The Tokwe-Mukosi Dam was opened in 2016 and is the largest inland dam in Zimbabwe. It…
In the article which follows we will look at Chimanimani in five different ways:
- As part of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe;
- As an area of great scenic beauty and interest and a tourist destination;
- As a UNESCO Biodiversity sphere;
- As an area recovering from the devastating effects of climate change and Cyclone Idai in 2019;
- As an area vulnerable to the effects of illegal gold mining.
Chimanimani in the context of the Eastern Highlands
“The Eastern Highlands” in Zimbabwe is an all-embracing term for a number of areas in the eastern part of the country extending for approximately 320 kms from the Nyanga Mountains in the north through to Chipinge in the south-east and forming the border with neighbouring Mozambique. It includes the Nyanga Mountains to the north (and Zimbabwe’s highest mountain, Mt. Nyangani – 2 592m above sea level), the Honde Valley, the town of Mutare, the Bvumba Mountains, Cashel Valley, the Chimanimani Mountains and the Chipinge area.
The area is notable for dramatic mountain scenery, attracting tourism associated with fishing and mountain climbing. The high altitudes and therefore lower temperatures produce many streams and rivers that are free of the parasite bilharzia, a major health problem in the rest of the country.
It is also the highest rainfall area of the country and the focus of specialised intensive farming including deciduous fruit orchards, tea and coffee production and large-scale commercial timber production.
Chimanimani as an area of great scenic beauty and interest and a tourist destination
The Chimanimani District of Zimbabwe straddles the southern portion of the Eastern Highlands, where the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique runs north/south along the highest peaks of the mountains.
Although the entire mountain range of about 50 kilometers is called “the Chimanimanis“, the name traditionally really only applies to the point where the Musapa River passes through the range. The name Tshimanimani (“to be squeezed together”) describes the narrow gorge through which the river forces a passage.
Binga Mountain (Monte Binga) is the highest peak in the range (2,436m) and second-highest peak in Zimbabwe (as well as the highest peak in Mozambique). There are four distinct ranges within the Chimanimanis separated by streams and broad valleys, most within Mozambique, with peak heights of over 2,000 metres and the mountains are the source of many springs, streams and natural falls.
The mountains are made up of large peaks, carved from a rifted massif of water-deposited sediments which have consolidated over 1.25 billion years into sugary-white quartzite, quart schist, limestone and calc-schist (geology known as “the Frontier system”) which is evident on the top of the Chimanimani Range in granite rock forms on Mawenje Mountain in giant rocks eroded into bizarre, twisted shapes.
These upper valleys act as a vast natural sponge with the river winding across the plateau through tannin brown crystal pools and feeding into the southern lakes before cascading down the slopes and then tumbling down Martin’s Falls, named after Gideon Martin (an early settler and the first European to report them).
Lower mountains run north and south through the center of the district.
The National Parks Chimanimani National Park (171.1 km²) protects the Zimbabwean portion of the range and the Chimanimani National Reserve is part of the Chimanimani Trans-frontier Conservation Area created by Mozambique and although not strictly speaking “trans-frontier”, the Parks do form one large wilderness area.
The following article looks at the work of scientists who have been able to come into the newly created Chimanimani National Park in Mozambique and carry out fascinating research. (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/03/travel/mozambique-national-park.html – Photographs and Text by Jen Guyton, Updated May 5, 2021)
The Chimanimani National Park also includes the Chimanimani Eland Sanctuary, which can be accessed by road. Here is one of the most famous falls of the area, the Bridal Veil Falls, which stopped flowing during Cyclone Idai in 2019, blocked by huge rocks that had tumbled down the mountains, but that has in fact begun to flow and fall again.
For the most part there are no roads through the Chimanimani mountains. Access is mostly along paths and in guided hikes up the mountains, most of which are quite arduous and require a certain degree of fitness and stamina.
Visitors to the Chimanimani’s are allowed to camp anywhere within the National Park at their own risk, except at the unfurnished base camp or mountain hut, a two-to-three-hour hike directly up Bailey’s Folly, at 1 630 metres above sea level.
The hut acts as a refuge and rest point and may be used on a communal basis, but not exclusively, by an individual party. The ablution and cooking facilities are ideal for up to 20 visitors. There is a car park, and an information office camp and visitors have to pay the prevailing camping rates for use of this facility.
Camping can include sleeping in Terry’s or Peter’s caves, actually disused mine shafts. Near Peter’s cave is a spectacular waterfall where people challenge each other to leap the seven metres into the icy water below. Less strenuous is the walk up Banana Grove (actually strelitzia rather than banana) with the sheer cliffs on either side almost blocking out the sky.
Another spectacular waterfall and pool are found at Tessa’s Pool in the area dominated by the Outward Bound training, outdoors and team-building center.
For those less inclined to hike, an easier way into the mountains is available at Corner Camp (near the Chikukwa rural village, north of Chimanimani village through Martin Forest) where visitors can swim in the Muhohwa River or visit the Muhohwa Falls.
The Chimanimani Tourist Association provides trained guides to take hikers up into the mountains.
https://chimanimani.com/groups/chimanimani-tourist-association. They can also be contacted directly in a little blue A-frame in the middle of Chimanimani village.
The Tourist Association is part of the way through the process of opening up a new hiking trail in the Chimanimani Mountains, known as the Mbira Trail that will run through the spectacular scenery from Chikukwa village, south towards Chipinge.
Mbira Trail, under construction, plotted on an aerial view
Ultimately it is hoped that this trail will be linked up with the Turaco Trail in the Nyanga mountains and the Vumba Trail to provide hikers with many days of wild hiking through the Eastern Highlands.
Camping conditions can become quite extreme in these high mountain areas. Temperatures drop below zero degrees Celsius in winter (May-August) and plentiful rain may spoil the hike in the wet season (November-February). March/April and August/September are probably ideal times to visit this National Park. Hikers should really carry warm, wind and waterproof clothes, a warm hat and a really warm sleeping bag and torch.
Within the Eastern Highlands there are a number of micro-climates all influenced by the enormous mountains and rolling valleys which dominate the region. As a result much of the flora and fauna are localised and not to be found anywhere else in Zimbabwe.
The paths wind up the mountain slopes through deep forests and then emerge onto grassy plateaux where different varieties of protea, Erica, Leucospermum and golden-yellow everlasting (helichrysum nitens) all flourish. The mountain flora includes the rare Borrasus Palm tree and other endemic flora.
Wildlife in the Chimanimani National Park is not abundant, but includes species such as eland, sable, bushbuck and blue duiker, and less frequently seen, klipspringer and leopard.
Chimanimani has a particularly rich and varied bird population because of the numerous different habitats created by the mountains and valleys. BirdLife Zimbabwe suggests birds to look out for apart from the most famous and rare blue swallow. (https://www.birdlifezimbabwe.org/a_birdingzim_east_3_chi.html)
The main settlement in the area is Chimanimani town itself (formerly known as Melsetter).
Chimanimani town is an administrative center and has a modest number of shops selling basics, as well as the old Chimanimani Hotel and various tourist lodges. In the middle of the town is the blue-roofed Tourist Association shelter housing guides available to take visitors on guided hikes in the surrounding mountains. (see picture above)
Chimanimani as a “UNESCO Biosphere Reserve”
Chimanimani has recently been declared to be a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (the second in Zimbabwe – the first encompasses the Mana area).
What is a “Biosphere Reserve”?
- A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is specifically a ‘learning place for sustainable development’, one of many sites around the world.
- Biosphere reserves include terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems.
- They are places that provide local solutions to global challenges.
- Each site promotes solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.
- They are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.
- Biosphere reserves are nominated by national governments and remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located.
What is the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR)?
The WNBR is an interactive network of sites of excellence and represents a unique tool for international cooperation through the exchange of experiences and know-how, capacity-building and the promotion of best practices among Biosphere Reserves.
- The World Network of Biosphere Reserves covers all major representative natural and semi-natural ecosystems
- It spans over a surface of 6,812,000 km2 in 129 countries. It’s almost the size of Australia.
- There are about 257 million people living in Biosphere Reserves worldwide
Biosphere Reserves involve local communities and all interested stakeholders in planning and management. They integrate three main “functions”:
- Conservation of biodiversity and cultural diversity
- Economic development that is socio-culturally and environmentally sustainable
- Logistic support, underpinning development through research, monitoring, education and training
These three functions are pursued through the Biosphere Reserves’ three main zones:
- The Core Area(s)
- The Buffer Zone
- The Transition Area
The Core Area is a strictly protected zone with no human habitation that contributes to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation and is available for close scientific study of the unique characteristics of this particular environment.
Buffer Zones surround or adjoin the core area(s), and can involve human habitation and agriculture but are also used for activities compatible with sound ecological practices that can reinforce scientific research, monitoring, training and education.
The transition area is where communities foster socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable economic and human activities.
Cyclone Idai in 2019
On the 14th/15th March 2019 tropical Cyclone Idai hit the coast of Southern/Central Africa and is described as the deadliest and most costly tropical cyclone in the South-West Indian Ocean and the second-deadliest tropical cyclone recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.
It tore through south-eastern Africa, Mozambique, Malawi and the Chimanimani area of Zimbabwe, bringing winds of 200km an hour, torrential rain, floods, rockfalls and landslides. The worst of the cyclone struck at night exacerbating the vulnerability of the communities who were asleep, with little reaction time to organize themselves and find shelter. The heavy rains continued to the 20th of March 2019, hampering all rescue efforts.
The storm affected more than 270 000 people in Chimanimani, leaving 341 dead and many others missing. 17 608 households were rendered homeless. Health facilities and water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure were destroyed. More than 50% of land under maize crops, banana plantations and vegetables was washed away. Livestock of all sorts was lost. About 580 kms (over 90% of the road infrastructure) was grossly damaged by landslides and a number of bridges were also swept away.
Idai was not an isolated incident. A series of increasingly frequent and severe weather events magnified Idai’s impact. Climate change is estimated to have influenced the rising of temperatures in Mozambique and therefore neighbouring Zimbabwe by 0.6 °C between 1960 and 2009, while average rainfall totals have declined over the same period. An El Niño drought, intensified by climate change, had gripped Southern Africa for months before Idai hit. This rendered the land more susceptible to flooding.
In March and April 2019, two consecutive major cyclones struck Mozambique, affecting more that 1.7 million people, with damages and losses amounting to USD 3 billion, and an estimated USD 3.4 billion total cost for recovery and reconstruction (Government of Mozambique 2019). Such hazards are expected to increase both in frequency and intensity due to climate change, with cyclone-induced flooding one of the most common and devastating events, causing nearly half of all victims of natural hazards (Rana and Routray 2018; Mhlanga et al. 2019).
Three years later
The hillsides of Chimanimani remain scarred by raw areas where landsides and rock falls ripped away great chunks of soil and rock during the cyclone. Roads and bridges on the main access routes have been rebuilt, taking into account the need for massive engineering accommodation for huge volumes of water in the event of another cyclone. Relatively small streams are supplied with huge basins and retaining walls where they cross the main roads.
The loss of human life can obviously not be repaired but the homeless have finally been rehoused out of tented camps and communities have more or less returned to normal. Storm and flood warning systems have been improved and the authorities are more vigilant about warning populations of possible flooding.
Poverty and hunger continue to plague a high proportion of the population and is worsened by the fact that a great deal of arable land was washed away by the floods, particularly the vegetable gardens along stream banks.
Effects of Illegal Gold Mining
The grinding rural poverty and hardship of the Chimanimani area drives many people to illegal ways of obtaining some sort of livelihood, poaching, timber chopping but mainly illegal gold panning. With unemployment nationwide at between 80 and 90% of the population people desperate to find a way to feed their families have flooded into the Chimanimani area from all over Zimbabwe, attracted by rumours of gold in the mountain streams. They mining under very harsh conditions and with few safety precautions and loss of life in accidents is not uncommon.
Gold panning problem is a major challenge for National Parks to control with limited rangers and resources and the opposition of some powerful business interests. The few paths once barely visible in the grass are now well trodden by illegal gold panners walking through the National Park, either carrying supplies in or product out.
This illegal traffic is not new to these hills; people from Mozambique and Zimbabwe have used these paths for generations as the borders are unmarked. Hikers are likely to observe small groups of gold panners and spot, particularly on the Mozambique side of the mountains clear evidence of their riverbank and riverbed activities in environmental degradation, broken up river banks and previously clear streams running brown with mud.
Usually hikers will be greeted warmly by gold panners, particularly if they are courteous and friendly in return, but visitors have been robbed of camping equipment, so it is desirable to take the simplest of precautions by informing National Parks staff of your movements and exercising common sense.
The Chimanimani mountains in Eastern Zimbabwe provide a marked contrast to the lower, hotter parts of the country which are associated with the more traditional plains game and animals such as lions and elephants. The huge environmental significance of the area has been recognised in the creation of the UNESCO Biosphere that in its turn will, it is hoped, help Chimanimani to identify sustainable ways in which human populations and unique, fragile ecosystems can co-exist.