The Magic of the Matopo Hills          - 11/9/2006      <--Prev : Next-->







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.

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.
in schools and colleges.

Eddie Cross

Bulawayo, 8th September 2006.