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Part 2: Rhodes Matopos National Park
Just before sunset on most days of the year the late afternoon African sun lights up a group of large boulders in a remote corner of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. It is an awesome sight in the old-fashioned sense of the word. In the near-horizontal golden light the boulders come alive, the vividly illuminated blue-green lichen deposits and ochre-colored iron streaks lighting up the rocks like Chinese lanterns. Even if the place had no history to it, it would be worth visiting.
But of course this haunted, enigmatic spot does have historical import. Discreetly tucked in among the boulders is a simple brass plaque which reads: ‘Here lie the remains of Cecil John Rhodes’. This magical, maybe even mystical place is also known as Malindidzimo which means ‘The Home of the Spirit of My Forefathers’ harking back to the time of the great Ndebele leaders who established the region now known as Matabeleland. In short, the area is of national and international renown. And lately enveloped in a controversy surrounding the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes and people like him: uncomfortable reminders of the non-politically correct world we once lived in.
Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) is perhaps the world’s archetypal imperialist, long harboring an ambition to create a British exclusionary zone from the Cape to Cairo, a “red line” of British dominions from south to north. In his day a colossus of the British Empire at its zenith around the turn of the century, Rhodes first came across Malindidzimo on horseback in 1896. Rhodes – who specified in his will that he wanted to be buried here – called the area ‘A View of the World’. He might as well have called it ‘The End of the World’ as the views stretch into infinity in every direction. The jumble of giant boulders clustered on top of a massive, sprawling granite dome which drops down and away in every direction is photographically spectacular and its impact is almost visceral. Walking up to the boulders and touching the rough surface is practically guaranteed to put one into a contemplative, introspective mood. Even if you live to be a hundred years, your existence would be but a tiny blip in time measured against the geological transformation which has taken place here over the course of 2,000 million years.
The Rhodes grave site location is powerful and evocative and even the most cynical of Darwinians may experience a jolt of spirituality in this place which is thankfully devoid of all artifice and hype. As Cecil John Rhodes himself remarked at the time – “The peacefulness of it all: the chaotic grandeur of it: it creates a feeling of awe and brings home to one how very small we all are.”
Almost anywhere else in the world, the scene would be difficult to photograph because of the throngs of visitors which would converge on such a singularly striking place. Not in Zimbabwe. Other than myself, my Camp Amalinda guide Kevin and two other guests from the camp, there were just 4 or 5 other people around. I had to work hard to even get one or two children into some of the photographs. It was just the few of us, the boulders and the silent companionship of the dead and departed.
As the sun dropped below the western horizon, everything changed. It was as if someone had literally switched off the beauty and what had been a stupendous sight became rather ho-hum in a matter of 20 seconds. So there you have Rule #1 for visiting the Matobos. Time your visit to Rhodes’ ‘View of the World’ for late afternoon sundowners on a clear or at worst partially cloudy day. It is just about essential to have some good light on the boulders to experience the true drama of the place.
That is also the only rule for visiting the Matobos. Except maybe to schedule an outing to Rhodes Matoppos National Park to see the white rhino on your first day there. Don’t wait until the last day, like I did. We almost entirely missed seeing the rhinos because of a change of weather (cool front) which made them move into more dense brush.
Getting to Bulawayo
My trip to Zimbabwe started with an SA Airlink flight from Jo’burg to Bulawayo. Bulawayo – Zimbabwe’s second largest city – has a relatively new and attractive small airport, somewhat oddly located a long way from town, in the middle of the bush. Don’t let the modern appearance of the airport fool you; the visa and immigration procedures are relics from yesteryear: bureaucratic and slow. One line for the visa payment, another one for immigration and every step replete with handwritten notes, receipts and carbon paper copies. Honestly, when did you last see carbon paper in use?
After a tedious 45 minutes or so, I finally had my Zimbabwe visa pasted into the passport and we headed out to the destination of the day, Camp Amalinda, the best of several properties in the area close to Cecil John Rhodes’ burial place and Rhodes Matoppos National Park.
I was pleased to see that unlike cities like Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Arusha – or even Jo’burg and Cape Town – Bulawayo’s traffic was light. Driving along the wide boulevards was a breeze. Just be sure to stop at the stop signs or red lights because traffic law enforcement is strict. In no time at all we were heading down a gradually narrowing asphalt road, winding its way through some of the prettiest countryside imaginable. As we got closer to Camp Amalinda, the typical stacked and weathered boulder formations associated with the Matobos started to show up left and right. Hill upon hill vies for one’s attention with patches of white syringa trees creating bright yellow bursts of color along the hillsides.
In summer when the trees are in full leaf Camp Amalinda hides itself very well. Much of the camp including all of the accommodation units is practically invisible upon arrival in the car park. Other than a few vehicles in the parking area, there was no sign of rooms or lounges or other structures. This definitely adds to the appeal of the place. Being built into a large granite kopje some of the rooms – and certainly my room #9 – would be a bit of an ordeal to reach for someone with mobility issues. Personally I thought it was part of the fun of being there to scramble up a series of rock steps, discovering the dining area with a large captain’s table, noticing a cozy bar with a huge rock overhang, squeezing past a small library and walking up and around an attractive and as it turned out well-used open fireplace.
On my first afternoon at Camp Amalinda I took a look around the property, enjoyed a delicious light lunch at the pool – with zebras in the background – and went for a late afternoon run. For the next hour I was enveloped in almost complete silence. Other than a few passing vehicles, all I heard was the sound of my footfall, some labored breathing and a few bird calls. The lightly traveled route from Bulawayo meanders around the Matobo hills, and transects some sublimely beautiful countryside. Any run here is a rave run.
Other than the previously described outing to Cecil John Rhodes’ burial site, the two recommended activities from Camp Amalinda are an outing to explore a San cave art site and a game drive/walk, specifically to find and observe White Rhino. There are other activities including a sundowner walk, time permitting.
San Cave Art
Our morning outing to Nswatugi Cave, one of the easily accessible and more famous rock art sites in the Matobos was pleasant, taking us on a drive past Maleme Dam through the recreational area of Rhodes Matoppos National Park. The cave walls are filled with a dazzling array of beautifully done friezes of giraffes, elephants and kudu. The slowly fading yet still brilliant artwork dates back to about 13,000 years ago. It is estimated that the last of the San people departed the area around the year 1500, about 150 years before the first Dutch settlement in what is now Cape Town.
Standing there in a very exposed cave looking at the mural fills one with a sense of wonder and many questions. What is it that compelled the ancient artists to record these intricate drawings for posterity? There could not have been anything easy about it. Paint as we know it was unknown: they had to make their own by mixing blood and animal fat with ground hematite and ochre and other ingredients. And then laboriously apply the sticky mixture to a sheer rock face, sometimes standing on rudimentary scaffolding, judging by the height of some of the artwork. The intimate association between the humans of that time and the natural world around them, particularly the wildlife, becomes abundantly clear. In retrospect I think I will spend more time checking out the San cave art on a future visit to the Matobos. Some of the paintings such as the giraffes are astonishingly good and seemed to have been done by a master artist with an uncanny ability to portray animal shapes and coloration.
On my last morning at Camp Amalinda, I was up at 5:30 to photograph a few rock formations and cliff faces along the road from Amalinda to the Rhodes Matoppos National Park entrance. Photography is all about light. We had driven this same route the previous day and while the stacked and weathered rock formations were impressive, the harsh late morning and mid-day sun obliterated much of the subtlety and nuance of the stone surface. Very early the next day the views were immeasurably better. With the sun occasionally emerging from behind a low bank of clouds, the true colors of the weathered granite could be seen and the contrast with the beautifully lit green surroundings was fantastic. So if you want to get some decent photographs of the Matobo rock formations, be sure to get our there at first light. It is essential.
A little later that morning – again too late for wildlife photography – we set off for a different area within Rhodes Matoppos National Park in pursuit of white rhino. Without getting too specific about the location it was – like much of the Matobos – fairly hilly, undulating terrain and quite well wooded in patches. Due to some unexpectedly cool, windy conditions it proved to be challenging to find the rhino despite having advance scouting information. You’d think that these bulky behemoths would be easy to spot anywhere but that is of course not the case. They have an uncanny ability to disappear behind even sparse vegetation and in this thickly wooded terrain we were indeed fortunate to find them. I am sure that the local trackers and guides had been keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the rhinos so it was not all luck…
Once the rhino – a female and older calf – had been located, we got out of the vehicle and approached them on foot. Due to their tendency to keep their heads low to the ground, white rhino don’t always make the best photographic subjects but seeing them close up on foot is nonetheless an exhilarating wildlife viewing experience. Just like on my recent Rhino Walking Safari (link) in Kruger Park I was thrilled to be able to get within 10 meters or so of the rhino and managed a couple of decent exposures. In better light the photographs would have been potentially great; as it turned out they were usable but without much drama. The young rhino was quite animated and kept pricking its ears and lifting its head, while starting in our direction. The older female rhino was totally relaxed and kept feeding nonstop, not feeling threatened in the least.
While it has a somewhat rough-hewn feel to it because of the rocky environment, Camp Amalinda is luxurious and sophisticated to the point where it will satisfy all but the most finicky of persons, I would think. The rooms all have lots of space, an indoor shower and/or bath, flush toilet and plenty of space for your stuff. With a huge, comfortable bed and quality sheets & pillows I had no problems falling & staying asleep. The cooking at Camp Amalinda was surprisingly good– in fact impeccable – and the breakfasts in particular were superb with good coffee, and a well turned-out omelette.
In summary the unique Camp Amalinda is located in one of Zimbabwe’s – make that Southern Africa’s – most scenically beautiful areas and it offers an unbeatable trio of activities namely trekking for rhino on foot, visiting caves with exquisite San rock art and best of all experiencing the grandeur and loneliness of Rhodes’ grave-site at Malindidzimo, one of the most impressive places I have ever visited.
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