Matobo National Park: in detail
Matobo safari holidays: the full story
The Matobo Hills are located to the south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. The area covers about 3,000km2 in total, of which about 400km2 is protected by the Matobo National Park, formerly the Matobo Hills National Park and before that the Rhodes Matopos National Park.
The landscape of Matobo is breath-taking, consisting of an abundance of small hills, massive granite outcrops and boulders which balance on top of each other, creating spectacular forms, known as Kopijes. Looking at these Kopijes you can see figures, similar as in clouds. Some of them are recognizable for everyone, e.g. ‘the camel’ or ‘the mother and child’; others are unique and exclusively reserved for your own imagination.
Matobo National Park
The Matobo National Park is right in the middle of the Matobo Hills area. The area was declared a National Park in 1926. This small, easily accessible national park contains some of the region's most arresting scenery. It is a beautiful, but little visited area that’s easily reached either by road from either Bulawayo or Hwange National Park. This rugged landscape receives better rainfall than the surrounding areas. As a result it can sustain a high diversity of vegetation and a variety of faunal species.
The main entrance to the park is at the Sandy Spruit Dam and leads to the Northern Wilderness Area. This area includes the Grave of Cecil Rhodes, the Shangaan Memorial, as well as the MOTH Shrine. The eastern Togwe Wilderness Area is a remote area and encompasses the Togwana Dam. The best and easiest access to the Dam is from the Mtsheli Dam, to the south of Togwana Dam. The road connecting them is in good condition. The park headquarter is in the Central Wilderness Area of the park. It is located near the Maleme Dam, a tourist attraction that gets quite busy at the weekends. Most of the Whovi Wilderness Area in the west of the park, is securely fenced off and has a separate entrance fee. It offers a lot of wildlife and the fenced area serves as an Intensive Protection Zone. Actively patrolled by teams of game scouts, it provides a safe haven for a very high density of both black and white rhinos.
The Park is home to a wide range of game, including Africa's largest concentration of leopard, which is a major attraction in the landscape. Adjoining the main national park is a small, intensively protected game park containing Zimbabwe’s highest concentration of black and white rhino. Although their populations have dwindled elsewhere in Zimbabwe, they are doing well in Matobo, and the area offers the best chance of seeing these endangered species in the country.
The rhinos can reliably be tracked on foot, and visiting in 2016 it only took us 20 minutes to find a small herd of white rhino. The black and white rhinos are on the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) endangered list. Due to the high population of unique and endangered animals the park is designated as one of the country’s four Intensive Protection Zones. This allows the park to enjoy twenty-four hour protection. The beautiful sable antelope are often seen. So far, 12 species of antelope, among Kudu and Eland have been recorded. There are, however, no lion or elephant – meaning that you can walk freely amongst the hills and explore them on your own, making for a much more personal experience.
Elsewhere in the park, the more obvious game includes bushbuck, impala, zebra, kudu and giraffe, plus baboon and monkeys. Dassies, or rock hyrax, are very common and a density of leopards that is also reputed to be very high.
Especially the birds of Matobo make the area of special interest to ornithologists and the amateur bird watcher. About 400 of the 674 Zimbabwean bird species, of which 35 species are protected, occur in the Matobo Hills. This high concentration of birdlife is really impressive for such a small National Park, compared to other Parks in Zimbabwe. Matobo National Park habitats the highest population of black eagles (Aquaila Verreauxii), to be found anywhere in the world.
For the best birding just raise your eyes to the top of the rock formation, as most birds, like the klipspringer are in their element here. Other common birds are fish eagle, martial eagle, francolin, secretary bird, weavers, pied crow and Egyptian geese.
The history of the Matobo Hills can be divided into three eras: the pre-colonial era (before 1890), the colonial era (1890-1979) and the post-colonial era (1980 to present).
Pre-colonial era (before 1890)
Significant for this time was the arrival of the Nguni groups fleeing Zululand in the 1830s’. The Matobo Hills provided refuge for several ethnic groups at that time, such as the Karanga ethnic groups or the ancestors of the present Ndebele ethnic groups. Their arrival and settlement happened during the first half of the 19th century under the leadership of King Mzilikazi. The Ndebele group was one of the first groups to separate from the Nguni nation after they had entered the South African borders around the year 1500. It is this variety of ethnic groups that accounts for the cultural diversity and richness of Matobo Hills.
Colonial era (1891-1979)
The colonial era was characterized by the Pioneer Column in 1890. They raised the Union Jack at Fort Salisbury (today known as Harare) and moved southwest to Matabeland in search of gold. This met with resistance from the Ndebele and the confrontations ended in war between the ethnic groups and the European Settlers. During that time the hills played a significant role. They provided refuge and offered sanctuary.
Post-colonial era (1989 to present)
The imperialist Cecil Rhodes, after whom the country was called Rhodesia, led the European settlers into the country. He played a dominant role in southern Africa in the late 19th century. By 1985 he was controlling nearly all of the world’s diamonds and much of its gold, and effectively ruling over three colonial dependencies in the heart of Africa.
Cecil Rhodes loved the beautiful scenery of Matobo Hills, and chose the area as his final resting place – today known as ‘World’s View’. His grave is high up on the hill, marked by a brass plaque, and is a truly stunning spot to watch the sun set over the Matobo Hills.
The Matobo Hills area features some of the most significant sites illustrating important events in the history of Zimbabwe. Those events left enduring marks in the form of remains of early settlements, graves of great leaders, forts and many others.
The hills have been a home to people for millenniums and therefore have a rich human history. The red-tinged granite boulders were mostly used for human occupation starting from the early Stone Age, where the granite provided natural shelters with tools used in hunting, gathering and food processing.
Humans left visable traces such as a superb collection of rock art created several thousand years ago. San Bushmen have been inspired by the dramatic landscape and used the walls as their ‘canvases’. It is fascinating how accurate some of the paintings are. They demonstrate life over the past thousand years showing animals, people and hunting scenes. Furthermore the illustrations exhibit not only evolving artistic styles but also religious beliefs.
The Mwari religion, which is still practiced in the area. It focuses on the power of the rocks, especially those that are elevated, balanced, or protect springs and pools. Most of them are seen as the seat of god and ancestral spirits. Contact with the spiritual world can be made at sacred shrines within the hills, where the voice of Mwari is believed to be heard from the rocks. The ancestral spirits reside in forest, mountains, caves, hollowed trees and pools. The Mwari attach great respect to the environment because they argue, by despoiling it; they will be depriving their god and the spirits of a home to live in.
The most important examples of intangible heritage sites in the Matobo Hills area include such shrines as Njelele, Dula, Zhilo, Manyangwa and Wirirani/Wililani. These shrines are still used by the community and are also considered to be the most powerful tradition in southern Africa. The annual pilgrimage in august attracts more than a thousand pilgrims who gather around the natural features of the rocks and the adjacent terraces, where participants dance, perform rituals, eat and sleep during the 3-week long ceremonies. This strong persistence of indigenous beliefs and practices within the Matobo area gives it a continuing relevance to local communities.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Due to its diverse history and culture the hills were voted as an UNESCO World Heritage Site 2003 on the basis of cultural criteria (iii), (v) and (vi):
Criterion (iii): The Matobo Hills has one of the highest concentrations of rock art in southern Africa. The rich evidence from archaeology and from the rock paintings at Matobo provide a very full picture of the lives of foraging societies in the Stone Age and the way agricultural societies came to replace them.
Criterion (v): The interaction between communities and the landscape, manifested in the rock art and also in the long standing religious traditions still associated with the rocks, are community responses to a landscape.
Criterion (vi): The Mwari religion, centred on Matobo, which may date back to the Iron Age, is the most powerful oracular tradition in southern Africa.
Where to stay in Matobo
Our suggestions for safari camps in Matobo National Park
Our travellers’ wildlife sightings in Matobo
This is their success for sightings in Matobo National Park.
Click on a species for more detail. How we work this out.