Bumbusi Ruin and Rock Engravings

Bumbusi Ruin and Rock Engravings

How to get here: 

The Bumbusi National Monument is sign posted from both Sinamatella and Robins Camp in Hwange.

The National Monument of Bumbusi consists of two distinct parts, a dry-stone building and a series of rock engravings.The Bumbusi National Monument is a large site about 40km from Hwange, consisting of stone walls, boulders, platforms and the ruins of dwellings. Its main structures date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Excavations in 2000 revealed the floors of eighteen original dwellings. The site is listed in the Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund because of the threats posed to the sandstone walls by wild animals from the surrounding nature reserve. The site was already damaged by early prospectors and is now at risk from mining a few kilometres away.

Bumbusi is also part of the Great Zimbabwe tradition of meticulously built monumental stone walls, most famously represented by the great enclosure at Great Zimbabwe, a World Heritage Site. The National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, the agency that oversees the country's heritage owns the Bumbusi National Monument, but does not have sufficient funds to protect, maintain, or restore the site. Elephants and buffalo push over walls, while baboons pick up and relocate stones from the structures. A fence is required to protect the site from the animals. Another major threat is the natural fragility of sandstone constructions, which degrade easily, a problem exacerbated by the lack of mortar.


Bumbusi dry-stone walling

Built in the same style as Great Zimbabwe and distributed over a vast area, these sandstone walls date back centuries. Due to its location deep in the bush of Hwange National Park in the northern Sinamatella area, this archaeological site has not yet been researched extensively. In 2008 the floors of 18 dwellings were carefully exposed, some of them had little cavities built into them for the well-known Zimbabwean game of tsoro.

When the Nguni, under Zwangendaba of the Khumalo clan, invaded the country of the Rozwi at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they put to death Mambo (the great chief) at his fortress of Ntaba kaMambo, but the Mambo's son, Zanke escaped and fled westward. Zanke, with some of his father's people travelled until he came near Bumbusi and built this dry-stone fortress.

Bumbusi River flows through a valley about six miles long and half a mile wide. On the south side of the vlei are sandstone kopjes, on the northern side are basalt kopjes. Bumbusi was built on the southern kopjes, and slabs of sandstone were used to build its walls. The workmen chose an elevated site and levelled the ground, then built their walls round the outer edge. The walls were three to four feet thick and the interior of the walls was rammed full of rubble and small stones. No mortar was used, for the men were dry stone builders, and local tradition relates that there were three classes of men employed in the building. The trimmers used an badza(hoe) to shape the stones, the carriers conveyed the stones from the trimmers to the builders, who placed the stones in position.

Inside the girdle wall numerous dividing walls partitioned the enclosure. Traces of circular wood and dhaka(mud) huts within the thick stone walls may still be seen amongst the vegetation that has sprung up.

At the highest point of the fortified kopje a huge baobab tree casts a shade over Zanke's kraal, a specially fortified enclosure at the top of the hill, with space for one or two huts only. The sole approach to this fortress within a fortress was along a narrow passage enclosed by high walls, topped with small towers. The passage was wide enough for only one person to pass at a time.

The project was enormous and time limited, because fear stalked every workman so the building was crude and hurried, today the fortress stands ruined and desolate.

When the final blow fell upon Zanke and his tribe it came not at the hands of Zwangendaba of the Khumalo clan, Chief of the Nguni, but from another Khumalo, the great Mzilikazi, the Lion of the North, whose story forms another chapter in Zimbabwe’s history.


The Bumbusi Rock Engravings

Thomas Leask in The Southern African Diaries (p173) writes in his entry for Monday 20th July 1868: “Our guides took us a little way from the path to show us some engravings on a large sandstone. They were principally rude cuttings of the shape of the footprint of zebra and the different kinds of antelope. There were some other marks of which the guides gave an interpretation of their own, for certainly I could not see the shadow of a resemblance to the things which they were said to represent. When asked by whom these marks were made, they said it was the first Wankie that ever lived. When that was they did not profess to know. They knew or had heard of five of that title. The first three were killed by their own people, the fourth was killed by the Matabele and the fifth is the Wankie who now reigns. Wankie seems to be the title of the chief; the people interpret the word as meaning the Supreme Being.”


These carvings have been made on the face of great blocks of sandstone. In each case they are more or less protected from the elements by an overhanging slab of rock. There are three sets of rock engravings at Bumbusi, the first 180 metres from the ruins, the second 800 metres away and the third about 2.5 kilometres away. The engravings all show spoor of game and other wild animals, and some human footprints and are life-size and very distinct. It has been observed that the lion spoor depicted show the animal with five toes. Most lions have a four-toed spoor, but just occasionally five-toed lions are encountered and so the engraving records something that is unusual, but not unknown.

The spoor of the extinct quagga is shown on these rocks, as well as the spoor of kudu, impala, wildebeest, waterbuck, roan and sable antelope, eland, giraffe, buffalo, rhinoceros and warthog. Most of these animals still roam the Hwange National Park that surround Bumbusi.

The rock shelters were formed in Upper Karoo Sandstone which eroded along the least resistant bedding planes to produce rock overhangs and corridors between enormous boulders. The rock shelters with petroglyphs and painted designs mostly open to the north or northwest, with some margins facing east and west.

According to an interesting article by Gary Haynes entitled Puzzling over the Bumbusi Spoor Engravings in Zimbabwe the number of recorded engravings are as follows:


  • Impala rock shelter has 192 recorded engravings
  • Bumbusi Cave has 187 engravings on its walls and at least another 17 on its exterior roof surface.
  • Passage Rock shelter has 17 engravings
  • Ngabaa Rock shelter has 139 engravings
  • Roan Rock shelter has 86 engravings, mostly crowded together on a single fallen rock slab
  • Ruins Rock shelter has 29 engravings
  • Tsoro/Dhaka Rock shelter has 12 engravings
  • Zebra Rock shelter has 66 engravings.

Many late stone age tool artefacts were discovered during excavations in Impala and Ngabaa rock shelters, an estimated 80,000 lithic artefacts were recovered from a volume of about 6 cubic metres of sediments in the two rock shelters and an estimate of 40,000 animal bones and teeth and other objects by Gary Haynes and archaeologists from National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe in 2008.  The bulk of these artefacts appear to be between 2,300 and 4,000 years old.

Visitors may also be interested in the Giraffe petroglyph at Mtetengwe described under the Matabeleland South section. Close to the National Monument as indicated on the map, are petroglyphs engraved into the sandstone by San hunter gatherers.


In 1907 Mr J.M. Kearney visited Bumbusi and gave his narration at the proceedings of the Rhodesia Scientific Association...

An excerpt from a paper by Mr. J. M. Kearney (Proceedings of the Rhodesia Scientific Association, Vol. VII, 1907.

Bumbusi lies about twenty-seven miles west of the Wankie Colliery. It is a large vlei about six miles long and from half a mile to a mile wide.

On the south side are sandstone kopjes, and on the north side basalt kopjes, the vlei lying on the line of fault between the two formations. The ruins rest on the sandstone kopjes, and are built of sandstone slabs taken from the weathered edges of the large isolated sandstone blocks. These blocks have no doubt attracted the people who built the ruins, as the latter are in many cases built on them, and in other cases among them.

From the fact that in nearly all cases traces of circular wood and dagga huts are plainly seen within the walls, it would seem that these walls were built mainly for protection. The builders seem to have chosen an elevated site, preferably on the top of an isolated rock, and after levelling up the top by a concrete floor, have built a wall round the outer edge, and, in case of a large enclosure, dividing walls within, with gateways, rounded off at the corners and about two feet wide.

Where there are a number of these smaller enclosures together the builders have joined them into a rough circle by a wall built between the sandstone blocks. The walls in all cases have been built in the same fashion. They are about three to four feet thick. The front wall and inner wall have been built of flat slabs about one-foot square and three inches thick, and the cavity between has been filled up by broken stones about two inches in diameter. There is no sign of any mortar having been used. No ornamentation has been attempted, unless we count the rounded gate posts as such. One huge block of sandstone, which is pointed out by the natives as the Chief’s Kraal, shows signs of having been built with greater care and with the view of easy defence. Outer circular walls join all the raised blocks, and the entrance through this wall has been narrowed till one man only could pass at one time. At each side of this entrance small towers have been built. Dividing walls cross within, no doubt to act as an inner defence. The kraal itself stands on a huge block of stone in front of an immense baobab tree. The summit is large enough to hold one or two huts only. The uneven walls of this block have been built up with masonry, so that when first built there was only one approach to the top along a narrow ridge. This has been enclosed on both sides by fairly high walls ending in small towers at the corners, and leaving room between for one man to pass. The ground has been raised to the height of these walls, so that the inmates could fight from above. This narrow path zigzags slightly till it reached the top near the huts. In and around this kraal are numerous walls and enclosures, which seem to indicate a fairly numerous population.

Although the buildings are very crude, an enormous amount of work has been done, especially where the faces of rocks have been built up and the ground within raised.

From the attempt at defensive works at the Chief’s kraals, it would seem that they have been a poor imitation of the ruins in Mashonaland. This may be so, as the natives in the district say that the Chief was Zanke, who was a son of Mamba of Mashonaland, and who trekked from there at the beginning of the nineteenth century and settled at Bumbusi. As this opens up another disputed matter I will leave it to others with better information.

The natives were no doubt closely related to the M’Nanzwas who inhabit the Wankie district to-day. In journeying about the country around the Deka I have in two cases found ruins of a similar kind to those at Bumbusi, lying on the top of kopjes overlooking Kaffir gardens. The ruins were not in as good repair as those at Bumbusi, but the same style of walls and buildings could be traced.

In spite of the arduous journey necessary to get there, a visit to Bumbusi is very worthwhile, even if you are not interested in the archaeological sites as the surrounding scenery is amongst the most beautiful in the National Park. Bumbusi is an archaeological site surrounded by Hwange National Park. It is not often visited because of its remote location and low tourist profile.

Credits: G. Haynes. (Puzzling over the Bumbusi Spoor Engravings in Zimbabwe),

J.P.R. Wallis (Editor) The Southern African Diaries of Thomas Leask 1865-70, World Monument Watch-(wmf.org), Nambya Cultural Association-(nambya.org), Zimfieldguide, Wikipedia, Mr J.M. Kearney.

Photo credits: Nambya Cultural Association, Zimfieldguide, G. Haynes, World Monument Watch.


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