If you’re driving to Kariba or Mana Pools then Chinhoyi Caves Park is an excellent place to stop and have a look around. From the main road, you’d never guess that this series of deep caves and blue pools of water exist in the hillside.
How to get to Chinhoyi Caves: The Caves are about 1.5 hours’ drive from Harare (115 km) on the Harare-Chirundu Road (see map on Google). If you’re travelling from Harare, the caves are about 9 km after Chinhoyi Town, on the left. It is well signposted. The park is very close to the main road so it a convenient place to stop, requiring hardly any deviation from the main route. It opens early in the morning, so you can have breakfast here after an early start from Harare.
Price: The Caves are in a Recreational Park run by the Zimbabwe National Parks & Wildlife Management Authority. As you drive in, there is a small office at the main gate where you pay the entry fee. Entry costs $3 for locals, $8 for SADC citizens and $10 for other visitors. There is no additional vehicle charge. The caves are never busy so you don’t need to book ahead. When we came, we had our pre-packed coffee and biscuits in the car park (rather than the picnic sites) and then walked around the caves. We were also charged $2 per camera, which I’ve never heard of since, so you may wish to query it if this isn’t displayed on official signage at the site.
If you wish to have a picnic at a designated picnic site, this costs $5 per site for locals and $10 for other visitors. There are also camp sites which are $5/$8 per person for locals/internationals, respectively.
Facilities: As well as the caves, there are shaded picnic sites, camping and caravan sites. There are 3 ablution blocks with toilets, hot & cold water, baths and showers. The car park is large, and shaded by trees.
Family-friendly: Chinhoyi Caves Park is suitable for all ages but bear in mind that there are lots of steps and rocks. There aren’t many barriers around the steps or pools so you would need to carry younger children. There are no large animals around but there are monkeys, baboons, bushpigs and rock hares.
Practical details: As there are steep steps and sandy paths, good walking shoes are advised. You can spend as long or short as you like at Chinhoyi Caves: We usually spend just 30 minutes here as a pleasant sightseeing/toilet stopover between Harare and Kariba/Mana Pools (other rest stops on this route are Lion’s Den Butchery/Takeaway and Twin Rivers Inn). You could explore Chinhoyi Caves for a few hours as a day trip from Harare, taking your own picnic lunch and enjoying the natural scenery in the area. As there are camping facilities, the Caves could be used as an affordable overnight stopover fro m further afield such as Bulawayo or Mutare.
History of Chinhoyi Caves
The caves have a mysterious, eerie atmosphere about them, perhaps because the water is so deep and still. You’ll feel a tingle down your spine when you hear about their history too: Legend says that an outlaw named Nyamakwere murdered many victims here by throwing them into the Silent Pool. A headman named Chinhoyi eventually defeated Nyamakwere and then became a chief. It is after him that the nearby town of Chinhoyi was named. Later, Chief Chinhoyi and his followers used the caves as a refuge from raiding tribes. The plan didn’t always work though: in the 1830s, another tribe found Chinhoyi’s people in the caves and threw them into the pool below. Until recently, the remains of Chief Chinhoyi’s grain bins could be seen in some of the underground passages. Pottery and human remains suggest that the caves have been inhabited from around 650 AD. (See the National Parks website for more.) Chinhoyi was where ZANLA and Rhodesian forces first clashed in 1966, which marked the beginning of the War of Independence.
On a more lighthearted note, Chinhoyi was where a local woman convinced government ministers that she could extract diesel from rock. Officials sent 50 vehicles and helicopters to the woman in the belief that she could magic fuel out of the earth, during a time of extreme fuel shortages. The hoax was eventually revealed: The woman had attached a long hose to a fuel tank hidden in the hills, thus fooling the ministers to believe that fuel was gushing from the rock.
Walking around Chinhoyi Caves
The main attraction of the area is Sleeping Pool, which is open to the sunlight and is 46 metres below ground level. Sleeping Pool is situated in The Wonder Hole, which was once a large cavern but is now in the open-air due to a collapsed ceiling. To reach Sleeping Pool from the main entrance, go down the paved steps which are steep but do-able for most fitness levels.
There are some “rest spots” along the descent to catch your breath and take in the view. Continue to descend the steps into this apparent hole in the ground, and you’ll be rewarded with the most fascinating shade of blue you’ve ever seen, and metres of unnervingly clear water. The pool is surrounded by the vertical rock walls of The Wonder Hole, which only adds to the atmosphere.
The water in the main section of Sleeping Pool is between 80 and 91 metres deep, fluctuating due to seasonal rainfall. The depth of the water system is unknown, but the estimated depth is around 172 metres. Sleeping Pool is also accessible from Dark Cave, but bear in mind that the exit from Dark Cave is extremely steep and therefore this route is not suitable for everyone.
After having a look at Sleeping Pool, climb back to the top and turn right, continuing along the path that goes around Sleeping Pool. You’ll see more paths and tunnels which are interesting to explore but are not necessary to look at if you don’t have much time. There are benches along the paths to sit and have a rest if needed.
Follow the signs to the imaginatively but justly named Dark Cave where you’ll see Sleeping Pool from above; another angle from which to marvel at the deep blue water. In this cave, you can see stalactites and stalagmites: an excellent opportunity for a geography lesson. Dark Cave leads to the underwater passageways of Bat Cave and Blind Cave. The water temperature remains constant at 22 degrees Celcius even at a depth of 110 metres, which indicates that the pool is part of an even bigger body of water.
Scuba diving in Chinhoyi Caves
Scuba diving: Chinhoyi Caves is regarded to be on a par with some of the best dive sites in the world and has fantastic visibility. There are tunnels leading off Sleeping Pool and Dark Cave. Divers of all qualifications have something to enjoy; though bouyancy control is a must. You will need to dive with a Zimbabwe registered dive club. US Navy Divers have reached 135 metres here, and the actual depth is unknown. Just looking at those unfathonable waters from the outside gives me the shivers – but I understand that some people may enjoy it!
Chinhoyi (formerly Sinoia) Caves is a National Monument and in 1975 was designated as a Recreational Park. The cave is known to the Africans as Chirorodziwa, which means the "Pool of the Fallen". It is believed by local communities that the caves were used as a refuge by a bandit called Nyamakwere, who murdered many victims by throwing them into the Silent Pool. Nyamakwere was eventually defeated and killed by Chinhoyi who became the local Mashona Chief.
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 Chirorodziwa. When Chinhoyi’s scouts spotted the Ndebele in the neighborhood, 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, they drank at the silent pool, but they never bathed in it for fear of the monster lurking in its depths. When the Ndebele raiders moved on, Chinhoyi’s people returned to their normal lives.
The first European believed to have been shown the Cave was Frederick Courtenay Selous, the famous European hunter, during a hunting trip in 1887. After the European occupation of Zimbabwe, Chief Chinhoyi is said to have taken refuge in the great cave in 1896, later he moved away towards Lomagundi.
Chinhoyi Cave is technically a circular sink hole in the surrounding dolomite resulting in a funnel-shaped cavity in the limestone, 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.
Chinhoyi Caves are made up of the sunlit Sleeping Pool and the artificially lit Dark Cave.
The Sleeping Pool is accessible by two routes:
Through the main entrance by way of a long dark inclined passage, where the view of the water has been compared to the famous Blue Grotto of Capri. Light enters the passage from either end, and two small shafts in the roof ventilate and illumine the sloping passageway. On one side of the passage is a large chamber which has been occupied at different times in the history of the cave. For generations in the past, wild animals have descended this passage to drink at the pool, and the blocks of limestone are polished smooth by the constant rubbing past of thirsty animals. The floor was rough and uneven, but has been tidied up in recent years.
Through the Dark Cave, this leads down very steep steps and along a narrow passage to a point just above the water at the far side of the Sleeping Pool. Less agile visitors are advised to avoid this route.
The cobalt-blue colour is from dispersed particles of lime in the crystal clear water. The pool is roughly rectangular in shape with great stalactites overhanging its surface. For a long time it was believed the pool was bottomless, but divers of the Zimbabwe Sub-Aqua Speleological Research Group revealed that the depth of the water varies between 80 metres and 90 metres. This fluctuation in depth is attributable to the amount of rainfall received in a particular season. Several under water passages have been found leading from the Sleeping Pool, but all those so far explored lead back into the Pool. Near the end of the Dark Cave is a small cavern accessible only to divers, known as the Blind Cave. A second passage connects with the Sleeping Pool 58 metres below the surface and a third one is yet to be fully explored. It seems probable that a whole complex of underground galleries and caverns may honeycomb the host dolomite rocks. Research suggests that the water in the cave is connected to an even bigger body of water as the temperature in the Sleeping Pool never varies from 22⁰ Celsius.
There are goldfish in the water and sometimes water-lilies bloom upon its borders. Beneath the lily pads, myriads of small black tadpoles lash back and forth in search of food.
The Environs of the Caves
The Chinhoyi Caves only take up a small portion of the Recreational Park.
The Flora is varied made up largely of indigenous species and a few exotics. In the indigenous group, there are: Mukwa (pterocarpus angolencis), Cape Fig (ficus capensis), Combretum species, Terminalia species, Msasa (brachystegia), Violet tree (securidaca longipediculata), Yellow wood (monotas glaber) and Pink Jacaranda (stereospermum).
There is a wide variety of bird species, especially during the dry months of winter including Arnot's Chat, Angola Rock Thrush, Mocking Chat, Large Striped Pipit, Woodpeckers, Black Tit, Redwing Starling, Flycatchers, Penduline Tit, Glossy Starling, Bat Hawk, Tree Creeper and Paradise Flycatcher.
The Picnic sites and camp sites have three ablution blocks with hot and cold water, baths, toilets and showers.