Peace and poetry of Troutbeck

It has been burning for 55 years, a celebration of one of the country’s most exclusive retreats, crisp with mountain air in the beautiful setting of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands. Like the fire that never dies, the Nyanga Inn has had a festive atmosphere since it opened its doors in 1951, the great vision of Major Herbert MacIlwaine who wanted to recreate the mood of the green hills of Ireland and Iochs of Scotland.. The story has it that the major used to come to Troutbeck in a Model T Ford with the last seven miles a dirt track. I have yet to find a written record of why he actually built Troutbeck ‘ an opportunity for historians who knew him perhaps ‘ but it must have been the extraordinary sense of tranquility of Nyanga that attracted him, together with his love of fly fishing. The lakeside inn today has fewer overseas visitors but excellent numbers of local people, primarily from Harare, who seek the great escape from city stress and enjoy the three-hour journey through a cathedral of rocks to reach the most peaceful and poetic destination in the land. A few years ago, I wrote that Nyanga was a forgotten paradise because few people had the ready transport to venture there. But all that seems to have changed. It appears to be on everybody’s map these days and, guided through the memories of their parents, new generations now head for the mountains. Troutbeck’s immense popularity is sustained by two major themes ‘ that of the ideal location for conferences and the other as an adventure centre for the family. Golf, bowls, tennis, squash, horse riding, walking trails, boating on the lake, clay pigeon shooting and, above all, trout fishing link with a quality of service and elegant food ‘ not to mention the welcoming glass of sherry ‘ to make the journey’s end truly inviting. It’s a fair guess that the founder of Troutbeck, Major MacIlwaine, would have been very happy at the way the inn has developed. “The basic principles have been kept for more than 50 years,” says one of the management staff. “The ambience of a hunting, fishing and shooting lodge deep in the mountains, with a number of other activities such as golf (a nine-over-nine course with alternative tees) blending into the landscape.” More than anything, the Troutbeck realm has a gracious spirit within its 70-room establishment and 24 Blue Swallow Time Share lodges against a background of a five-million tree forestry estate. Troutbeck’s lure as a conference centre, its walls laced with hunting prints and stuffed trout, can never be underestimated, however. Bankers and bureaucrats pour in for all kinds of training sessions, taking advantage of state-of-the-art equipment and facilities that can seat up to 300 cinema-style. The calm created by the lake and environmental attractions, the luxury rooms, en-suite with satellite TV, are a magnificent counter to the business of the day. The area of Nyanga ‘ from World’s View to the pungwe Gorge, the Inyangani Mountains, Ziwa Ruins and the waterfalls that abound ‘ provide reason enough to get away from it all. But within the Troutbeck walls and its 1500 acres there is, as one guest told me, an image of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte that casts its spell. This sedate, traditional side of the inn has always been there through its half-centenary years and golden wedding couples still come as well as the honeymooners. And, anyway, few visitors can resist the sumptuous scones and cream that has almost become the hallmark of Troutbeck The inn seems to be magic for couples seeking to “rekindle the marriage fire”, while for others the chance to sit out on the patio “gazing for hours at the lake” provides its own form of restful ecstasy. Then there are those who will walk the nature trail, a circular route of the lake through pine forests and past wooden jetties which are used by the fly fishermen, seizing the trout that will find its way on to the table for the evening meal. Others think very deeply about Troutbeck and what it offers. “It gives hope for the future prosperity of the country” , said an artist after completing a water colour of the lake. “If one resort can attract so many people, you can feel the whole country is sharing in its success. You can feel that tourism is very much alive.” Perhaps the key to Troutbeck is that it is a place of healing, surrounded as it is by the sights and sounds of nature with dabchicks and redknobbed coots abounding on the lake. “It is a place totally without commercialisation, seemingly cut off from the “outside world” , and possessing a harmony of the young and old. It’s a shame that the Major is no longer able to view the Troutbeck that he originally created. He died at the age of 94 in 1983 and a portrait of him sitting on his boat with a fly rod at his side and a net in his hand hangs above the eternal hearths ide fire. Major MacIlwaine was always with his faithful dog Bracken and one of the lovely stories about him was that he always apologised to unsuspecting golf partners that he was so slow around the course. Daylight came when he removed from his bag a trout cane rod and play would be suspended while he cast his fly to rising trout below the many footbridges that crossed the lake. The Troutbeck pioneer would have been proud, too, of the “Herbert” bear wearing the MacIlwaine/McBaine tartan, commissioned for the inn’s 50th anniversary, which now adorns the hotel bar. Its studious gaze offers a perfect reminder of the man who had the enterprise to turn a barren hill into one of the nation’s premier resorts.

April 2006
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