It’s a foggy morning in Great Zimbabwe and Mama Miriam, our local guide is full of apologies. She is concerned that we are going to miss out on the view once we have trekked to the top of the Hill Enclosure.
I’m not disappointed. It seems fitting that the Great Zimbabwe ruins are wrapped in a foggy shroud – after all the largest collection of ruins in Africa, south of the Sahara are rather mysterious.
We know that they are the remains of a Black African Empire that had trading links that stretched through to India, Persia and China from the 11th to 15th centuries. Sadly, in the 19th century the ruins and other similar smaller sites found throughout Zimbabwe were ransacked by European “treasure hunters” and many artefacts were lost.
Further intrigue occurred during the 1960’s and 1970’s when the Archaeologists of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe’s former epithet) faced harsh censorship. They had to tow the official line that Great Zimbabwe was constructed by the ‘yellow man’ – the idea that “blacks” could have had the unity and power to create settlement such as Great Zimbabwe was abhorrent and undermined one of the founding beliefs of white superiority and supremacy throughout the ages.
The disbelief that a rich and powerful black civilisation that once existed in Africa led to fanciful European concocted theories of alien races, Egyptian diaspora and it was even mooted that the ruins were the remains of King Solomon’s mines.
The walk up to the Hill Enclosure is just that – uphill and a couple of our group are not so sure footed on the uneven stone paths. No one in our party of 12 which ranges in age from 32 to 72 are frustrated by the slow ascent as Miriam regales us with stories a people rich in cattle, ivory and gold led by a long line of Kings each with many wives and the belief that the Enclosures were the preserve of the upper classes while the majority lived in basic almost slum-like conditions in the surrounding valley. As Miriam talks in passionate and clear English, it is easy to imagine elegant black women balancing supplies on their heads as they swiftly make their way up the hill to serve their masters – only removing their crowns of wares to duck through the natural and constructed stone gateways.
As we weave our way up, dry stacked stone walls merge with the natural boulders and outcrops of the hill creating an imposing fort-like structure complete with turrets and towers. At the top, a huge jutting boulder has been shaped into a bird – an emblem that is now immortalised on Zimbabwe’s national flag. It is believed that from here successive kings of this empire presided over and addressed his councillors who sat arranged in the amphitheatre below. Miriam then ably demonstrates – how a nearby rock overhang creates a natural loud-haler that echoes decrees clearly to the valley floor below.
Our slow uphill progress has another benefit, the sun has burnt through the fog revealing the Great Enclosure on the valley floor below and panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. We all climb up to the King’s platform – we’ve nicknamed Admore our Sunway Safaris guide who has accompanied the group “King” when we find out that his “family totem” is the same as those who resided here centuries ago. Miriam teasingly corrects us that his people were custodians rather than the rulers. Happily we ignore her and Admore is “The King” for the rest of the trip.
After exploring the Hill Enclosure we make our way downhill via the easier “modern route” and busily strip off layers as the cool damp fog completely evaporates and the hot Zimbabwe sun starts to beat down.
Wandering across the grassy meadow past of couple of cows from whose necks hang large cow bells, Miriam leads us past statuesque Tree Euphorias and Aloes to the small, yet fascinating site museum (no photography allowed).
The museum is showing its age and this is to become a common theme at the National Park’s we visit. The infrastructure at some point would have been world class, but with Zimbabwe’s troubled history it is like time has put its head down and is making the best of whatever the day brings – just like the Zimbabwean people.
Miriam breezily ignores the dim lighting and helps us see past the archaic displays proudly telling us about the museums treasures such as the soapstone birds and their travels to other countries in the hands of treasure hunters to their eventual return. Talking one on one, I discover we are the same age, born in the late 1970’s before Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. She is surprisingly quite candid about Zimbabwe’s most recent history and its everyday effects on people such herself, but this does not dim her pride and passion for her job sharing the history of Great Zimbabwe – something she has been doing for 10 years.
The stone work of the Great Enclosure tells a story of a lengthy construction and civil engineering in a time without modern machinery. It is believed that the Great Enclosure was the preserve of the Queen, who presided over an extensive household of the King’s many wives and children. Entering a great curved hallway we escape the sun and I take the time to lay the full length of my body against the cool stone walls that are 5 metres thick at the base and tower up to 11 metres high. The stacked stone walls improve in quality and engineering skills with the more recent outer walls incorporating a distinctive chevron pattern. Another example of the worldly connections of this empire.
Despite the still unanswered questions about the empires downfall – The Great Zimbabwe Ruins are a wonder of Southern Africa. It is not therefore not surprising that when the shackles of Colonialism and following White Republican rule were finally removed in 1980 – the name chosen for the country was Zimbabwe “venerated houses of stone.”
HOW TO VISIT GREAT ZIMBABWE…
Great Zimbabwe is located 11 hours from Johannesburg (excluding time to cross the border), 10.5 hours from Victoria Falls and 4 hours from Harare. It is best visited as part of an itinerary that includes Victoria Falls, Hwange & Matobo National Parks. The nearest airport is at Bulawayo just over 4 hours away. Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second largest city and has direct flights to Harare, Victoria Falls and Johannesburg.
- Sunway Safaris includes the Zimbabwe Ruins on both of its 16 day camping and accommodated safaris that visit Kruger, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
- For those not wanting to join a scheduled group tour, Indafrica can offer a tailored-made Zimbabwe Safari staying in quality lodges and includes Victoria Falls, Hwange, Matobo & Great Zimbabwe.
Ask your local travel agent for a brochure or a copy of a detailed itinerary or these can be requested by contacting us.
- It can rain in Great Zimbabwe all year round and early morning chilly damp fog is not uncommon. During the winter (July – October) wear layers that you can shed as it warms up and the sun comes out.
- Footwear with good tread and support are essential, especially for the walk up to the Hill Enclosure. A good sports shoe will do the job.
- Don’t forget your sunscreen, a full water bottle or two and make sure that you have some snacks on hand as you will spend at least 2 hours exploring the ruins. There is a small shop at the site if you need supplies, but expect to pay a premium.
- Keep an eye out for Monkeys. Both Vervet Monkeys and Baboons are resident in the area. Vervet Monkeys in particular can be accomplished thieves so keep your possession in reach and most importantly if they do take something – let them take it, they can carry disease and you don’t want to be bitten. More than likely they will lose interest (unless it is food) and you will be able to what they took back – but it might mean you have to climb up a large fig tree!