Day 297: Great Zimbabwe

Thur. 6th June 2013

Extensive ruinsToday we are going to visit the place which gave Zimbabwe its name. Zimbabwe comes from a Shona phrase meaning ‘houses of stone’ and so the country is named after the ancient city we are visiting today. Yesterday, I bought a booklet on the history of our lodge and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe to get an understanding of the area. Basically it appears no one really has a clue on the history and purpose of the place but there are many theories. The settlement is thought to have flourished between AD1200 and AD1500 with maybe up to 30,000 residents so about the same time as the Incas at Machu Picchu in Peru. The structures here are also constructed of dry stone walls but the stones are much smaller than those that the Incas used.

View over the Great Enclosure and valley ruinsWe wake all ready to go exploring and see the extensive views across the mountains from the hill complex only to find it grey and misty outside. This is a complete shock to us as we have had bright blue skies every day bar one during the month we have been in Africa (we have so got over UK weather and are not looking forward to seeing it again next month!). We delay heading out in the hope it will clear but the mist stubbornly remains so mid morning we head off anyway.

Distinctive chevron designThere is one other car in the car park when we arrive – not packed out then. The entrance fee is $15 each and a guide is $18 we are told. We pay the entrance fee and decide to wait until we get to the actual walking entrance before deciding on a guide as it seemed expensive but we could be persuaded. At the entrance the guides were just sat around and did not give us the hard sell we expected so armed with my booklet we went in. It was only later we discovered that it was $15 without a guide and $18 with a guide and you paid it all up front at the payment desk! $3 for a guide for a two hour tour is ridiculously cheap, as we have mentioned before the pricing here leaves a bit to be desired (in the hotel breakfast is $20 (expensive) and a three course evening meal is also $20!!)

Come clamber with meAnyway we were happy to walk around on our own clambering up staircases, heading down alleyways and generally having a good nose about with no restrictions and not a soul in sight, visitor or employee. This is so different from our Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza experiences where it was heaving with visitors, employees everywhere ready to tell you off if you transgressed or went the wrong way around the one way paths and no climbing on the ruins.

High wall of Great EnclosureThe area is in three sections and we headed first for the Great Enclosure, a living area surrounded by a high stone wall containing over 15,000 granite stone blocks. On part of the wall is the famous chevron decoration which has become part of the nation’s identity. Inside the enclosure is a large solid conical tower which has also become a nationally known symbol adopted by the ZANU PF the ruling party. When we first muted the idea of coming here we had no idea of the significance of the Great Zimbabwe World Heritage Site.

Conical TowerThe early explorers took an interest in Great Zimbabwe as the rumours were it was the lost city of the Queen of Sheba and the source of Solomon’s gold. Even Mr Rhodes and his company took an interest and sponsored an investigation into the ruins, mainly with the desire to exploit any gold in the area.

Valley ruinsThe second section to the site is the Valley ruins, a series of houses surrounded by stone walls dividing up the land, which were likely to have been built later. These are approached from the Great Enclosure along a dug out passage lined with stones on both sides, probably to get between the two areas unseen. Alongside this section in the valley is a reconstructed village and as we approached music started, a sign that we were in for a music and dancing show, so we diverted the other way, feeling a little sorry for the people sat up there waiting for a visitor to stray that way.

How many times do I have to climb these?After a quick look around the small museum we headed to the main area of the Hill Complex, as the mist was clearing and we could see a patch of blue sky. It was quite a climb up the steps to the top, I threatened to leave Dave there and told him not to come back until he had been up and down the steps fifty times as a training exercise for Kilimanjaro, he was not keen!

Well it was there ready to be climbedThe views from the top were as good as we expected and we could now see for miles. Again we clambered around the area and along the passageways. Dave even climbed to the top of the big rock but I was not sure the effort was worth it so I did not bother to follow. Apparently the acoustics up here are such that a shout can be heard in the reconstructed village and that is how the king called to his wives and selected the one he wished to visit him that night.

Pretty flowerIn total we saw five other visitors all morning. We followed the sign to the foodcourt and refreshments area which sold a few packets of crisps and biscuits, not the lunch we were hoping for. It looked like the main restaurant area was permanently closed, probably due to the few tourists visiting. We went back to our hotel in search of a light lunch and the waiter/chef had to be phoned to come and take our order. There was no menu but after a brief discussion we settled on omelettes as we were told it would be cooked to order. They were obviously not expecting any of the five guests staying to want lunch.

Replica design in the hotel restaurantWe had a lazy afternoon as there is little else to do around here and the weather turned so cold that we were drinking coffee to keep warm until we ventured up to the main building before dinner and huddled around the huge log bonfire to warm up. Over supper we discussed and compared our visit to Great Zimbabwe with Glen and Rebecca, who explained to us the pricing structure and told us a few of their guides stories which I have included above. I am not sure we missed out on much by not having a guide, but we enjoyed yet another non gringo moment, even if we had taken a two day and 600km round trip to get here.

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