THE border town of Penhalonga is home to one of Zimbabwe’s best-kept secrets: La Rochelle, a magical cross twixt fairy tale castle and French chateau, surrounded by exotic and indigenous gardens on the edge of verdant forested mountains.
Report by Dusty Miller
La Rochelle is a gorgeously unique place with a story book tower and a magical garden filled with rare flora from all over the world.
Its story began in 1951, as the private estate of a wealthy Englishman of world-wide textile fame, Sir Stephen Courtauld and his wife, Lady Virginia.
Stephen was a quiet, studious man; a dedicated philanthropist, who gathered around him a world-famous collection of Turner paintings, jewels, antiques and rare plants.
Virginia was Italian-born gregarious and glamorous; rumours gave her a strangely exotic background. A tattooed ankle: almost unheard of in immediate post-war Colonial society, caused many raised eyebrows.
They had no children, but together with a much-loved lemur (buried in La Rochelle’s gardens) spent most of their time travelling the world in their steamship Virginia or yacht Eunamara.
Both loved the sun — and Africa — and spent a long time looking for a lasting home, promising warm sunny days.
They searched the continent from tip to toe until at the end of the 1940s they flew over the lush, green Imbeza Valley, near Penhalonga, on the then Southern Rhodesian-Portuguese East Africa frontier and lost their hearts to this country.
They landed in Umtali (now Mutare) instantly setting down roots, planning a house based on the home of Stephen’s French Huguenot forebears, the Chateau of La Rochelle in the Bay of Biscay.
Due to post-War building shortages, a planned second tower and wing were never realised but the house with its romantic courtyard, “Courtauld Rose” garden and rolling lawns, was the venue of many magnificent party with famous artists and distinguished guests signing names with a diamond stylus on plate-glass windows: fascinating pages of history still preserved there.
During those early days the Courtaulds established, with the help of UK horticulturist John Henry Michell, a unique botanical garden covering 20 ha with exotic plants and trees collected all over the world.
Bush was carefully preserved and a dam filled with water plants and populated by flocks of water fowl. An orchid house was built, today enhanced by the Peter Horrocks collection of rare Phalanopsis.
Unfashionably liberal Stephen and Virginia soon became involved in the communities around La Rochelle. They saw great social need and founded a school and home-craft industry for their black workers. In 1964 they financed an agricultural training farm, Kukwanisa, in the Tsonzo area of Nyanga. Initially outstandingly successful, it fell into disrepair during the Bush War.
As an arts patron, Stephen gave funds for the building of a well-equipped theatre in nearby Umtali (now Mutare), which still bears his name. Further gifts to the town included the building of Queen’s Hall and a pavilion at the showgrounds. They also funded the land and building costs of a multi-racial club.
Turning to national needs, the generous pair helped establish the National Gallery, a concert hall at the College of Music and gave lavishly to the newly-opened university college. They also endowed Bulawayo Theatre, but in general the Courtaulds were modest about their support, so much so that few knew of their generosity.
They extended helping hands to a clinic on the shores of Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) and it was only after quite a lot of persuasion by Federal Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, that Courtauld reluctantly accepted a British knighthood for his good works.
After Sir Stephen’s death in 1967, Lady Courtauld faithfully continued their joint dreams and plans for La Rochelle and this country in his memory. She died in 1972, after bequeathing the entire estate to her “family” as she called the people of this country.
Specific gifts were carefully outlined in the will and although the Turner paintings went back to the family’s UK seat, Eltham Palace, near Greenwich, beautiful one-off prints were sent from there back here to grace La Rochelle’s walls.
The gem collection was left to National Museums and Monuments and coin collection to the university as the Courtaulds’ ultimate gesture of giving.
Since her death, the estate has been managed and protected by the National Trust of Zimbabwe, through volunteer committees, but lack of sufficient funds has prevented implementation of a realistic conservation and development plan.
Sadly, too, drought years saw the death of many rare flora, despite continued efforts of NTZ and volunteers.
Occasional renting out of self-catering cottages and the main house as a school hostel brought in only survival funds during the bleak years.
Many said the estate had become an enormous white elephant and should be sold, but the NTZ never lost the belief that one day a miracle would happen and the full potential of La Rochelle realised.
And so for 20 years, La Rochelle was like a Sleeping Beauty waiting for a magic touch to transform it back into its original glory.
Now leased to hotelier Simon Herring, there are five double rooms, a state room suite, a gorgeous double suite in Lady Courtauld’s Fantasy (summerhouse), five self-catering cottages, swimming pool, living maze and a large caravan park.
The orchid house is one of the finest in Africa and there’s a garden nursery filled with exciting plants.
Great for a peaceful standalone holiday, it is also a fine centre for touring the Eastern Highlands or as a break driving to or from the Mozambique coast
La Rochelle is a place of tranquility and beauty for Zimbabweans to treasure. A heritage the Courtaulds wanted to share with all Zimbabweans. That is why they left their home to the nation . . . to you and me.
Try to visit La Rochelle at least once, wandering through the magical gardens. Stay a night or two and marvel at the incredible peace: soft warm nights under star-filled skies. The landline to the Imbeza Valley is constantly “liberated” by local tsotsis. Only contact is usually through cell number 0712 605 474. Text a message there and Simon will ring you back (fairly) soon!