Inside the Matobo National Park, having travelled just a few kilometres searching for Maleme Dam, where we were looking forward to some canoeing and fishing, we encountered a sign post marked “White Rhino Shelter”.
Perfect start to our exploration of the park, we thought. This should be straightforward then.
Having heard that the Matobo National Park extends a whopping 44 500 hectares, I figured we were going to have a tough time sighting game. But then here we were, just a few kilometres into the park and were so close to encountering the rare white rhino.
Thank God it’s a shelter too, I said to myself. No chance of a rhino sticking its horn into my flesh.
We parked our car at a convenient space close to the road and made our way to the trail hinted by the sign-post, which was also usefully marked with white arrows.
It didn’t take a few seconds, but I began to notice we were going up a hill. I couldn’t quite figure out how rhinoceros could live up a hill. But somehow I quickly blew that thought out of mind . . . Just follow the trail, I thought.
The footpath to the White Rhino Shelter is somewhat uncomplicated, no need for a guide really, but its relative steepness means you’ll reach the top gasping for air.
But for relief’s sake, there are certain points on your way up that give you spectacular views of surrounding rocky hills.
On finally reaching the White Rhino Shelter my heart sank to discover we were not about to encounter any white rhino, the “shelter” was a cave — a beautiful one at that.
My disappointment soon dissipated. It may have taken a few seconds but we soon discovered the magnificent rock paintings on the topside of the cave.
The paintings contained outline representations of kudu, black rhinoceros, lion and wildebeest.
But most interestingly for us, was the outline of a white rhino, which like most of the paintings here, was painted with a remarkable delicacy, considering the rough surface of the granite.
It is believed that the artists who painted these works were the Late Stone Age hunter gatherers who lived in Southern Africa from about 20 000 years ago until the early Iron Age that began about 2 000 years ago.
But why focus on the white rhino so as to name this cave, the White Rhino Shelter?
Lessons from the past…
On further inquisition we were to find out that the unmistakable portrayal of white rhinoceros at this site had prompted the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management to re-introduce the species into the park.
Zimbabwe is said to have some of the best rock art paintings anywhere and the “white rhino” thingamabob should suggest to us that there is more to these rock paintings than just mere art.
Perhaps they carry complex and profound meanings?
Notice, for instance, how people from at least 2 000 years ago told us that Matobo was a natural habitat for the white rhino.
I begin to wonder what other lessons these olden paintings have for us.
At the White Rhino Shelter, there are also depictions of a line of hunters, a small flock of guinea fowl and other indiscernible drawings.
What could this all mean? I wonder.
At the nearby Pomongwe Cave (a few kilometres; remember the size of this Park is 44 500 hectares) – which we also visited – there are depictions of an elephant high up on the left-hand-side of this huge cave (its highest point is about 10 metres from the floor level; it is said to be able to accommodate over 100 people at any one time).
Giraffe, antelope, human figures and a strange heart — shaped figure also appear.
The tour guide at Pomongwe Cave, Themba Lovemore, gives a depressing narrative:
“Most of the paintings were defaced by an attempt in the early twentieth century to preserve them by coating them with oil.”
Imagine, thousand — year knowledge lost, just like that.
This is perhaps why our elders say Zvimwe ndezvemeso (Sometimes it’s best to just use your eyes).
Other rock paintings also occur at the Bambata, Nswatugi and Silozwane caves, which are all located within the Matobo National Park.
Generally, nearly every animal native to the Matobo region are portrayed in the rock paintings, but there also appear animals that are incomparable to any species we have in existence in this day and age.
Could these people have co-existed with creatures we will never see? I certainly think so!