To find this cave you need to drive for about an hour and a half past Domboshava (Red Hill) and Ngomokuriura (Place of Beating Drums). Continue until you reach a particularly picturesque dirt road flanked either side by ladies in white selling small yellow-brown bananas, cinnamon-red tomatoes and wrinkled-gold lemons. Take that road.
Slow down as the road deteriorates and twists. Gape at the trees bursting with oranges and at the riotous bushes of pink and purple Bougainvilea. Give a cheerful wave to the children jumping up and down encouraging their older siblings racing alongside you on their bicycles. Drive past the New Cannibal Inn (without stoping).
At the electric blue School for Excellence, take the right turn. Drive on.
Eventually, after one right and many lefts, you will drive over a crumbling bridge and arrive at the local bar/ grocery/ garage. Ask for directions to the village Headman’s homestead. Pay your respects and ask for permission to explore his land. Now the adventure really begins.
From a few kms away, the opening of the cave is nothing more than a hint of a shadow. As you near the base of the hill, the size and specialness of the cave begins to be unveiled. But really, it is not until you have climbed halfway up the hill, scrambled into the mouth of the cave, carefully skirted the slippery smooth surfaces and stand upright, deep inside the belly of rock that you appreciate the treasure before you.
Without a trace of modern interference or defacement, the walls of the cave are decorated with richly detailed Bushmen rock art. Some are paintings are huge and coarsely shaped, some are so definite and detailed the depicted form is unquestionable. Giant elephants, tiny clean-lined human figures, neat black sable bulls with sweeping horns, a canter of lithe impala females and a sounder of running warthogs with impressive tusks can be seen on one section of the wall. Everywhere I looked there were paintings. There are layers upon layers of etchings and paintings of animals, birds, people and vegetation. There are shapes which require creative interpretation such as the group of human figures with animal heads – gods perhaps? – and some that we simply couldn’t say for certain what was represented. I was particularly stumped by a considerable rectangular block of rust red-brown, delineated with white lines and populated with organised, symmetrical white dots in one third. Was it a means of measurement – a way of keeping count of days, months, births or deaths? Or could it have been the earliest abstract art? Perhaps the little brother was left unattended with the paint box for a few minuets? I suppose we will never really know.
As the sun began to drop in the sky and slip colourfully behind the hills, new, previously hidden paintings appeared as the soft rose-golden light illuminated the walls. It was as if Ali Baba was there whispering the magic words of ‘Open Sesame’ with the cave giving up more of its ancient secrets with each shift of light. There we were, Sarah, Ryan, Buck and myself, sitting in the same place, watching the sun go down in the same way that people thousands of years before us had done. Amongst these ancient forms of records and story telling, it made me wonder about the artists who had painstakingly imprinted their thoughts and experiences 1 000 – 2 000 years ago. What were they thinking? How did they understand the origin and development of the world beyond their cave? How different would they have been to me?
As the twilight gave way to the moon and twinkling stars, we lit a fire (away from the cave so as to not mark or ruin the paintings in any way) and enjoyed a simple dinner of pre-made avocado and beef rolls with freshly boiled tea. We gossiped, shared jokes, told stories and postulated about the meaning of life. It is hard to imagine the Bushmen spent their nights much differently from us (avocado and beef rolls aside). I don’t think we have changed all that much since we lived in caves – after all, we are still fixated with posting everything on our walls 🙂 Our pursuit of happiness and survival have simplified or become more complex depending on where you stand, but really we are doing much the same things our ancestors did.
Despite it being the middle of winter in Zimbabwe and indeed in the valley below, the cave was as warm as an October evening – certainly making it prime real estate all those centuries ago. Looking out at the stars, with our heads against the inside wall of the cave we went to sleep with the sounds of hooting owls, tinkering goat-bells and the constant trickle of the near-by waterfall. An experience that is pretty hard to top if you ask me.
Our night in the cave was the first time in a very long time that Buck and I have really put some distance between ourselves and our desks and managed to properly silence our phones. All it took was one night to reenergise, replenish and to remind us that we need to do this kind of thing more often. We have promised each other that we will drive beyond the city limits, turn off our phones, take off our shoes and socks off and explore at least twice a month. I guess, our blog readers can keep us accountable to that!
A big thank you to Ryan and Sarah for being yes people and for being down for camping in a cave.
Experiencing treasures such as this cave should be be found in one of two ways: through the reward of an adventurous spirit or through privileged introduction by another. I would be violating the pact of adventurers everywhere if I told you how to find it. You will just have to make do with this blog or go searching for it yourself. Happy travels.
Words by Joanna Craig
Photography by Buck O’Donoghue.