Monday, June 9, 2008

Zimbabwe: Harare, Great Ruins

We have visited Zimbabwe several times and have found that the best time to visit is in October.

Arriving at Harare Airport I was intrigued by the baggage reclaim. Going around was one canoe, one rubber tyre, one plastic sandpit, a pushchair, golf clubs, various odd shaped carboard boxes tied up with string and loads of backpackers bags.

Every time we have visited Harare we have stayed either at the Meikles Hotel or at the Monomatapa. Both are first class in every way. The Meikles hotel is a family run hotel and is still run by the Meikle family. It opened its doors in 1915. In front of the hotel are two stone lions that used to be up on the roof, and the story goes that every time a young lady walked past, if she was a virgin - they roared their approval. It became a favourite meeting place for the young men of the day. But of course, the lions were never heard to roar!

The main street in Harare is very wide, wide enough to take a full team of oxen and to be able to turn that team, waggon and all. Rather like Kenyatta (previously Delamere) Avenue in Nairobi.

In October the jacaranda trees are in full bloom, the strikingly beautiful mauve trees looked as though they were covered in mauve fluffy cotton wool.

First priority to cash a travellers' cheque. In March 2003 the exchange rate is just over 53 Zim dollars to $1.

Zimbabwe is slightly larger than Great Britain. Most of the country is over 300 metres above sea level. The word 'Zimbabwe' derives from the Shona zimba ramabwe (big house of stone). The meanings of the colours on the Zimbabwe Flag are - Green, which stands for the land resources, yellow for the mineral wealth, red for the blood sacrificed for freedom, and black for the country's people. The bird is the national symbol, the red start represents Zimbabwe's socialist hopes and the white triangle stands for the peace that came at independence.

The next day we took a flight in a six seater plane to Great Zimbabwe. Landing at the airport at Masvingo, we were driven to the Great Zimbabwe Hotel. From there, with our guide, Prosper, we went off to explore.

Great Zimbabwe Ruins
The Great Zimbabwe Ruins are described by archaeologists as the largest pre- colonial stone structure south of the Sahara. Who built this stone city, using an estimated 120,000 tons of dry-stone blocks, remains a mystery, although it is generally agreed today that an ancient African race built it around 800 to 1000 AD.

Climbing up the hill complex was a tough climb. It was very steep and very narrow in places. And it was very hot. But it was certainly worth all the effort of getting to the top It was quite some complex and the skill of dry stone walling was amazing. There are narrow passages working their way around enormous balancing boulders. There are crevices, openings and a warren of passages that sometimes bring you close to sheer drops.

There were some parties of local school children being shown around the ruins and we commented to Prosper, how polite they were, always standing back to let us pass and raising their hats to us and saying "Good Morning". British children used to be like that years ago.

The hill complex is probably the earliest part of the city. Its builders, rather than try to force its shapes onto the landscape, blended their masonry with the existing rock formations. As evidence of the extent of trade here, over the years they have uncovered articles from China, India and Asia.

Of all the finds discovered here are eight delicately carved soapstone birds, one of which has since been adopted as the national symbol of independent Zimbabwe. They were carried off by marauders in the colonial era; all but one have now been brought back to their country of origin and several are kept in the museum here at Great Zimbabwe.

The Great Enclosure sits some distance from the foot of the hill. It is said that the King lived at the top of the hill and his wives lived down here in the Enclosure. Ralph reckoned he must have been a pretty fit king!

The Great Enclosure is an amazing place - a big oval with a huge wall 30ft high and more than 16ft thick, with a circumference of more than 820ft. This wall has endured 700 years without mortar as all the walls were built using the dry-stone technique. When you stand by the wall you can feel a breeze coming through the stonework, even though there is no wind, so it is cooler inside the passageway.

Inside the enclosure is a stone tower which is solid, rising more than 36ft and on either side of this stone tower stand two trees. This picture, two trees and the tower, features on some of Zimbabwe's coins and notes.

As there were no known written records of this place, the tower's purpose remains a mystery. Lunch was interesting. Firstly a fly dropped from the thatched roof into Ralph's soup then another wriggly creature fell onto the table and scuttled into the bread basket. I didn't want more bread anyway.

After lunch Prosper took us to a lake to see some bushman cave paintings - 2000 years old and quite remarkable. Inside the cave, a few hornets nests were hanging on the wall, so we didn't stay there long.

Back to the airport at Masvingo, and back to Harare and a welcome shower.

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