Rocking and Rolling in The Matobo Hills

Article by Debbie Swales
There is a certain sensation when free-wheeling at high speed down a steep dwala – a massive lichen-laden, granite whaleback mountain, with the wind whistling in your ears and the narrow footpath, barely discernible in front of you, despite having been hewn into the rock by ten thousand feet and more. That feeling of freedom, of being in one’s own element and surrounded by nature’s elements whilst being entirely in control of the two spindly wheels beneath you, is more than exhilarating; it is intoxicating and addictive but this is just a small part of what brings the rider back to this event year after year. Lying south of Bulawayo, in the southwest of Zimbabwe, the Matopos area provides the venue for one of the most captivating, scenically rich adventure rides in Africa. It is a privilege to be able to ride a mountain bike through the mystifying Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe’s very own 2.6 billion-year old landscape, enriched with the greatest concentration of rock art found anywhere in the world.  Adding to the accolades, it is Zimbabwe’s largest World Heritage Site, in excess of 3,100 km² and the country’s only UNESCO Cultural Landscape Site.

The route passes through this region from west to east, south to north, and lowest to highest points, encompassing private farmlands, and rural areas. Exclusive permission to ride through the spectacular Matopos Game and National Park is obtained from the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.  This provides a remarkable opportunity to appreciate this ancient and varied landscape consisting of balancing rocks, rippling streams, sandy riverbeds and granite dwalas interspersed with wooded valleys and grasslands where the inherent danger of wildlife, including the 2 tonne white rhino, exist and where isolation and nature of the terrain can be a challenge for the less experienced mountain biker. Back on to the narrow dirt trail and a bike screeches to a grinding halt.  Behind it, another swerves dangerously, almost unbalancing both riders.  Nothing much stops a mountain biker dead in his tracks on an open gravel road so there has to be a worthy explanation.  A smooth impression on the sand is the only evidence of the invisible obstacle – a stark reminder that this is no ordinary bike event.  With barely any cell-phone signal, the thought of being in the domain of one of the world’s most feared and deadliest snakes, the black mamba, is in itself daunting but the show must go on and the adrenaline pumped cyclists return to the task of completing their ride with a bit more understanding and respect for this wild environment.

There are no ‘bells and whistles’ on this event. The track is not manicured or cleared and it is imperative to know how to operate and follow the trail on a GPS as there are no man-made route markers. Bail out points don’t exist, except when at a designated water point and even then, in a vehicle, it is a long haul back to camp. March 2019, the 10th anniversary of The Matopos World Heritage MTB Challenge, (more simply known as the Matopos Heritage Challenge) brought together 70 riders from several countries riding in teams of two or three and generously supported by a number of sponsors. Organized by The Matopos Heritage Ride committee (on behalf of the Matobo Conservation Society), this event has much more to offer than just a race or the rich heritage. It is a route prepared over many months of trial and error that seeks to replace bush roads with exceptional single track. The committee, after much research and effort, unveil a few of the notable sites by insisting on compulsory stops along the route at designated locations. A booklet is painstakingly compiled and together with various gifts including ride shirts, T-shirts, chain lube, buffs, shoe bags and other items, is handed out to each entrant upon arrival. Detailed information is listed in the booklet, including historical facts and points of interest along the way, in the hope that some of these features and mileage pegs are remembered in order to be viewed en-route.  A briefing is held each evening to discuss the following day’s interesting snippets, including ringing rocks, balancing rocks, caves, rock art and rare orbicular granite sites as well as some of the most sacred traditional religious sites in Southern Africa, such as Njelele hill, so revered that nobody is even allowed to point a finger at it. The ‘racing snakes’ don’t pay too much attention but those who ride for the adventure of exploring and learning remain in awe of the knowledge provided.

Each of the three days is approximately 70km long with an early start around 6.30am.  Breakfast begins at 5am, hurriedly forced down in order to supply enough energy for the first couple of hours.  Two well-stocked water points are provided along the way each day but cyclists must carry their own water, energy bars, snacks, first aid kits and basic bike spares as days can be longer than planned due to unexpected mechanical or human mishaps! The first two nights are spent in the comfortable National Parks accommodation at Maleme Rest Camp in the west, which comprises brick and thatch chalets. The route on the second day leads to Camp Dwala in the east where spacious tents are erected for both competitors and back-up teams. The final evening is held atop the magnificent orange and green lichenpeppered dwala behind the camp, where the awards and acknowledgements are presented against the shimmering backdrop of Africa’s golden setting sun.  This is a ride where modern meets the mystical enigmatic Matopos Hills and is fast becoming known as one of the premier single track events held in Africa, providing fun, challenging conditions, which are not to be undertaken lightly, but meets the needs of both advanced and social riders in the most historically intriguing and breathtakingly rugged environments nature can bestow.

As they say in the game: see you on the trail!

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