We’re allowed to sleep in an extra half-hour this morning due to the fact that we’ve opted to take the day trip to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, but being able to sleep in doesn’t necessarily mean that you can, as apparently last night no one told the lions, birds, monkeys, or frogs of our plans. We’re not complaining, however. Enjoying a leisurely extra few minutes this morning, we watch the light pull night back over the river as a pair of birds wing their way eastward. We also see the morning group of volunteers at Penya and Paza’s enclosure across the water, letting the girls out for a morning romp through the bush, and we sadly realize that we won’t be seeing or interacting with any of the lions today. Eeoww? Eeoww…
Well, I stand up next to a mountain / And I chop it down with the edge of my hand.
We breakfast at 7am so we can get an early start; the staff stifling yawns and trying to keep warm while cooking us something to eat. Talking with the other vols that are joining us on the trip we hear that there was a bush fire last night while Kim and I were out in the release site watching the Ngamo Pride. With the grass so dry here this time of year bush fires can spread quickly. Even fire breaks such as roads don’t always prevent its spread. We’re told that birds will sometimes pick up smoldering seeds in their beaks, not realizing they’re hot, and fly a few yards before dropping them onto unburned grass. A careless cigarette can lead to hundreds of acres being burned, and with so many lions in enclosures with nowhere to escape to it’s of paramount importance to bring the fire under control as fast as possible, and any on-hand volunteers and staff are drafted into fire duty and sent out to battle the blaze.
With no water trucks, and no way to quickly get water to wherever the fire may be, fires here are almost exclusively extinguished by beating them out with green, leafy tree branches. It’s dirty, hot, hard, and scary work; but the lions’ lives, and a tremendous amount work and research, are at stake, so everyone who can pitches in. We had mixed feelings about not being around to help out, but regardless were very happy to hear that the fire was quickly put out.
Splitting up again into two vehicles, we head out from Antelope Park and begin the three-plus hour drive south towards the ruins. We’re crammed in the back of an “eight seater,” which really means it can seat four comfortably. It’s not that the seats are uncomfortable, just that there’s no room to stretch one’s legs in any direction. Eva and Stan are in front of us, and while it looks like they have more leg room, it’s merely an optical illusion we’ll disprove in a week’s time when we ride in their seats on our way back to Harare. Peggy is seated up front with room to spare, across from our driver, whose name I never got but who I start referring to as “Bunny” because he looks so much like Robert Wisdom’s character from The Wire, Howard “Bunny” Colvin. In the other vehicle are Michael, Liz, Sonia, Ria (UK), Alynn (Boston), Kay (UK), and David and Julie. (For those of you keeping score at home, the UK volunteer contingency here at AP far outnumbers any other nationality.)
We stop briefly on a mountain pass to stretch our legs, whose curves and foliage remind me of Autumn in the canyon behind the town I grew up in, and then again in the town of Masvingo. Lucky for us, and perhaps for Liz, we don’t pick up any unwanted and armed soldiers along the way. Around 11am we pull up into the Great Zimbabwe Hotel – a colonial style “upscale” hotel that’s seen better days and customers – and pass through its parking lot into the entrance of Great Zimbabwe; it’s sign proudly announcing it as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We park, pay our fees, and are introduced to our guide, Philip.
Hiding under the brim of a cowboy hat, Philip’s slight build, wide smile, and youthful energy disguise his age. He’s been a guide here for several years now and it’s plain to see he greatly enjoys the performance he puts on for his clients, throwing his arms out wide to punctuate a statement while grinning broadly, asking after each explanation of a particular part or feature of the ruins, “Do we have contentment?” It’s his way of asking whether we understand what we’ve been told. “Contentment!” I reply every time.
Standing in front of a large sign showing the grounds of Great Zimbabwe, with a troop of vervet monkeys lingering in the distance, Philip begins his introduction to the history of the ruins. For over four hundred years, peaking in the 14th century, Great Zimbabwe was the seat of religious and political power for Zimbabwe’s kings and rulers, overseeing an important international trading empire between Africa, Arabia, India, and China. Gold and ivory were exported through the coast of eastern Africa via Swahili traders, in exchange for cloth, beads, glassware, and ceramics. At the height of its influence, it was home to an estimated 20,000 people. It is believed that the city fell into ruin and was abandoned sometime in the late 15th century, most likely due to overpopulation and over-farming of the surrounding land.
Modern day Zimbabwe takes its name from this ruined city. Zimbabwe (or dzimbahwe) comes from the Shona words for “houses of stone” – dzimba dza mabwe. The bird on the Zimbabwean national flag comes from the many carved soapstone bird monoliths that were found on the site; the monoliths themselves effigies of a rock formation located here. There are hundreds of zimbabwes found throughout southern Africa, with Great Zimbabwe earning its name because, at almost 2,000 acres, it is the largest. Because of its size, Great Zimbabwe also lays claim to being the largest manmade structure after the Great Wall of China and the Great Pyramids; yet very few people outside of Africa have ever heard of this ancient city.
The ruins are divided into three distinct areas: the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex, and the Great Enclosure. And it’s to the Hill Complex that we’re headed next, but not before Philip asks, “Do we have contentment?”
“Question!” Michael asks, hand in the air, the rest of us groaning or giggling quietly. “What was the country called before it became Zimbabwe?”
“Rhodesia,” several of us reply.
“No,” says Michael. “I was thinking it was called something else.”
“It was called Rhodesia,” Philip says politely, but Michael still doesn’t believe him. “Okay, do we have contentment?”
With that we start heading up the path to the Hill Complex, which is the oldest complex on the site and where the king’s seat of power was. The complex sits a thousand feet up atop a hill, and the trail we take – the Ancient Path, one of two leading up – is steep but well paved. As we wind our way up the trail along the hillside it twists and turns, eventually narrowing between two high rocks so that only one person at a time can squeeze through. This was done on purpose to allow guards stationed higher up the trail above this section to question those coming up to see the king. If the guards didn’t like the answers they received, they would drop large rocks on top of those below. It sounds like a Monty Python sketch.
I linger at the rear to take some pictures and when I catch back up with the group Michael is busily asking people to take his picture every ten or so meters. At one point he holds his camera out at arm’s length to take his own picture, asking me if he’s in frame because I’m behind him. “A little to the left. Nope, a little more. Just a bit more.” Liz is trying to suppress her laughter. I know I should behave myself, but I just can’t help it.
We finally reach the top of the hill and, a little breathless, look out over the valley. It is a spectacular view. Absolutely spectacular. You can see why it was the seat of power. Philip smiles and says, “Nice view, yes? The king was thought of as the mountain, and when the king would die people would say, ‘The Mountain has fallen! The Mountain has fallen!'”
The wall bordering this, the west side of the complex, is huge and formidable. Approximately thirty feet tall and several feet thick, turrets dot its top. This wall – in fact, the entire Great Zimbabwe complex – was constructed using a drystone walling technique, with the stones and bricks being laid without the use of mortar to bind them. It’s impressive how well the stones have been laid, and how long they’ve remained relatively intact (a thousand years). It reminds me of the ancient stone walls and structures I saw in western Ireland that used a similar process of laying stones on top of each other called corbelling, where unrefined stones were laid so well and so tight that structures built using this method were waterproof. Here, the stones have been cut and carved in a process where they’re first heated in a fire and then quickly have cold water poured over them, causing them to fracture into specific shapes and sizes.
“Do we have contentment?” Philip asks.
We’re shown around the various areas of the Hill Complex, Philip narrating what each was used for, including where six of the famous soapstone birds were found on top of pillars, as well as the several house-sized boulders that are supposed to be the inspiration for the stone bird carvings. It takes a little imagination, but you can see a bird’s head, its beak, and wings running horizontally away from it. We stop in a cave and, at Philip’s insistence, crawl inside, relishing its shade and cooler temperature. Philip says that this is the Ritual Cave, and looking out the front you can see the Valley Complex below in the far distance. “It may be where the king called out for his wives, who lived down below, because there is a good echo here.” He then shouts, “Hey wife Number Three, this is your King! Start dinner and send wife Number Five up!” Philip’s voice echoes around the distant valley walls. “Send wife Number Five up! Send wife Number Five up! Send wife Number Five up!”
Michael immediately asks, “What is that sound?” I blurt out, “It’s an echo!” Everyone laughs, except Michael. I just can’t keep it bottled up with him today, I guess.
We finish up our tour of the Hill Complex and make our way down the Modern Path to the valley floor; a much easier trail to walk and one without any obvious pinch points where John Cleese might bash you upside the head with a rock for answering a question wrong. We enjoy a short siesta at the tables outside the gift shop, and seated alongside Philip – with Kim, Bunny Colvin, and Michael – I decide to ask our guide a little about his personal history, as the personal politics of the the people here are so compelling to me.
In hushed tones, Philip talks about losing several family members to the violence meted out by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party during the 2002 elections, leaving him the sole bread winner for an extended family. He works hard at being a guide, something he enjoys but a job whose salary comes solely from the tips visitors give him at the end of a tour. At some point during our conversation of Zimbabwe’s troubled political past and present, Michael interrupts to say, “But at least Zimbabwe never came under colonial rule.”
Both Philip and Bunny (who grew up in the Masvingo area and expresses sympathy for Philip) stare at Michael incredulously. “Uh, yes, in fact they did,” I say. “Remember the talk of Rhodesia earlier?”
Michael continues, “Really? I mean, in places like Malaysia it’s very noticeable because of the lasting religious influence that was left behind. I don’t see any of that here.”
“The British colonized this country for business reasons, not religious ones,” I counter. “Did you really not know Zimbabwe was a former British colony called Rhodesia? Or, Southern Rhodesia, to be more precise.”
Both Bunny and Philip try to educate Michael further, while I again find myself wondering what Private Idaho Michael has colonized for himself. He is by no means a fool and he’s very personable, he just doesn’t seem to really understand where he’s at; which makes me wonder why he’s here at all – free trip around the world aside. At some point you need to start engaging with the place you’re in. Otherwise, what’s the point in being there? I like Michael. Most of the time, at least. He just perplexes me.
Philip gathers everyone up and we head off down a trail that leads us between the Hill and Valley Complexes to the eastern edge of Great Zimbabwe, where the park has reconstructed a traditional Shona village, replete with the villagers themselves. We enter clapping our hands gently and repeating a phrase of respect to the villagers. Once inside, Philip says a few words and then they perform a traditional dance for us. After a few minutes the village women invite us to come join them in their dance, and most of us, myself included, join in and dance and laugh as we stumble through the moves, generally having a great time. Kim would call it: Zumba like a Shona!
From there we walk through the Valley Complex (which is really just a lot of ruined enclosure walls) to the Great Enclosure, one of the last parts of Great Zimbabwe to be completed, and where it is believed the city’s latter-era kings lived with their families. We enter, passing through the Parallel Passage and its ten-meter high and five-meter thick walls, towards the enclosure’s southern end where, surrounded by trees, the ten-meter high, tapering Conical Tower sits. When European explorers first stumbled across the tower it was thought it might hold the city’s riches, but it turns out the tower is solid through-and-through; it’s purpose one of symbolism rather than functionality.
Our tour winding up we stop off at the museum back near the gift shop, and then make our way down toward the vans. As we near them Philip stops us and gives us a very flowery goodbye, complete with a doffing of his cowboy hat, and Bunny steps in to tell everyone that Philip works solely for tips and if we appreciated the job he did as tour guide Philip would kindly accept any gratuities we had to offer him. Most everyone steps up and tips Philip handsomely, except for Michael.
We stop near the main road outside the park, where women widowed by HIV/AIDS are selling soapstone carvings. Kim and I pick out a post-modern looking giraffe and an elephant. Crouching over a beautiful chess set Bunny says to me, “Do you like to play?” “I do, but I’m not very good.” “That shouldn’t stop you! My daughter likes to play, you know. She wins every time we play!” Encouraged by Bunny, I buy the chess set; wondering how exactly I’m going to pack it and get it home safely.
The second stop we make on the way back is in Masvingo, again, for a much-needed bite to eat. Pulling up to a triplex of fast food joints – Creamy Inn, Chicken Inn, Pizza Inn – Kim and I hurriedly make our way up to the pizza side and order a pie, which actually doesn’t taste half bad when it arrives. Pizza finished, we queue up at the Creamy Inn for a soft serve ice cream cone. Delicious! It’s been ages since I’ve had one and it tastes really, really good after a hot day of climbing up hillsides. I buy Bunny one as well, and it makes me smile to see someone who looks like The Wire’s Major Colvin enjoying an ice cream cone.
Back in the vans it’s a long, sleepy ride back to Antelope Park. As the sun is dipping, its light illuminating Kim’s hair in deep reds, I think back on the day. Holding my hand up to a mountain off in the distance, I mutter, “Chop it down with the edge of my hand.” The Mountain has fallen. I then realize that today is September 11th, and that it’s the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The irony of spending the day visiting something that is still around a thousand years later, while ten years on from 9/11 the place where the WTC buildings stood is still a hole in the ground, isn’t lost on me.
I find myself very happy to be missing out on all the posturing and soap-box oratories that must be going on today back in the States, coming from both sides of the political aisle. All the politicians and the media vying for the perfect photo op while standing on the graves of the dead. Their hair carefully coiffed, shoes immaculately shined, an American flag perfectly placed in the background.
I’m so very happy to be somewhere so far removed from all that. So very happy to be right where I’m at, in fact. In Africa, with my love at my side, watching another indescribably beautiful sunset as we wind our way back home to the lions. There’s no place I’d rather be. Contentment.
“Eeoww, sweetie,” I whisper to Kim. “Eeoww.”