The Hillside Dams, once the principle source of Bulawayo’s water supply, are in easy reach of the centre of town. Although distinct from the Matopo Hills, this area of broken kopjes and sandy open plains resembles the much larger, better-known World Heritage Site.

Lying within the Bulawayo City boundary, it’s natural vegetation is still largely intact and includes a wide range of species while the bird life is diverse. The area has attracted people since the earliest of times. 

It was the location of one of King Lobengula Khumalo’s favourite royal village to which he escaped when the stresses and strains of power at the nearby capital of koBulawayo were too great. 

Currently it continues to cater to generations of Bulawayo residents seeking an accessible place of refuge and winding down. As a community-oriented project the area has been leased by a group of local residents with the aim of restoring it to being once again one of the prime recreational venues in Bulawayo, enjoyed by all of its residents.

The Natural History

Syenite is the dominant rock in the area. This coarse reddish igneous material is about 2172 million years ago. The overlying soils are acidic and sandy while the topography consists of open plains with broken kopjes and scattered boulders – a scenic asset and an ideal place for children to roam and explore.

The natural woodland vegetation is dominated by Terminalia, Acacia, Burkea, Sclerocara and Peltaphorum with a greater variety of species amongst the rocks or along the streams. The park is a proclaimed bird sanctuary and its diversity of habitats means that there are many species present. Unfortunately there are very few wild animals at present, although we have had offers to assist in restocking if we can provide an adequate and secure infrastructure.

The Human History

On the property there are several nationally important archaeological sites. It was here that one of the earliest collections of Stone Age tools was gathered while there have been small archaeological excavations in some of the rock shelters. One panel of rock paintings has been located and there are reports of others.

Various early Farming Communities built villages in the area. A particularly large site near the Upper Dam was partially excavated in the late 1960s and was extremely important in developing our current understanding of the Leopard’s Kopje Tradition (10th to 13th Centuries). It was associated in someway with the internationally important site of Mapungubwe near the Shashe-Limpopo confluence.

In the 19th Century it was the site of one of King Lobengula Khumalo’s favourite outlying villages to which he could escape the daily routine and strains of life at koBulawayo (Old Bulawayo), the state’s capital. This was Matsheumhlope or White Stones. Said to be an hour and a half’s gallop from koBulawayo through plains, rocky kopjes and reed-infested marshes, it was a retreat where the monarch would entertain many of his more trusted visitors.

In 1895 several of the leading Rhodesian settlers started work on the country’s first commercial water supply, building the original Hillside Dams. The three structures took some time to build and were only completed by January 1898. The London-based firm then waited with bated breath as they slowly filled. All was going well until on January 10th 1898 when the upper two dams collapsed, unable to cope with the force of inflow. The remaining lower wall and one of the upper ones were subsequently rebuilt to higher standards. These structures are the cores of the existing two walls. In 1924 the Hillside Dams and associated water reticulation facilities were sold to Bulawayo Town Council. Soon after the dams were decommissioned in favour of better sources elsewhere – Khami (1927) and Ncema (1943).

As an aside when the Upper Dam was being raised in 1915, the contractors uncovered a rich, limey deposit that contained many wild animal bones. Thought to be the “kitchen waste” of earlier inhabitants it was investigated by Mr Zealley of the Geological Survey Department. Some of his conclusions are suspect but unfortunately the bones have been lost. We are always on the lookout to find another similar treasure trove.

Thereafter the area became a prime residential area while the strip of land adjacent to the dams was declared the country’s first bird sanctuary. In 1942 it was designated a National Monument (number 34), a status it retains although no one is sure of the actual boundaries of the proclamation which may in fact cover much of the adjacent residential suburbs!

Various attempts have been made over the years to develop the area but these have not been sustained. There was a flurry of work in the late 1950s following the recommendations of an international parks consultant, Professor RH Compton. At the time the main roads and paths were formalized and the tearoom at the lower dams was erected. Another key development was the creation of the Aloe Garden in the 1960s building on a sizeable collection of over 1500 aloes donated by Cram Cooke who worked at the National Museum.

In the 1990s there was a marked deterioration with vandalism and poor security. Few people would dare to go to “The Dams”. This is reason for the current initiative, we citizens of Bulawayo need to take back what was once ours making it again a safe venue to relax, meet and for children to play.

Garson, M.S. 1995. The geology of the Bulawayo Greenstone Belt and the surrounding granitic terrain. Zimbabwe Geological Survey Bulletin 93.

Huffman, T.N. 1974. The Leopard’s Kopje Tradition. Museum Memoir 6. National Museums & Monuments of Rhodesia.

Jones, N. 1926. The Stone Age in Rhodesia. London: Oxford University Press.

Ransford, O. 1968. Bulawayo: historic battleground of Rhodesia. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema.

Summers, R. & Pagden, C.W. 1970. The Warriors. Cape Town: Books of Africa.

Zealley. A.E.V. 1915. A breccia of mammalian bones at Bulawayo Waterworks Reserve. Proceedings of the Rhodesia Scientific Association XV. pp. 1-16.