There is an absolute gem of a mountain, made out of solid iron ore, standing in an isolated plain in the southern half of Zimbabwe. Buchwa, the place of long grass, rises so sharply up 800 metres from the surrounding area, that it has its own microclimate and rain can be experienced almost year-round. The mountain has vegetation similar to the Eastern Districts of Zimbabwe and its rocky ridges and cliffs are clad with lush miombo woodlands and vast colonies of Aloe arborescens, the tree aloe. If you go there in May or June each year you will literally see the mountain on fire with flowering spikes from this aloe.
Now, an 800-metre climb is no joke if your preferred physical activity is reaching for the remote for the television and decoder. But two things have conspired to make Buchwa Mountain perhaps the most accessible of all mountains in Zimbabwe. One, during sanctions-busting days and then later when Zisco Steel was still running, the mountain was the source of high grade iron ore for the steel industry. Consequently, the road there is tarred all the way to the very foot of the mountain. Secondly, when you have a mountain that towers close to a kilometre above the surrounding plains, it becomes a very attractive site for cellphone towers. Buchwa is no exception and the relevant companies have placed their towers and kindly provided a concrete road right to the very top, or almost.
A word of warning. This huge mountain, even though shaped like a horseshoe, does not always provide good luck and if you visit during a thunderstorm the combination of solid enriched haematite (iron) core and man-made steel towers rising even higher, means that the peak is regularly blasted by lightning. And thunderstorms can come from nowhere as our own group found to their cost on their first visit in 2012. They arrived on the afternoon of 20th October, 2012, fresh and sprightly in the hot sunshine and looking forward to exploring the mountain the next day. Around midnight, the heavens erupted, the tower was repeatedly struck, tents were found to be anything but waterproof and kit and equipment left outside the cars was wrecked. A sodden, bedraggled group of mountain climbers, their ears still ringing, their clothes and bedding soaked, their hair literally standing on end with fear, jumped back into their cars and headed for Harare the moment that the sun should have risen, but didn’t because of the thick mist enveloping the mountain. So check the weather report before you venture forth.
A total of 20 million tonnes of iron ore was taken off two of the five peaks of Buchwa. Most of this made its way to Redcliff, just outside Kwekwe to be converted into steel. The destruction thus wreaked on the peaks now has a charm of its own. A huge tunnel that allowed massive ore trucks to pass each other runs through part of the mountain. One peak has been extracted to such an extent that there is now a crater lake, full of emerald green water year round. Ore was carried off the mountain on a gravity-driven cable belt that moved 500 tonnes an hour a distance of 6.1 kilometres to the railhead! It was some operation in its day.
We visited the mountain a couple of years later and had the sense to go in June. It was cold, but rain, thunder and lightning were much less likely and the mountain was ablaze with the colour of the aloes flowering. Another good time to visit would be September when the musasas and mountain brachystegia, come out in their full array of spring colours. The trees are amazing, many having vast colonies of indigenous orchids and even aloes growing on their weighty boughs where leaf litter has accumulated over the years.
How to get there, you might well ask? We did it en-route to Beitbridge, but you have to drive through Kadoma, Kwekwe and branch off in Gweru, through Shurugwi and Zvishavane and then on to Buchwa. From Buchwa, a 90 kilometre stretch of good gravel road reconnects you with the Harare-Beitbridge Highway at Rutenga. There is probably no difference in actual distance travelled from Harare, whether you go via Gweru or Masvingo and in terms of traffic, the Buchwa route is definitely better. And of course, if the dualisation of the Beitbridge Highway starts in earnest, then any road will be preferable.