as traditional hunting scenes adorn the walls, if you look closely you will be able to see an intricate sketch of a termite on the northern wall of the cave.
The cave is dominated by paintings of very large humans, up to four feet in length, painted in a dark red ochre. In Silozwane Cave you will find all the traditional scenes that can be seen in rock art sites throughout the Matobo Hills.
The Cave has an stunningly beautiful view over the valley below making it one of the very best caves you can visit in the Matobo Hills but not quiet the best in our opinion.
1 – Inanke Cave
The greatest cave in the Matobo Hills. Firstly, it will not be easy to get there. Located deep in the Togwana wilderness area, this cave is difficult to get to by car and has to be accessed by a 4*4 vehicle.
Once in the car park, located above Togwana Dam, you will have a 14 kilometer return hike in front of you to the finest pre-historic cave in all of Zimbabwe.
The hike is simply one of most beautiful one day walks found anywhere on the planet. From running streams to marshy grasslands, the biodiversity along the way is truly incredible. The walk takes in several historical sites along the way including a pre-historic iron furnace and several other painted shelters.
This cave is very rarely visited because of how difficult it is to find and the length of the walk to get there but you will be richly rewarded when you reach your destination.
The finest prehistoric art in all of Zimbabwe lies inside this deep domed cave completly hidden from view to the outside world by shrubs and trees.
The skill, beauty and sheer detail of the paintings in this cave are unmatched.
Paintings include an intricate giraffe that is believed to be the finest pre-historic painting in all of Zimbabwe.
A beautiful, ancient scramble of scenes litters the cave wall. You can find detailed paintings of Bushbuck, Zebra, Rabbit and even ostriches.
Inanke Cave contains several abstract murals that are thought to have been painted during ceremonial trances. It is hard to make out what these pre-historic paintings are, some look almost alien. Since there are no more San Bushmen painters in the Matobo Hills, we probably will never be able to truly decode these mysterious ancient codes.
We hope to have inspired you to discover and explore more of this unique history and heritage of the Matobo Hills.
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