Matobo Hills

Matobo Hills
Photo by Marcel Staron.

The Matobo Hills comprise a living cultural landscape where people have interacted for over 100.000 years with the landscape, notably via rock paintings.

There are around 700 known sites with some 20.000 paintings. They date from the late Stone Age and the Iron Age, the oldest are 13.000 years old. Shrines and sacred places connected with the high God of the oracular cult Mwali are still in use.

Community Perspective: the Matobos offer a variety of sights, including several signposted caves with rock art and natural features such as distinct granite boulders and a game park area most notable for its reintroduced black and white rhinos.

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Els Slots

The Netherlands - 12-Sep-23 -

Matobo Hills by Els Slots

The OUV of Matobo Hills is a bit hard to grasp, but it boils down to the meaning this landscape had for the San hunter-gatherers (Stone Age, Iron Age) and the Ndebele nation (from the 19th century onwards). Nowadays most tourists come here for the Rhinos and the Rock Art. I visited for 1.5 days as part of a small nature group tour (4 pax). We stayed overnight at the recommended Rowallan Camp, a small ‘glamping’ site with self-catering amenities just inside the park’s borders.

My 3 Australian tour mates were surprisingly smitten by the Matobo’s distinct landscape of rocky boulders – something that they could have observed very well at home I think. At sunrise and sunset, it provides a picturesque setting, as do the neat bundles of hay waiting to be picked up that have been gathered during the day by female workers. There is some overflow of cattle from neighbouring areas into the park and several fires had encroached as well when we were there.

For the Rock Art, we went to Nswatugi Cave and Bambata Cave. The road system in Matobo has severely deteriorated over the years and one now needs a 4WD to get around properly (there’s a paved road that crosses it but you won’t see much from there). Nswatugi was the easiest of the two to get to by car; its access road has only one nasty stream to cross. The paintings are in a rock shelter about a 15-minute walk uphill. They are all in red and depict animals and people.

Bambata Cave lies deep into what’s called the Game Park, the part of Matobo Hills where numerous wildlife species have been reintroduced. Its access road is particularly bad. From the car park here it takes about 20 minutes via an exposed uphill walk on granite hills to access the site. The views on the surroundings along the way are wonderful. This cave isn’t large but filled with a variety of rock art in ochre and red. There apparently is a ceremonial dance depicted, and there is a colourful formation which is thought to represent ant hills.

The rest of our time, about a full day, we spent rhino tracking with Andy from Black Rhino Safaris. Both white and black rhino have been reintroduced here, and they are well-protected in this Intensive Protection Zone. They have a fair number of them (this year alone 8 babies had been born). They are de-horned but are left to roam freely. They don’t have collars but the specialized guides know who hangs around in which area. Without a guide it would be pure luck to encounter one. We tracked their footprints by car and when we got close, we went out on foot (the guide armed with a pistol) to look at them. In the morning we got very close looks on a family of 3, in the afternoon we spotted a mother and a baby, but they ran away quickly when they saw us. Still this was the closest I ever got to ‘African’ rhinos and I had never seen 5 in a day before.

We choose not to visit Rhodes’ grave site, but it is still here in Matobo as well. The Ndebele people who are still dominant in this part of Zimbabwe have a certain respect for Rhodes (although he severely betrayed them) and anyway do not want to disturb any bones at a site that is sacred to their people. The Shona, who are the ruling ethnic group of Zimbabwe, however, want to see it gone rather sooner than later.

Read more from Els Slots here.


UK - 04-Oct-05 -

Matobo Hills by Solivagant

The Matabo Hills are inscribed as a “Cultural Landscape” - A somewhat opaque concept which can mean everything or nothing but often seems to mean that no single structure or natural site is worth inscribing but that the whole in some way is greater than the sum of the parts in representing a way of life! Indeed the relatively small area of the Matabos does offer a variety of sights

a. Some quite striking (if nor outstanding) scenery characterised notably by “Kopjes” – strangely shaped weathered granite outcrops often in the form of “castles” or huge “marbles” balanced on top of each other

b. A game park area which is full of reintroduced animals and, in terms of the whole gamut of African wildlife parks, rather “tame”

c. At “World’s View” outcrop the “White Colonial” memorials of Rhodes Grave and the Shangani Patrol (in memory of a group of white soldiers wiped out by the Ndebele in 1893).

d. Shrine caves of the Mwari Cult which are taboo to visitors

e. A number of caves or overhangs which can be visited and contain Rock paintings whose age is still a matter of some conjecture but were done by Stone and/or Iron age hunter gatherers.

Somehow all these aspects (including the Colonial memorials!) are credited in the inscription. Given time to explore and/or access to appropriate wildlife expertise the area would no doubt repay more in-depth exploration than is possible during a quick “tourist visit”. Certainly a trip to Zimbabwe without visiting the area at all would be seriously incomplete. In Aug 1997 we gave it a full morning (we had our own vehicle) and nothing I have read since makes me regret not giving it more.

But what image should be used to capture the essence of the park? Looking back I think the paintings were the highlight (photo). These are no primitive “stick creatures” – these representations could almost walk off the wall so lifelike is the result of a few deft lines and simple colours.

Site Info

Full Name
Matobo Hills
Unesco ID
3 5 6
Archaeological site - Prehistoric Archaeological site - Rock Art Cultural Landscape - Associative

Site History

2003 Inscribed

1984 Deferred

ICOMOS positive but dossier lacks justification - needs resubmission


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Matobo Hills


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