Outward Bound Zimbabwe: Peterhouse A Block Matopos Voyager Expedition 2019

“A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.” — J Steinback
And I’d add … some may temporally break us, but that will invariably make us stronger.

For several years we have been offering a longer [both in distance and days] hike to some of the more intrepid A Block. So, having decided to try a new venue in Matopos we decided to keep this option available and we were planning to hike a “Trans Matopos” voyage!

The 2018/19 drought put pay to the “Trans Matopos” dream, and very late in the day we had to make a call to change the voyage to a route that would, we hoped, have reasonable water – essentially for drinking, but as important to any participant enjoyment is somewhere to swim and dare I say jump off high things!

We came up with the Mtshabezi Dam voyage. Mtshabezi is a relatively new arch type dam (constructed in 1995). It has a very high, narrow, arch shaped concrete wall, with about a 2 metre span at the top (which we had to cross on day 3 – more on that later).

The voyager group consisted of 4 teams – each with approximately 12 participants.

Upon arrival at Camp Dwala, we unpacked the bus, got accommodated into our dome tents and then ran through some welcome and safety information. Later the participants got their expedition equipment and rations.

Gavin Stephens (one of two brothers that own Camp Dwala) gave a very informative and interesting talk on the Matopos which included information on the geology, human history, fauna, flora and rationale for making Matopos a world heritage site.

The rest of the evening was spent packing for the hike before bed.

We woke early on Saturday, had breakfast, had a final safety briefing and set off in good time (by 0630) on what should have been a 23km hike to Mtshabezi Dam campsite.

The first challenge of the day is Des’s Descent – probably a 150 m descent into the north section of the Mtshabezi Gorge. This really was a tough descent, especially with heavy backpacks.

You then get into some very dense lantana bush – a nightmare to navigate through! However, this soon transferred to amazing acacia woodland shadowed by majestic sides of the valley comprised of huge granite kopjes and massive Dwalas – whaleback, convex, or dome shaped rocks.

About 12 km into the hike you make the upper reaches of the Mtshabezi Dam. The water here is sandy in colour (from recent life giving rains), but drinkable if treated and fine for swimming. The next stage of the hike follows the water’s edge but then detours up the valley for some reason very soon after you actually see the dam wall (probably about 6km away). Two groups were taken in by the lure of siting the dam wall and decided to ignore my number two rule (STAY ON THE GPS TRACK)

Needless to say, this ended up in them encountering some massive rock faces that would not be ascended nor circumnavigated. The outcome was having to hike through extremely dense forest up the steep valley side to get back to the path. Both these groups estimate this cost them about 3-5 extra km and 2 more hours of walking.

One of these teams was the last group to make camp at 1815 (nearly 12 hours after starting that morning – they looked somewhat shattered). Our group hiked 25.5km, so theirs must have nearly made 30?

The dam water here was clear and clean. Everyone had a refreshing swim, prepared dinner, did the evening activity and went to bed by 2030 – exhausted. Average group hike was about 27km.

Day two was supposed to be the easy day. It’s a circular route taking in a Summit of Zhilo, the Cave of the White Leopard, Dolphin Rock and the Cave of the Turning Stalk.

We left slightly later and with no backpacks but clear instructions to take lots of water and some snacks for the hike. Nothing untoward expected!

Not quite… the route is challenging and the weather got very hot by mid-morning (about the time you summit Zhilo). From here on, although extremely beautiful – particularly the Brachystegia (Mountain Acacia) woodland in what we dubbed “Dolphin Grove” as we made our way to Dolphin Rock. The hike is extremely challenging and several groups ran out of water and miss-navigated, getting stuck in some particularly rugged country.

The hike from Dolphin Rock to the Cave of the Painted Leopard is just pure “bush bashing” and this slowed the front groups down, enabling all the groups to converge on the cave in close succession. We were able to have a discussion on the stories and assumptions behind the “painted caves” and bushman paintings.

The Cave of the White Leopard, as the name suggests has a faded white outline of a leopard. Actually not the best or most interesting painting in the cave which is covered in animal and human paintings, but both the white pigment and the leopard are very unusual for any rock art. This is technically a ‘niche’ cave: a shallow cave, recess or re-entrant produced by weathering and erosion near the base of a rock face.

From here on groups started to run out of the water with six kilometres still to go. A number of groups made a plan either from locals or fairly dubious river supplies and with the water treatment provided were able to replenish their bottles.

The Cave of the Turning Stalk is a massive 50m long, and 10m deep, very large ‘miarolitic’ cave (or bubble-like cave). Unfortunately, it’s on the top of an 80m high Dwala, so volunteers were hard to find at this stage of the hike. However, once you get there you can only stand in awe of the amazing cave structure. The cave has very paintings but does have 8 stalks painted in the main cavern at the back – only one of which faces the opposite direction to the rest.

From here you are also graced with a spectacular view of the Mtshabezi Dam and our campsite (still only small visible as a row of small coloured dots in the distance (our tents).

Eventually, we all got back by 1430hr (16km later) and most groups were initially too tired and hungry to even swim, but after some hydration and nutrition, most participants spent the rest of the afternoon jumping and wallowing on the shores of the dam.

Day three was supposed to be an exploratory adventure to find a route to circumnavigate the dam. From bitter experience on Day 1, we now knew that this was not possible so we made a call to begin the hike back to try to get to the top of the Dam and the Mchachacha Falls.

Having experienced the difficulties hiking in the Matopos splitting the 24 km hike back to Camp Dwala seemed essential.

The hike starts off with the groups crossing the dam wall. If you are nervous of heights or get vertigo this is NOT the place for you. However, if you want to get home you have to overcome these phobias. This is followed by an extremely steep ascent up Diesels Ridge (Diesel was the local who took it upon himself to be our guide). Fortunately, this ridge comes early in the day and it’s still cool… it is 250m vertical over 500m horizontal – a hectic climb! From there on we made our way north about 12km, until the Mchachacha River Valley. Here we made our way back down to the top of the Mtshabezi Dam. Here the river literally enters the top of the Dam, and while the campsite was not the best, it had water and some flat enough space to set up tents.

We made our way down to the dam (the water was relatively muddy following the recent early rains). This did not detract from the need to drink or swim and once again the water treatment pills came into their own. This ended up being a 15km long hike.

The last day seemed to come very quickly. We woke and reflected… wow, I can’t believe this is almost over!

We tried to make our way to the Mchachacha Falls. This was not that easy as we did not have the GPS tracks, but eventually, we made it there. Mchachacha is an onomatopoeia as the water running over the falls makes that sound. It also happens to be the highest waterfall in Matopos… but that does not count if (as in our case) there is no flowing water!

This was the site of the group photo and then back onto the track.

It was about this time that the hiker’s paradox positively kicks in. The hiker’s paradox states that at the start of every hike when one’s body is least prepared in fitness and strength, then one’s pack will be at its heaviest. At the end of every hike when one is now well conditioned to the rigours of walking with a pack – one’s pack will be at its lightest!

With this and the fact, the trails start to open up a lot at the top of the gorge most groups were back in camp by lunchtime, having walked 17km on the last day.

My thanks go to the adults who supported the 4 teams participating in the voyager expedition; Emma Hough, Shelley Kaschula, Hanna Munrow, Kiara Cordy, Rich Hanley and Lawrence Mudyiwa. Without them, this would be almost impossible, and I fear we may have scared a few of them off for next year… but they say time heals all wounds?

Andrew Shoesmith
CEO – Outward Bound Zimbabwe / Director of Outdoor Education – Peterhouse

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