Africa’s Salvador Dali dreamscape

In Matopos National Park, surreal balancing rocks, psychedelic reptiles and multicoloured lichen combine to create a scene from another planet.

Standing atop the massive granite mound known as World’s View – the centrepiece of Zimbabwe’s Matopos National Park – is an unworldly experience.

Surreal, multicoloured lichen speckles the terracotta boulders in vivid hues of yellows, reds, greens and blacks: part Jackson Pollock canvas, part Salvador Dali dreamscape. The eerie silence – a stillness that is immensely serene – is almost spiritual and transcendental, looking out on a 360-degree panorama of timeless valley that embodies the raw power of Africa. Couple this with psychedelic coloured lizards darting about and grassy vegetation that resembles grotesque clumps of human hair, and the scene seems to come straight from another planet.

Despite World Heritage-listed Matopos National Park (also known as Matobo) being one of southern Africa’s most spectacular regions, it does not get the love it deserves,  and is often overlooked in favour of Victoria Falls in the country’s northwest. But after a decade of political and economic lows, Zimbabwe has seen a tourism revival over the last 18 months, making now the safest time since the heyday of the 1990s to rediscover the rugged beauty of the nation’s southwest corner.

Beyond the bizarre landscape, World’s View is significant as both the sacred land of the indigenous Ndebele people and the resting place of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe’s pre-Independence name). While his grave is controversial for many, Rhodes was the first and only white man to get a traditional tribal blessing by the Ndebele, indicative of the man’s high standing.

Also contentious on World’s View is the Social Realist-style tomb that holds the bodies of 34 British soldiers who were killed in the Shangani Patrol, a battle waged with the Ndebele people between 1893 and 1894. Some see the burial of the British colonisers on hallowed ground as disrespectful to the Ndebele; others see it as a monument to the country’s past.

Despite all the history, Matopos is perhaps most famous for the dramatic, surreal clusters of rocks, or kopjes, that balance miraculously upon one another like giant prehistoric sculptures. Defying logic, the most famous kopje is the remarkable Mother and Child formation, which resembles abstract human figures and looms high over the park, the rocky terrain enveloped in an arid climate and dotted with cacti.

Scattered among the granite kopjes are numerous caves with some of the world’s oldest rock paintings. The primitive line art has baffled many anthropologists, archaeologists and historians, but most are of the belief they were painted by Stone Age hunter-gatherer people, most likely the San (aka Bushmen), with some estimates dating the vivid red drawings as old as 20,000 years. The most well-known sites include Pomongwe Cave with its giraffe and elephant drawings; White Rhino Shelter with its wonderful outlines of kudus and rhinos; and Silozwane Cave with its large human figures. All the rock-art sites are well sign posted and within a relatively short distance of each other.

In terms of wildlife, rampant poaching has sadly left Matopos with less variety than Mana Pools and Hwange national parks in the north of the country. But it is home to two very famous residents. White and black rhinos were relocated to Matopos during the 1960s, and it is today considered one of the premier places in southern Africa to see them in the wild. The park also has the world’s highest concentration of leopard, though sightings remain very rare given their shy nature. Twitchers will be thrilled to encounter the largest population of black eagle in the world and tick off more than 50 different species of raptor.

To access Matopos National Park you will need to pass through the colonial town of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city behind Harare.

Stop here for a night or two to unearth its pockets of charm, particularly its heritage buildings with superb examples of Art-Deco and Victorian architecture. Other highlights include the National Art Gallery, set in a charming 100-year-old Edwardian building and showcasing wonderful contemporary Zimbabwe sculpture and paintings. The National History Museum is Zimbabwe’s largest, with three floors exhibiting the nation’s ancient and modern history and anthropology, plus displays showing off the nation’s incredible wealth of natural resources, from diamonds to gold.

The most convenient way to get to the park is with your own car; otherwise Zulu Safaris or Elgiboh Travel offer tours for around $90 per day.