The Great Zimbabwe National Monument, eating Mopane Morms & other adventures

(This story will appear in the August issue of JAXFAX- Travel Marketing Magazine)

A stone’s throw from my luxury tent at “The Hide” safari camp in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, over two dozen elephants squirt water into their mouths as they splash in the lake. (www.thehide.com) The night is so clear and moonless that the Milky Way looks painted in the heavens with whitewash and the Southern Cross hangs from above as in a celestial cathedral. Then, a male lion roars, cutting the air with its guttural voice. Sleep can occur once I return home. At this moment, the circle of life is being orchestrated right off my deck.

The wild animals in Zimbabwe are not held in by fences. The herds of wildebeest and kudu, impale and warthog, elephants and lions run free. They exist everywhere and can even be seen munching on the golf course, or roamin’ amidst the grounds of the local lodges.

When I left the States, I, like many who travel to Africa, was coming to see the animals. And I found them at Hwange National Park, a unique safari camp where guests can observe game from concealed “hides” just near the animals’ watering holes.

I’ve also come to see the magnificent Victoria Falls-one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. But while Victoria Falls is a breathtaking sight to behold and shouldn’t be missed, what I really want to learn about is the Zimbabwean people, for many consider them to be the friendliest on the continent. So to understand who they are today, I have to learn where they came from and so I pay a visit to Great Zimbabwe National Monument, a World Heritage Site in Masvingo Province.

GREAT ZIMBABWE National Monument

To access the ancient trail up to the rock fortress at the Great Zimbabwe National Monument ruins, one has to pass through the extremely narrow “Blood Passage.” Long ago, to keep the riff raff out of the emperor’s headquarters on the hilltop, a trick question was asked. If you weren’t privy to the correct answer, a boulder was dropped on you from above, smashing your brains and bones to smithereens. Fortunately for us, our Zimbabwe historical guide, Philip Chatikobo laughs; he’s letting that part slide before we begin to ascend the stone steps.

There are three complexes to the Great Zimbabwe National Monument- the Hill Ruins, the Valley Ruins and the Great Enclosure built by Shona people built back in 12-1500 AD. Over 150 sites of dry stone wall construction were made without mortar, encompassing massive granite boulders into the construction design. They built fires along the rock’s crevasses and made the stone fracture into smaller pieces for use as stones in the construction. “Zimbabwe” literally means “house of stone” and at the end of colonization, the country chose the name to represent their nation.

The medieval palace perched on the acropolis was the ‘royal city.’ The king of the Shona people lived here, who ruled all of southern Africa at the time.

From these lofty heights, we can see into the Valley Ruins, where more than 25,000 people lived. This city was a great trading center whose trading routes that reached all the way to China and India. The Great Enclosure in the valley below is 200 meters in circumference and seven meters in diameter. The king’s wives lived within these walls, an entourage of more than 200, and ran a type of pre-marital school for young women. Here important lessons were shared on how to keep the King and Shona men, in general, happy. By 1450, the civilization saw a decline as the land could not support the increased population and the colossal settlement was seemingly abandoned.

While we gaze out over the ancient settlement, we learn from Phillip that the symbol of Zimbabwe is the fish eagle (hungwe) or osprey. This raptor knits the world of the sky together with the earth, as he dives into the rivers for his nourishment and rises back into the heavens.

As we descend the trail, I chat with Phillip on what local foods would have been harvested back then, and also what he enjoys eating today. “Mopane worms, I love them,” he exclaims as he giggles. The insect is really a caterpillar picked from the trees, their guts hand-squeezed out, then dried in the sun.

Throughout the year, we soak them, then stir fry them in oil. They are so very delicious. I eat them for supper 3 X a week but wish I could eat them every single day.”

When I make a face, he’s reminded that we Americans do not share their joy of insect-eating, but he eggs me on by sharing his recipe for “Baked Baboon Head.”

“You take the head, tie the jaw shut- stuff tomatoes and chilies in its cavity (oh, that’s after you brush its teeth!), boil it and when the tomatoes ooze out the eyes, it’s ready to eat!”

Phillip is such a storehouse of knowledge and delivers the information with great passion, enthusiasm and warm joking, that we all feel like fast friends. A guide like Phillip makes learning not only fun but embeds the memory of a place like Zimbabwe firmly in our hearts.

Once we walk through the Great Enclosure, we arrive at the Shona village where the local women dance with their gourds tied around their ankles. Loose seeds shake inside as they shuffle in the sandy dirt to the rhythm of traditional drumming. They come to my friends and take our hands, inviting us to join the circle and dance.

Tonight we cap off our day of history by spending the night at the Great Zimbabwe Hotel (African Sun Hotels) located only minutes from the park.  It was built as a replica of the national site, and as I walk its stone halls and community rooms, reminiscent of the stacked masonry at the Monument, it is a perfect fit for today’s experience.

When I first told my friends and family I was coming to Zimbabwe, they asked if it was safe. But today the country is working hard to promote tourism as it is one of largest economic drivers that supports the livelihoods of the Zimbabwean people. Disregarding politics, the people share their land, animals, music and dance, their hearts with you. Phillip and I share our lives over a dinner buffet that does NOT contain mopane worms, or baboon heads, I’m happy to say, but many belly laughs and tall stories.

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