The romance of old Africa

Such is the luxury of this lodge, carved from the heart of Matabeleland in a wild life sanctuary close to the Matobo Hills within an hour’s drive from Bulawayo. One of my favourite historians, Oliver Ransford, once described the incredible landscape as possessing the mystery and romance of old Africa with sacred sites and secret places rich in lore and legend. This was the gateway into the country for some of the great hunters of the past like Frederick Courtney Selous, who spoke of the hills in moonlight offering a spectre of old ruined castles, and of missionaries like Robert Moffatt, whose daughter married the ever-questing David Livingstone. The history of the region continually inspires Richard and Bookey Peek, the owners of Malalangwe who have created a place for all seasons. Essentially a game conservation area, it also offers the greatest concentration of Bushman art in the world, a focal point for birding expeditions, the botanist and ecologist, and a natural haven for leopard with the black eagle soaring above the terrain. Sometimes all these enchantments can be melted into one-although you can get the specialists like the group from Britain who studied dragonflies for eight hours a day in the rainy season at one of Malalangwe’s pools. “They did not look for the game”, said Richard in conversation some time ago. “The game actually found them, still in the depth of their passion, the zebra and the tsesebe coming down to the pool to drink” . I humbly assumed that not everyone was into dragonflies. “That’s right”, he said. “But we love those who have a speciality. Take the case of the 80-year-old woman, plunging into ravines and climbing rocks, to see the San art. “Nothing daunted her and she wanted to see everything. After all we have 80 sites here and the most magnificent grain bins, created for storage during the Zulu raids of 150 years ago”. Visions of exhaustion swept before me and I pressed on, hoping for some answers that would not have me climbing to look for eagles’ nests. What really attracts people to Malalangwe, I asked as we went for a Sunday morning nature ramble, amid trees of intense variety and colour and cathedrals of sheer granite. Richard did not hesitate. “It’s the history”, he stressed, and by this he meant not only an area as old as time itself, but the fact that it is part of the Matabelele culture. In fact, he foresees the day when there is a powerful link between Malalangwe and a lodge in Zululand. “People familiar with Zulu culture would travel here to understand the development of history in terms of the Ndebele”, he said. “Yet the wild life sanctuary is everything ‘ and everything must revolve around it. Peace and tranquility among the game is a very special thing and we can offer much that others cannot”. To facilitate this he has brought in giraffe, gemsbok, eland, zebra, sable, bushbuck and impala while at night the aardwolf, antbear, caracal and zorilla may be sought. Richard is one of those dedicated professionals with a restless energy. His life straddles ‘ and interconnects ‘ both themes of history and wild life conservation. Fourteen years with National Parks and curator of mammals at the Museum of Natural History in Bulawayo, he developed Malalangwe Lodge as a true child of nature. Two years in its creation, amid the boulders of Dibe Hill, it has a number of cottages all superbly equipped and linked with each other by attractive pathways and wooden bridges. Each has its own spectacular view of the Pundamuka Valley, the lodge providing also a scenic setting for a lovely conference centre. While many take the high road into Malalangwe, there is a bush airstrip which we flew into from Barberton Lodge in the West Nicholson area. This provided a thrilling introduction as there were donkeys on the runway and nobody in sight to move them – our fault for being late. Our pilot, Guy Hilton-Barber, is the owner of Barberton and if he had been wearing one of those old-fashioned leather helmets he might have been mistaken for a First World War flyer. For our aerial manoeuvres in his four-seater Cherokee Pathfinder revealed a very youthful spirit for a veteran of Matabeleland. And these donkeys were rebellious. We had to swoop six times over them, virtually leaving tyre marks on their backs, before they finally moved, enabling us to land at the seventh attempt. No such adventures for the Germans who also descended for the night at Malalangwe, flying in from Namibia without a qualm and then travelling on to the Okavango Swamps. A party of 12 or so, they really showed that we are in the days of the interdependence of southern Africa. Together we defied the winter with the aid of a roaring fire while the bar offered an equally roaring hospitality. The dining room was furnished in the fashion of railway sleeper teak and a staircase leads to an outstanding view of the valley below. The whole is supplemented by cuisine of international quality. Richard continues to take a deep interest in the conservancy and leads photographic safaris in Zimbabwe and Botswana. His guides take people on game drives both within the sanctuary and to the Matobo National Park, where they sometimes track the black rhino. Others have been undertaking research projects in the interest of game management for Malalangwe. These include tracking the leopard to gauge numbers in the territory; seeking the nests of various species of rap tors ‘ eagles, falcons, goshawks and sparrowhawks; and checking the Q.esting habits of birds throughout the year.

May 2006
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