According to Ian Hammer, the 4,000 to 6,000-year-old Zimbabwe cave art lavishly splashed across the smooth, curved rock as if a post-modern mural is a diary. The hunter-gatherer Bushman moved from place to place every couple weeks. The dozens of overlapping animals painted at different times gave the ancient viewer a report on the type of animals in the area, plants that could be used for poisons to tip their hunting spears and medicines as well as useful information for understanding their environment.
To me, as a chef, it’s a visual grocery list.
What we’re looking at are not mere paintings or else they would have never lasted for millenniums. They are etched into the rock wall by pigments mixed with urine. The Bushman evolved beyond the more ancient cave painters and even today they use a mixture of hematite, ash, pumice and gall bladder bile – the secret ingredient – in their art.
There are dozens of such caves, outcroppings and pictographs on random rocks throughout Matobo National Park, a Zimbabwe UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is situated in the magnificent Matobo Hills, a range of domes, spires and balancing rock formations which have been hewn out of the solid granite plateau through erosion over millions of years. For centuries the Matobo Hills have been sacred ground for the Ndebele.
Matobo National Park in southwestern Zimbabwe is also the grave site of Cecil Rhodes – the quintessential British imperialist who built the De Beers diamond empire and created both South Africa and Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe). He is buried at the summit of Malindidzimu – “hill of benevolent spirits.” He referred to this hill as having a “view of the world.” It certainly had a view of his world since at the time of his death he owned all that the eye could see. A short walk from the park’s visitor center leads up to his grave carved into the solid granite summit and surrounded by a natural marker of massive boulders.
Our guide, Ian Hammer of African Wanderer Safaris, traces his family’s move to Zimbabwe to the early 1890s. A life-long resident of the country’s second largest city, nearby Bulawayo, Ian is a prime product of Zimbabwe’s impressive national park system and the rigorous training required of guides within the parks. Ian’s knowledge on nature, Bushman culture and the horrendous issue of rhino horn poaching is prodigious. It was sobering to view both a family of rhino – three of the less that 60 remaining in the park – and the skeletal remains of one killed only weeks before by poachers.
The Bulawayo Club, founded by Rhodes, was once a bastion of Africa’s white male dominance. Today the club is fully integrated among races and gender. Although still a club, this early 20th century gem of colonial tropical elegance is one of the country’s leading boutique hotels.
Matobo Hills Lodge and Maleme Rest Camp are both within Matobo National Park. The Lodge provides unique and comfortable stone bungalows, an impressive glass walled lounge but unimpressive food – a culinary reality in Zimbabwe despite excellent food products. Rooms are not air-conditioned, which can be a problem in the hot summer months, and WIFI is spotty – another basic issue with the country. Maleme Rest Camp offers basic self-catering cabins.
Great Zimbabwe’s Medieval Glory
The Great Zimbabwe National Monument, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an impressive royal fortress. Built hundreds of feet into the air on top of a massive rock in south central Zimbabwe, it was the capital of the vast Bantu Shona Empire with wealth based on extensive trade routes with the Middle East and across the Indian Ocean. At its zenith in the 12th – 14th centuries a city of 18,000 surrounded its base.
Besides the elevated treasure rooms, fortress and royal apartments, the Royal Enclosure on the valley floor is a tour-de-force of stonemason craftsmanship. This circular royal residential complex for queens, concubines and children is protected to this day by 32-foot high stone dry wall construction many feet thick.
The Lodge at the Ancient City, Great Zimbabwe, like many of Zimbabwe’s boutique hotels, is unique in design and landscape taking full advantage of the abundance of local stone to recreate the look and feel of the UNESCO site. Set in hilly tree covered ground, the large impressive stone and thatched roofed bungalows provide all amenities. The main lodge building is a stunning structure built into the rock wall of a hill with a two story dining hall. The only disappointment, once again, was the restaurant’s uninspired menu.
Hwange National Park: nature at your fingertips
The herd of African buffalo is at the watering hole as I gaze out onto the savannah a couple hundred yards in front of me. The setting sun illuminates the dust kicked up framing their massive bulk and majestic horns. A thin electrified wire fence separates these animals from the guests of Sikumi Tree Lodge. The buffalo saunter off and the baboons approach, and so it goes as each group of African animals take their turn at the life-giving moisture nature provides at the end of the dry season. The luxurious elevated huts of Sikumi Tree Lodge rise above this stunning scene.
We are on the edge of Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe. Inns and lodges will make arrangements for safari tours ranging from a few hours to over half a day. Among the “big five” – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros – only the elusive night loving leopard is difficult to spot. But the graceful eland, bulky wildebeests, cunning monkeys and baboons, the eyes of the mysterious submerged hippos, families of giraffes and zebras and, I’ll admit, ugly hyenas, to name just a tiny sampling, are all willing to pose for the camera.
Sikumi Tree Lodge and Ivory Lodge, on opposite sides of Hwange National Park, offer guests the opportunity to observe animals up close at watering holes while enjoying first class amenities in the bush and excellent cuisine! Both are within landscaped settings with the main lodge/dining area and individual rooms designed like an African village. The rooms are spacious, raised – 6 to 8 feet elevation – thatched roof structures built of local wood and stone with modern amenities except air conditioning. I’ll admit, during the mid-summer rainy season (November – February) that may feel uncomfortable. But ceiling fans and mosquito netted beds are the norm.
Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands
Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands is a land of lush green mountains, valleys, waterfalls and wildlife. The Inn On Rupuara, a member of the Inns of Zimbabwe, is set within the Nyanga National Park overlooking Rupuara Rock. Climbing the 5,400 foot tall Rock, one of Zimbabwe’s natural symbols, is just one of the activities offered by the Inn and included in the room rates.
Like many inns in Zimbabwe, Rupuara used the area’s natural materials in constructing the rooms and main building. In this case, rock and dark woods. The 17 individual lodges and main building are nestled into the side of a mountain, all with balconies, giving guests a panoramic view of the lush vegetation, abundant wildlife and valley. Dinner was served in the handsome split-level main building in a dining room more reminiscent of a London club than rural Africa.
Antelope Park Lodge, Gweru, central Zimbabwe
Antelope Park Lodge is an oasis of green calm in central Zimbabwe, hidden from the gated and securely fenced animal preserve. Bisected by a slow meandering river with lush water plants and tropical foliage, guests can relax in lawn chairs or in the open air thatched roof and stone dining hall lounge and watch elephants wander along the river. In the evening, the large brick fire pit is a natural gathering spot for an international mix of guests.
Accommodations are spread throughout the people area of Antelope Park Lodge on both sides of the river with a high degree of privacy, peace and quiet. On one side, they range from campsites, basic rooms without bath, to river tents reminiscent of safaris, with comfortable beds, teak furnishings and baths. Elegant river lodges, across a wooden bridge from the main public spaces, are set amidst riverside jungle and landscaped lawns. The architecturally stunning stone and thatch lodges boast spacious rooms, king size beds, claw-foot baths and private terraces overlooking the river and its wildlife.
Sounds familiar, like many African lodges, but that’s where the similarity stops. Antelope Park is a 3,000 acre private game reserve. Over the past thirty years they have developed an eco-resort and adventure tourism company, African Encounter, and ALERT, the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust. The non-profit ALERT actively pursues a complex program to stem the rapid decline of these roaming majestic cats.
An impressive volunteer program sustains Antelope Park’s mission, both in manpower and fees. Participants, some of who sign up for months, develop skills in all areas of wild animal husbandry from lions, elephants, horses to snakes and birds.
The morning lion walk, with cubs, is Antelope Park’s premiere tourist activity. Although for the cubs it’s an opportunity to develop their hunting instincts, for humans it’s an extraordinary experience to get up close and personal with these cats.
Victoria Falls National Park
Englishman David Livingston may have been the first white westerner to visit Victoria Falls, but it already was home, for three million years, to many in Africa who lived in the lush gorges and plateaus that today form a border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. A UNESCO World Heritage Site Victoria Falls National Park has been Zimbabwe’s tourism magnet for a century. Where tourists flock, luxury concentrates and the falls area boasts some of the country’s finest lodges and resorts.
The Matabele of Zimbabwe named the falls aManz’ aThunqayo meaning the smoke that thunders. Approaching Victoria Falls through the Park’s tropical foliage covered paths both the humidity and the roar of water hit the senses first. Mist billows up above the trees until you’re standing in the clear on an overlook. Eyes scan a 360-foot tall wall of falling water one mile wide.
Being a tourist center, the resort town of Victoria Falls provides many activities other than simply watching the waterfall. Wild Horizons, Adventure Zone Victoria Falls and Shearwater Victoria Falls organize everything: bunjee jumping from the 300+ foot high Victoria Falls Bridge, rafting down the Zambizi, helicopter rides over the falls and elephant rides among other excursions.
A nice way to end the day is with Shearwater’s relaxing two hour Zambizi River sunset cruise, including drinks and hors d’oeuvres, at very reasonable rates. The river is calm and full of birds and hippos submerged like submarines with just their eyes above water.
Set high above on a hillside, the architecturally stunning Victoria Falls Safari Lodge blends all the comforts of resort luxury with native art and building techniques. As you are dining on the superb cuisine at MaKuwa-Kuwa the absence of walls allows a panoramic view of the African landscape and herds of animals at the watering hole.
Rooms are luxurious with every five star comfort including Wi-Fi. A spacious balcony provides wonderful views of the landscape and the watering hole. Elevators do not exist. The Lodge is multi story and negotiating stairs is necessary on the way to most rooms but the hotel does provide personal assistance.
With 6,000-year-old cave art, 800-year-old remains of Great Zimbabwe, wildlife at rest and play and a legendary waterfall Zimbabwe is waiting and welcoming.
When you go:
Several airlines serve Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, from North American hubs including Emirates and South African Airways via stops in Europe.
Within Zimbabwe I recommend arrangements for travel be made in advance through the UK based travel company Experience Zimbabwe.
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority.
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