Shalom: My first camp
September 16, 2010 12 Comments
I’ve been getting a lot of Google hits to this site searching for the Zimbabwean camp site Shalom, I guess because I mentioned it in a previous post.
As it’s the first camp site I ever went to and it’s a place where I went to many times in my first fourteen years, it’s only appropriate to tell a bit more of the Shalom story.
Shalom was an isolated camp site in the southern reaches of the wild Matopos Hills, spiritual home of the Matabele tribe. The Matopos is a breathtaking playground, 35km from the second largest city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo. It’s a playground of tumbling boulders, all of the African big game, the world’s largest concentration of the black eagle, caves with ancient cave drawings and monolithic granite outcrops. It’s also the place Cecil John Rhodes chose to be buried at the appropriately titled World View.
Shalom was reached by driving through all these wonders. From memory it took around an hour to get there from home, but that could be the distortion of youth. The final stretch, maybe 20km, was on a meandering one lane strip of bitumen. If a car came in the opposite direction each vehicle would keep their right wheel on the bitumen (or tarmac as we called it) and the left would hang off into the dust, leaving a boiling cloud of choking powder streaming behind.
Today’s occupational health and safety police would have a fit at our methods of transport to the camp. We’d gather at City Hall in Bulawayo, throw our bags on the back of open, flat top trucks and pile on after them. The trucks would pull out in convoy with their precious cargo of up to a hundred excited kids, perched around the edges of the truck or standing behind the cab while the wind whipped through our hair.
We knew we’d arrived when we’d cross between two imposing stone pillars that supported a steel arch spelling out SHALOM. Compared to the palatial camp sites I’m now responsible for, Shalom was well…….. rough. The sleeping quarters were constructed of stone and were thatch roofed. The buildings were a mixture of low bungalows and round ‘rondavels’. Again this might be childish perspective, but my memory of the sleeping quarters in the bungalows in particular was that there were pits running along each wall and we’d sleep on the floor, either on stretchers or even on straw.
There was a smallish hall with a bare concrete floor that doubled up as an occasional meeting room and the dining room. It had a lot of picture windows that stared out on a riot of Jacaranda and Flamboyant trees. I have an endearing memory of this whole building seemingly shaking on an opening night because of a rousing rendition of a chorus with the refrain “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8) combined with exuberant actions.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but I certainly enjoyed what came out of it. The kitchen was a series of gas stoves and back-up fire pits. The only electrics available came from a site generator that normally only ran at night for a few hours. When it was a Youth for Christ camp the head chef was always “Uncle George” Jenkinson, my Dad’s best mate. With a team of local help he’d churn out a veritable smorgasbord for the hungry campers.
Shalom boasted a swimming pool of sorts, a large concrete pit dug into the hard ground and paved with more of the native stone. Often it was empty, other times various shades of grey. But at least it was safe from the dreaded bilharzia that prevented swimming in the nearby streams and rivers.
The stand out feature of Shalom campsite was the massive granite kopje (hill) that reared up and sat brooding over the campsite. On top sat the Shalom chapel, also of stone construction with a thatched roof and the centre of activity whenever a camp was in.
Countless would be the number of people who made life-changing and/or life defining decisions on top of this holy mountain.
My memory was that it was a stiff climb to the top of the hill, but the effort was rewarded with sweeping views over dense green acacia jungle back towards the angry jutting twin peaks of Silozwe and Silozwane, the highest mountains in the Matopos range.
Also on top of the kopje was a stone altar with a bronze plaque inserted, bearing the words “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength”. (Psalm 121:1) Surely there would be fewer more spectacular scenes for these words to grace?
The chapel had rows of long wooden benches. The polished wood combined with the fresh thatching gave the whole building a heady aroma.
With such a breathtaking view the chapel was an easy space to spend time, and after the meetings whole camp groups would spill out all over the hill, sitting in the many nooks and hollows weather had carved into the granite. The end of a meeting at Shalom always meant a contemplative ten minutes of silence.
I went to Shalom frequently in the years before I went to school, before a rude interruption as the Rhodesian civil war spiraled out of control and Shalom was considered too isolated and dangerous for camps. For a five year period few, if any people ventured there.
Independence reached Zimbabwe in 1980 and the war was over (for a time). Large tracts of the rural countryside had been ravaged by the war – any drive through the countryside revealed burned houses and ruins pocked with bullet holes. Thatch buildings were particularly vulnerable because the burned so fiercely.
Yet Shalom somehow managed that dark period of history unscathed. Camps were able to immediately resume because there was very little vandalism and the majority of the roofs were intact. It only added to the mystique of Shalom as sacred ground.
While I now work directly in the camping field and I’m responsible for three modern and scenic sites, nothing could replace the first love of Shalom. It was here as a child that I made my decision to be a follower of the Way. A part of me still lives there, and always will.
(And what we used to get up to at Shalom shall remain a story for another day).