Z018 Matobo Hills


20°30’S; 28°30’E
c. 300 000 ha


The granite rocks, inselbergs (locally called ‘dwala’ or ‘whale-back’), castle kopjies, and intervening flat grassy plains and vleis of the Matobo Hills, also known locally as the Matopos, cover an area of about 3 000 km2. They stretch for 90 km from beyond Mangwe Pass (c. 28°E) in the west to Umzingwane Dam (c. 29°E) in the east, and for about 30 km from Fort Usher (20°24’S) in the north, almost to the Mtshabezi Mission (20°42’S) in the south. The hills start 25 km south of the centre of Bulawayo City, and comprise a granite batholith emerging from the surrounding eroded gneisses. The batholith is considered to be ‘younger’ (at only 2.65 billion years!) than the granite shield that forms the central plateau of the country.

The hills average about 1 300 m a.s.l., with many high peaks, such as Golati (1 549 m a.s.l.), Mquilembegwe (1 543 m a.s.l.), Mazhowe (1 540 m a.s.l.) and Silorsi (1 476 m a.s.l.). The rainfall averages about 625 mm p.a., but it is highly variable; between 273mm (1991/92) and 1 043 mm (1977/78) has fallen. The catchment areas of ten rivers are found in the hills, from the Mangwe and Simukwe in the west to the Chabezi and Lumani in the east. These all flow north-south and in some stretches make gorges, and the spectacular Lumani Falls. Owing to the run-off from the rocks in the rainy season, grasslands can become marshy vleis and ‘sponges’ which persist late into the dry season. The temperature range is quite considerable, from an absolute maximum of 38°C in October to an absolute minimum of -15°C in July, which is the coldest temperature yet recorded in Zimbabwe. The effects of a severe frost in 1968 could still be seen 20 years later: dead branches protrude above regrown canopies.

The granite rocks and the resultant granitic sandy soils support three main vegetation types: kopjie woodlands, flat woodlands, and grasslands. Bare granite is rarely bare; it is normally covered in multi-coloured lichens which give the rocks an ever-changing colour scheme and is also occasionally home to the resurrection plant Myrothamnus flabelifolius. Water run-off from the dwalas results in forests and thickets at their bases. Here, in southwest Zimbabwe, are the westernmost extensions of the forests of the Eastern Highlands. Cohabiting with the usual Afzelia quanzensis, Commiphora marlothii, Kirkia acuminata, Pterocarpus angolensis etc. are eastern forest species such as Erythrina lysistemon, Calodendrum capense, Ilex mitis, Tarenna zimbabwensis, Zanthoxylum capense, Homalium dentatum and the tree fern Cyathea dregei, said at one time to be extinct in the hills, but a few are still present on the eastern side.

The flat and open woodlands are of three sub-types: Mopane Colophospermum mopane on the small areas of sodic soil; Msasa Brachystegia spiciformis also in small patches and at the south-western extremity of this great ‘miombo’ belt of south-central Africa; and sandveld woodlands containing Terminalia sericea, Burkea africana, Pterocarpus rotundifolia and Acacia spp.

The grasslands are said to contain more than 100 species. Common grasses include thatching grasses Hyparrhenia filipendula and Hyperthelia dissoluta; sedges and reeds such as Phragmites mauritianus and Pennisetum glaucocladum are dominant in wetter areas.

Approximately half the area of the Matobo Hills is unsuitable for agriculture, i.e. bare granite. The rest, including granitic sands, is considered to be good grazing and arable land.


No threatened or restricted-range species seem to depend on the Matobo Hills, but Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres fly over, and in wet years Corn Crake Crex crex inhabit the vleis. The National Park and its immediate surrounds (45 000 ha) are world famous for the raptor assemblage that uses them, including at least 50 species, of which 32 are known to breed, with a 1978 estimate of 76 pairs per 10 000 ha. The diversity and density is possibly the highest in the world, and includes 45 pairs of Verreaux’s Eagle Aquila verreauxii. Many of the raptors, of course, nest on rocks. With them, are about 20 pairs of Black Stork Ciconia nigra, also nesting on rocks. The hills support a considerable population of Boulder Chat Pinarornis plumosus, and a few other species from the Zambezian biome such as White-throated Robin-chat Cossypha humeralis and Miombo Double-collared Sunbird Nectarinia manoensis. In 1975 Yellow-billed Oxpecker Buphagus africanus was successfully reintroduced to the Park, and now Red-billed Oxpecker B. erythrorhynchus is naturally expanding its range here.


The shrub Strychnos matopensis and the herb Barleria matopensis are found nowhere else in Zimbabwe, and the Matopos honeysuckle tree Turraea fischeri ehlesii is endemic to the hills. About 90 species of mammals are known, including reintroduced rhinoceros and antelopes. The Park is in fact an ‘intensive protection zone’ for both White Ceratotherium simum and Black Rhinoceros Diceros bicornis. The Leopard Panthera pardus population is apparently dense. Several of the raptors depend on two species of hyrax which occur commonly and throughout the hills: Rock Hyrax Procavia capensis and Yellow-spotted Hyrax Heterohyrax brucei. These two species, however, are at considerable risk outside the National Park, owing to the value of their skins in karosses (blankets).


In November 1926 a National Park and Game Reserve was declared within the hills, covering 233 500 acres (c. 97 300 ha). It was re-proclaimed in 1930, and in 1953 was enlarged to 245 000 acres (c. 102 080 ha), with families being evicted. Then there was a change in policy, and in 1963 a Matobo National Park was re-proclaimed, but cut down to 91 700 acres (c. 38 200 ha), the balance being declared ‘tribal trust land’. Soon afterwards, an Act of Parliament in 1965 declared the Rhodes Matopos National Park; it was enlarged to 108 300 acres (c. 42 400 ha), by the addition of two farms from the Rhodes Matopos Estate on the northern boundary. Currently, the National Park covers 42 400 ha, and the Matopos Recreational Park on its northern side occupies 2 900 ha. The Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management control both.

The National Park itself supports a thriving market of non-consumptive tourism, and allows neighbouring villagers to collect thatching grass. Cattle are grazed illegally in the Park. The Umzingwane Rural District Council on the east is trying to set up tourism initiatives. The remainder of the Matobo Hills occurs on commercial farmland (minority) and in unprotected Communal Lands (most of it), where there is widespread illegal cutting of trees and poaching of small animals such as the hyraxes and antelope. This has obvious implications for the raptor populations, both in and outside the Park.

Not only is the area a phenomenal natural environment but it is rich in cultural history, and moves are being made to get the hills (or part of them) World Heritage Site status. Legend has it that when Mzilikazi, self-styled king of the amaNdebele (‘Matabeles’), first saw the rock formations he likened them to the bald heads of his tribal elders — ‘amaTobo’. He was buried at the foot of a small castle kopjie just north of Fort Usher in 1868. Every visitor considers the hills to be astounding in their beauty, and Cecil John Rhodes had himself buried (1902) on top of the Malindidzimu dwala among ‘the chaotic grandeur of it all’. Rhodes called this place World’s View, and it also holds the graves of Jameson and Coghlan, and the Shangani memorial. The hills are steeped further in the country’s history. They hold the highest density of Khoisan (‘bushman’) rock-art in Africa. The rain-giver and high god Ngwali speaks here, and the Njelele dwala in the south is the rain shrine. Historic sites and caves connected with the San, Rozwi, Kalanga, Matabele and Europeans abound in the hills, and many are national monuments. The Matopos have been ‘fought over and divided more than any other part of Zimbabwe.’

Globally threatened
Cape Vulture – Breeding (pairs) –  | Total Numbers – OV
Corn Crake – Breeding (pairs) – | Total Numbers – OV

1% or more of population
Black Stork – Breeding (pairs) – 20 – 25 | Total Numbers – 50 – 60


Kurrichane Thrush | Common
White-throated Robin-chat | Common
Boulder Chat | Common
Miombo Double-collared Sunbird | Common
White-bellied Sunbird | Common

* – Species does not meet IBA threshold
RR & BRA – Restricted-range and Biome-restricted Assemblage
OV – Occasional visitor

Keeping Common Birds Common