Matopos. Ancient place of Refuge

Article and Images by Sarah Kerr

In southwest Zimbabwe lies a little-known treasure, a magnificent granite landscape whose hills, valleys, balancing rocks and caves are calling to be explored.  The area is known as the Matobo or Matopos Hills and it lies 35 kilometres south of the city of Bulawayo.  The name Matobo means ‘Bald Head’ in Ndebele and is thought to reference the striking rock formations, often weathered to resemble human forms.

The hills cover an area of 3100 km² with 424 km² of this being dedicated to National Park, while the remainder is dotted with pastoral villages.

The joyous mosaic of tumbled granite formations, grasslands and wooded valleys appears to have been assembled by an imaginative giant.  The landscape has been shaped by billions of years of erosion, fire, wind and ice into extraordinary forms ranging from huge granite monoliths, several kilometres wide to balancing ‘castles’ of rock.  Because of the natural shelters provided by the rocks, the area has had uninterrupted human occupation from the early Stone Age right through to today.  This is evidenced by a rich narrative of ancient rock art and archaeological sites.  The same shelter also provides a home to a staggering richness of flora and fauna.

In recognition of their unique value, the Matopos Hills were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.  The status was awarded as a result of the area’s spiritual and cultural significance to local peoples, its high concentration of historic rock art and archaeological sites and the biodiverse sanctuary it provides for plant and wildlife.

One of the most striking ways in which the incredible flora of the Matopos makes itself apparent is in the broad strokes and splashes of gaudy colour that adorn the time-worn rock-faces.  Chartreuse, fluorescent yellow, silver-grey and deep orange swathes are the result of crustose lichens that tightly adhere to the rock-face.  Studies suggest that some of these can be many hundreds of years old and their delicate nature means they can easily be destroyed (it takes up to fifty years for the scars left by car tyres to grow over.) Despite little study over 78 species of lichen have been found here so far.

The unique geomorphology of the Hills results in a large number of microclimates and soil types in the relatively compact area.  Within a few hundred metres you can travel from exposed and windswept rock tops to marshy grasslands and dense woodland valleys below. 

The area boasts more than 210 tree species, over 100 grasses, 17 species of wild orchid and many aloes, proteas and herbs.  Of these, there are at least 5 plant species endemic to the Matopos area.  The region also supports the western-most populations in southern Africa of a number of water-dependant plant species despite the area being surrounded by semi-arid savannah.  Species including the mountain acacia, tree-fern, wild pear and the paperbark tree.

Ultimately it is this underpinning of diverse habitats and flora that gives rise to the areas bio-diverse wildlife and stunning beauty.  In total over 400 bird species and 88 mammal species have been recorded in the Matopos Hills. 

The relatively small habitat sizes and rocky outcrops provide the perfect territories for territorial mammals such as the klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus), the common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) and the steenbok (Raphicerus campestris).  Jameson’s red rock hare (Pronolagus randensis), vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus, chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) and many species of lizards, are common.  The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) and yellow spotted hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei) are found in large numbers and are regarded as the most important of the prey species due to their local abundance.  These prey species, in particular, the hyrax provide a food source for a high density of predators.

A world-renowned birding site the Matopos Hills area boasts 46 species of raptor, 15 of which are eagles.  This constitutes almost a third of the world’s eagle species.  The largest population of Black Eagles (Aquila verreauxii) in the world is found here and the hills provide vital nesting sites for many raptors.  If you take the time to look skyward you will almost certainly see a bird of prey wheeling in the wide expanse of sky above you as it searches for its prey.

Wildlife is also found here although numbers have been impacted by human presence in recent times.  The Matobo National Park within the Hills possesses one of the largest populations of Leopard (Panthera pardus).  However, the nature of the habitat that provides such good lairs for these animals also makes them notoriously hard to view here.  Within the National Park, a critically important sanctuary of 100 km² has been created for two endangered species, the White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) and Black rhino (Diceros bicornis).  It is possible to track and view these animals on foot with a professional guide.  There is no feeling as incredible as standing mere metres from these powerful animals that are paradoxically so vulnerable and in danger of fading away and it is a good reminder of why sanctuaries and protected places such as the one here are so vital.

Rhinoceros have existed here for thousands of years, a fact confirmed by the rhino depicted in the ancient art that adorns many cave walls here.  The Matopos Hills contain over 3000 registered rock art sites.  The art was created by the hunter-gatherer Khoi-San people who resided here until about 2,000 years ago with some paintings being estimated at 13,000 years in age.  The sheer scale and beauty of many of these are incredible and bear witness to the long journey from the Stone Age to recent times. 

When viewing the many-layered paintings in hues of rust, cinnamon and ochre, one cannot help but imagine the hands that painted them.  The rich heritage of magnificent frescoes left adorning the empty cave walls is inspiring.  Eventually, the Khoi-San were displaced by iron-using pastoralists in about the 1st Century AD.  From after this time, there are many Iron Age archaeological sites including clay ovens, pottery, burial sites and more. 

Adding to the multilayered human history, the hills more recently provided a refuge for the Ndebele and the Karanga tribes when they went to war against European colonial settlers in 1893 and 1896.  Clay granaries that evidence this can still be seen in some caves.  Both the graves of the Ndebele warrior-king Mzilikazi and the European settler Cecil John Rhodes can be found in the Matopos Hills. 

The Ndebele people inhabit the hills to this day and regard them as the sacred home of their ancestors.  The incredible landscape provides a living tradition of shrines and sacred places that is vitally important to them.  The Ndebele accord great respect to the environment and say that despoiling it disrespects their ancestors and in this way, the intangible beliefs around the Matopos Hills contribute to the preservation of the landscape.  The Ndebele have several shrines and sacred areas in the hills dedicated to the god of their ancestors ‘Mwari’ and important annual spiritual traditions are carried out at these.

When you visit the Matopos it is the heady combination of the historic, the natural and the spiritual that will draw you back.  The awe-inspiring geological landscape has been a place of refuge for both man and beast for thousands of years and I am certain that as you walk amongst the ancient rocks you will find it is one for you too.

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