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Once in a while you comes across a place where a person’s character, ambitions and interests are so clearly stamped upon it, that even as the place changes hands or starts to decay, their presence remains vivid. On the edge of the Mavuradonha Mountains in northern Zimbabwe, where the former commercial farmland peters out into fresh wilderness, Mike and Barbara McGrath carved out a magnificent farm, Siya Lima. Mike’s legacy is evident in the architectural anomaly of their house. Influenced by travels in Morocco and Italy, the house is a maze of arched ceilings, steep stairways, balconies and asymmetric rooms. Shades of pink and blue give the house warmth and charisma, contributed to by its slow, dignified return to nature. Fig trees are now slowly reaching over the plastered walls where ferns and orchids nestle in the cracks. The eccentric design and very personal touches are reminiscent of Shiwa Ng’andu in northern Zambia, Sir Stewart Gore Browne’s unique remote mansion.
Barbara, an accomplished horsewoman and entertainer, bred race horses and polo ponies for sale throughout Zimbabwe and beyond. The thoroughbred horses and pedigree cattle were well known for their quality. Mike grew tobacco and cultivated exotic plants - another of his wife's special interests. One of the first commercial farmers to the area, Mike was well respected in the local community and granted honorary custodianship of a rocky kopje of spiritual importance. Mike and Barbara were never dispossessed of the house during the last ten years of land reform; however most of the farm has been settled by new farmers and war veterans. Forbidden to farm themselves, and faced with the departure of their friends from neighbouring farms, Mike and Barbara finally moved to Harare, never to return. Visiting the house can’t help but provoke mixed feelings. While it is clear that a great disparity existed between the opulent lifestyles enjoyed by many white farmers in the past, compared to the living scratched by the rural poor, the hard work, skill and investment in creating these successful farms cannot be undervalued. While redistribution of land may hopefully raise the standard of living for a larger number of people in the long term, it probably hasn't detracted from the deep sense of personal loss that individuals like Mike and Barbara must have felt in shutting the door behind them for the last time. James and Janine Varden, long-standing friends of Mike and Barbara’s, are now “house-sitting” Siya Lima and hoping to one day restore it to its former glory. James and Janine use the farm as a base for their riding and walking safaris in the Mavuradonha Mountains. Eager to rebuild relationships with the local people, the Vardens invest in helping the local school and are developing a bee-keeping project to create additional income and encourage the conservation of trees which are at risk from the increased subsistence agriculture. They employ local people as guides, anti-poaching rangers and camp staff and hope to develop the area for the future enjoyment of visitors.
Wilbur Smith, Out of Africa, the Discovery Channel, and various other sources of contemporary enlightenment have contributed to our perception of the Africa safari environment and the characters that inhabit it. The professional hunter or safari guide is normally cast as a larger than life character possessing a personality cocktail of ingredients that include (to varying degrees) ego, eccentricity, suspect dress sense (particularly where length of shorts is concerned), an aptitude for identifying female prey before leaving the arrivals hall, an infinite collection of fireside stories of derring-do, and the apparent compulsion to demonstrate all of the above simultaneously in the face of an angry mammal. Unfortunately, while I’d love to explode this myth, in reality, this summary may often not be too far off the mark. What many people don’t realise is what goes into making a top guide, and that there is a very big distinction between a good one and a bad one. If you go to a lawyer, you like to know that he’s at least passed the bar exam and has a fair amount of experience behind him to give you the confidence that he can give you the best service. After all, you want to see value for your bucks. Similarly, when you go on safari, while it is certainly important to choose the right place, have a comfy bed etc. ensuring you have a great guide can make your safari. Zimbabwe is renowned throughout Africa for having produced some of the best professional guides. This is primarily because it has such stringent standards which entail rigorous training, long apprenticeships and tough examinations before a guide is let loose with a group of clients in the bush. Hunting is still allowed in Zimbabwe and the system for training both hunters and guides is the same. While photographic guides do not actually ever want to go out and shoot an animal, as a client, it’s quite nice to know that they are adequately prepared to deal with a headlong encounter with an accelerating buffalo if called upon to do so. The guide training therefore includes a large ballistics component...just in case. After sitting a lengthy theoretical exam to gain a “Learner Professional Hunter’s Licence”, the guide has to commit to a 4 year apprenticeship which exposes him or her to all aspects of the industry from first aid to animal behaviour, safety in the face of dangerous game to good camp management, vehicle mechanics to weaponry. To gain a full licence, the guide has to complete a shooting exam, submit to a 2 hour interrogation by a panel of 8-10 experts on a vast range of subjects, complete numerous written exams and spend a week in the bush with his examiners, experiencing a range of real-life situations and exercises to ensure that he/she will react well. Only then is this guide considered capable of leading clients in the bush. Zimbabwe has, by far, the most stringent standards when it comes to guiding. By comparison, Kenya does not yet have a compulsory professional guide’s licence, and in South Africa you can go from shelf-stacker to professional guide in around 7 months. That is not to say that extremely good guides don’t exist elsewhere, only that in Zimbabwe, you can be guaranteed that your professional guide will be well-schooled, regardless of the length of his shorts.
"God invented the giraffe, the elephant, the cat...he has no real style, He just keeps on trying things." So said Pablo Picasso, no doubt with his mind on painting rather than the animal kingdom. But I cant help feeling slightly irked by the thought that Picasso of all people really could have tried a bit harder to find animals that provided better examples of interesting stylistic variations by the Almighty. I can quickly think of a number of creatures that look strikingly like Picasso’s own drawings – from the wildebeest to the elephant shrew, but I ask you, can there be a better example than the naked mole rat? On my first trip to Africa, I was very serious about seeing the world’s most unlikely animal. As soon as I got there, dazzled, I forgot all about it. Then one slow, sun-dazed afternoon, dozing in the back of a truck in the middle of nowhere, a series of little ankle-level puffs of dirt gradually caught my attention, and peering over the tailgate, I saw the unmistakable dusty chiminified spoor of the naked mole rat. Of course, I didn’t really see the animal itself. They look, according to pictures, like uncooked sausages with claws. Without a shovel and a complete absence of shame, seeing one was never going to happen. But I got as close as you can. And it was a blessing.
By way of a minor personal rebellion against the frenetic eating and drinking that has characterised the last couple of Christmases, we opted to spend a week away from civilisation. The Eastern Highlands run along the border of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, from Nyanga in the north to Chimanimani in the south, and seemed to fit the bill. In the 70s, the area was a no-go zone as battle raged between the incumbent white minority and black Zimbabweans fighting for majority rule. Exiled in adjacent Zambia and Mozambique, the freedom-fighters (and future leaders of the country) armed and trained their troops and the Eastern Highlands was very much frontier country. Fortunately, this is no longer the case and, a much more peaceful place these days, the range of hills is now popular with those seeking a bit of space, fresh air and nature unbounded. We chose to re-locate to a wee cottage, owned by Parks, perched on a causeway across the Pungwe River, slightly up-river from a fairly impressive waterfall. This part of Nyanga is a bit tricky to get to and so was off the radar for other revellers. Just the fact that there was a wood-burning stove was sufficient to make us feel like we had really escaped, regardless of the fact that the efficient operation of said stove eluded us. While we did manage to produce an adequate approximation of a roast chicken, it would have been frowned upon by Nigella. In the absence of electricity, candle-light was central to creating an illusion of pampered penury. Interestingly, being stripped of the useful trappings of modern living, we felt quite refreshed, unburdened and indulgent. Although hot water was provided by a “donkey” (no, not a methane contraption, but a wood-burning stove), it seemed rude not to bathe in the river, which pooled conveniently and crystalline a few yards from the door-step. Aside from the pleasing absence of conveniences, the cottage was beautifully decorated and very comfy (so we weren’t that hard up). As you can imagine, it did prove tricky to galvanise ourselves into activity of any sort. Hours spent reading books in the shade or wallowing in the shallows seemed like a very good use of time. However, the craggy gorges, flowing grassy hills and pine forests do make an exceptional playground. We explored on foot, by car and bike, swimming in the river wherever possible and loving every new expansive view, and seeing very few other people. This is not somewhere you should go seeking big game but if you are looking for birdlife, space and safety to walk, enjoy quiet and simply experience nature, this is it. The once-smart hotels in this neck of the woods are now a little dated, and other self-catering accommodation appears to keep a low-profile; it’s not easy to find out where to stay around here. However, as confidence and demand returns, this little gem will become popular with outdoor enthusiasts looking for more than the big-game experience.