In 1962, when I was 13, I lived outside a city called Bulawayo in a country that was then called Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
On 11th October that year, I encountered, or perhaps experienced, something that changed my life forever.
Our house was near the Matopos, a vast area of granite kopjes (hills) and balancing rocks interspersed with tree-filled valleys. From a distance, the hills look like rows of grey-blue humpback whales. Matopos (now also called Matobos) , means 'Bald Heads' and was coined by the great local king, Mzilikazi.
Mzilikazi, was a Zulu and former lieutenant of the legendary Shaka, king of the Zulu in South Africa. They quarrelled and, rather than face execution, he and his followers broke away travelled North and eventually settled near Bulawayo. He subjugated the local tribes and founded the powerful Ndebele nation.
It is claimed that his son, Lobengula was buried in the Matopos in a huge wooden ox cart filled with diamonds, gold and other precious objects and was worth a fortune.
Naturally, as a 13-year old, I was determined to find this fabulous treasure. I wasn’t alone, because most of my school friends felt the same way too.
On this particular day, four of us cycled to the foothills of the Matopos. We had water bottles, some sandwiches and biltong (dried beef jerky) in our rucksacks. Considering that the area was a notorious haunt for leopard, baboon and snakes, we were very lightly armed. We each had a knife and 0.22 BSA Meteor air rifles. One boy, Al, had his father’s Webley – a real handgun. Unlike my father’s old service revolver, it was a silly looking thing and would probably have bounced off a big male leopard. God we were stupid.
We arrived at about two in the afternoon and it was crisp, dry hot. The cicadas drummed rhythmically on and on. We drank some water and ate most of our food.
After hiding our bikes under some bushes we started climbing the huge boulders. We stopped at a tree filled with African Oranges. They’re not oranges at all, they’re certainly not a citrus fruit. They’re green and have a tough outer skin, similar in texture and weight to a cricket ball. You had to beat the hell out of them to get to the fruit. It is bright orange and is similar to a mango, but is softer and less stringy. I suppose it tasted like mango and cream. Delicious. I’ve never heard of or seen them since.
We ended up throwing them at each other and tempers flared when Warwick got hit on the forehead. It started swelling badly.
I remember Tom said, “I think we’d better get back, it looks pretty bad. Coming Maclean?”
Yes, we often called each other by our surnames. We were the last colonials and our school, Milton, was founded by Cecil Rhodes, one of the world’s richest men and the only person in the world t have not one, but two countries named after him. The school had minor public school pretensions with ersatz houses for boarders and a quadrangles design based on Rhodes’s college at Oxford. Even our school tie had the same silver and blue stripes as Oriel.
I said I wanted to carry on exploring and would catch up later. I stood watching them as they slowly rode off into the distance where I could just make out Matsheumhlope, one of Bulawayo’s outer suburbs.
It must have been about three when I set off alone into a thicket that grew at the foot of a massive rock. As my eyes adjusted to the shade, I heard a scurrying sound and saw, to my relief, dozens of Dassies, or as we also called them Rock Rabbits. Like so many things in Africa, things are not as they seem. Dassies are actually rats, but they’re fluffy and harmless.
I remember trying to think where a great king would be buried in the Matopos. Cecil Rhodes’s grave still lies there and, for some unaccountable reason, hasn’t been desecrated, which is odd as he was such an ardent supporter of British Colonialism.
It would have to be somewhere quite open, yet hard to get to. So it wouldn’t be on the fringes. It might be higher than the surrounding rock formations. Hmmm.
So, I plodded on and on until 4.30. I had about an hour or so left before twilight. I aimed for a huge outcrop and started circling round it. Even though I I remember thing that I should start back.
I was about to do so, when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It wasn’t cold. I couldn’t hear, or smell anything like an animal.
A dark, oppressive something was behind and above me. I couldn’t turn around. I couldn’t move. I felt my face redden and beads of sweat started trickling down my forehead. I started shaking until I dropped my puny air rifle.
The clatter as it fell galvanised me into action. I grabbed it and ran forward into a line of bushes that lay underneath the huge rock. They were almost impenetrable and I was soon covered in scratches. I turned round and forced myself backwards between the branches.
I hit the back of my head on the underside of the rock and fell down on soft earth that lay between it and the bushes. It was quite dark in there, but the menacing presence had gone.
Eventually, I calmed and found my bike lamp in the rucksack. I switched it on and looked outside the bushes. Nothing. Nothing moved.
I turned. And that’s when I saw it.
The underside of the rock sloped down to the earth, measured about ten feet at its highest point and thirty or so feet wide. I actually gasped as I saw the most beautiful rock paintings of Kudu, Wildebeest, Roan Antelope, men, women, children…all in rich hues of yellow ochre and burnt umber and black. I must have stood there in surprise and awe for ten, maybe twenty minutes or more. Time didn't exist.
There was a thin, very high-pitched whine of total silence. Just me and these amazing paintings that no-one had seen for millennia. There were no Dassie droppings, no foot, claw, or paw prints anywhere on that powdery floor.
It was getting darker outside. The vast moon had started rising. I had to go. Leopards prefer hunting at night. I had to go, go, GO!
The paintings, the paintings.
I got up took a last delicious look and squeezed out. I stood up and started walking the way I thought I’d come.
And then the something was behind and above me again.
This time I ran; ran as fast as I could towards the shimmer of light which I could discern above the huge rocks. I was lost. I was lost. Panic. Run. Run. It’s still behind me. Calm. Stop. Run. Run.
The sun was obscured as I ran up to and then round a towering black rock.
As I rounded it, the presence stopped. I slowed down and was hit in the face by the setting sun and a vast plain below. Hands on knees, I bent down and took deep breaths until I felt calm. I sat down breathing heavily.
I felt heavy. I weighed tons. I was part of the 100 feet high rock I was sitting on. I didn’t feel like an intruder; an outsider. I was part of everything and everything was part of me.
Everything was alive: I was rock; the rock was me, was flesh. The trees, the grass, the air, the sun, the light and even the encroaching darkness - we were all one.
I didn’t just feel at peace. I didn’t just feel happy. In pursuing Lobengula’s fabulous treasure I, found something else – oneness with everything.
Everything was alive: I was rock; the rock was me, was flesh. The trees, the grass, the air, the insects, the birds, the animals, the setting sun and even the encroaching darkness - we were all one.
I felt joy. The same joy I felt when I was four and bursting with life and love. That was before school. Before being shot. Before being drowned. Before being buried alive. Before coming to England and going to Goldsmiths. Before, before, before.
In the distance I saw the lights of Bulawayo coming on. Far below I could see where we left our bikes. I climbed down quickly and quietly and was never the same again.
No matter what happened, or happens, I felt profound joy. And that will be with me forever. That's real treasure.
This is a preliminary drawing for a large painting I'm working on. There will be a small figure on the edge of the rock, in the pool of moonlight.