I’m notorious for missing the sights. I’m the kind of traveler who manages to visit Niagara without seeing the Falls or Paris without climbing the Eiffel Tower.
Sometimes it’s on purpose, because popular attractions can be excessively packaged, reduced to their lowest common denominator and devoid of discovery or excitement.
At other times I simply get lost. I like to discover things as I travel and I’ve been known to leave my guidebook on the bed table gathering dust while I’m off exploring.
One night of travel I arrived at the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, unplanned. I was with a group of colleagues headed for the city of Bulawayo and this is where our stop was preplanned.
I had heard of the beauty of the ruins but it was nighttime, they were closed, and I would be leaving at dawn.
Next morning as the sun was working to get up I snuck out, flashlight in one hand and camera in another, to see the ruins. I crept up to the gate guarded by a snoring watchman, his leg swung lazily across the plain chain-link fence, a chain so low I could – and did – climb over stealthily. He never heard the chinkling of metal as I brushed against it.
I was in.
Ahead of me, a great wall of stone stood in the escaping darkness, a quarter sun peeking out behind it. The air lightened every second and the stones went from dark and gloomy to textured and smooth against the silvery sky. Oddly, each ray seemed to hit at a different angle, bathing the buildings in a twinkling aura, almost violent in its brightness.
Great Zimbabwe is shaped like a roundish square and surrounded by a wall in places many times higher than myself. Its buildings are crumbling, and a few are oddly shaped, a massive cone tapering skyward, and frittered round structures that might once have been huts. The ensemble speaks of great harmony, so much so that in the colonial days of Rhodesia, it was considered a brutal lie to hint this complex might have been built eight centuries ago by Africans.
As I walked around the enclosure, I heard a click to my left and looked up. A photographer was perched on a wall, his tripod holding something far more memorable than my small point-and-shoot. Clearly we had the same idea.
The sun climbed and the heat followed surprisingly quickly. I perched on a low boulder and settled in for the spectacle as each ray chose a section of the ruins to illuminate.
Great Zimbabwe, surprising as it is, is surrounded by even more surprising natural structures, large mounds of granite that look like huge stone termite hills growing out of the flat earth, as though they had been dropped there by an ancient spaceship.
The dry season was over and the ground was wild with green, smelling of freshness. I could hear the world waking up, insects and birds I didn’t recognize and the distant sounds of cutlery and water and people going about their daily chores before the hot sun began piercing their skin.
A faint drumming started in the distance. As is often the case in Africa, silence is quickly filled.
And then I heard it, the rattle of a chain, followed by the padding of bare feet on beaten earth.
“The gate is closed! The gate is closed!”
The guard looked alarmed and his eyes darted first to me and then to the photographer above.
“You cannot enter before eight!”
Clearly the poor man had received his orders and would be in trouble if we were found.
I slowly climbed down off my perch, gathered myself and trudged back along the enclosure’s wall, the wall that might well have been built 1000 years ago by… no one is willing to be sure.
I reached the hotel as my group tucked into bread and jam, blissfully unaware of the price of their obedience, of the sunrise unseen, of the remnants of a great empire everyone claimed right outside their window.
Curious about Great Zimbabwe? Modern technology lets you use Google Maps to see it. When I visited, there were only old yellowing postcards of the site.