Travel: Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills – A Giant’s Playground

English: Sunrise Matobo National Park

English: Sunrise Matobo National Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think rock formations that resemble a giant’s toys stacked and scattered haphazardly around the yard. How about white and black rhino, the few that poachers haven’t been able to kill? If this sounds like something from an Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel, think again; it actually exists.

The Matobo Hills of Zimbabwe’s southwest region is a breathtaking landscape of wind sculpted exposed graniteoutcrops, many looking as if the hand of some giant god had stacked them. The hills are also home to much of the country’s remaining rhino population as well as a variety of other species.

Located about 40 kilometers south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Matobo Hills is a World Heritage Site. Considered one of the richest cultural landscapes on earth, Matobo Hills shows evidence of human habitation continuously for more than 40,000 years, boasting rock art galleries showing the life and activities of the bushmen, or San people who are thought to be the first inhabitants of this region.

The Bald Heads

It’s not known what the San called the area, but during the first half of the nineteenth century, when King Mzilikazi led his Ndebele people into the area, he called the bare domed rocks ‘Matobo’, or ‘The Bald Heads’, after his chiefs. When Mzilikazi died in 1868, his body was buried in a cave in the hills and the entrance was sealed. The Ndeble, when they established their capital at Bulawayo, viewed the Matobo Hills as sacred. The hills contain shrines to Mwali, the god of the Ndebele ancestors, to whom they pray for rain.

During the first rebellion against white colonialism in the late 19th century, the hills provided refuge for the Ndebele warriors. Matobo was also the scene of the meeting between Cecil Rhodes and Ndebele leaders in 1896 which ended the rebellion. Rhodes was so enchanted with the scenery of Matobo, when he died in 1902, at his request he was buried on top of a hill, ‘Malindidzimu’, or ‘place of celestial spirits.’ Rhodes called the spot “The View of the World,’ the name by which many people know it today.

The land forms of Matobo create a variety of habitats for wildlife, including the rhino, leopard and antelope species, including the elegant sable. Bird species include Wahlberg’s eagle, tawny eagle, secretary bird, snake eagle, and peregrine falcon. Matobo has the largest population of the endangered black eagle than any other site in the world. Visitors to Matobo can go to the western area of the park and hire a professional guide who will take them on an overland trek for rhino; on foot, and armed only with a camera. This is an experience that is unlikely to be forgotten.

A Giant’s Playground

The most notable thing about Matobo, though, are the amazing rock formations. The effects of wind and rain, temperature variations, and the continued expansion and contraction of the exposed granite over millions of years have caused stress fractures and faults that have left some of the world’s most unique rock formations. These include large individual vertical rocks, castellated ridges, pillars and stacks, and large hump-backed domes, called whalebacks or dwalas. Looking at some of the formations, it’s hard to imagine that these formations were created by natural processes rather than being mechanically stacked.

Getting There

Matobo is about an hour’s drive from Bulawayo. While the national airline’s economic woes have caused the Harare-Bulawayo flight to be cancelled, it is only a five hour drive from Harare, and about two hours from Victoria Falls, both of which have international flights from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Where to Stay

While there are hostels and safari camps in the Matobo area, for accessibility to a greater portion of the southwest area, it’s advisable to stay in Bulawayo. Nesbitt Castle, a replica of a medieval castle not far from the downtown area, is an adventure in itself.

The Nesbitt Castle
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
(263 9) 282-735


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