I was neatly inveigled into an 11th hour trip to Gweru on the vague promise of a major safari-type story at Antelope Park Nature Reserve.
Travel With Dusty Miller
It’s one of the few tourist attractions of this country I’d never visited and I’d rather cynically shrugged off suggestions it was Zimbabwe’s second most popular destination after Victoria Falls. Following my fleeting visit, I agreed it probably is our No 2 must see attraction.
Gweru or Gwelo as it was called when I was seconded there for a freezing June-July month in the mid-1970s was a “city” of grit, smoke and dirt. Lovely, friendly, generous people lived there, but, then, someone had to.
Much of Gweru’s industry is now shut — either permanently or moth-balled until the recession ends — and the place looks decidedly tatty; in need of tonnes of TLC as I usually drive through non-stop between Bulawayo (or the Falls/Hwange) and Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital.)
I’d heard nothing but good about the 1 200 hectare Antelope Park from folk who’d been there and vaguely recalled half watching a tempting DVD about the resort at Amby Post Office in the days when we queued for hours at such places. For the life of me I can’t remember why I had to steel myself up and queue silently (sometimes not so quietly) fuming about the total incompetence of post office functionaries.
As far as I was aware . . . that was it, Antelope Park was the “job”. We arrived minutes before dusk on a Friday, just time to enjoy a brief twilight watching a splendid assortment of African birdlife besporting itself on the river in front of my very comfortable thatched rustic lodge.
I was sipping tea when my hosts came from the bundu, suggesting I pulled finger: we were off to dinner at Fairmile Hotel in 45 minutes.
Fortunately, I’d packed longs, but my weekend grip, branded “Head”, but I’m sure it’s “moody” (a counterfeit) — it cost five quid at the back of Leeds Market in 2007! didn’t hold a dinner jacket…or indeed any jacket — of the sort my hosts wore when we RV’d at reception.
This was, after all, Central Africa in the sultry Suicide Month of October. I was “doing” a game park, why should I have a too-tight tux with me?
Nice one, guys, I thought as we arrived at the Fairmile, which was a great establishment when owned and run by the late Tony Berkhout, MP. It’s now a Regency Hotel, operated by the Zvobgo clan and, like the rest of Gweru, needed urgent attention!
It was the annual awards dinner of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe and as, unusually, I hadn’t been invited to the full three-day congress, I began to smell a rodent!
Executive chefs from Meikles Hotel and African Sun’s exec chef, Leonard Moyo took over the kitchens and in the beautifully decorated (but too hot: ceiling fans cover only half of the area and one of those was kaput!) conference room we ate:
Tropical cocktail of avocado, cherry tomato and crocodile with “merry rose” (marie-rose, presumably!) sauce, which neighbours said was delicious; or memorably good roast butternut and mushroom soup with biltong shavings.
(The flavour was a revelation, but I was ravenous, having had nothing since light breakfast and would have murdered for a few crispy croutons or warm roll!)
Chris Gonzo from Meikles and Leonard from Monos cooked for their peers and every effort was made on chicken escalope with flamed cream of tomato and mushroom sauce, oriental fried rice and seasonal vegetables which I chose.
Almost everyone else at the table of 12 oohed and aahed over prime grilled beef with peppercorn sauce, spring-onion-and-herb mash and roast veg.
Pudding was the grotesquely named death-by-chocolate gateau or fruit salad and rapidly melting ice-cream I went for. Unusually for these functions, food was plated and rapidly served, still piping hot on professionally heated plates; accompanying wines were donated by Brands Africa.
Thankfully, I wasn’t asked to make a speech of acceptance when — rather flustered and red-faced — I was called from the 200-strong crowd to get the President’s Special Award (then president of Haz, Tich Hwingwiri . . . not Oom Bob!) presented from time to time for “outstanding contributions to the promotion of tourism and travel in Zimbabwe” as a veteran/vintage/venerable travel, food and drink writer.
At the time I wrote: “I’ll certainly return — soon — to Antelope Park, where I took more than 400 pictures, mainly of birds, but some mammals and big-game between first light and a big, burly bush, breakfast eaten al fresco. By 9am it was back on the road to cover a minority sporting event in Harare!”
(That was almost two years ago. Since then I’ve driven past Antelope Park half-a-dozen times, but never had time to stop for so much as a coffee, never mind to examine the spread, fish for bass, bream or barbel; canoe, sail or cruise on the lake; walk with lion or take an ride on a [hopefully] tame jumbo.) But YOU should make the effort!
Antelope Park, Gweru. Tel 0712 362 220; 0778 354 002