A JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY ACROSS THE EASTERN HIGHLANDS OF ZIMBABWE
(Posted 13th June 2016)
(The Orchid Centre at La Rochelle showcases the largest number of orchids in Southern Africa)
Unlike on previous days was dawn yesterday a foggy and wet affair, probably the sort of weather one expects from Europe but certainly not in Zimbabwe, but then, there are always lessons to be learned, lessons taught as after all seeing is believing.
The Troutbeck Hotel was notably founded by a Scotsman, a Major Macilthwaite, who must have found the area about as much resembling the Scottish Highlands as it comes and decided to settle here in 1951. Besides trout fishing in the little lake and the streams across the sprawling property and beyond does a 9 hole golf course add to the attraction of coming from Harare and spending time in the highlands. Hiking trails are available into and across the Nyange National Park as are horses for hire to explore the country side from a slightly more elevated position. With some 73 rooms is the Troutbeck one of the larger hotels in the area and an option to some of the smaller places we visited like the Inn on Rupurara, where keen fishermen can land a catch with ease I was told but with a greater degree of solitude and tranquillity, especially when the larger hotel is booked up.
Notably, and with some degree of pride, did the staff at the reception point to the imposing fireplace which according to local lore has since the 01st of March 1951 never once gone out and has warmed thousands of visitors to get the chill out of their bones after a day out in the countryside.
Sadly, and that is the one downside of such trips, is there never enough time to really settle down and partake in the many activities each of the visited resorts, lodges and hotels offers, and it was the same at Troutbeck with the added dimension that getting into the cold bus and away from the burning embers in the fireplace, took all of my willpower.
Fishing clearly is a major attraction around the Eastern Highlands and the Inn on Rupurara, a much smaller property with just 16 rooms, also catered for this market. Particularly impressive was the main building, very much bringing back the distant memories of long gone colonial days with authentic furniture, wall hangings, books and selected clutter which gives a visitor that instant feel of being in a home rather than a hotel.
But the eye opener of the day was undoubtedly the visit to the La Rochelle Country House & Spa. The 40 hectares large property is home to some 300 species of trees from around the world which were brought by the owners from their extensive travels at a time when none of today’s restrictions of collecting and taking home of plants applied. The owners, Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld, lived in the property from the time it was built in 1951 to 1970, at which time they gifted the property to the Zimbabwe National Trust before moving back to Britain.
Angela Wright, the Manageress of La Rochelle, then went on to show me the Orchid collection and nursery, the largest in Southern Africa, and a heaven for orchid hunters who travel the world to see as many as they can, similar to hobby ornithologists. I know that tourists come to East Africa to see butterflies, another niche market, but La Rochelle with its collection of trees, orchids and notably almost 300 bird species, obviously is a special place where several such niches combine.
Lady Virginia’s former art studio – she did not allow any man to enter her little refuge when she was around – is today part of the accommodation on offer and the art deco style interior remains hugely appealing and certainly is different from many other suites seen on this trip. . Equally appealing is the original rondavel cottage in which the owners lived while the main building was constructed and to this day has the wall paper been lovingly maintained and is the main eye catcher for anyone entering the suite.
For those who are legally permitted to take orchid cuttings or rootlings back home with them, the nursery does offer to sell certain species, colour coded to specify their price which clearly is determined by how common or rather how rare one is
Several green houses and in particular one constantly warm and humid special display room where the orchids flower throughout the year, unimpeded by the cold season in this part of Zimbabwe, were opened for a walk through and the sheer variety and colours of the orchids was spectacular. This set this trip apart from others which focused on game viewing, or taking in the landscapes, in asfar as these added components were available to explore and of course, to entice readers to come to this part of Zimbabwe and enjoy a vacation as, and there will be more said about that in coming days and weeks, affordable as it comes.
And not to be missed, a few words about the food and service. I pondered having a second helping of the Butternut Soup, which was just perfect as was my Pepper Steak, medium as ordered and the vegetables crisp and al dente, if one can use that description for veggies instead of pasta.
This little gem, as other places visited and inspected like Aberfoyle, Troutbeck or Inn on Rupurara, deserve to be jammed with tourist visitors but Zimbabwe will first have to manage to become a mainstream African tourism destination again. While I enjoyed the lesser numbers and the opportunity, when a little time was available, to stroll across lawns, on to greens on golf courses and into the generally well-manicured gardens, will neither owners nor management companies be very happy about running at low occupancies.
Zimbabwe as a destination, with such massive attractions like the Victoria Falls – and a recently upgraded and modernized airport to go with – and its various national parks, but also the museums in the towns and cities, the awesome landscapes and her friendly people, deserves better. Here like nowhere else do people come up to me when I am off the bus to stretch my legs, offer their hand and thank me for visiting their country. Hence, it is clearly time now to shed the prejudice which has built up in the West for many a year now, fly to the capital Harare – Emirates flies daily, Kenya Airways up to three times a day, South African Airways and Fastjet and a revived Air Zimbabwe too from a range of African cities – and enjoy a magnificent safari and hospitality as good as it comes. Golfers will find many courses at green fees, caddy fees and golf trolley fees (where available) which in other parts of the world would maybe just be enough for tips. Fishermen, both fly and tackle, have written rave reviews in the guest comment books I saw over the past days and adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies find that anything here goes, white water rafting, kayaking, abseiling, canyoning, hiking and biking in an outdoors with spectacular backdrops, including the second highest waterfall in Africa, Mutarazi Falls.
In December, and more about that nearer to the time, will www.farandwide.co.zw hold a special event which was described as one of the most challenging of its kind in Africa, named a ‘Sky Run’ where competitors are faced with massive elevation changes up and down and very difficult terrain to master.
Last weekend in fact did an event take place out of Aberfoyle Lodge, and Chris Cragg, the lodge manager, had this to say about it: ‘The Wild Ride is a 96km single and jeep track mountain bike event which runs from FAR and WIDE (1800 mtrs) to Aberfoyle Lodge (750mtrs). The trail has recently been created and has been designed to be challenging yet breathtaking in every sense of the word. From FAR and WIDE you ride past some of the Eastern Highlands incredible natural wonders including The Mutarazi Falls (Africa’s 2nd highest waterfall), Mt Nyangani (Zimbabwe’s highest mountain), the Gairezi river and the Eastern Highlands tea fields. The vegetation varies from beautiful Montane and Riparian forests to rolling grassland and tea fields. This is the second year of the event and we were doing a lot to improving it this year. The FAR and WIDE Wild Ride is a one day event but with an added second day being more of a fun ride for the whole family’.
There you have it! Zimbabwe has got what it takes and the prices to match to return to their former million plus visitors and more and, at least for me there is no doubt, it is a country which should be on everyone’s bucket list.