Up the road to Rhodes Nyanga Hotel

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A consistent thing about Zimbabwes hospitality sector is the total lack of consistency of many prominent players!

Report by Dusty Miller

Rhodes Nyanga Hotel in Nyanga National Park has been up, down and deeper down over the past 12 or so years, but the new proprietor says it will again soar like a phoenix from the grey, cold ashes of mismanagement, neglect and investment starvation.

Francis Ngwenya has had a dramatic mid-life career swerve from chief operations officer at the major group Cresta Hospitality, with many hotels strategically placed across Africa, to running just this beautifully positioned bijou, boutique hotel set in the magnificent Eastern Districts.

In October last year, Francis, a product of the Bulawayo hotel school, won a tender to run Rhodes Nyanga Hotel at Cecil John Rhodes country home high in the mountains amid stunning countryside and clean fast-running trout streams and rivers for 25 years.

BUTthe place was stripped of almost everything strip-able by previous tenants. By begging, borrowing and buying various itemsfrom Rhodes own splendid highly polished inlaid oak wardrobe, complete with gleaming brass fittings, to verandah furniture, stoves, fridges, carpets, curtains, cutlery, crockery and even plug tops, he and his team managed to get the place on stream by late November when the first major bookingthe Zimbabwe Bridge Team arrived.

It speaks volumes for the professionalism of Francis team that the card players, immediately after the tournament ended, re-booked the hotel for a similar event this November.

Ten months after lease signing, Francis has poured in more than $450 000 investing into refurbing the building which has been a hotel popular with the folk of this country since the days of the First World War.

I fairly recently had a handsome and very comfortable suite containing Rhodes wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a modern but highly authentic reproduction of his four-poster bed.

For around 24 hours my spare socks and underwear were in the same lined smooth-as-silk drawers as old CJs were 110 years ago!

Despite his unpopularity with some Zimbabweans, Rhodes name is everywhere. The adjoining Rhodes Museum, run by Zimbabwes National Trust, has many lovingly kept and displayed mementoes of the Colossus life, together with items on Nyanga in particular, Manicaland in general (including exhibitions featuring several early nationalists) and an outdoor expo of agricultural implements used in the province.

With the hotel lease comes that of the nearby Rhodes Hall and Francis told me he was then gearing up to handle a prestigious wedding reception for 300 guests.

The actual ceremony was by the babbling crystal clear, cool Nyagombe River as it cascades over boulders worn smooth by millenniums of floods and droughts. It was in full spate when I visited, before the current chill winter weather arrived and the natural swimming pool was very inviting on a humid day.

Water is a major attraction. A trout stream runs through the hotel grounds and nearby is some of the finest fly-fishing for fighting rainbow trout (introduced in the 1950s) in Africa. There is boating and canoeing on several lakes and dams with bream angling on Udu Dam.

There is mountaineering and rock climbing, hiking and cycling trails, scenic drives, golf courses close by, game spotting, ancient fortresses and pits and cave paintings.

The area is alive with birds flitting through indigenous and well-established exotic flora in natural, pristine settings. The formal garden surrounding the hotel is a picture: colourful, well-watered, manicured and very restful.

The museum has a wee shrine to the late Major Peter StJ Turnbull-Kemp; his candid monochrome portrait appears on a wall of the hotels bar. We were colleagues (both assistant-directors) at the then Ministry of Information, Immigration and Tourism.

He wrote the definitive work on the African leopard; A Fly Fishermans Nyanga and Notes for Birdwatchers in Nyanga and died in 1997. He would spin in his local Anglican Church grave if he could see his epitaph, written calligraphically under the bars grainy picture.

A stickler for the correct use of English, it would pain him to see his obituarist saying he would be sorley missed by all who knew him!

If not of an overly active bent, this is the place to relax with a book in warm summery sunshine or grab a comfortable armchair and read by roaring log fires in winter.

Unlike many nearby hotels, the comfortable well appointed guest bedrooms (many with overhead showers and en-suite baths) at Rhodes Nyanga have satellite TV. There is a large monitor in the pub, where Francis, his general manager Leonard Chihwai and barman Alois Nyangare and I watched half an overseas soccer game before Sunday lunch.

Food varied from good to acceptable, but menus then needed a tweak or three, with more emphasis on serving well cooked local ingredients.

Nyanga Downs lamb chops (US$10), for instance, were off the whole weekend; someone jumped around to get chicken liver pat ($5) made in time for supper, but I found the ubiquitous chips with everything wearying, especially when some of the worlds finest, tastiest, new potatoes are grown within kilometres of the hotel kitchen.

I recommend trout cocktail starter ($5) and a big, meaty, fleshy, pan-fried river-fresh Nyanga trout with chips (of course) and veg at US$10. Home-made cream of mushroom soup was intensely flavoured, velvety, piping hot and exemplary and a breakfast cheese omelette was grand.

Theres a winter special package deal on currently. Standard rooms single B&B are $85 and double $120; suites $120-US$130; rondavels with walk-in shower $80-$90. Table dhte lunch and supper US$15 each, drinks very affordable.

Contact rhodesnyangahotel@zol.co.zw
dustym@zimind.co.zw