The escarpment forming the border between Zimbabwe and Moambique isn’t on the usual tourist beat, yet its rolling contours offer a wealth of activities. Jackie Nel explored part of this chain which runs from Ethiopia to the Cape.
Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands can roughly be carved into three geographical areas, each with its own special character and qualities. From south to north there is Chimanimani, the Vumba and Nyanga.
This isolated escarpment is not on the usual tourist ‘milk run’ of Kariba-Hwange-Vic Falls, but it’s certainly worth a visit. Its main appeal is its relative remoteness and the fact that you can travel for hours without seeing anyone else. But there’re also plenty of things to do there.
My approach to Chimanimani entailed a complicated journey, flying from Cape Town via Bulawayo and Harare. Even that trip was not without its high points, notably the smartly dressed pair of Zimbabwean women at Bulawayo Airport, about to embark on their first flight. They appeared and reappeared on the steps leading to their plane, waving wildly to cheering friends and family so many times they eventually delayed two flights as well as ours. “I wish they’d just go in and sit down and shut up,” grumbled one onlooker as they stepped out for yet another encore.
The trip from Harare to Mutare (formerly Umtali), the so-called capital of the Eastern Highlands, is a comfortable three-hour drive, much of it through miombo woodland. The dominant species is Brachystegia spiciformis, known by its Shona name msasa. It was early August and the trees were losing their leaves, but the drive in September, when they’re showing their spring colours in a flush of pink and red, is very pretty, according to United Touring Company (UTC) representative Rob Waters.
The first little town en route is Marondera (formerly Marandellas). “It’s got several nice private schools, nice for the people in Harare with money who don’t want to use the government schools,” commented Rob. Otherwise Marondera serves the agricultural community, and there’s much tobacco growing and cattle farming. Cattle-crossing signs far out-number children-crossing signs, to give some idea of its priorities.
“It looks undeveloped but there’s some fairly intensive farming here; everything’s relative,” said Rob. The granitic land surface, he explained, provides a rich clayey soil very beneficial to tobacco farming – and tobacco is Zimbabwe’s biggest cash crop.
We stopped for refreshments at Halfway House, a colourful complex with tractors, a farm stall, tea garden, nursery and covetable array of arts and crafts. Against a musical background of wind chimes we inspected the wares. “Divide by two and the prices aren’t bad,” grinned Rob, referring to the favourable exchange rate (for South Africans).
But if you want anything from buffalo-hide wallets to giant giraffe statues, heed the notice outside: “Closed on Tuesdays, sorry folks”.Before you reach Mutare you pass through old Mutare. “They upped and moved the whole town to be on the railway line,” explained Rob. You’ll also pass L’Amour supermarket, with crowds of locals sheltering on its shaded stoep. The big building on the hill is the Methodist University, known as Africa University.
A sign says ‘City of Mutare welcomes you’, which it does with three kilometres of curving Christmas Pass, the Christmas Hotel nestling at its foot.
Mutare is now the third largest town in Zimbabwe, “and once Moambique comes on line it’ll get even bigger,” noted Rob, referring to Mutare’s proximity to its trouble-torn neighbour.
In Mutare banners were strung across the streets proclaiming ‘Breast feeding week 1 to 7 Aug’. There is a surprising number of attractions, such as the Cecil Kop Nature Reserve, an interesting museum and aviary, and the recently opened Valley Lodge, where we stopped for lunch.
I’d have liked to scout around further – the municipal camping site and caravan park also looked rather nice – but I had to pick up a Hertz hire car from the UTC office, which doubles as the tourism-information centre, and head for the mountains.It’s about 150 kilometres from Mutare to Chimanimani, which I drove late in the afternoon as the sun bathed the rural villages and trees in glorious tones of copper and gold. Through the Wengezi and Skyline junctions, and along a twisting road carved through the mountains, I reached my first stop, Chimanimani Hotel.
Here, in front of a crackling log fire, I found a team of South African speleologists planning to break the world depth record for quartzitic-sandstone caves (held in Venezuela, with a depth of 362 metres). A year before they had been arrested when the authorities, in their wisdom, thought they were mining. This time they were equipped with the necessary permits and expedition leader JP le Roux appeared to be on friendly terms with the local police, one of whom was even proudly sporting a T-shirt (over his suit) advertising the caving expedition.
‘JP’ and team told me in some detail about the quartzitic-sandstone composition of the mountains. The name Chimanimani, I learnt, refers to the pincers of a scorpion and the act of squeezing together, and basically means ‘squeezed mountains’.
“These unique formations have folded one upon the other with the gradual shifting of the land . . . ” caver Alastair Koliasnikoff was folding his hands one upon the other as he spoke, but I must admit I was more taken with JP’s tales of the problems they’d had in getting sponsorship.
“It’s not really an exciting spectator sport,” he lamented, in what could well be the understatement of the year. “People disappear into the ground for about 20 hours, then come up again.”
Chimanimani Hotel itself is a stopover for hikers and backpackers, with basic but comfortable facilities and a small camp site for those who prefer the outdoors.
There are 33 rooms, ranging from ‘use-the-bathroom-down-the-corridor-please’, to en suite with private balcony and fireplace. Facilities include a swimming pool, billiard room, cosy pub, surprisingly lavish lounge and nicely appointed dining room with excellent views of mist-covered mountains.
Meals are generous but unremarkable, but service is spot-on and wake-up calls are provided for those setting out early into Chimanimani National Park. ‘Packbackers’, as the staff call people who wander away with heavy loads on their backs, would have no complaints.
The next morning I was collected by Fen Goodes, the warden of Outward Bound Zimbabwe, jolted down gravel roads to the Outward Bound centre, kitted out with backpacking equipment, and hurried into the mountains.And a whole new world was revealed. A beguiling, bewitching world filled with sound and silence, light and colour, enchanting cloud and rock formations, and alluring, intriguing names. Digby’s Falls, for instance, and Long Gulley, Hidden Valley, Bailey’s Folly, Skeleton Pass, The Sphinx, The Saddle, Dombi, Bundi, Binga – and Fen.
Fen? “Short for Fenwick, it’s an old Irish family name,” he explained as he posed for me at Tsorotse.
Tsorotse? “That’s a Shona word meaning place of the rabbit,” Fen clarified patiently. “But the rock rabbits have all disappeared. The reason why might make an interesting subject for someone’s thesis.”
Fen was practically the only other person I saw on our route, which meant considerable repetition of my photographic model, but he did prove a most obliging one.
“It’s OK, it gives me a chance to study the rocks,” he assured me, and even chivalrously carried my tripod through the mountains.
* * *
Our approach route took us from the National Parks Board base camp at Mutekeswane, through Banana Grove and Tsorotse, past Manewe.
I was fortunate to see the mountain in all its moods when what began as a sunny day darkened suddenly and was split by lightning and pummelled by thunder. As rain poured over us Fen said perceptively, “My instinct tells me we should pitch the tent,”
We did, with a pause to sit back and laugh when it began to hail.
But I worried about the cavers, who the same day would be settin
g up their base camp at Turret Towers. Outward Bound also provides a mountain-rescue service, and before we set off JP and Fen had discussed aircraft evacuation.
Fortunately the storm was short-lived and the rest of the afternoon saw us hiking under clear skies, down a gorge and across the Bundi River, then up to Terry’s Cave near the Mawenge Mountains.
“Mawenge means high places. It’s a word from the Ndau tribe, the Moambican branch of the Shona.”
Accommodation that night was one kilometre from the Moambique border, in Terry’s Cave, which I was promised had “all the comforts of the mountain”. These turned out to be a tapered sleeping bag, wondrous views and informal entertainment in the form of my guide preparing a supper spiced with lashings of herbs, mainly garlic, that appeared from an array of film canisters.
Somewhat more educational was a mini course in astronomy, courtesy of a starry-eyed guide pointing out Scorpio, various other constellations and the riches of the celestial jewel box.
“And come look at the full moon through the binoculars,” he said, luring me once again from the comforts of our cave.The next morning’s route was through an area called Scattered Caves, along the Eastern Ridge to the first of the Southern Lakes, with a peak called Dragon Tooth forming a jagged background.
“The classic route is down the western side of the Bundi River from the National Parks Board hut to Southern Lakes,” Fen explained, pointing in all directions. “Then up and round exploring The Saddle, which is the southernmost destination. Then back via the lakes on the eastern side.”
If that sounds tempting, you can get maps and advice from the Outward Bound centre (see Adviser). You might even be lucky enough to take one of their guides with you.
Alternatively, you could join Outward Bound for one of its personal-development courses. These concentrate on outdoor activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, orienteering and overnight expeditions. They’re for people aged 10 years to 60-something, and last anything from two days to three weeks.
Our route, not the classic one, took us past Peterhouse Caves and Peterhouse Falls (named after the famous school), then along the contour path following the course of the Bundi River upstream from Southern Lakes to Digby’s Falls. Here we stopped for lunch in an extremely attractive grove of waterberry trees Syzygium cordatum, after which we met two young hikers planning to climb Kweza.
At 2 468 metres above sea level Kweza is the highest point in Chimanimani, and the second highest in Zimbabwe. “Lightning country,” Fen warned.
And more lightning country: looking due east from Digby’s Falls I could see Turret Towers, then darkly wreathed in menacing swirls of cloud.
This prompted a seasonal profile. “December is wet but warm, January-February is wet, March-April is cool and beautiful, May it’s starting to get cold, June-July is cold and you have to be kitted out but the air is clear, and August it’s warming. But there’s the odd shower and a bit of hail,” Fen grinned.
“September is lovely and hot with the msasa coming into colour, in October it’s hot so make sure you’ve got water and go to Outward Bound to find out where to get more.
“November is hot and the rains are starting.” So time your visit accordingly.I was shown how the trails were moved from time to time to minimise the impact of hikers, then we came across a decidedly well-worn path made by Moambican refugees coming across the border, sometimes as many as 30 a day.
We also passed, at the start of the fairly steep Dange Descent, an overhang used by the refugees as their night shelter. Bits of ash and wood around the cave were almost the only signs of fire we’d seen during our two-day trek.
In the Dange Forest, thick with smooth-bark flat-crown Albizia gummifera and a remnant of climax evergreen forest (“the only one this side of the mountain”), we passed nesting crowned eagle and playful samango monkeys. Our encounters with bird and wildlife had been interesting, including hearing the call by day of an elusive narina trogon and that evening of a wood owl. We’d also seen seven healthy eland, sable droppings and the dainty spoor of a blue duiker, the smallest antelope in Southern Africa.
But that’s just touching the surface of what Chimanimani has to offer, such as the cycads and San paintings my cautious guide, fearing that I would reveal their sensitive locations, politely declined to show me.
Then, after four small but slippery river crossings, we arrived ‘home’: the Outward Bound Centre.
* * *
The next morning I was woken by wolf whistling – pet parrot Chinge exercising his vocal chords. Then I was shown round Outward Bound’s dormitory-style accommodation and various obstacle courses. “It’s a mountain-leadership school so there’s no luxury, but we supply almost everything: sleeping bags, eating utensils, maps, first aid and so on.”
Fen handed over tree check lists and environmental-assessment questionnaires on sightings game and human, state of paths, flora and weather conditions, then we crossed to a vIei on the property.
“There’re magnificent wetland birds associated with sedges and reeds here, such as the broadbilled weaver, which is very rare,” he exulted as we schloomped through the mud. “And we’ve got the yellow-throated longclaw, an unusual bird. There’s even waterfowl such as black duck and plover.”
We reached Tessa’s Pool, a gloriously tranquil mountain pool below a softly splashing waterfall.
“We’re trying to keep this a special place where people can see broadleaf woodland, evergreen forest and the waterfall in a natural state. It’s a very fragile ecosystem, so we don’t allow picnicking. Some people come here and you won’t believe what they bring.”
There’s a picnic area at the car park but when people visit the pool they should take just their camera and costumes, and sign the visitor’s book.
And good news for all those who enquire about trails for the elderly: Outward Bound offers short, easy ecotrails, with bird hides along the way.
So far there’s a check list of 286 species on the 40-hectare property – and including the species found higher up in the mountains the total count is believed to be more than 300 because the different habitats, from the highveld species such as Acacia microphilia to the protea species, support an immense variety of bird life.
As examples: “On the rocky outcrops there’re mocking chats, and raptors such as the peregrine falcon; in the protea-populated areas there’s Gurney’s sugarbird and malachite sunbird.
“And cuckoos. We’ve got emerald; Diederik; African; European; and redchested, the old piet-my-vrou which drives us crazy. Two lovely sounds are the blackheaded oriole and the African hoopoe. I could rattle on. . . .”He did, as we drove to Hot Springs. En route were giant tobacco barns where tobacco is air dried; Heaven Lodge which offers affordable accommodation for backpackers; the original Chimanimani Village built into terraces on the mountain; the farm where horses used by Outward Bound are kept; and Charter Estate, the largest forestry estate in the area.
The signs here saying ‘Keep well left. Long timber traffic’ are most apt. As we choked in the dust of one heavily loaded truck Fen became more serious. “We need a management plan for the mountain. There’s little impact now but I’ve seen a change over the years.”
We passed the Chipinge turnoff, a lovely route through forest and farms, and a so-called African purchase area, comprising small subsistence farms occasionally signposted ‘Biriwiri’, the area’s name. I learnt that most of the signs were stolen during the drought to make water containers – and the ‘Umvumvumvu River’ sign was particularly popular.
Keeping an eye out for people and cattle ambling across the road, we passed Witch’s Mountain, then turned at Makwe Village onto the stone-strewn Shinja Road. We passed a large house sporting Cape-Dutch gables, then crossed the Nyanyadzi River, which was part of the elephant migration route at the turn of the century, as indeed most pre-highway roads were in Southern Africa
Shinja Road is 127 bridges long. There’re no milestones, so if you ask anyone along the way how far to go, he’ll say 86 or whatever bridges.
This detour is worth tackling for its rural scenery, including a communal wash area, built by the Shinja District Council to encourage the inhabitants not to wash in the river.
Bridge Number 92 had been washed away, but we drove on regardless. “Apologies to Hazel,” laughed Fen, jokingly referring to Hazel Higginson at Hertz.
The few buildings included the Save the Children school of which Princess Anne is patron. She was there two years ago, and I’d love to know what she thought of the road (which is also used for the Castrol Rally).
The drive from Outward Bound to Hot Springs also takes you through a range of altitudes and in doing so traverses a variety of vegetation types. Terminalia, marula and mopane gave way to the lala palms and baobabs of the lowveld. Some baobabs are unfortunately disintegrating through a fungus carried by caterpillars – the fungus saps the moisture and the effects were particularly bad during the drought. Chingudza Charlie, a famous landmark tree, was one of many that succumbed.
After crossing all 127 bridges, we joined the tarred Mutare-Birchenough Bridge road. “This area was badly hit by the drought.” Fen indicated a large dam built by foreign aid. “Brilliant infrastructure with concrete canals, but they didn’t involve the locals and didn’t consult the records, and now they don’t get enough catchment even in heavy rains. It’s a classic example of where foreign aid goes wrong.”At Hot Springs we were welcomed by a party of little boys selling cream of tartar (fruit of baobab). “For free, because you are visitors,” they lisped with shy, gap-toothed smiles.
Hot Springs is owned by Theo and Lol Nel and offers 11 thatched, A-frame chalets, all en suite (but with no cold-water taps).
The main attraction is the large pool of hot mineral water, with abutting cold plunge pool, but there were just as many people playing boisterous games of frisbee and volleyball on the lawn as relaxing in waters.
A children’s playpark, canoeing and bass fishing at the dam, mountain-biking trails and a corner for campers and caravanners are other attractions. There’s even a beauty salon, run by Theo and Lol’s daughter Cher.
And there’s a wealth of walks and drives – Theo took me to see one large baobab around which 18 adults can stand, hands linked, arms outstretched. (Chingudza Charlie could be encircled by 26 adults). “Whole families would hide in here during the reign of Monomatapa in the early 1800s,” marvelled Theo, shining his torch into its hollow, now occupied by fruit bats, which pollinate the baobab flowers.
Alongside is the Odzi River, with Rasta paintings on the rocks to one side and bathing locals in the water. “Beautiful white water in October-November,” grinned Theo, “but look at all those rocks. It can be quite treacherous; not for the faint -hearted. “
Over the river is a baobab forest popular with artists. “But it stands on a burial round so you need to get the chiefs permission to enter.”
Back at Hot Springs I availed myself of the salubrious waters, then joined the other guests at the open-air bar-cum-restaurant by the dam.
Our lively group included an American couple, Ty and Marguerite Chalmers, who were doing a round-the-world tour of Outward Bound centres – by bicycle. “We’ve been travelling for two and a half years now,” said Ty. So far, the Zimbabwean and German centres had been the most impressive, he said diplomatically.
An enjoyable buffet supper was followed by a late-night dip for those who couldn’t get enough of the hot mineral water.Overall, I’d say a trip combining hiking in the mountains, several scenic drives and a rejuvenating visit to Hot Springs means you get the very best of Chimanimani – and looking through all my information I see I haven’t even mentioned the drive to Cashel, touted as being among the most scenic of routes.
But to end with the beginning, by elaborating on the statement about the special character and qualities of the three regions: Chimanimani is the most remote, rugged and unrelenting of the three, and to my mind the most beautiful. As UTC man Rob Waters said of it, “Chimanimani’s a specialist destination, because it’s off the beaten track and inaccessible. People who make the effort to go there want to spend a bit of time hiking and getting close to nature. Whatever you’re going to be eating or wearing, you take in on your back.”
The Vumba is characterised by the large and luxurious Leopard Rock Hotel (see page 59) and several smaller, characterful inns. There’re some interesting drives, but beware: you could take a wrong turning and land up in Moambique.
And Nyanga? Well, you’ll have to wait for part two for tales of trout fishing and archaeological splendours.
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