Sun 6th & Mon 7th Nov – Dema Villas, Harare
Tue 8th Nov – Lodge at the Ancient City, Masvingo
Wed 9th Nov – AirBnB, Bulawayo
Around Harare – 33km
Harare – Great Zimbabwe ruins (Masvingo) – 320km
Great Zimbabwe ruins – Bulawayo & around Bulawayo – 311km
Bulawayo – Victoria Falls – 422km
Total km travelled since Nairobi: 7,521km
ZIMBABWE – A tale of 3 Cities (and driving through the rain to get to them)
Kenya Airways and their striking pilots very kindly gave us almost another full day with Gillian in Harare. We used the day fixing more things on the car (the solar charge controller had packed in) catching up on work we hadn’t felt like doing on the road, exploring the Borrowdale mall area of the city for supplies and eating sushi … yes, even in a landlocked country Kian’s sushi radar still managed to sniff out a very decent place for lunch. Harare seemed more modern and developed than when we last visited some 8 years ago and we quite enjoyed our brief re-immersion back into the ‘real world’ … Kian and I topping that off with a visit to the movies to catch Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s latest offering whose name I have already forgotten.
Our goal over the next 3 days was to traverse the country all the way to Victoria Falls, a journey of well over 1,000km. Having come from Zimbabwe’s modern capital city, our next stop was the site of its’ oldest city … the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.
With construction dating back to 1,150AD and housing over 35,000 people in its’ heyday between 1,200 and 1,500AD, the Great Zimbabwe ruins baffled early colonial historians who simply refused to attribute them to the indigenous Bantu people. Instead, they developed all sorts of theories of early ancient civilisations such as the Phoenicians undertaking the construction. The ruins were also immediately associated with treasure, including it being the location of King Solomon’s mines and the source of the Queen of Sheba’s wealth. By the 1930’s several archaeological investigations concluded that this was an ancient African civilization at work although sadly, by that stage, many of the walls and structures had been demolished in the search for treasure and artefacts that were discovered soon spread to the 4 corners of the globe.
Despite all this, there is still a lot to see at the site, which has just started a foreign-funded renovation project. Vegetation has been cut back from the walls, exposing ancient pathways and allowing one to clearly see the different methods used in construction. A museum holds some interesting artefacts, including pieces of gold mined nearby, smelted iron tools and 6 of the 7 original carved soapstone birds, mostly fish eagles that have subsequently been adopted as the national symbol of modern, independent Zimbabwe. Indeed it is these very ruins that gave the national its’ name, being Zi (Big) / Mba (House) / Bwe (Rock) – the Big House of Rock.
We hired a guide, Mlambo, who took us on a fascinating 3-hour tour of the site. There seem to be several interpretations of the functions of the different sets of ruins, with no single theory agreed upon by everyone. Mlambo’s rather colourful version, revolves around the King needing masses of space for his 200 wives and the main structure, with its’ conical tower, being the No 1 Queen’s residence and home to the ‘marriage school’ for the young boys and girls of the community. He maintained that the giant, solid stone conical tower is a phallic symbol under which the boys were instructed and the 10m high, 6m wide walls built from 15,000 tonnes of granite were designed so that nobody could see inside whilst they were being given this valuable instruction. I appreciate that all of this information is important to young lads and lasses, but that does seem like a lot of hard work to put into a SexEd classroom. We were well entertained by Mlambo’s rendition of his version, a wealth of information that he also claims to have shared with Neslon Mandela and Princess Diana in the past.
I suspect there are several other angles to the story, including religion, sacrifice, security, inter-continental trade and food production, but what is quite obvious is that there was a complex, multi-layered civilization active in the heart of Africa almost a thousand years ago and that it flourished for 2-3 centuries. This particular set of ruins is only one of several hundred dotted through Zimbabwe and northern South Africa and it was also refreshing to receive a different, racially unbiased African history lesson that didn’t simply start with the arrival of the first Europeans.
We stayed at a lodge nearby, Lodge at the Ancient City, which was built in the style of the ruins stone walls. It was almost empty and Mlambo told us how numbers of tourists were still very low, a shame given how interesting and important this location is. I hope that the current renovation work brings it up to scratch and makes it more prominent.
From Masvingo, we headed west to Bulawayo. Zimbabwe’s roads are actually in pretty good condition … when you can see them! The rainy season has definitely started here and we drove through 2 major storms, the first from Harare to Masvingo and the second, where rainfall became hail driven at us by strong winds, from Bulawayo to Vic Falls. We ended up having to pull over to the side of the road and wait for the most extreme weather to pass before continuing on our way and, in both cases, once we’d cleared the storm we had sunshine and dry roads for the remainder of our journeys.
Our stay in Bulawayo was little more than a chance to catch up on laundry and shopping, although I have to say that it seemed like a very relaxed and pleasant place, reminiscent of suburban Nairobi when we moved there nearly 40 years ago.
Next stop Victoria Falls … aka Mosi-Oa-Tunya … the Smoke that Thunders!