He’s Francis Ngwenya, who’s had a dramatic mid-life career swerve — if not change — from chief ops officer of Cresta Hospitality, with many hotels strategically positioned across Africa, to running just this beautifully positioned, hotel set in the magnificent Eastern Districts.
In October, Francis won a tender to run Rhodes Nyanga at Cecil John Rhodes’ country home high in the mountains amid stunning countryside and clean fast-running trout streams and rivers for 25 years.
BUT… the place had been strip-ped of almost everything moveable by previous tenants. By begging, borrowing and buying various items…from Rhodes’ own highly polished inlaid oak wardrobe, 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 November when the first major booking…the Zimbabwe Bridge Team arrived. It speaks volumes that the card players, immediately re-booked for this November.
Five months later, Francis has poured US$450 000 (and climbing) into refurbishing the building which has been a hotel popular with the folk of this country since the First World War.
I had a handsome suite containing Rhodes’ wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a modern — but highly authentic — replica of his four-poster bed. For around 24 hours my spare socks and underwear were in the same drawers as old CJR’s were 110 years ago!
Despite his unpopularity with some Zimbabweans, Rhodes’ name is everywhere. The adjoining Rhodes Museum, run by Zimbabwe’s National Trust, has many lovingly kept and displayed mementoes of the Colossus’ life, together with items on Nyanga in particular, Manicaland in general (including several nationalists) and an outdoor expo of agricultural implements.
With the hotel lease comes that of nearby Rhodes Hall and Francis told me he was gearing up to handle a prestigious wedding reception for 300. The actual ceremony will be by the babbling crystal clear, Nyagombe River as it cascades over boulders worn smooth by millenniums of floods and droughts. It was in full spate last week; the natural swimming pool was 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 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 fairly 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 restful.
The museum has a wee shrine to the late Major Peter StJ Turnbull-Kemp; his portrait appears on a wall of the hotel’s pub. We were colleagues at the old Ministry of Information, Immigration and Tourism. He wrote the definitive work on the African leopard; A Fly Fisherman’s 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 bar’s grainy monochrome 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) have satellite TV. They have a large monitor in the pub, where Francis, his general manager Leonard Chihwai and barman Alois and I watched half an English soccer game before Sunday lunch.
Food varied from good to acceptable, but menus need a tweak or three, with more emphasis on local ingredients. Nyanga Downs lamb chops (US$10), for instance, were “off” the whole weekend; someone jumped around to get chicken liver paté (US$5) made in time for supper, but I found chips with everything tiring, especially when some of the world’s, tastiest, new potatoes are grown within kilometres of the hotel kitchen.
I recommend trout cocktail (US$5) and a big, meaty, fleshy, pan-fried river-fresh Nyanga trout with chips (of course) and veg at US$10. Home-made mushroom soup was intensely flavoured, velvety, piping hot and exemplary and a breakfast cheese omelette was grand.
There’s a special package until June. Standard rooms single B&B are US$85, double US$120; suites US$120-US$130; rondavels with shower US$80-US$90.
By Dusty Miller