Four days at Amalinda Lodge, on the edge of Matobo National Park. Where is that, you ask? Why just 25 miles or so south of Bulawayo, of course. It turns out – I certainly didn’t know it – Bulawayo, in southwestern Zimbabwe, is Zimbabwe’s second city, behind only the capital Harare. We drove through Bulawayo on the way down to Matobo and again on our way out as we headed to the airport and both times it seemed like a charming little city with wide streets and comfortable homes. But that’s all we saw of Bulawayo.
As for Matobo National Park, we saw a lot of that over four days and absolutely loved it. Comprising about 165 square miles, Matobo is Zimbabwe’s oldest national park. It is known primarily for the kopjes (Dutch for “little heads”), granite outcrops that, as the surrounding earth as eroded, leave fantastic shapes. The word “Matobo” comes from the local dialect and means “bald head”, indicating all the little round bald heads lying all over. Beyond that the park is the home to a bunch of rhinoceroses (I looked it up; I’m pretty sure that’s the correct plural form) and allegedly the densest concentrations of both leopards and black eagles in the world. And while we did see both rhinos and black eagles sadly we didn’t see leopards; they are among the most elusive of the large animals in Africa.
Four nights was a long stay at the lodge; we learned while we were there in fact that they recommend three nights. The issue is that there isn’t that much to do: the activities on offer include rhino hunting (with cameras, not guns), a journey to the grave of Cecil Rhodes and View of the World, and a tour of some pre-historic rock art. And there are some little walks in the area, but those are the big three. Most people will do one of those activities in the morning, another in the afternoon, and then one more the next day, then leave.
For us, we could do it more gradually, doing one each morning and then having the afternoon to enjoy the incredible beauty and serenity around the lodge grounds. That meant lots of hours of sitting by the pool reading and just enjoying the views of the surrounding hills. It was so quiet and remote, so vast and open. I didn’t need to spend more time there but four relaxing days were heaven.
It’s worth noting, too, that the weather was pretty fabulous. Definitely chilly when the sun went down but for the most part the skies were stunningly blue and daytime temperatures were in the high 60s or low 70s. Can’t ask for more perfect weather.
The unusual part of our stay was how many travel agents we encountered. Apparently we were there right around the time that two major travel agent conventions were ending in South Africa and lots of agents from around the world would take the opportunity to tour the region and get the kind of first-hand experience that must be invaluable. Over our four days there we encountered maybe a dozen travel agents out exploring; for travelers who almost always travel on our own I was almost surprised there are that many travel agents left in the whole world!
And finally, spending time in Zimbabwe brings you face to face with a bunch of challenging questions about imperialism and colonialism. For instance one afternoon while hanging around the lodge to read I met an older white guy who lives nearby in Bulawayo. He had once owned a large farm – some 10,000 acres, I think he said – much of which was fenced off to protect the big game wildlife that lived there. In the early part of this century then-President Mugabe confiscated the land as part of his land reform movement, distributing it in small parcels to otherwise landless peasants.
The result, as he tells the story? The animals have all been slaughtered, while no one can make a living off their relatively small parcels of land in what is a relatively difficult environment to farm. The peasants are still poor, the animals are dead, he’s without his farm. Back when I was young and studying these things I was always sympathetic to land reform efforts and presumably still am. After all, it is reasonable to assume that at some point, maybe even a couple hundred years ago, his ancestors pretty much just took the land from the indigenous people. Needless to say, though, it’s pretty hard to justify just taking his land and giving it to other people, particularly if he was a good steward of both the land and the fauna.
And then there’s the question of Cecil Rhodes. Devil or visionary? Although he served as the Prime Minister of South Africa he was a major player in the colonization of what is now Zimbabwe. In fact, the country was previously known as Rhodesia, named for him. Looking back, it seems inescapable to describe him as anything but a white supremacist: he believed the English were “the first race in the world” and described the indigenous population of southern Africa as “living in a state of barbarism.” Given his role in South Africa and his racist attitudes he can reasonably be thought of as the father of apartheid. On the other hand our guide Howard, a native Zimbabwean, described him as an honored figure, someone who left a wonderful and important legacy of development in the country. When Mark asked about the dark side of Rhodes Howard suggested that compared to Mugabe, Rhodes was an angel.
So there you are, Zimbabwe is a complex, complicated place. Beautiful, though, with a great park so far off the grid it felt almost as though we were on a different planet.