The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
‘It is in Bulawayo that my soul finds peace’
Graham Boynton takes a sentimental journey from the city where he grew up through the wilds of Zimbabwe – and unravels a complex history
If you stand on top of the View of the World, the soaring granite outcrop in Matobo National Park outside Bulawayo, you will see the African bushveld stretching out before you to a distant horizon. It is calm, tranquil Africa at its most beautiful. I sat there in perfect silence watching eagles and vultures floating on the thermals above me, while below, Matobo’s white rhinos were snuffling their way through the afternoon feed. There is nowhere else I would rather be.
Just a few paces from where I was standing is the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, the now much-maligned builder of an African empire. Ironically, when Rhodes died here in 1902 the local Ndebele people gave him a royal funeral, according him the salute previously reserved only for tribal royalty.
“Bayete! Bayete! Bayete!” they chanted as his coffin was carried to this resting place in these granite hills. Thus the complex story continues to resonate around the Zimbabwean city where I grew up.
Despite having spent most of my adult life in Western cities, primarily London and New York, it is here in Bulawayo that my turbulent soul finds its peace. And for all the decades of neglect and mismanagement under successive regimes, it remains a small, charismatic city that is full of historical resonance.
City of Kings
Bulawayo was known by the local Ndebele people (also called the Matabele, and this western region of the country is Matabeleland) as both the City of Kings and the Place of Slaughter. Until Rhodes and the white settlers came towards the end of the 19th century, it was ruled over by tribal kings, the founding royal Mzilikazi arriving here 60 years earlier having fled the wrath of the Zulu king Shaka.
Mzilikazi’s son King Lobengula granted exclusive mining rights in the area to Rhodes’s agents in 1888, which led to columns of white pioneers arriving in ox wagons and proceeding to create a pretty, modern Western city out of the raw bushveld. Whatever the modern moral judgment of these settlers, they, like the Old World migrants to America three centuries earlier, were creating frontier civilizations with the best of intentions.
The organised colonial Bulawayo I grew up in during the 1960s and 1970s is now a memory, replaced by a shabby replica of its former self. The post-colonial governments of first Robert Mugabe and now his successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa have neglected this town, providing neither investment nor economic incentives. It is slowly withering.
The centre of the city is chaotic and unkempt, the once pristine parks strewn with rubbish, and the roads… well, the roads are so scarred with deep potholes that during the day drivers appear drunk as they weave this way and that to avoid them.
For all that, the people and their history make Bulawayo worth visiting. After 48 hours at Matobo National
Park and View of the World, I spent several days noodling around the city, the highlight of which was a walking tour with Paul Hubbard.
Paul is a respected 30-something polymath who knows the social, political and architectural relevance of every building in the city. And even though Bulawayo’s centre is in a state of disrepair, those old Victorian buildings still tell vivid stories of a pioneering past.
Into the wild
After a few bucolic days reinvestigating my colonial youth, it was time to head north to Hwange National Park, one of Africa’s most beautiful and diverse protected reserves, and wallow in the Matabeleland bushveld, a magical place that remains unchanged since the 1970s. Another bumpy drive took me there and within four hours I had put the politics of modern Zimbabwe behind me and entered timeless Africa.
I arrived with a burning desire to reconnect with pure wilderness, so I started at a group of lodges that come under the Amalinda Safari Collection rubric, a company owned by an old Bulawayo family.
I began with a few days at Sable Valley Lodge. The patriarch (called Khulu in Ndebele) is Cedric Wilde, after whom one of the family’s three Hwange camps is named. Cedric has some story. After Robert Mugabe became the country’s leader in 1980, Cedric bought land that he turned into a flourishing 3,000-hectare game ranch with all manner of wild animals – 400 eland, 300 wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, gemsbok from Namibia, and more than 3,000 ostriches. It was a massive investment that he hoped would set the tone for wildlife conservation in the region for years to come.
When, during the political upheavals of 2000, Cedric was thrown into jail, the land was invaded and all the wildlife eaten by the new occupants. The once pristine farm was soon reduced to rubble. However, being resilient Zimbabweans, the Wilde family, led by Cedric but driven by his daughters Sharon and Linda and their husbands, reinvented itself as a Hwange safari company.
Sable Valley Lodge is set beside the Dete Vlei, a four-mile stretch of dried riverbed that is rich with game, primarily elephant and buffalo herds and prides of lion. What Dave Bennett, one of those can-do husbands, has created is a charming traditional camp, but with the bonus of a sunken “hide” beside a waterhole which allows rare and intimate access to the wild beasts. We spent several evenings sitting in the hide, photographing and sipping beers, just feet away from bull elephants and dangerous dagga bulls (male buffaloes) that resulted in the best photographic close-ups I have had in the African wilderness in years.
Bennett’s mission here is to create an animal corridor that runs through to Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe, and to help achieve this he is teaching the proprietors in neighbouring concessions the art of marketing photographic tourism. It is an ambitious and honourable crusade and therein may well lie the future of the country’s wildlife conservation.
After a couple of days I was off on another bone-jarring ride to a familiar wildlife camp, this one in the middle of Hwange Game Reserve. Linkwasha Camp is an old favourite, mainly because it is set beside the Ngamo Pan, a vast area that teems with game.
In the space of just three four-hour game drives, I was close up with cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, elands, roan antelopes, lions, elephants and exotic knob-billed ducks. If this were one’s only evidence of Africa’s wilderness in the 21st century it would be reasonable to conclude that all was well. In fact, these are islands of exception and provide profound evidence and reasons why we should all fight to preserve such places.
The Las Vegas of Zimbabwe
A final bone-jarring drive across the country led to my final destination – Victoria Falls, the glittering other world, the Las Vegas of Zimbabwe. The government has deemed the Falls a special economic zone and entrepreneurship is flourishing. The centrepiece of the town is the great waterfall – twice the height of Niagara Falls and more than twice the width. In full flow, as it was during my visit, it is one of the great wonders of the natural world.
The town itself looks and feels unlike anywhere else in Zimbabwe. Neat, well-kept, it is almost devoid of pot-holed roads. This is because Zimbabwe’s hopeless government is hands-off here and leaves the private sector to sort things out.
According to local entrepreneur Jim Brown, my dinner companion at the luxurious Palm River Hotel, which he owns (along with the lovely, more traditional, Ilala Lodge a couple of miles away in the centre of town), business is picking up post-Covid. “We are doing OK. Upstream of Palm Lodge (which is located on the banks of the river) seven new lodges have been built in the past five years. And we look after the city here. The private sector has fixed the streetlights, we do a lot of refuse collection – we have a weekly clean-up drive – and we maintain the infrastructure.”
Like other Zimbabweans, Brown and his colleagues are making a plan, against the odds, in the face of government indifference. As he says: “It’s not America or Europe, it’s Africa. You do what you need to do.”
And with that I flew out of my old, beleaguered homeland from a Chinese-built airport. Battered and beaten up politically, economically and psychologically by a venal ruling elite, Zimbabweans remain the friendliest and most accommodating people on the continent. For now they live in a country that hasn’t yet fallen apart and their stubborn optimism is something to behold. That and the beautiful landscape they inhabit are the reasons to visit Zimbabwe.
In the space of three four-hour drives I was close up with zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and lions