My 1st Matobo Hills Experience
I had seen the pictures of the lodge on the website and they were breath-taking. However, having visited a lodge the previous year whose net pictures were a huge disappointment I wondered if Matobo Hills Lodge would also turn out to be just another case of “false advertising”.
The 55km kilometre drive from the hustle and bustle of BULAWAYO was refreshing and cathartic. As the noise of the city made way for the peace and beauty of the flora, I couldn’t help but smile.
There are said to be over 200 species of trees and over 100 species of grass in the national park. But this park is not about trees and grass or flowers and herbs it is the granite formations that take centre stage – rocks that balance precariously as though placed by the hand of an artist, rocks that have fallen and tumbled in a pleasing heap, monoliths that curve and thrust into the blue Matobo skies all formed by the erosion of wind and rain over so many millions of years that our finite minds cannot cope with the timeline. The end result is that we are here now with a sculptural feast that continues to delight around every bend and over every hill.
Established in 1953, the park received the much deserved and highly-acclaimed World Heritage Status in 2003. Anyone who has been to the park will feel the call of the granite hills, 44 500 hectares of land steeped in grandeur.
John Muir (famously known as John of the Mountains) said that mountains were calling him and he had to go, so too was the magnificence of this landscape calling me, sucking me deep into its own heart.
And I had not even reached the Lodge yet.
The main road to Maleme, which is about 20km from the entrance to Matopos National Park, was smoothly tarred leading to a well-manicured gravel road that barely produced a puff of dust as our transfer continued to the Lodge.
The first feature of the lodge that caught my curious eye was the buildings made of granite, like the mountains themselves. Weathered thatched roofs blended with the colourscape and an immaculate lawn surrounded all. An affable gentleman by the name of Blessing Muchape came to greet us with a smile as wide as the sky and to show me to my chalet.
We walked towards my chalet past a swimming pool set naturally in the rock. Finally the full landscape unveiled itself and I could hardly believe that anywhere so beautiful existed in my country. How had I not been here before? How did I not know that such splendour existed? Around us the mountains rose and dipped, casting shadows, playing with light, soaring like eagles with pink feathers, blue wings and purple hued heads.
Matobo Hills Lodge is as stunning as the images on their website.
At this point I didn’t care if my chalet was small, cramped and uncomfortable, I was too enchanted with the scenic splendour of the place but as it turned out my room was huge, spotless, with a view to die for and a welcome that whispered as I walked through the door. My heart knew it had come home.
I wanted to explore more. The pool was my first stop situated between the bar and the open-air dining room. How on earth did water tumble into the pool from a granite ridge on which the bar had been built. At first, I thought it may be a natural spring. How was that even possible? Where was the water coming from? Clever design, for sure.
The bar itself is a soaring structure with massive windows framing a 360° view of special scenes that speak of millennia and weathering and fantastical pre-historic times. The roof is so high it made me dizzy looking up at it. Who had been brave enough to place the poles so evenly and then thatch that great expanse?
Back at my chalet I had time to take in the detail, like all the other structures it was built of granite with a thatched roof.
As I would find out later, everything was produced and built by local craftsmen and artisans, and nothing could have made me prouder to be African. I was intrigued by realistic geckos artfully stuck on the wall – a nice touch in an already stylish room, until later that evening one of them moved as I closed the curtains!
As much as I wanted to be inside my chalet and revel in its relaxing atmosphere, I was raring to be outside because there was a lot more to see and so little time. I chatted with various staff members including Blessing and Onias. Their love of the area was apparent in the way they talked of the history, geology and spiritual significance of the Matobo Hills. I believed them.
Every now and then, the tranquillity of running water would be broken by the chirping of a solitary bird in a nearby tree soon joined by others creating a symphony.
The city drowns birds out, the clear air of the Matopos tunes them in like a conductor with his orchestra. I know little of the birds of my country. Shame on me! My visit has made me determined to remedy that. I’m getting a bird book and binoculars ASAP.
Night came, the sky became luminous. The campfire flared into the night sending sparks to the stars. I felt small and insignificant gazing up into the darkness punctuated by wheeling stars and I thought of Africa, of her wonder and her vastness and my heart raced a little faster. I was brought back to reality by the sound of a beating drum and the smell of delicious food prepared by Chef Kudzai Hwingwiri and his team. My stomach grumbled to rival the bubbling water from the swimming pool waterfall.
My three-course dinner was scrumptious. I was not surprised. I had come to expect much of this lodge. During dinner I chatted to other guests from all over the world. Some had spent the afternoon tracking white rhinos and they were on an adrenalin high, Coming across a mother and baby grazing peacefully, they approached undetected with stealth and sensitivity under the watchful eye of their guide and left without disturbing the little family. This had been the highlight of their whole stay in Zimbabwe.
Others talked of a trip to Silozwane Cave marvelling at the paintings that depicted the way of living of the San or bushman people.
A group from South Africa had taken a picnic to scenic rocks, solitude and the granite wilderness their reward, with views only they owned.
Maleme Dam was the place to go, said a French couple. A family of locals had been on a game drive and spotted a shy black rhino. ‘It’s got a pointed lip so it can pick leaves from branches, the white rhino has a flat, wide lip for easier grazing’ explained one of the children. ‘That’s the difference between the species.’
My plan was to visit Njelele Shrine the sacred spot of ritual. Here my elders and ancestors consulted spirit mediums on drought, war, royal succession and other weighty issues. I wanted to follow in their footsteps.
Everyone had been to Cecil John Rhodes’ grave on the Malindidzimu hill. Rhodes asked to be buried, ‘among the benevolent spirits, the peacefulness of it all: the chaotic grandeur of it.’ The colonial despoiler might have created havoc here and there but he certainly knew how to pick a stunning spot.
How I wished my partner could have been with me to soak in all the brilliance. In my mind, I had already begun to plan a return visit.
Because this was certainly not the last I’d see of Matobos Hills Lodge. There were rhinos to track, for crying out loud. I fell asleep with that thought.
After breakfast, I took a short local walk to a cave containing clay bins and water pots build by the Ndebele in 1896 to withstand siege and used during the Matabele war against the British South Africa Company.
Although uphill, the walk was the easiest of the three trails accessible from the lodge. At some point during my walk, I stopped to sit because walking seemed to be a distraction. I wanted to marvel at the clear blue sky, I wanted to breath in the smell of the damp leaves, I wanted to soak in the warmth of the sunlit morning.
I wanted to listen to the unknown birds. I wanted to freeze that moment, for in that moment I wished all fellow Zimbabweans could afford to travel around the country to see its beauty – the beauty that a privileged few get to talk about whenever they describe Zimbabwe.
You see, many of us live in not-so-appealing surroundings, are hung up on politics or earning a living, fighting to feed our kids or put them through school, looking after gogo ( Granny), finding a better life for ourselves and we never fully acknowledge the existence of a “beautiful” Zimbabwe. We might see images, but they are surreal, another world detached from our humdrum and sometimes grinding reality.