Great Zimbabwe

October 18th - October 19th, 1999

This Monday morning we set out for the Zimbabwean border. Kathy has a friend in Harare, so we decided that we would spend a leisurely four days working through the 600 kilometers inbetween. Before this, we have to tackle our very first African border crossing, and it turns out that the Beitbridge station is one of Africa's worst. The South African side is merely reams of red tape as this is the point at which we must claim our VAT refund (foreigners are exempt from sales tax on goods not used or consumed in South Africa, and most of our camping gear is eligible), but there's a room in hell just like the Zimbabwean station. Chaos reigns supreme here, all the government officials truly couldn't care less, and the parking lots and environs are filled with idle Africans trying to make a buck any way they can from the foreigners caught in this bureaucratic flypaper. Helpful hint: ignore anyone trying to flag you down, even those that appear to be in official garb. They're just hustlers; the officials are safely nestled behind their desks and barely lift a finger for you, much less stand out in the hot african sun waiting for you.

It took nearly three hours, but we finally make our way through. We make a quick foray into the nearby border town for petrol and a wallet-choking stack of Zim dollars; at forty Zim dollars to the US buck and the largest Zim banknote being a hundred, a $100 traveler's check generates a lot of paper. We start bombing our way north to Masvingo but after an hour or so it becomes apparent that something is terribly wrong with our Land Rover Spot. Our gas gauge begins to drop at a very alarming rate: we went through a quarter of a tank in fifty kilometers! We stop at what might be the only gas station between Beitbridge and Masvingo and discover that Jim's patch to the carburetor float has given way. The float is now stuck permanently open, and that petrol is being pumped right out the back.

With the aid of Isaac the mechanic (pictured at left), we isolate the failed carburetor and run Spot on the remaining good carb. While Spot does run, our engine power is now less than half of what it once was. So now instead of barreling down the road at 120kph, the very best we can manage on level ground is 100kph, and even a slight hill slows us down to 50kph! We've now joined the throng of slow moving African traffic.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of our drive to Masvingo is that we aren't the slowest vehicle on the road. There's more than a few tattered African trucks struggling along with even more difficulty than we are. We had hoped to reach Masvingo by mid-afternoon, but it's well after dusk when we crawl into town. Much of the town is closed, but we do manage to find the town's caravan park and then limp Spot over to the sole remaining open restaurant in town, giving us time to contemplate how we're going to tackle a new country with our wings clipped.

Great Zimbabwe

The morning brings with it a new day and a few new travel rules. We've decided that unpaved roads are now out of the question given Spot's condition. Also, after checking a few parts (they call 'em "spares" here) shops in Masvingo, we quickly find that something is up with Land Rover spares distribution in Zimbabwe and that no one here can help us. The whole country is now serviced by a single distributor/dealer in Harare, a good 300 kilometers to the north. We decide that it simply makes the most sense to head up to Harare ahead of schedule, skipping most of the tourist sights we had hoped to see along the way. Only one point of interest, the Great Zimbabwe, is on a paved road, and we decide to make a day of it and camp at the national park campgrounds there.

First built in the 13th century, the Great Zimbabwe was once the capitol of a large inland African empire that stretched from eastern Zimbabwe and Mozambique to as far west as Botswana and as far south as parts of South Africa. The largest ancient structure in Africa south of the pyramids, the structures of Great Zimbabwe formed the hub of a city of somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people and was supported by commerce in gold and ivory. Relics from both China and India have been found here, showing that ancient trade routes knew of this civilization. Abandoned in the 15th century due to the surrounding land's inability to support that large of a population without a modern infrastructure, very little is known of the people who lived here. Pre-colonial Africa had an oral tradition; writing was unknown and by the time the Portuguese reached here Great Zimbabwe had long since been empty.

Two major structures make up the bulk of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe: the Enclosure and the Hill Complex. The Enclosure (pictured below) was home to the royal family, and actually consists of two concentric walls. Only the royal family was allowed in the inner enclosure, while priests and servants could enter the outer. Construction is organic in appearance, with no right angles or straight lines.

Found right next to the exterior of the inner enclosure lies a striking stone phallus (below left). The purpose of this structure is of great controversy, with the best guesses being that it is an altar of some kind. It is known that it does not contain any treasure or relics, as it was thoroughly picked through before being restored. Access to this altar for religious officials was provided by a narrow alley between the walls of the inner and outer enclosures (below right), an eerie space cold and devoid of light on even the hottest and brightest of days.



Surrounding the Enclosure are numerous minor buildings and altars; threading its way through them is a mysterious depressed pathway that is sometimes no wider than 20cm (that's about 8 inches). No one understands why it was constructed in such a different fashion from the other approaches to the Enclosure, and no analogue in other African cultures is known.

The Hill Complex

Overlooking the landscape and predating the Enclosure is the Hill Complex. Built upon a massive granite mound, the structures of the Hill Complex integrate themselves within the living rock, seemingly becoming one with it. While the defensive purposes of the Hill Complex appear obvious, it is believed that the religious elite lived and worked from here.


The main approach path to the Hill Complex winds its way through the existing granite rock face and boulders, sometimes squeezing you and the path through tight crevices. From the top you get a commanding view of the surrounding hills.


In this picture to the left you can see how the Enclosure appears from the Hill Complex; the surrounding city likely filled in the space around and inbetween them.

Modern day Zimbabwe makes much of the ancient Great Zimbabwean culture and derives many of its modern icons from statues found in the ruins, even though their meaning and purpose is a complete mystery today. The icon of Zimbabwe is a curious seated bird with mammalian legs, of which half a dozen or so statues were found here. While the curious bird may be a symbol of ancient royalty, the moderns are running the risk that the bird's purpose may be a bit more pedestrian. It's a question that may never be answered, as the only written record of this culture is a few cryptic mentions in ancient Chinese diaries and navigation maps.


We spent the evening at the monument's caravan park and found it to be a pleasant enough stay despite the aging bathrooms and numerous locals walking through. When the park closes at 6PM, all officials leave and the campers have the ancient city all to themselves. Kathy and Jim shared a memorable bottle of wine while watching the sunset from the Hill Complex, and if we had so desired could have wandered through the ruins all evening.

Thirsty Lizards

While we were admiring the gestalt of the Great Zimbabwe hill complex, Kathy brought out one of the bottles of water we carry with us and took a sip, spilling a small amount in the process. To her surprise, a lizard ran out from a crevice and started lapping away at the moistened rock, even though it was only two inches away from Kathy's knee. Amazed, we tried an experiment: we poured some water in the middle of the large boulder we were sitting on. The photo above shows the lizard party that ensued. The poor lizards were obviously dying of thirst, otherwise they never would have behaved in this fashion. This day was very hot, and it was towards the end of the dry season so these reptiles hadn't seen rain or even dew in quite some time.

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