The Impressive, Inspiring Nalatale Ruins of Zimbabwe at Risk

My relationship with Nalatale Ruins started in 2010 while I was on a return trip to the country of my birth. As the old saying goes: you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone, or in this case I didn’t realise the fantastic places I could visit until they were no longer easy to visit! And so I found myself wanting to visit as many of the important historic and cultural sites that I could whenever I returned to Zimbabwe, sites I had neglected to visit when I lived in the country.

The trip to Daisyfields in the Midlands, where Nalatale is found, takes you through an area that was once intensely farmed, but now is a shadow of what it once was and could have been due to the disastrous agrarian land reform programme initiated by the Zimbabwean government in the early 2000s.

The roads to the site are largely overgrown and eroded and on a number of occasions I noticed rivers had washed bridges away. As you get closer to the site of Nalatale the landscape changes from one of a flat treeless grass veld to a more granite rocky batholith scene. Trees become more frequent and the rivers gentler, with small pools forming amongst the many granite intrusions that have punctured the flat landscape.

One large granite batholith dominates the skyline and this is where Nalatale can be found. The dirt track leads to a small overgrown building that once served as the site museum and is now home to birds and bats. After leaving your vehicle the climb up the batholith takes a gentle route but is long and winding. As you climb higher the views become outstanding. To the north is a vast area of sand veld, treeless and flat; to the south in the far distance (25 kilometers) is the site of Dhlo Dhlo, another walled site similar to Nalatale in design and function. The climb takes you through a forest of Brachysetegia and as you near the summit the soil thins out, the forest quickly turning into patches of tussock grass.

When the southern perimeter of the outer elliptical wall first comes into sight you can’t help but stop in awe at the incredible size. Not to the scale of the walls at Great Zimbabwe, but incredible nonetheless. The layering of the stone and the workmanship of the construction is exciting. The terraced west or front wall is panelled in layers of chevron, herringbone, chequers, and cords and is finished off with a top and bottom border with ironstone-coloured bands. On top of the wall, spaced at equal distances, are six turrets each topped with a single upright piece of granite stone about a foot in length. They are similar to the turrets found on the hilltop ruins at Great Zimbabwe but which one would usually associate with a medieval European castle. It is without doubt the most intricate and magnificently decorated wall of any stone site that I have ever visited in Zimbabwe. The elliptical wall in total is about 400 metres in diameter and the northern sections of the terraced wall are decorated in the typical Great Zimbabwe chevron-pattern style. This section of the walling, about 50 meters, has suffered from severe wall collapse and in most places the chevron patterns have all but disappeared under the rubble. As the wall continues on an easterly curve and returns to a single, un-terraced wall the structural integrity appears sound. Inside the circular structure the area is divided into sections, much like the spokes of a wagon wheel. It is presumed that the sections were divided into the various living quarters of the king, his family, and possibly an area for the king’s prized cattle.

From the inside, the collapsed walling is sad to see as it leaves a gaping hole in the outer structure. Although sad to see, this hole also provides an opportunity to see the inside back of the front patterned wall and the techniques used to bond the stones together.

When the original stone masons constructed the front wall they built the history of the king’s ships into the design, which are represented by the intricate rows of patterns. To protect this visual account from collapse, the stone masons back-filled this area with soil, inadvertently creating the habitation level. The soil serves to level the interior and adds a degree of strength to the front structure. The top exposed walling has since been cemented together by twentieth-century preservation efforts; while very crude, it has served to prevent the front wall from collapsing. The turrets that make up part of this top walling are also cemented to secure them from the elements.

Under the lone cabbage tree, inside the main walls, are the remains of the large dagga (mud) hut said to have housed the king. It was here I sat in quiet contemplation.

Who first climbed this batholith and decided to build the new settlement here?

Who were the builders? Where did they come from? Had any of them visited Great Zimbabwe, whose influence had waned by the seventeenth century, the estimated time of the construction of Nalatale.
How had they retained the art of stone building without the training undertaken at Great Zimbabwe?
Was the king related to or in opposition to the ruler at Dhlo Dhlo, 25 kilometers to the south? Was he part of the Torwa Nation?

Were the turrets constructed by Portuguese soldiers and traders that were captured when the Portuguese settlement of Dambarare in Mazowe was sacked in 1693?

Portuguese cannons had been recovered in the late 1890s from the ruins of Dhlo Dhlo and are believed to have been part of the loot captured during the 1693 action to drive the Portuguese out of the country now making up Zimbabwe.

These questions then changed to ”what ifs?” What if I could get some funding together to restore the collapsed walls? How long would it take? How many people would be needed to lift the fallen stones and then return them? What expertise would be required to stabilise the walls once repaired? Would it be better to get the local community involved? Yes! As a result of the land reform programme, un-employment in the rural areas of Zimbabwe is at an all-time high.

My thinking then naturally changed to how would I get funding? Who would I ask and how would I ask?
With all these un-answered questions, I returned to Harare and organised a meeting with the Executive Director of the National Monuments and Museums. The meeting was relatively easy to get and he was encouraged that I had been to the site and that I was able to give him a detailed site inspection report. Sadly, funding was not available for any work on Nalatale due to budgetary cuts resulting from the dire economic situation in the country, but he did offer his assistance with any information that I required if I was able to approach a donor organisation. He was able to tell me about the recent work that had been successfully carried out at Dhlo Dhlo, where stone masons trained in the Great Zimbabwe style of stone working had successfully repaired the walls of this site. I had been fortunate enough to see the repaired site of Dhlo Dhlo a few days before visiting Nalatale and was encouraged by the quality of the repair work. Now I knew that it was a possibility!

On my return to New Zealand I contacted the World Monuments Fund and received an encouraging reply, suggesting that I submit Nalatale to the Watch for 2012. This started my relationship with the World Monuments Fund, and with the help of my wife, my application was completed. It was with great satisfaction that I received a reply advising me that my application had been successful and that Nalatale Ruins, in Daisy field, Gweru, had been nominated to the 2012 Watch.

In 2012, I had the great fortune of being invited to visit the stone-walled site of Thulamela in the north of Kruger National Park in South Africa. This stone walled site was only discovered in the 1980s and was part of the Great Zimbabwe culture. It had suffered severe wall collapse due to a various number of environmental reasons (one of which was elephants rubbing against the walls). I had the chance to speak with the warden of the site, who was one of three stonemasons that worked for 18 months to rebuild the walls of Thulamela at a cost of 1.8 million Rand ($200,000). While there is some controversy surrounding the restoration, the workmanship and the results are amazing. It made me think again about what could be achieved at Nalatale if a community-based restoration project, similar to Thulamela, could be started.

With the correct supervision and the correct amount of workers and stone masons, I strongly believe that the repairs at Nalatale could be completed in three months. The tasks would involve collecting data from before the walls collapsed, stabilising the existing walls, dividing the fallen walls into sections or grids, and then removing and coding the fallen stones from the individual sections or grids. The remaining stones in the walls (that have not fallen) would then need to be reinforced and the removed stones replaced in order into the spaces created. Once all these stones have been returned and the walls rebuilt, an adhesive would need to be injected into the wall to prevent them from collapsing in the future.

The future of Nalatale is not certain; working with government organisations in Zimbabwe is a trying and quite often fruitless exercise. The need and conservation plan are not in question, but the funding is. Until funding can be sourced, the culturally significant site of Nalatale remains at peril.