Chapter 19: Matopos
The first bust had disgorged its passengers by the time ours reach the aircraft.
The crowd at the foot of the mobile stairs slowly fed itself up and into the plane, as a few yellow jacketed officials lazily flapped their arms at the periphery like some exotic herdsmen tending a flock of goats.
The tarmac apron was a bustle of activity. The area was shared between most domestic flights, and the short distance international hauls. With the Joburg- Cape Town route being the busiest in the world, the buzz of activity was not surprising.
My slight sense of anxiety dissipated when half way up the stairway I recognized a bald head sticking up out of the neckline of his customary short sleeved khaki shirt and shorts. His thick stocky legs protruded from the shorts above their tuck into long cotton socks pulled up almost to the knees, from where they originated from their loose slide out of well-worn leather veldskoen shoes. Trevor was about to enter the aircraft.
Having been allocated a seat towards the rear, I slowed my progress to allow other passengers to move ahead. Thus I was one of the last to board.
The flight did not seem all that crowded. If I was one of the last on I could check if Trevor had an open seat adjacent to his, or I could scope out another location so that we could sit and chat together.
There’s something about the bonds formed during childhood which unlike the rest of life, never age or mature. These are the ties with place and persons.
Raised on neighboring farms, Trevor and I were both imbued with the same sense of African place, its savannah bushland. Add to that our togetherness since Junior School, and as such are familiarity with each other, and lack of inhibitions, obviously stemmed from our youthful imprinting. When together we were like two school boys, able to chat and discuss with complete open frankness almost any subject under the sun.
As I moved down the aisle I noted an open middle spot next to him, and I settled down for the short flight northwards.
The climb out of Johannesburg was bumpy, but not nearly as rough as the dissent into Bulawayo. By then it was after midday.
The sub-tropical air, spurred on by the blazing sunshine, buffetted our aircraft as it rose, sucking moisture up with it, so high that the jet-stream blew the cloudy crowns sideways like the hair on the head of a windswept girl.
Pausing the flow of our conversation, I looked out the window to peer at the top of one of these awesome anvils as it slid past under the wings.
“It looks like we can expect a thunderstorm later on this afternoon,” I said to Trevor.
“We could use it”, he replied, “We never have enough rain these days”.
Both being well acquainted with the roughness of aspects of African travel, unlike a few of the foreign passengers who were glancing around nervously, we hardly broke the flow of our conversation as the aircraft rocked its way across the sky.
“How did you get the gig up there?” Trevor was spooning mouthfuls of the chicken and sadza from the little tinfoil container he had lifted from his lunch tray, holding it up near his mouth for convenience and efficiency.
I didn’t answer immediately, instead I continued to ruminate on how sadza, being the staple maze meal dough-like food favored by most of the poor and rural population was more frequently replacing the usual rice or mashed-potato starch of the menu on the intre African flights. Maybe, I surmised, it was a sign that a lot of people had been lifted into middle class by the end of apartheid, and they had brought their eating habits with them.
I mentioned this to Trevor when our food trays were delivered. Sadza on the menu was probably a good sign that Africa had a democratic future. It signified a growing middle class, a necessity for any thriving democracy.
Trevor agreed, “Yup, that’s the problem here, the mafia in charge surround themselves with thugs, and they pander to a small elite, while most everyone else is kept in a state of peasantry, which at election time can either be beaten into submission, or bought with a bag of maize-meal. Of course,” he continued, “the voting peasants can be fed the story that their maladies are still the fault of the white man.”
Trevor finished chewing his mouthful. He nodded his head sideways to indicate the three smart, but casually dressed men sitting in the seats across the aisle. “I wonder what all these Chinese on this flight think of the sadza? I bet they would prefer rice.”
“That is another sign of the times, and the new Africa.” I nodded back to him, “I hear that in Angola there are now more Chinese than there were Portuguese colonialists at the time of independence.”
“Yup.” Trevor leaned back from his meal, “The Chinese these days own most of this country. They have intentionally lent and entangled the government into such a deep debt trap that the Chinese can do as they please.”
I agreed. “They are also doing that in Angola, Zambia and South Africa, and anywhere in the world where there are the natural resources they need. They do that with any pariah state. No questions asked. .”
Trevor mopped the chicken gravy at the bottom of its tin-foil bowl with the last of his bread-roll. “I heard that it was an official Chinese government policy to encourage 5 million of them to emigrate into Africa. They want them to become Chinese ex-pats, and hence indirectly form a China sympathetic element in the fabric of the continent.
“They are just the latest neo-colonialists streaming this way to get their heads bashed around by an African education.” I replied pensively.
“One wonders how their children will think of themselves. Will they think of themselves as Chinese? Or will they have as little allegiance to China as you and I have to Europe. Will they also learn that deep down, despite us being completely African, we are spoilers to the purity of the popular idea here, that Africa belongs only to the Africans.”
I glanced out the window as I felt the nose of the aircraft dip to begin its descent.
Trevor handed his tray to the airhostess,. I picked up where he left off. “The Chinese have started to mine copper close to a village on the border of the area where I operate. I am told that hybrid babies have started to appear amongst the village lasses.”
Trevor looked at me and shrugged. “Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls.”
I passed my tray to the airhostess as the captain announced the preparations for landing.
“Well,” I said to him, “For better or worse, you and I are stuck in our Africa. We have no other home.”
“By the way,” I said to him, “talking about boys and girls. Did I tell you that I meeting somebody else while I am here?”
“No.” he said. “Who is it.”
“Sophia.” I replied slowly.
“No kidding!” Trevor looked at me in surprise, “What hat did you pull her out of?”
“I didn’t, she contacted me. Out of the blue after three decades. Apparently she got divorced a few years ago, and her father died recently and left her some money. So she has come back here. Why here? I have no idea. Maybe like so many of us, trying to recapture, or rekindle the glories of the past.’
“Really.” Trevor e exclaimed, “I’m surprised I haven’t bumped into her yet.
I know most of the Jewish communit. After all from the five thousand here when we were at school it is down to about 50 these days.”
I said, “She’s probably still settling in, and she doesn’t use her maiden name. Which is probably why you haven’t recognized her”
“But who knows, I will know more in two days time.”
“I stay here because of the hills. I know the locals don’t think I belong here because I’m white. But I do. I belong to these hills.”
I remembered what Trevor had said yesterday as I drove towards the thatched archway and ticket office of the main entrance to the Matopos National Park.
“This country is so messed up these days, almost anybody who wants a normal life and has a skill has gone. But despite all the harassment, the police roadblocks, the potholes, the power outages, the lack of civic services, electricity and running water, and the decrepit state of the schools, I stay here because of these hills.” he had said.
As the road wended its way south-westward, past the barely functional agricultural research station, and the tired looking buildings of the Rhodes Elementary Preparatory School, the boring and gently rolling countryside, covered with scrubby thorn trees, gradually changed and fill with pimply looking rocky outcrops.
Now, slowly, as I drove, like the layers of a mirage dancing in the heat at the end of the road, the far off images gradually coalesced into
a giant Lego-land. Instead of colorful plastic, the blocks were huge grey granite boulders, whose rough surfaces were subliminally painted with the gentle brush strokes of delicate lichens. Everywhere these natural canvases were daubed with paler patches of flakey white. Sometimes they were blended with darker greys, or even black, and streaked through with the russet from the ferrous traces leached out of the rock by millions of years of weathering.
Slightly bitterly I considered how history has not thanked the colonial era Europeans for the gift of national parks, to Africa, and the rest of the world. Most of the ungrateful who live here don’t even realize what a gift they were given. Not yet anyway!”.
I paused to duck and crane my head to look out the side window of the vehicle admiringly as I passed the first steep jumble of rocky hill kopjes.
I had borrowed Trevor’s vehicle to head out here.
AsI I filled in my particulars at the window of the small office, the smile of the portly Wharton who took our fees spread almost as wide on her face as the gaps between the buttons on the shirt of her khaki uniform, which was strained apart by the abundance of her bosom.
“The Rangers say that the rhino are close! You should be able to see them if you take the Maleme dam loop” she said.
The excitedly animated tone of her voice was not reflected in the slow lethargy of her movements as she waddled across and opened the gate letting me into the park.
“Thank you Mama, I will look for them,”I politely acknowledged her helpfulness.
Driving away I thought how despite its condition, this country was still full of lovely people.
The road led deeper into the park, where the piles of rock, some of them is ordered as the loaves of bread on a Baker shelf, and others is jumbled as the blocks in a toddler’s playpen, gave way to the signature huge inselberg domes of the Matopos.
The sparse and scruffy grass that previously spread between the thorn-trees now changed to a softer and sweeter variety.
With much of the surface area of the land covered by rock, any rain that fell was concentrated and caught in the sandy soil blown in across the millennium, forming the flat bottoms of the glens and grassy spreads between the rock formations.
The further my progress into the hills the more the dry thorn trees along the way were replaced by their lusher and more luxuriant brethren, so that at times it seemed that I was driving through some variant of the hanging Gardens of Babylon. Tall and elegant Mountain acacia reached up to the sky from clefts in the rocks, and below them the broad green leafed fig trees with roots flattened and spreading out over the rocks like poured treacle, mingled their greenery with vine creepers.
The road leading to the Togwane dam, and the signs that pointed the direction to the Inanke cave beyond it reflected the general state of the country. It was evident that not much had been touched in the last few decades. Fortunately I somehow remembered the directions and the land-cruiser could easily handle the rutted road to the small parking area with its forlorn little guard room.
It was here that I was to begin my long seven kilometer hike to the Inanke cave, but not before I wwas made to sign another book by a wizened warden, who was pleased to see me. I guess anyone would be please for company, even if it were only to sign the hiker’s book, if it had been weeks since the last visitors.
As if to confirm the previous dates scribbled in the book, “We do not get many people here.” the scrawny little man commented.
The magic of the walk out to this beautiful Holy Graille of rock art began as soon as I left the little parking area. I were swallowed into a lush green canopy of trees lining the bottom of the water courses like a dense morning fog.
When I was last here three decades ago, there had been a well-worn easy to find pathway.
Now its course was not clear, having been extensively overgrown by the underbrush. It followed the watercourses that rose and fell as the large rock domes on each side pressed in and funneled my progress.
It wasn’t long before I crested the rise between two promontories and came out from under the swaddling herbaceous opulence of the trees, to stand at the top of a small granite slope. It looked down on an exquisite Valley edged with massive inselbergs and decorated with boulders the size of buildings, whose edges were blurred with the greenery of leaves and filled with the music of bird calls. The far off bark of a baboon, and here and there the squeak of a Rock Hyrax, enhanced the magic of the place.
I challenge anyone not to feel the spirit here, and find affinity with the mood which has affected all those passing this way over the eons.
There is an atmosphere of reverence to nature that intoxicates. If I tarried here long enough, as did the ancient bushmen sangoma’s, I would probably be drawn to tithing with similar images faintly etched in daubed ochre and shielded under big overhanging rock walls along my pilgrimage.
After a steep climb out of a narrow valley and jumping across the stream forming its bottom, a gigantic rock-face reared up ahead, before folding around to the right. Near its crown it tucked under itself like the crest of a huge wave, as if sucking in its breath before crashing into the dark jumble of rocks at its feet.
I searched for the Black Eagles nest that once was piled up in a massive bulk of sticks on the sloping ledge below the wave’s lip. It was gone, but with elation I noted the birds were not, one of them sat higher on the cliff face further up the valley.
The sandy floor below the cliff was devoid of thick vegetation. I did not need to concentrate on where to place my next foot fall. The old trek path was relatively obvious.
After the big cliff, a long granite slope spread upwards to one side. On it were painted faded arrows. The bare slope of the rock was dotted with clusters of hardy resurrection bushes, so named because of their ability to go without water for long periods as they cling to the sun baked granite, and then burst into ebullient vitality with the first rains.
I took out and drank long and quenchingly from one of my water bottles. With that, I turned to begin the climb, with a slow one foot in front of the other.
The dimples and roils of the granite slope lifted inexorably until, way off and high up ahead, they met the sky.
The surface of the huge dome, like the blemished skin on the head of an old man was dotted and spotted with sporadic little clusters of stunted trees. These clung to life in the shallow scrapes of soil that accumulated anywhere an unevenness formed a meagre detritus filled hollow, which summer’s flash floods could not wash away.
Narrowing my eyes against the brightness of the sky, a long way up ahead, before the dome curved over the horizon, I saw a particularly wide and prolific concentration of vegetation. It rose un-cropped out of a fold in the rock. It was like a thin strip of hair missed by a careless man as he shaved, where it was tucked into a crease at the top of his cheek.
Toiling up the slope I once again thought back to what Trevor had said the previous evening about the Mlilo, as I sat savoring a sundowner on the wide verandah of his house nestling into the rocks above the Hillside dam in Bulawayo.
“The cult of the Mlimo hinges around powerful sangomas, he spoke between sips of his beer. ““They serve as mouth pieces for an Oracle. The Ntsheleni cave is the one most associated with that. However as I don’t know anyone who has attended one of the sessions, I am not sure to what extent it is an unseen sangoma, who is the voice, or the utterances are those perceived by a receptive devotee who is in the throes of a trance. The Silozwane cave is also mentioned as an oracle site. But these days it is too well visited and hence disturbed.”
He continued, “The Matopos have been synonymous with magic for thousands of years.”
Trevor had taken another few sips of his beer and with a pen knife cut off a few slivers of biltong from the leather like strip he held in his hand. He had offered a few of these to me, which I accepted as eagerly as the mongrel dog sitting begging at his knees.
Then just before Colleen his wife called us in for dinner, Trevor had said. “But these days, because it is the most inaccessible and the most beautiful, I have heard that on very special occasions the Oracle is delivered at the Inanke cave.”
Thus with Trevor’s words in my mind, and feeling the stinging tiredness in my legs I panted up the last few yards of the climb. After nearly three decades, I was about to again come face to face with one of the most spectacular displays in Africa. The Sistine Chapel in the Jerusalem of African rock art.
The faint white arrows led up the southeast side of the big fold of bushes, behind which the cave spread back into the granite. From there I crossed above, so that the approach was from the west along a level shelf. It was far more overgrown than I remembered, and required pushing aside branches and clambering over roots to make headway.
Finally, the cave opened up in high hallowed simplicity.
On its walls and ceiling were the Erie stylized stick figures of men running, or maybe dancing, and animals parading. There were the strange| dot decorated oval shapes, which some experts presume to be honeycombs, or maybe an ants nest. I’m sure if I had one of the experts beside me they would explain, how some of the figures are therianthropic, and the significance of the legs of the men painted the same color as those of the big totem animals, or the streams of potency streaming out the back in sprays from some of the figures. Or maybe they would tell me how the dying shapes of a kudu signified the consummation of a marriage.
All of this decoration didn’t matter. The painters were long gone. Who knew what their ultimate motive was, to produce such starkly simplistic and emotionally moving images. I didn’t care about the nuances.
Being alone in this place, even I was affected. The ideas expressed in these ochre and orange images, are no longer being born in minds of the ancestral bushman, they been wiped out and there remnants push far into the Kalahari Desert. But the occult and its traditions still live in some form in the minds of the tribes of this area.
I stood in silence mindlessly looking up at the ceiling. I simply absorbed its beauty.
I banished logic, and let myself be pulled along by the mesmerizing effect of the almost religious loneliness, and of the primitive precedence of this immense cave, with its high wide ceiling, and the view down across this surreal landscape. A landscape made magnificent by being untouched, unspoiled.
The only sound was the faint whispers of the wind through the shielding screen of branches.
I wondered if the supplicants, when they heard the oracle, heard the answers as the whisper of the wind now sounded to me.
Closing my eyes, I listened to the whispers in my mind, and the tickle of a pebble rolling down over the lip of the cave.
And another set of quiet clicks as another pebble fel, with soft rustling ticks as it was cushioned by the leaves below.
A pebble being gradually loosened over time by the movement of branches or grasses. Maybe. But two pebbles?
My senses were jerked back into alertness as I stood in tense silence.
I was no longer looking at the images on the walls. Instead I cast my glances to left and right, to the caves approaches.
I detected the faint swish as branches were moved by someone’s approach.
A tall lean figure emerged out of the undergrowth. He straightened to stand fully erect and look at me with the same stillness with which I returned his gaze.
It was the figure of a tall lean African man. He was clad in olive fatigues. With a deeply lined face he had the grey hair of an elder. In his right hand he held an AK-47.
I recognized him.
After contemplating me for a moment he slowly started to walk towards me.
“Kunjani” he said, “Hello”.
But unlike the other times I had seen him, he smiled, and his face was transformed by friendliness.
What are you doing here?” I asked suspiciously.
He shrugged, and with the same voice with its distinctive African accent I had heard when he had ordered me to leave Eddie he said,
“I work here! “
“But then what were you doing up on the Kafue?”
The man smiled at me, “It has been many years since I was on the other side of the Zambezi.”
He stepped closer and looked out over the vista.
“I have worked as a warden in this park since independence.
“I saw you up in Zambia two weeks ago!” I insisted.
“No”. The man slowly shook his head. “Maybe you saw my brother. Unlike me, he stayed after the struggle.”
And it is as well that he did. He is more headstrong than I am. Here he would’ve made a fuss and fought, and they would’ve killed him. The regime now is more brutal than the colonialists.
I stared incredulously.
“I came back, and my brother stayed there”. A pause, “The Mlimo told us to do so. I have not seen him for many years.”
The grey haired figure narrowed his eyes, “You see my brother and I are twins, identical twins. But, that is another long story.”
Dumbfounded, I stared at him.
Then he slowly moved across to stand beside me. He gestured out across the hills.
And a deep slow African voice said, “Isn’t it so beautiful! This is why I stay here!”