Unexpected Gems of the Eastern Highlands

In the previous edition, we showed you the wonders of Gonarezhou and how to get there. Now George van Deventer of Trans Africa Safari Self Drive Adventures and Tours heads further east into Zimbabwe towards Mutare and the Bvumba Mountains.

The Eastern Highlands, also known as the Manica Highlands, straddles the border of Zimbabwe and Mozambique and features a mountainous area of spectacular natural beauty, rolling hills, green forests, rugged peaks, misty valleys, deep gorges, cascading waterfalls, and sparkling rivers and lakes. The cool, damp climate and lush green landscapes are a contrast to the dry savanna most visitors expect to encounter in Zimbabwe.

After leaving Gonarezhou, we drove through the Malolangwe Conservancy, home to Zimbabwe’s Rhino Protection programme. The animals are under heavy surveillance and24-hour protection by armed scouts, and this programme counts as one of the few rhino conservation success stories in southern Africa. During 1997 to 1998, a total of 12 white rhinos and 28 black rhinos were translocated here from South Africa. After a settling period in bomas, the rhinos were released and their movements and general health monitored, primarily by Malilangwe’s scouts.

Towards the end of 1998, the first black rhino calf was born here, and since then more calves of both species have made this conservancy their home. Both populations have grown incredibly well over the past two decades (532% and 729% for the black and white rhino respectively), to the extent that Malilangwe has been able to supply rhino to restock other conservation areas in southern Africa. We were lucky enough to spot a few of them.

Birchenough Bridge

Birchenough Bridge, which spans the mighty Save River, was next on our must-see list. It was planned and funded to the tune of £145 000 by the Beit Trust (a foundation chaired at the time by Sir Henry Birchenough whose ashes are interred beneath the structure of the bridge). It was built by Dorman Long and completed in 1935, to a design by Ralph Freeman, who was also the structural designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The two bridges bear a close resemblance. However, at a length of 329 metres Birchenough is only two-thirds as long as the Australian bridge. At the time of its construction, it was the third longest single-arch suspension bridge in the world. The bridge is widely considered by Zimbabweans as being one of the country’s finest pieces of engineering, and as such, it appeared on the twenty-cent coin. Due to its age, the weight limit for crossing the bridge has been reduced to 25 tons. The Save River (also known as Rio Save in Mozambique) spans 640km, flowing through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The river has its source in Zimbabwe, some80km south of Harare, from where it flows south and then east, from the Zimbabwean highveld to its confluence with the Odzi River. It then turns south, drops over the Chivirira Falls (or “Place of Boiling”), and flows down the western side of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, forming a dry river valley in the rain shadow of these mountains. At the Mozambican border, it is joined by the Runde River (previously known as the Lundi River), forming a dramatic confluence at Mahenya. It then crosses Mozambique to flow into the Indian Ocean. This is a spectacular river with lots of photo opportunities.

A hot spring and bustling city

The roadblocks in the past were little more than an officially sanctioned shake down of the public, and a means for Zimbabwe’s broke government to fund a massively under-resourced police force. Numerous violations of the country’s laws have occurred in the process, and the roadblock dynamics neatly encapsulate, at a micro level, many aspects of Zimbabwe’s broader misgovernance.

This created an incentive for the over-regulation of traffic and inducement to find as many motorists as possible guilty of traffic offences, real or imagined. I am happy to report that, judging by the last few times we have visited Zimbabwe, this is a thing of the past. As we travelled on the A10we encountered numerous roadblocks and were either waved through or stopped for a chat. Officials even thanked us for supporting Zimbabwe through tourism.

The road conditions on the A10 were good, apart from the odd pothole, making the drive a scenic delight. We stopped at a local spaza shop to buy fresh tomatoes and bread, and our next stop was a big shade tree to enjoy our lunch next to the road. Fed and happy, we made our way further north to another hidden gem called Hot Springs, located 80km south of Mutarenear Nyanyadzi and Chiyadzwa diamond fields. The water from the springs is said to have medicinal and healing properties. While no one in the group was keen to take a dip in the sweltering pool during a hot and humid November, it is still worth a stop to admire the natural beauty. It will most definitely be a stopover in the cooler months.

Mutare, formerly known as Umtali, is the most populous city in the province of Manicaland, and the third biggest city in Zimbabwe. Although the city was founded in the late 19th century, the region has a long history of trading caravans passing through on the way to the Indian Ocean, from ports such as Sofala, to inland settlements such as Great Zimbabwe. The main activities of the area are citrus farming and mining, and the city’s name is derived from the words metal and forestry. This is a very busy city with lots of traffic and many trucks and busses clogging the streets.

All the South African franchise stores can be found here, making it a perfect one-stop town to do all your shopping and to refuel. Luckily for us, in Gonarezhou we had met the owner of a Mutare fuel depot, and we made use of his offer tore fuel there. We were very fortunate to have this luxury because the queues at the fuel stations were kilometres long in places. Many Zimbabwean citizens don’t have access to other currencies or bank cards to purchase fuel at the depot and Zim Bonds are not accepted here.

Mountains of the Mist

Bvumba has to be one of the greatest hidden gems in the Eastern Highlands. This verdant paradise offers epic landscapes and some serene havens, which are usually tucked away from plain view. We stumbled upon this awesome place on one of our recces on return from a tour of Malawi, and immediately fell in love. There is something magical about this corner of Africa. If the road from Mutare to the Vumba Botanical Gardens is anything to go by, this is as good as overlanding gets. The higher you climb, the greener it becomes, to the point where you are driving through a tunnel of foliage, branches, creepers and huge old trees. A true tropical jungle paradise.

The Bvumba (or Vumba) Mountains are also called the “Mountains of the Mist” (Bvumba being the Shona word for mist) as they are often covered with mist almost all year round. Bvumba is situated 25km from Mutare and is home to lush botanical gardens and lush forests, ideal for walks and a birding. The mountains, dominated by savannah woodland and Miombo trees, offer spectacular views over the Eastern Highlands and towards the tropical lowlands of Mozambique. Simply spectacular!

We made the Botanical Garden, located right on the belly of Bvumba Mountains, our base from which to explore. No picture or description can ever do justice to the views from the campsite. The gardens are crammed with indigenous orchids and ferns, punctuated by a network of footpaths that enable people to navigate all corners of the garden.

The gardens were established on what was called Manchester Farm in 1917 by a retired miner called Edger Evans. In 1923, the care of the garden was taken over by Fredrick John Taylor, a former mayor of Mutare (then Umtali), who worked there after his retirement. The public started visiting the gardens in 1940, and the gardens were declared a national park in 1958.

Coffee, cake and royalty

In Bvumba, the place to indulge is Tony’s Coffee Shop, where owner Tony sets a world-class benchmark for his baked delights. Tony himself comes out of the kitchen and gives you a handwritten menu, listing about 20 ways to have your coffee. On our visit, he had eight different cakes on offer, all described in a mouth-watering way. Some of them come with a warning like the one Marlene ignored when she ordered the double chocolate hot drink, which she paired with a slice of double chocolate cake. Just to give you an idea, a full slab of Lindt is used to make the hot chocolate. Halfway through her chocolate feast, she had to abort the mission and find a spot outside in the shade to lie down. One slice of cake costs $12, and coffee – served in lovely antique Bavarian porcelain – is$6 (bottomless). This was certainly worth the extravagance, as we felt transported back in time to English High Tea.

The coffee shop serves over a hundred types of teas, as well as an array of other refreshing beverages, from Tanganda tea, to green tea, lemonade, premium coffees, hot chocolate and more. The cakes and sweet treats are Tony’s speciality, with familiar flavours expertly given a new twist with amazing results– like his chocolate whiskey cake, white chocolate cheesecake, black cherry and chocolate mousse, or any of the creamy gâteaux. A special experience.

If hotels with heritage are on your radar, the most popular and definitely the most beautiful hotel in the area is the Leopard Rock Hotel. Described by the Queen Mother as “the most beautiful place in Africa” when she visited with her daughter in 1953, the hallway walls are decorated with numerous photos of the royal sand quite a few of Lady Diana. The hotel also famously boasts one of the finest golf landscapes in the country, and possibly throughout the world, and has played host to an array of film and sports personalities. We spoil ourselves with a night in the Leopard Rock Hotel every time we visit here, and are always treated like royalty and impressed with the old-world charm and carefully curated cuisine.

Shebeens, local beers and new friends

Fancy hotels and swanky eateries aside, if you are looking for the best place to have a few beers and something to eat, ask a local. That’s what we did, but at first our friendly local tried to direct usto the Hillside Golf Club, where all the other ‘whities’ hang out. We had something more local in mind, and after a long discussion, I asked him where he goes for a cold beer. Only then did the penny drop, and he directed us to a local shebeen co-owned by Panganai, who has since become a dear friend to me.

On arrival, the barkeeper could not understand that we wanted to go to the back to have a beer. She insisted that we sit in the bar and offered to arrange a table and chairs. It was only after we repeated our desire to go to the “back” that she allowed us. Here we discovered an authentic shebeen, the real McCoy, the watering hole of the locals. We were warmly welcomed by Panganai, my brother from another mother. He cleared some tables, arranged chairs and before we could say beer, we had an ice-cold Zambezi lager in hand.

The one thing a Zambezi does is to makes you hungry, and we were privileged enough to choose our own pork rashers and thinly sliced chuck which Panganai personally braaied for us. Some of the members in the group were sceptical about the meat and its origins, but the moment they tasted it we had to fight for a piece. It was the best braai vleis we had had in a long time. The greates tshock came when we received the bill: no one could believe that you could eat and drink for a whole afternoon and spend just $13(around R198). We paid $1 a beer! This experience was a tour highlight, and to this day it’s something we often talk about.

The Eastern Highlands is a jewel in Africa’s crown; a place where the third world meets the first world, with a transition so smooth you don’t even recognise it. A great piece of my heart is there, and that’s why I always return. This has to be one of my top three destinations in the world, and anyone who fails to visit at least once in their lives is poorer for it.

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