This quite fabulously beautiful, productive and wonderfully sensational land has, sadly, become synonymous in recent years with one of the most hated and despised abuser of all forms of human rights, torturer, genocidal maniac, destroyer of his country and all round big time baddy, Robert Mugabe.  But from the ashes of destruction, the land and hope of resurrection is gradually rising like the glimmer of sunlight in an early dawn.  So, let us go back a while and look at this bejewelled piece of God’s earth as it was only 130 years ago.

Cecil Rhodes, who rose to be one of the most influential and controversial entrepreneurs and politicians of the modern world, was one of 6 surviving children out of 9 born to a vicar and his wife close to Bishops Stortford in Hertfordshire. A sickly child, he never enjoyed the best of health and was only 48 when he died in 1902.  His early life, why and how he came to South Africa and what he achieved there is not part of this narrative but he had a vision of extending a railway line from Cape Town to Cairo.  Perhaps more to the point, having been closely connected with the discovery of the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold fields of Johannesburg, he saw no reason not to continue northwards as a natural progression.  The lands north of the Limpopo river were known as Matabeleland and Mashonaland.  This is what Rhodes wanted; but so did others – Portuguese, Boers and Germans. It must be remembered that these were wild times in a wild country and one by one they were seen off by fair means and foul.  But now there was King Lobengula to be faced: a huge and imposing figure, the son of King Mzilikazi, the great Zulu warrior who had led his people north in 1840.  Much diplomacy took place with promises of arms, financial security and power on the one hand and Rhodes’ efforts to persuade the British government and Queen Victoria to support him on the other.  The Moffat treaty which was more one of trade and  freedom of access was signed with Lobengula in February 1888 but it was 8 months later in October that Rhodes proclaimed that “without firing a shot we have occupied probably the richest goldfield in the world, with acquiescence of the natives, at a cost to the Company of something like £200,000”.  The ‘Company’ being the British South Africa Company.  At the same time Fort Salisbury (later Salisbury named after the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury) was founded.  Rhodes was wrong, of course: there was very little gold but what there was, was a marvellous fertile plain which with skilful drainage, irrigation and land management by British farmers and settlers, became the bread basket of Africa and beyond.  Later, in the 1920s, huge copper deposits were discovered in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia so Rhodes was only wrong by a few hundred miles and the mineral name.  A curious comparison can be made between Rhodes and another English entrepreneur who lived a couple of generations earlier: Sir Stamford Raffles, son of a sea captain who, as a child lived in the village of Walworth, near London and walked the 5 miles to work as a junior clerk at the East India Company’s imposing Headquarters in Leadenhall Street.  Raffles subsequently was sent by the company to Malaya, became Lieutenant Governor of Java and the founder of Singapore.  Both men shared a common determination to extend the British Empire at all costs and Raffles, too, died at an early age – 45 in 1826.

From 1890 until 1923 Rhodesia remained under the control of the BSAC after which time it became a British Colony.  White settlers started to develop and farm the land in the 1890s and in the early part of the 20th century the country became increasingly a major producer of maize, corn, mealies, vegetables, sugar cane, cotton and tobacco, the latter rising to be the world 3rd largest supplier behind Brazil and the USA.

The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 sought to determine certain areas of the country that were to be made available for immigrants (i.e.white settlers) and other areas to be reserved for natives.  Yet more areas were designated ‘Undetermined’, ‘Forest’ or ‘Unassigned’.  The Mazoe valley north of Salisbury was one area which was extensively and successfully farmed by white settlers.

Salisbury high street

I first visited Southern Rhodesia as a young man in 1957 staying on a cousin’s farm for 3 months about 60 miles north of Salisbury, as it was still called then.  As a green, naïve young man, it was Utopia.  The day started at 5 a.m. with a glass of fresh orange juice brought by a smartly dressed African and whole days were spent on various sections of the huge farm, mealies, corn, citrus fruits of orange and lemon trees planted in seemingly endless rows and immaculately tended with not a weed in sight, paw paws, avocados, almost every form of vegetable, large tobacco plantations, another area consisting of specially grown roses for export to Europe, the contrasting colours of the different crops blending with the darker shades of the hills rising in the far distance to meet the blue sky studded with clouds, some almost a pure white, others bringing showers of rain.  A kaleidoscope of reds, greens, oranges, yellows, and blues. The homestead was comfortable and airy with largish rooms on a single story.  Elegant and functional but not opulent or luxurious. A lawned garden sloped slightly away from the house dotted with beds of tropical flowers including many different shades of hibiscus and large bougainvillea bushes on either side.  My quarters were in a separate guesthouse, similarly furnished about 40 yards away from the main house.  Everywhere one went there were smiling black faces both inside and out.  My cousin’s and other farmers and families like them provided accommodation for their African workers, built schools for their children to be educated and churches for their worship .

Castle Brewery Salisbury

Happiness prevailed, hence my feeling of Utopia.  A Peugeot pick-up was placed at my disposal and I hope I made myself useful running errands, collecting and delivering machinery to and from the farm workshop and being a general ‘gofer’.  Sometimes there were outings to Salisbury, then a delightful colonial capital with wide streets, old fashioned shops and stores, set back houses with gardens giving forth an air of pleasant unhurriedness.

Harare Zimbabwe

Meikles Hotel was the general meeting place, a low building with large open windows and verandahs giving onto an elegant outside courtyard with randomly set tables with rattan chairs and comfortable cushions. Uniformed African staff stood by with large hand held fans to gently disturb the air around chiefly ladies as they sipped tea while the gentleman preferred something a little stronger in the bar as they discussed matters of mutual concern.

Socially, on the farm on normal evenings there was not much to keep one out of bed by about 9.30 but that does not mean there were no parties – far from it.  It was normal to drive 50 to 75 miles to a dinner party.  Children were not usually left behind but wrapped in their nightwear, bundled in the back of a pick-up or large American car on mattresses and similarly brought home when their parents were ready to leave.  On Saturdays and Sundays very jolly lunch parties were the norm.  Another great expedition at that time was to see the construction of the Kariba Dam, not completed until 1959; a giant of a project, the dam being 420 feet high and 1,900 feet long, the resulting lake, when finished and full being 140 miles long.  The location is on the great River Zambezi along the border of Northern and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe.  A huge operation called  Operation Noah was mounted to re-house those living in the valley and also to relocate the displaced animals.  The machinations of the human race, be they political or industrial, do not come into the parameters of the animal mind unless they are disturbed from their routine of life.  There was the story of a herd of elephants whose annual migration took them through the valley to be filled by the Kariba Dam; nothing daunted but faced with 20 miles of open water, the herd stuck to their traditional route.  Not even the frantic efforts of the game wardens could stop them swimming the width of the lake that was not there the year before.  And they made it.

These jottings do not purport to be a potted history of Zimbabwe, merely the views and experiences of someone who has visited the country on numerous occasions over a long period of time.  The  early sixties saw the start of the country plunging into a volcanic abyss of chaos and upheaval from all aspects.  The ill fated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, of which Roy Walensky, a former heavyweight boxing champion of Rhodesia, was Prime Minister, collapsed in 1963.  In 1964 the incumbent Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister, Winston Field, was ousted to be replaced by Ian Smith who led his country to UDI in 1965, a move which was as badly handled by the British Labour Government under Harold Wilson as it was in Rhodesia.  At the same time internal factions inside the country involving majority rule, infighting between rival political parties, led to riots, guerrilla and civil war.  It was a desperate time with upwards of 20,000  fatal casualties.  Bishop Muzorewa became Prime Minister for a brief period in 1979 at the time of the Lancaster House Agreement in London under the Chairmanship of Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary but was defeated by Robert Mugabe in 1980 who has held office ever since.

I had a long gap between visits at that time until the mid nineties when I stayed with the same cousins on the same farm but one generation on.  It was a different country that I saw apart from just the name as it was now Zimbabwe.  Gone were most of the happy smiling faces, gone too were, seemingly, the colours to be replaced by shades of grey in my mind.  In tours round the country being driven by my cousin, I saw what I remembered as pristine cultivated land reduced to casual and unkempt grazing land.  My cousin and his wife had both been shot and wounded although in their case it may have been that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In Harare (no longer Salisbury) all change too; gaunt characterless buildings and a general run down look had replaced what I had remembered.  Even Meikles Hotel, although in the same place was now a featureless large edifice indistinguishable from any other of its kind.  At one stage of my visit I was met at the airport by the widow of a former farmer in a battered old Mazda pick-up.  I don’t remember what she had in the driving compartment but there was not enough room for me plus my suitcase.  “Better hop in the back if you want your suitcase still to be there when we arrive,” she said.  I explained that I needed to stop off at Meikles to collect another suitcase that they had kindly allowed me to leave a week or two beforehand while I was off on a side trip to Namibia and Botswana.  It was  raining so as we drew up to the forecourt of Meikles, the splendidly uniformed doorman, seeing this battered pick-up driven by this extremely scruffy old lady who might have come straight off the Yorkshire Dales and with a drenched passenger standing in the back,  tried to direct us to the tradesmen’s entrance.  I shall never forget the look on his face when I dashed through the main swing doors and reappeared with another suitcase. “I thought we were supposed to be the savages”, it seemed to say.

Another longish gap until a few years ago.  In fact I have been to Zimbabwe twice in the last 3 years and it is, if not all change again, getting on that way.  In January 2009 Zimbabwe abandoned its own Zimbabwean dollar which had reached farcical  proportions. Now a $5trillion Zimbabwe note can be bought as a souvenir for about US$10.  All dealings are conducted in US$ but South African rand and pound sterling are regularly used.  Earlier this year I stayed with the same family cousins but, again, another generation down the line.  Not, however, on the farm this time.  The farm became a victim of Mugabe’s white land grab and is now occupied – note, not sold to – Mr Mugabe’s sister-in-law, but with the granddaughter of my original hosts who is married to a top executive in the Zimbabwe hotel industry with grown up children of their own, in their very lovely house in a most attractive leafy suburb of Harare.  The house itself is charming, they have a beautiful garden with a delightful guest cottage, tennis court and swimming pool.  Interestingly their indoor staff are the same who used to be with them on the farm.  Walking round the area either on one’s own or with the family presented no problem whatsoever; everybody was friendly and chatty whether on streets or open and wooded land.  Local shops were attractively presented with good quality goods, there were shopping malls full of people;  fun, open air bistro restaurants were busy and the quality of food and service was excellent.

When I started to visit and take small parties of people to Burma in the 1990s I met with some opposition from those whose view was that one should not lend support to a despicable regime.  My argument was that I wasn’t: I used no government firm or agency but only private businesses who provided employment to Burmese people.  Now in Burma, to obtain a good hotel room and/or fight your way through Rangoon traffic is a major problem.  I believe in the same policy in Zimbabwe and I go as far as to say that if one was not aware of the problems that have existed and still do exist, it would be by no means obvious.  Nature and animals know no boundaries or demarcation lines.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

It is only a 1½ hour flight from Harare to one of the Wonders of the World but, perhaps more to the point, some major European airlines including BA and KLM as well as South African Airways now have flights directly into Victoria Falls and Bulawayo via Johannesburg.  Victoria Falls – the local name being Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders) – were first seen by a European, Dr. David Livingstone in 1855.  It is an awesome and mind blowing sight; the Zambezi river for a long distance before the Falls flowing gently along a shallow basalt plateau and then suddenly, BANG the water drops vertically 354 feet from a width of 5,600 feet making the Falls the largest in volume in the world, twice that of Niagara and only rivalled by Iguacu on the Brazil/Argentina border. The roaring sound of the water and the sight of the spray can be heard and seen from many miles distant.  Due to the spray caused by the turbulent maelstrom of water it is impossible to see the bottom of the chasm but a path leads past a statue of Livingstone to the very edge of the chasm and from where there are several vantage points to see this vast sheet of water descending into the hell hole of a chasm below. As part of his vision of a Cape to Cairo railway, Cecil Rhodes had an ambitious plan for a bridge to be built below the Falls close enough for passengers to be able to see for themselves the whole dramatic scenario.

Bridge constructed at Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

He did not live to see the completion of the bridge, constructed in England and shipped piecemeal by ship to Beira and then transported on the new railway to Victoria Falls to be reassembled and installed.  This was a brilliant piece of civil engineering, building a bridge into sheer rocky cliffs on both sides of a canyon 250 yards wide with a turbulent river flowing over 100 yards below, the bridge to be strong enough to carry a trans African steam locomotive pulling carriages loaded with passengers and freight in addition to a roadway was a feat of incredible skill and fraught with danger. No instant electronic communication in those days but roped walkways were slung under the path of the bridge and it was officially opened in 1905;  the same bridge is still there today, nearly 109 years later.  Nowadays it forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia with all the complications of a border crossing with a rail and road link as well as a walkway.  From the centre of the 650 feet main span of the bridge and with the sun behind in the late afternoon there is often a most amazing 360 degree rainbow when looking down the 420 feet to the river below.  At full moon time there is a similar lunar rainbow.  Before the construction of the bridge, Victoria Falls was just a small town to which intrepid people could come to see the Falls , but with the advent of the railway the town became a railhead and the Victoria Falls hotel was opened in 1904.  It is a large and historic roughly horseshoe shaped hotel set in beautiful grounds with spectacular views of the Falls and the jungle stretching into the far distance, the colours blending with the sky and changing several times during the day.   A 10 minute walk along a private path leads to the Falls. In a  large public room on the ground floor, elegantly furnished in Edwardian style, are full length portraits of King George V and Queen Mary on one wall and large windows with doors opening onto the wide terrace leading to the huge lawn on the other.  Families of wart hogs play on the lawn and the enormous trees are home to troops of monkeys.

lokuthula lodge Zimbabwe Off the central areas are passages lined with hundreds of photographs showing many members of the Royal Family and world famous personalities that have stayed in the hotel since it’s inception.

The magisterial grandeur and sheer brilliance of Vic Falls is a reason in itself to visit Zimbabwe but because of it’s accessibility it makes it also an ideal location to start such a visit and spend a couple of days.

Rhino Safari Camp Zimbabwe

Three of the principle areas in Zimbabwe in respect of game viewing and scenery are within  reach of Victoria Falls – all three very different and all three unforgettable. In no particular order but dealing first with Lake Kariba, the Matusadona National Park which borders on Lake Kariba is a conservation area and where many of the animals relocated  by Operation Noah on the formation of Lake Kariba in the 1950s were directed. Rhino Safari Camp Zimbabwe

There is a greater concentration of the rare Black Rhino here than anywhere else but buffalo, elephant, water buck, lion and leopard are also to be found  plus a multitude of bird life from beautiful rollers to fish eagles and other birds of prey. Rhino Safari Camp Elephants Zimbabwe

The selected Camp is on the water’s edge, small, only 6 comfortable ‘rooms’, well separated from each other and each with private open air ensuite facilities, the central meeting and eating area being a wooden construction on 2 floors.  Good quality food and drink is included in the cost as are very experienced guides.  Early morning walks and/or drives are the norm with the same in the later afternoon. The views over the lake are quite marvellous and it is a magnificent sight to see the animals strolling through the unfenced land surrounding the Camp down to the water.

Hwange National Park ZimbabweThe second is situated in Hwange (formerly Wankie) National Park, the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe, being 5,650 square miles or about 2/3rds the size of Wales, the main area being about half way between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo. Again the selected Camp is  of a high quality in terms of rustic comfort, accommodation and animal viewing facilities.  The  sleeping accommodation consists of 7 tall bungalows with thatched roofs each with a  large bedroom opening onto a spacious private varandah with views of a water hole close by and a bathroom plus outside shower.  All rooms are well separated and just a couple of minutes walk to the main eating and meeting ‘boma’ with a bar and 2 dining areas – one partly inside and the other in the open air.

Rhino Safari Camp

There is also a small swimming pool.  Hwange is mainly a ‘dry’ park compared to Matusadona being a ‘wet’ park.  The main routine is the same in both and among the animals to be seen regularly are lion, giraffe, leopard, cheetah, zebra many species of deer including impala, sable, kudu and eland, wildebeest, large herds of elephant, buffalo, troops of baboon, wart hogs, hippos wallowing in water holes – the list goes on and on.  Here again the guides are so good and so knowledgeable with uncanny well trained eyesight. Hwange National Park

The third region is the Matobo (or Matopo, as it used to be known as) Hills.  Very different again consisting of granite hills and kopjes which geologists date back 2 billion years.  There is a high concentration of Rock Art some of which the experts have estimated to be 13,000 years old.  It is a beautiful and serenely quiet area with fabulous views over Bulawayo to the north and into Botswana to the south. Matobo Hills

It is here that Cecil Rhodes is buried which was his wish, at a site that he called The View of the World.  He actually died at his cottage near Cape Town but his body was taken by train to Bulawayo, the railhead at the time of his death, and thence by trek for 1 ½ days, up into the hills for the final ceremony and committal.  Close by is the tomb of Mzilikazi, the father of Lobengula, the king with whom Rhodes’ representative Charles Rudd signed the Concession of  Matabeleland and Mashonaland in October 1888.

Rhodes Matopos

Cecil Rhodes’ Grave

Here the selected Camp is 30 miles outside Bulawayo set among granite boulders with 9 individual thatched rooms partly let into the rock faces.  Again high quality service and food of  leopard and black eagle are to be seen and, among other species, black and white rhino.

Regarding transport between the above three destinations, the most convenient from Vic Falls to Matusadona is to take a small private chartered plane to Bumi Hills and thence a short boat journey to the Camp.  From Matusadona to Hwange either return by plane to Vic Falls and continue by road or fly direct to the Hwange private airstrip.  From Hwange to Matobo Hills it is a comfortable road journey of approximately 3 hours from the entrance to the park.

Of course there is much more to Zimbabwe than the places and areas described above but I hope this resume of the country as it was, what it went through and what it is now, will kindle a note of enthusiasm to the reader to visit this truly wonderful land.  It is my intention to escort a small party of similarly minded people to Zimbabwe in (our) autumn of 2014, probably October/November which is the best time for animal viewing in Zimbabwe so, for those who might be interested, please contact me at the address below.



Antony Johnson of From Here to ThereAntony Johnson
Coltleigh Farm, Mapperton, Beaminster Dorset DT8 3NR

Telephone: 01308 862630

Email: antony@fhtt.co.uk

Saturday, November 9th, 2013