Written by: Rene Bauer and Andrea Kaucka
We first met Graham and Bianca at Hlane National Park in Swaziland when these two extraordinary people were touring Southern Africa in their Land Rover. Graham, looking a lot like Bob Marley, had claimed to be the grandson of Cranmer Kenrick Cooke, a Zimbabwean archaeologist who had discovered and analysed San cave paintings in Rhodesia (in the olden days) and had written various books on the subject.
We made a plan with them to visit Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park together as Graham had often been there as a little boy and knew of a few undiscovered corners of this park. We were a bit doubtful but agreed to meet up with them in Bulawayo at a later date, where we set out on our little expedition to Matobo.
Arriving in Matobo was like landing on a different planet. It is an absolutely magical landscape composed of granite hills, huge monoliths, golden plains dotted with acacia trees – all criss-crossed by rivers, little dams and lakes.
Matobo is the oldest park in Zimbabwe and, because of its rich cultural heritage, it is on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. When driving through the park my imagination ran absolutely wild – the rocks started to look like castles, camels, mushrooms or people, sometimes delicately balancing on top of each other. Sir John Cecil Rhodes, the famous British explorer lending the former British colony his name, was so impressed by Matopos that he wanted to be buried in these granite hills.
The awe inspiring scenery has been formed over millions of years, the land using wind and water as its tools to shape the granite rocks. The landscape is full of overhangs, caves, shelters and balancing rocks – a perfect base for early human settlement. The San people or Khoisan left their marks all over Zimbabwe, with the highest concentration of cave paintings being in Matopos. The paintings are between 2,000 and 6,000 years old and, considering their age, are still in a very good condition.
The San were hunter-gatherers. Heavily relying on a constant food supply they lived off the land, collected wild plants, nuts and fruits and hunted or trapped wild animals. Matobo is very rich in both plants and wildlife alike and there is a good supply of water. The San lived in groups of up to 25 people, mostly using the overhangs and caves as shelters. It is in these places that cave paintings can be found. Mostly drawn by their shamans, these paintings represent their cultural heritage, their language and visions. Mostly, those paintings express daily life in the Matopos Hills for the hunter-gatherers, and we could get a good idea of what their life was about. Many stone tools and beads have also been found in the caves, giving us a much better insight into the life and culture of the San people.
There are a few famous, big caves in the Matobo that are well visited and unfortunately are damaged due to an influx in visitors. Pomongwe Cave, with its adjoining visitor centre, is a good example of this: the paintings here are faded and can hardly be seen, one archaeologist even tried to protect them with oil – destroying them even more.
It is worth it to take the time to explore the caves, which are hidden or harder to get to, like Nswatugi Cave or Bambata Cave, which are situated up in the hills and can be reached only after a bit of walking. But when you stand at the top of the mountain right at the entrance to the cave and look down over the surrounding scenery, it quickly becomes clear why the San people chose these places – the views are breathtaking.
But there was one thing we still wanted to see at Matobo – the ringing rocks or rock gongs of the Matopos Hills. Graham had remembered seeing them as a little boy but he wasn’t sure of where exactly to find them. The only thing Graham remembered was a little turn-off from one of the main tracks – we found it and followed that track.
As we continued along, we went through narrow valleys with the most beautiful, breathtaking views opening up, with granite castles stretching out as far as the eye could see. Sometimes Graham remembered a rock formation he had seen as a little boy, so we knew we were on the right track.
We came out onto a grassy plain surrounded by granite hills where we found some locals. As they didn’t speak English, Graham used his knowledge of the local dialect, and they understood what we were after! One woman showed us the way and we walked for another 20 minutes, discovering more rock paintings on the way, and then we could see the ringing rocks!
They looked like giant round marbles scattered on a huge rock face, deep hollows in their sides from hundreds of years of drumming. We all looked at each other and smiled. We had found them!
Rene and Graham picked up small rocks and starting to hit the rock gongs. They sounded like metallic drums and apparently they have been used to gather surrounding tribes and chiefs for meetings or to play music in local ceremonies.
When we had to leave, we felt a little sad heading back to civilisation – all the granite kopjes, rock paintings and the magic of the land had put us under its spell!