Beyond asphalt: A road re-imagined for Mat South cultural tourism

Nqobile Tshili, [email protected] 

ZWANE Enterprise, which was selected for the reconstruction of the 120km Old Gwanda Road, has revealed its innovative architectural designs, which aim to celebrate the cultural heritage and    tourism ecosystem of Matabeleland South. 

The public-private partnership (PPP) represents a significant investment in Matabeleland South’s infrastructure. 

While the project was initially estimated to cost US$110 million, Zwane Enterprise’s chief executive officer, Bekithemba Mbambo, states that the figure may now be closer to US$150 million, with US$40 million assigned to enhance the road’s elements and cultural storytelling. 

Saturday Chronicle obtained exclusive access to these architectural designs, which show how the road aims to promote the diverse tourism offerings of Matabeleland South, with prominent tourism facilities and cultural sites integrated into the design. 

Mbambo said Zwane Enterprise isn’t just constructing a road, but creating a “window to tourism” that transforms the journey from Bulawayo to Gwanda into a cultural immersion experience. 

The innovative approach aligns with the Government’s recognition of the essential role accessible roads play in tourism development, fostering smoother connections between travel enthusiasts and their dream destinations.

The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development, together with the Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality Industry have already forged partnerships to revitalise the country’s roads and airports.

Mbambo, a self-proclaimed “culturalist”, sees the project as more than just road construction.

“There is no other road that is packed with cultural and heritage sites like the Old Gwanda Road. It has the King’s Kraal at Mhlahlandlela, King Mzilikazi’s grave at Entumbane and Cecil John Rhodes’ grave on the side. As we go further to Ntunjambili it is embedded with the folklore of the people of Mthwakazi, which is part of the heritage,” said Mbambo. 

“The whole of Matobo Hills is also communicated through the road. Along the roadside, there are bushman paintings in areas like Gulabahwa Carve Heritage Site, with unique paintings.”

Underlining the cultural significance of the route, Mbambo pointed to landmarks like the Njelele Shrine. The revered spiritual site attracts visitors from across the region seeking guidance from their ancestors through traditional African practices. It’s said that a voice once spoke from the Njelele rocks, and even today, many come for spiritual connection, solidifying its place as a cornerstone of cultural tourism in Matabeleland South.

“We want to create a road that will be a corridor to communicate the culture of our people. Matobo Hills are a World Heritage Site and this must be enveloped in the construction of the road. The world should know about Matobo Hills through the road. 

“That is why we have fuel service stations that depict some of the natural tourist features found within Matopos National Park, for instance, we will have a Zebra service station. Such animals are found at Matopos National Park. Eco-tourism will be the centre of the road construction. We want to be pathfinders, and in doing so, we must produce a unique product,” said Mbambo.

In a break from tradition, Zwane Enterprise is ditching the standard concrete slab rest stops. Instead, it will be designing layovers inspired by traditional Nguni huts, complete with piped water and ablution facilities. This approach will enhance the cultural experience for travellers while providing essential amenities.

“I’m shocked that to this day we are still creating concrete slab lay-bys and bus stops where people just stop, leave their vehicles, and use the bush to help themselves. We will create lay-bys or bus stops with running water and ablution facilities within every 10km. We will create lay-bys with structures that highlight the Ndebele culture and traditional circular huts, the type of huts that were brought from Zululand.”

Mbambo even hinted at extending the cultural theme to the tollgates, ensuring their design reflects the unique heritage of the surrounding areas. 

The two planned tollgates, one on the Gwanda end and the other near Bulawayo, will serve as gateways to this cultural journey.

“The tollgates will also be themed to speak about the heritage of the place. The one in Ntunjambili will be themed along the Matobo Hills; it depicts the mountains that are in the Matobo area and will be situated 33km from the Bulawayo end. It will be situated where the Matobo Hills start, while the Vubachigwe tollgate will be themed around the mining areas in the Gwanda area. The tollgate is designed to show mining equipment and the big mining areas in that area,” said Mbambo.

“You will see as we move towards the inauguration of the road, we want to have an inscription that states that ‘if you have not driven along Old Gwanda Road you have not experienced Zimbabwe’. This is a road where we are not expecting people to be driving fast, but a road where people will learn our unique heritage, and probably stop along the way to consume tourism products.”

Mbambo strongly believes that cultural heritage is a powerful economic driver, and while others showcase their heritage through canvas paintings, Zwane Enterprises is taking an innovative approach, weaving it into the very fabric of the road. 

He acknowledges Zimbabwe’s abundance of natural and cultural heritage sites and stresses the need to unlock their full potential. The project aspires to be a model for monetising these treasures, ensuring they become sustainable economic engines for the region.

“Denmark is a country without natural heritage features, but they have created tourism around their culture. They have cultural villages and people travel from all over the world to visit and have a feel of those villages. So, as we develop, let us be proud of who we are and use our heritage as a tourism product,” he said. —  @nqotshili


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