Chinhoyi Caves (Chirorodziva) National Park
Chinhoyi Caves are a unique geological wonderment and one of the country’s top five best tourist sites.
If you’ve lived in Zimbabwe or grown up in Zimbabwe you have probably visited or even heard of Chinhoyi caves. The caves are located in Makonde District, Mashonaland West Province in north central Zimbabwe. They lie approximately 9 kilometers by road northwest of Chinhoyi. This location lies about 135 kilometers, northwest of Harare. The caves lie on the main road between Harare and Chirundu highway.
Many legends and tales have been told about the caves over the years, carrying with them great mysteries and fascinating sentiments from its visitors. The first European believed to have been shown the caves was Frederick Courtney Selous during a hunting trip in 1887 and described them in his 1888 writings. The history of the caves goes back long before this period and excavations in and near the caves have revealed the presence of people going back to very early times. Studies near and around the caves have discovered pottery and human traces dating from 650AD.
One legend that surrounds the Caves and inspires the name involves Headman Chinhoyi who defeated and killed the Nyamakwere outlaws. These outlaws used the caves as their stronghold and murdered many victims by throwing them into the Sleeping Pool. Nyamakwere’s demise came at the hands of Headman Chinhoyi who later became a Chief. The new chief used the caves as a safe haven from violent tribes. The name, it’s believed was inspired by an incident involving the Nguni Tribe in the 1830s. While moving northwards, the tribe surprised a group of Shona people, who were living near the Caves. The Nguni raiders flung them to their deaths, inspiring the oral tradition that whispers from the bones of the fallen are believed to still cover the bottom of the pool. It was through these events that the cave’s pool derived its traditional name in the 1830s ‘CHIRORODZIVA’, meaning ‘Pool of the Fallen’. History tells us that in the time of the Ndebele raids when Mzilikazi sent his regiments north and east in search of cattle and later in the days of Lobengula, even kraals set upon hills were not safe from these raiders, so Chief Chinhoyi descended from the hill-top with his people and built his kraal close to the entrance of Chirorodziva. When Chinhoyi’s scouts spotted the Ndebele in the neighbourhood, the chief gathered his people and led them down into the cave. Down in the cave nearly 300 people listened fearfully for the sound of the Ndebele raiders, they drank from the Sleeping pool, but they never bathed in it for fear of the dead lurking in its depths.
History also tells us that the Chinhoyi caves was where the war of independence commenced in 1966 with the clash between ZANLA and Rhodesian fighters. Until a few years ago, one could even come across the remains of Chief Chinhoyi’s grain bins in some of the Caves’ underground passageways. After the British occupation of Rhodesia, Chief Chinhoyi is said to have taken refuge in the great caves in 1896 and later moved away towards Lomagundi.
Many myths and mysteries surround the sacred spaces and places in Zimbabwe. At Chinhoyi caves one of the myths is that ‘if you litter in the cave or break a branch from a tree in the cave, you will go missing’. No one really knows how true this is, but very few people are willing to take the risk of finding out. Interestingly, these cultural myths have helped manage environmental sustainability in many of Zimbabwe’s wonders open to the public and Chinhoyi caves is one of them.
Chinhoyi Caves is technically a circular sink hole in the surrounding dolomites resulting in a funnel-shaped cavity in the limestone, this is produced by the action of water on the soluble crystalline rock. Collapses of other tunnels and caverns can be seen from the sink holes and depressions within the surrounding area. The deposits of dolomite appear to have been laid down many millions of years ago in a shallow sea. Traces of algae found as fossils within the dolomites are amongst the earliest forms of life in Zimbabwe called stromatolites. Dolomite is particularly absorbent and rain water vanishes into the rock as it percolates downwards, it absorbs carbon-dioxide from the respiration of plant roots and the bacterial decay of humus and the slightly acidic solution dissolves the calcium carbonate in the dolomite so forming the characteristic underground caverns.
The Wonder Hole:
A place quite unlike any other, the Chinhoyi Caves are a must for visitors both local and international. They radiate an aura that commands respect, while provoking excitement in the minds of all who go near them. With a silence that is both eerie and profound, the caves are a geographical spectacle and one of Zimbabwe’s best kept sites. The 150-foot walls of the Wonder Hole drop vertically down to the Sleeping Pool, which if filled with water of an unbelievable cobalt blue colour and are crystal clear. Incredibly, the water of the Pool defies meteorological logic, staying at a constant temperature of 22-24 degrees Celsius every day. Legend has it that a visitor cannot successfully throw a stone across the pool, as the sacred spirits who watch over the pool will catch it and bestow a curse upon the person who threw it. There are several underwater passages that lead from the Sleeping Pool, but so far all of the passages that have been explored have led back to the main Pool.
The Dark Cave:
A real labyrinth, the steps are steep and the passages narrow. Near the end of the Dark Cave are three submerged tunnels. One of them leads to a small cave known as a "blind cave". The second one joins the Sleeping Pool 58 metres below the surface. The third has not yet been explored. It seems likely that other caves remain to be discovered.
The Sleeping Pool:
This landscape’s most exciting spectacle. The Sleeping Pool’s open roof is actually a sinkhole. It used to be a huge cave whose roof collapsed into the pool 46metres below the ground. The “Pool of the Fallen’-Sleeping Pool is contained within the largest cave in the system. The pool has a distinct and breath taking cobalt blue appearance and has temperatures of between 22-24°C all year round and is non-flowing and there are strong research suggestions that this water is connected to a bigger body of water elsewhere. This belief was further strengthened by the appearance of Tilapia fish “which we didn’t place there as Zimparks, Mr Mwera a Zimparks official said. There is no record of anyone being authorised to introduce fish in the pool. The fish have however been a welcome solution to a problem weed that was choking the pool. We used to have a challenge of weeds and since we started seeing the fish the problem weeds have disappeared.” The pools high visibility of approximately 50meters deep, makes the pool an exciting destination for divers throughout the year. The actual depth of the pool is unknown. Highly qualified and certified divers from all over the world have attempted to reach the bottom of the Sleeping pool, but have run out of oxygen before reaching the bottom. The furthest diver reached approximately 135meters. One interesting story told by a Zimparks official stated that the depth of the water in the pool is estimated by Zimbabwe Sub-Aqua Speleological Research Group to be between 80 and 91metres (debatable). The pool has a passageway that goes deeper though.
A diver who came in 2004 managed to go as far deep as 160metres but did not manage to return alive. His body was found four days later at 75metres. Mr Mwera said this challenged a more experienced diver who came in 2011 with a diving-bike. “He said he began to experience a huge force that was pulling him back up at between 170 and 180metres deep. He could not bear the pressure at 191metres and decided to test the force by releasing the bike but that is where they were separated with the bike being sucked in a flush and him being pushed back up. “It was as if there was a force that didn’t want him to go beyond that point,” Mwera said.
The Park is filled with indigenous trees such as Mukwa, Violet trees, Pink Jacaranda, Msasa and Cape fig. Some fascinating birds can be spotted in the area, including Redwing Starling, large striped Pipit, woodpecker species, Paradise flycatcher to name a few. The park contains a campsite, picnic site and a restaurant open for use. Other activities include Scuba diving that can be enjoyed by divers of all qualifications accompanied by Zimbabwean registered dive club members.