Zimbabwe: a country which to the minds of many in the West epitomizes corruption and a failing economy. In 2009, the Zimbabwean dollar completely crashed, creating a cash crisis which still persists today.
As I soon discovered on my travels around the country in 2017, it is impossible in most places to withdraw money from ATMs due to the cash drought. The country has been brought to its knees, with its president, Robert Mugabe, having clung on to power for the last thirty years, often through a ruthless formula of violence and sustained vote rigging.
However, in November last year Zimbabwe underwent a huge political shakeup with a military coup which saw Mugabe finally deposed, along with his power-hungry wife, Grace Mugabe, a
nd the start of a new era for the country with Emmerson Mnangagwa taking up the reins of government. Only time will tell if this will mark the start of a new, more prosperous future for Zimbabwe. I visited the country less than eight weeks before it underwent its political upheaval, yet in my explorations I was bowled over by Zimbabwe's underrated natural beauty. The last thing I expected to find in a country with such a turbulent reputation was a sense of restorative calm and a deep appreciation for its land, but that is the outcome of the best travel experiences: they take your expectations, and completely turn them inside out.
Leaving Victoria Falls, the tourist hub of Zimbabwe, we made tracks east, venturing further off the tourist trail but deeper into the heart of this landlocked country wedged in the southern region of Africa. Travelling by overland bus, after seven hours of drifting in and out of warm sleep in the African heat, we arrived in the surreal landscape which is the Matobo National Park. Stretching across the horizon was a landscape dominated by huge boulders and balancing rock formations, like huge slumbering giants. More than a million years of erosion and weathering has moulded these rocks into granite monoliths of all shapes and sizes.
After setting up our tents at the campsite, we climbed up to the nearest high point and were rewarded with incredible 360 views. At sunset the park was literally aglow, as the setting sun enhanced the rich, earthy orange pigment of the rocks. Grounded on a huge boulder, I closed my eyes and soaked up the sound of complete and utter silence, with just the rocks, the trees and my three travel buddies for company. Matobo is cherished in Zimbabwe as a place of great cultural and spiritual significance and after visiting I can appreciate why. There is a resounding atmosphere of calm in the park, and yet this is a landscape with a rich story to tell those who happen to uncover it. As I scrambled back down, my eye was caught by some markings on a nearby rock.
Clearly highlighted by the warm evening light was an ancient rock painting of a lady and a cow. Our guide later informed us that Matobo is in fact one of the oldest known human civilisations in the world, hence its special protected status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of the rock paintings found in the park are believed to be a staggering 2000-6000 years old and are the artistic legacy of the ancient Sans people, a nomadic tribe who inhabited what is now the park. As we trekked across the ravines and in-between the rocks we discovered caves, their smooth walls displayed like canvasses with energetic scenes of men hunting with arrows and leaping through the air. Most poignant for me was the etching of a rhino, a clear sign that even our most distant ancestors recognised the majestic might of this creature.
I wonder how they would feel to know that we have nearly driven the rhino to extinction and that in the future their cave drawings and photos may be all that is left to prove this enigmatic animal's existence.
Exploring Matobo made merealise that Zimbabwe is still a diamond in the rough in the tourist sphere, thanks to its problematic politics, which have dissuaded many people from visiting. However, if you are prepared to delve deeper into the heart of Zimbabwe, and look beyond the political issues plaguing the nation, both a landscape and a culture deeply steeped in history await you.