The Matopos Hills near Bulaweyo have always had the reputation of being a little special, a little uncanny.
Even the normally understated Lonely Planet guidebook to Zimbabwe remarks: “You need not be in tune with any alternative wavelength to sense that the Matopos Hills are one of the world’s power places. . . . Their latent and persuasive power cannot be denied.”
Normally, this column consigns this sort of talk to the bin. But it seems the Lonely Planet author isn’t alone in his opinions. Locals still believe that the Matopos Hills are the haunt of spirits. British Empire-builder Cecil Rhodes chose to be buried here on a peak called View of the World, revered by the local Ndebele tribe as home of the benevolent dead. Even Zimbabwe government ministers turned up here during the recent drought to pray at the Ndebele’s sacred rain shrine, hoping to get the ghosts on their side.
Incidentally, we weren’t in the Matopos Hills on some New Age jaunt. We were here because:
A) The walls of the numerous caves constitute one of the finest prehistoric art galleries in the whole of Africa.
There are countless images of animals as well as self-portraits of the artists — the Khoi San “bushmen” who made this place their home for 35,000 years. (Some images have been destroyed by witless tourists spraying Coca-Cola on them to bring out the colors, but the show is still a joy.)
B) The Matopos Hills are home to the world’s greatest density of leopards (but, as usual, we didn’t see any).
C) We wanted to track white rhino (which we did see — an unforgettable experience).
D) The geology here is notoriously bizarre.
E) We wanted to check out a unique safari lodge called Big Cave Camp, which, as the name suggests, is partially in a very big cave.
Still, all this talk of ghosts, mysticism and so on had us, reluctantly, intrigued. As we breakfasted al fresco in front of BCC on a boulder as big, curved and smooth as a blue whale’s back, we gazed out at the extraordinary clusters of red rock that are characteristic of the region. It looked as if a giant child had been at work with 500-ton building blocks. Beguiling. Weird. Black eagles soared. Technicolored lizards raced about collecting crumbs. There was life in abundance. It was an intensely interesting place to have breakfast.
This column would rate BCC as one of the best lodges in Africa (and, no, they didn’t bribe us), but I wasn’t convinced that we were in “one of the world’s power places.”
Then Dave Waddy, manager and architect of BCC, suggested that if we wished to pursue the matter, we might like to have a chat with a witch.
Community tourism is a BCC specialty. Sure, they’ll organize game drives, visits to the caves, wonderful hikes in the hills and the rhino safaris, but Waddy is also keen to show visitors a slice of “the real Africa”; Africa, as it is lived by ordinary Africans. This could mean visits to the local hospital and villages or, in our case, a witch.
Politically correct types call witches “traditional healers.” Why, it’s hard to say. A full-blooded Zimbabwean “traditional healer” does some healing (traditionally or otherwise) but allegedly also slings curses around, thrashes around in the possessed grip of the dead, casts out demons and flies around on moonless nights. Waddy told us that witchcraft was a constant headache. Not for him, but for locals who attributed virtually every misfortune to the black arts.
Our witch was used to greeting visitors from Big Cave Camp and had, rather optimistically (and, I’m pretty sure, fraudulently), put out a little can on which was written, “Donations for the poor people.” Other than that, her setup was first-rate. The hut was bulging with powders, potions, roots, feathers, odd-looking wooden implements and black, shriveled things.
Speaking through our interpreter, she fielded questions about the Matopos Hills and pretty much repeated the verdict of the Lonely Planet guide. This is a place of power. Fair enough, we concluded. She’s a witch. She should know. The witch then gave us a briefing on the various vile things she kept in her hut. She discussed the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which has as much as 30 percent of Zimbabwe’s population in its grip, and said that the healing business was booming.
She was interested in Japanese witches. We explained about the near-blind psychic itako who live by Osorezan, the Mountain of Fear, in Aomori Prefecture. She asked if they could fly. “Probably not,” we guessed. “They’re all pretty decrepit.”
Then as we turned to leave, to go track some rhino on foot, a question occurred to us. Rhino horn. Was there anything medicinal, anything remotely healing, about rhino horn?
Traditional Chinese medicine’s demand for horn has sparked bloody conflicts wherever rhinos occur, particularly in Africa, but also in India, Nepal and Southeast Asia, and has driven all rhino species to the brink of extinction. The witch looked at us as if this was a dumb question.
“What’d she say?” we asked our BCC interpreter, who himself had been a ranger in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park during the height of the “rhino wars” in the 1980s and early ’90s. He had quit after one shootout with a gang armed with AK-47s. It wasn’t the killing that disturbed him, he said. It was the way the killing was no longer disturbing him that disturbed him. After the fight, his colleagues ate the poachers’ porridge breakfast using the dead men’s bodies as stools. The poachers had often done worse.
“No,” was the witch’s answer. Take note, all you fans of Chinese medicine: Rhino horn’s a con.
For fever, visit the witch near BCC. Or take an aspirin.