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Riding Into the Heart of the Wilderness: Mavuradonha Mountains

“Bitten by the Africa bug” during a wildlife safari in Hwange National Park, that incredible week in the wild––on horseback––called me back to Zimbabwe. An unexpected outcome, for a rider like me from western Canada. Indeed, a year later I have returned to horses in Zimbabwe with Varden Safaris, this time to the northern wilderness––Mavuradonha, “Place of Falling Water” in the Shona language, one of the last intact wilderness areas in the country. Six hundred square kilometres of savannah woodland, waterfalls, river crossings, monumental rock faces and rolling mountain range.

Riding into Kopje Tops base camp is a stunning initiation into a spirit-filled region unspoiled by transplanted villagers, deforestation, or safari vehicle roads. The red earth sparkles everywhere, evidence of the mineral treasure below. National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe recently formalized the “Cultural Landscape” of Mavuradonha Wilderness as a National Heritage site, to ensure its protection.

I’m enthralled to learn first-hand that Zimbabwe has the highest concentration of rock art on the planet. Guided by Shona horsemen, I photograph rock paintings of zebra and kudu, trance dancing, and elephant hunting. We come upon an entire rock face covered with ochre and brown handprints, evidence of indigenous life ten thousand years ago. The rock surface is a shamanic portal where spirit mediums communicated with the unseen world, and is still held sacred today.

One morning as we ride out of camp, horse ranger Douglas Chinhamo turns to me. “Did you hear the hyena in the night? About 9 p.m. it was making sounds. Look––here are the tracks!”

I gaze down from the saddle and Douglas says, “I made a ceremony last evening to ask my Ancestors to show me that we are safe and protected from the wild animals, because you, Oriane, are my responsibility.”

I blink with surprise. Douglas continues, “The spirit medium for this area takes the form of a hyena, and he circled the camp when I finished the ceremony, to show me you are still safe and protected.”

On the soft ground beside my horse’s hooves I see the hyena tracks––two of them actually––right beside the footprints of one lone giraffe. I smile to myself, and whisper, “Good morning,” to the unseen hyena.

For two months I’ve been the sole foreigner in camp most of the time, riding with Shona horsemen, eating sadza by the cooking fire, sitting in sacred places on the land. The welcome mat is out for anyone with a sincere desire to ensure that Mavuradonha remains an unspoiled cultural landscape; our presence acknowledges its value and brings revenue for necessities such as patrols to deter poachers and prospectors.

In my experience Zimbabwe is safe and welcoming for travellers––out on the street in downtown Harare, in villages with locals and in bush camp, I’ve encountered no trace of the tension or perils in the neighbouring country to the south. En route to the wilderness, my base in Harare is a secure and comfortable home-away-from-home in centrally-located Alexandra Park. The first thing I do after extended time in the bush? Soak in a luxurious bath, solar-heated!

Note: Varden Safaris (FacebookWebsite )has relocated as “Ride Zimbabwe,” with horse safaris in Motopos and on Cawston Wildlife Estate. Contact Janine Varden: riding@vardensafaris.com. Visitors remain welcome at Kopje Tops Camp in Mavuradonha, with guided wilderness treks on foot––a new vision of wildlife reintroduction and conservation is successfully underway.

About the authorBorn and based on the west coast of Canada, Oriane Lee Johnston’s journeys have taken her from meditating in a Buddhist monastery in Burma, to trail riding in the sacred mountains of Ecuador, to exploring the wilderness of Zimbabwe on horseback. In Canada, her coaching practice combines natural horsemanship, mindfulness meditation and Equine Guided Learning. www.orianelee.com

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