The Magic of the Matopo Hills

When Mzilikazi fled from the wrath of Shaka in Natal in 1820, he crossed the Limpopo River and then traveled another two hundred kilometers to the Matopo Hills. He went through the hills and made his new home at a place he called Gubulawayo – the “place of slaughter” or “killing”. He felt safe on the other side of the hills and knew that if he ever needed sanctuary, it could be found in those same hills and valleys.

From this base, the Impi’s of the Ndebele traversed the central African region – going as far north as modern day Malawi, west to the Bamangwato flood plains in Zambia, south into the area controlled by the Tswana people and east into Mozambique. Theirs was an economy based on pillage and murder.

Today the City of Bulawayo is built close to the original site of the original Capital of the migrant Ndebele people. It lies about 40 kilometers from the Matopo Hills and the remnants of the descendents of Mzilikazi can still be found there in numbers. When I was a boy growing up in the eastern section of the hills I can remember visiting the villages in the hills and seeing old men with the hair ring on their heads signifying their status as fighting men and officers in the Ndebele army. They recounted to me stories of their raids into the domain of other tribes seeking cattle and women and perhaps grain, each winter. Running in disciplined groups covering long distances on foot demanding that the villages through which they passed provide food and water.

The Matopo Hills run for over 100 kilometers east to west and some 30 kilometers deep. They are amongst the oldest granite formations in the world. In my experience, they are unique in many ways – the piles of rocks, granite mastiff’s and the green, densely forested valleys with running streams fed by the run off from the granite hills that effectively doubles the rainfall of the area.

In the center of the hills is the Matopo National Park, originally set aside by Cecil Rhodes and later to become his burial site. The Park is half an hour’s drive from Bulawayo and contains a wide variety of plains game and significant numbers of both white and black Rhino. It is also home to many predators especially Leopard and the Black Eagle.

The latter are found here in numbers supported by the large population of Dassies (Rock Rabbit or Hyraxes) in the hills that form their basic diet. They are magnificent birds – perhaps one of the finest Eagles in the world, superb flying machines nesting in spectacular rock formations throughout the area. Local enthusiasts working through Birdlife Zimbabwe have monitored the Black Eagles in the Matopo Hills for over 40 years. This is, to the best of our knowledge, the longest continuous survey of a raptor in the world of ornithology.

Last weekend I had expected to spend my time in one of Mugabe’s notorious jails after our Friday march in Harare. When that did not happen I was then able to travel to the Matopo hills early on Saturday for two days of Black Eagle watching. The Eagles have nested and breed from about March onwards and their chicks are now getting ready to fledge and fly. For those of you who have never seen a Black Eagle nest – let me tell you something, you have missed one of the great natural sights of the world. The Eagles choose the most inaccessible sites for their nests – high up on a sheer granite rock face is a shallow ledge – on the ledge they build an untidy nest of sticks and leaves. The nest site has to inaccessible to baboons, monkeys and snakes – all would make short work of an eagle egg or young chick.

The Eagles mate for life and usually lay two eggs shortly after the rains stop. These are incubated for six weeks and after hatching, the stronger of the chicks usually kills the weaker. The remaining chick is fed once a day by its parents who will kill a Dassie every day if possible. They grow rapidly and soon rival their parents in size – going from a fluffy white ball to a brown fledgling. Eventually they start flying short distances – encouraged by their parents and once they have become self sufficient the parents drive them out of their territory. The young birds will then fly as far as several hundred kilometers to find their own territories – returning when mature, to their native environment to seek a mate and start their own nesting regime.

On Sunday we walked a few kilometers through open veld to a site in the Matopo National Park, then we climbed a short way up a hill and were rewarded with a clear view of a 10-week-old chick on a superb nest site just across a deep ravine. It was no more than 40 metres away. Above us were the parents who watched us anxiously and at one stage flew down to hover on the breeze in front of us – between the nest and our lookout site.

It was a beautiful day – clear blue skies, about 25 c and zero humidity. We passed a small herd of Wildebeest on our way in and going out we passed 7 white Rhino. It was spectacular bird watching by any standard – and it was 45 minutes from my home! We stayed in the nearby lodges and had a braai with 18 others who had come for the weekend – including some from South Africa and one person from the UK. Below us in the valley next to the lodge was a Fish Eagle nest with two chicks in it. Their wild cries woke us in the morning.

The cost – about US$4 per person for the two days. At the end of the second day we traveled home – feeling well satisfied that our Eagles were well protected and fed and had successfully bred again. Suntanned and refreshed and ready again to do battle with the regime in Harare and to continue to try and make a living. Does it get any better?

There is magic in those Matopo Hills and perhaps one day soon the magic will spread out into the whole country and we can start living again. Tension is mounting throughout the country, the State abruptly announced the delayed Rural District Council elections will be held in October – we were only given a week to register nearly 2000 candidates. Next week the Unions take on the regime and the students are battling with the authorities right now. Their leadership was arrested this past week for protesting over conditions in schools and colleges.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 8th September 2006.