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The sacred hills of the Matopas

The sacred hills of the Matopas

The sacred hills of the Matopas

It is difficult to know which world record held by the Matobo Hills World Heritage Site I should focus on when writing about this unique area. As an archaeologist, I like to point out that the 3,500 rock art sites recorded in this tiny area outnumber all of the sites known in Western Europe. And we still find so many unknown sites each year.

Thanks to my involvement in the Black Eagle Survey, run by volunteer members of BirdLife Zimbabwe, I know that the area hosts the largest known population of these endangered birds, while the survey focusing on their breeding success is the longest such study ever done anywhere in the world. More species of raptor breed here than any other single place on the globe.

Research done on the leopard population has indicated we have a higher density of these wonderful, secretive animals than any similar area. The granite rock, so warm beneath your bare feet, is some of the oldest rock yet found on this planet. I could go on and on, but one thing the Matopos landscape does inspire is a mixture of awe and humility. It is a pleasure to travel in this area and an even greater privilege to live here.

The National Park and surrounding areas have a long history; the Matopos is the oldest National Park in Zimbabwe, declared as such in 1926, two years ahead of Hwange. The populations of white and black rhino are among the most important in the country and there is a new project in the works to re-fence the entire park to help protect these splendid beasts.

Several species of plants and birds are specially protected while as many are found almost nowhere else in the country including the corn crake, MacKinder's eagle-owl and the boulder chat. The names for the creeper, Strychnos matopensis and the herb Barleria matopensis and the Matopos honeysuckle tree Turraea fischeri ehlesii are common phrases in the local guiding lexicon, heard nowhere else in the country.

Sites and places in this craggy, majestic landscape evoke tempestuous passions. The grave of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, located as it is upon one of the most sacred hills in Zimbabwe, prompts frequent calls for restitution within history's flow. To a few, his is a visionary resting place that continues to draw curious visitors in a steady stream, providing much needed tourist revenue.

Some people want Rhodes’ grave removed; once this is accomplished, they argue, the rains we sorely need will return and voices of our ancestors, voices that inform and inspire, will once again be heard from the shrines scattered across these hills.

And what shrines we have. Njelele is the most famous. The home of a god, the centre of the Mwali faith and the most revered place in the country (even ahead of Great Zimbabwe), Njelele remains a bastion of what the Matopos is all about – spirituality.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 13, June 2013)

Other articles in this series:
Paradise unveiled
A short history of the Falls
The sacred hills of the Matopos 
The smoke that thunders
Valley of abundance
Superlative and unexplored
The great enigmas
Africa’s grand anomaly
The Middle Zambezi
The Zambezi’s final triumph