Zimbabwe has a well-deserved reputation as a great all-round safari destination, and is known for its savannahs, wide rivers and prolific wildlife; but there is more to the country than meets the eye. Its eastern flank is dramatically different and has much to offer, and so it was with eager anticipation that guide Derek Solomon returned to the highlands he’d long loved but hadn’t visited in 15 years. He sent us this report.
f you’ve visited Hwange or some of Zimbabwe’s other national parks, you could be forgiven for thinking the Eastern Highlands were in a different part of the world altogether, let alone the same country.
They comprise an impressive 300km-long mountain range that runs north to south along Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique. Rolling hills and extensive montane grasslands dominate, but particularly special are the valleys covered in tropical rainforest or miombo woodland that are a haven for a wealth of unique flora and fauna.
The area is scenically important, with the huge mountain range peaking at Mount Nyangani in the northern Nyanga region, which at 2595m is the highest point in Zimbabwe. The 725m Mutarazi Falls, also in this northern area, is one of Africa’s highest waterfalls.
With such a diverse habitat, the Eastern Highlands is a birding hotspot, and this was the focus on our trip down memory lane.
Our journey began in the capital city of Harare, and a comfortable three-hour drive later, on an excellent, recently refurbished road, we were in the Bvumba Mountains, also known as the African Mountains of the Mist.
The views over neighbouring Mozambique and the surrounding countryside are spectacular. The road winds slowly through patches of damp indigenous forest and open grasslands, passing quaint country inns with beautiful overflowing gardens that remind one of rural England. The pace of life here is slow (which may have a little something to do with the lack of visitors over the last decade or so), but the welcome was warm and genuine.
Our first stop was Inn on the Vumba, a delight with its convivial atmosphere and charming bar, where we were joined by the head of the Inns chain for rather too much wine and affable conversation! The Inn’s garden is home to various indigenous plants, particularly aloes, and attract a wide variety of birds, including eastern saw-wing and bronzy sunbird.
Our next port of call was the White Horse Inn, an old favourite that has retained its own brand of old-fashioned charm, under the same owner’s guiding hand for the last 33 years. The standards are from a bygone area, with hand-rolled butterballs, table roses from the garden and actual tea leaves; plus a breakfast preserve trolley groaning under the weight of the delicious homemade produce. The stunning gardens were a haven for yet more exciting species of birds, including red-throated and green twinspots, tambourine dove, Livingstone’s turaco, Chirinda apalis and silvery-cheeked hornbill. The various flowers in the gardens and surrounding forests also attracted some amazing butterflies.
There are several places to stay, but for the serious birdwatcher Seldomseen Cottages are a treat, with a series of self-catering bungalows surrounded by dense forests. Two extremely knowledgeable local bird guides are based here, to lead you through the forest paths and into the protea stand, which draws various sunbirds and, sometimes, when flowering, Gurney’s sugarbird. You may also see Swynnerton’s robin, red-faced crimsonwing and Roberts’ warbler, to name but a few.
Wonderful plants such as Gladiolus flavoviridis, with its unusual pale green flowers, thrive here, and although we hunted for Marshall’s African leaf chameleon, which is only found in forest patches here and in Nyanga, we weren’t successful. But we were consoled by seeing and hearing many Samango monkeys, which are common in the forests.
The quaint inns and cottages tucked within the forests contrast well with the opulence of Leopard Rock Hotel, with its world-class golf course and casino, at the end of the road.
But a highlight of any visit to the Bvumba is Tony’s Coffee Shop, where the range of coffee and cake may set you back a bit (and will certainly add a few pounds to the waistline) but is well worth it as a special treat. Although somewhat neglected, the Bvumba Botanical Gardens still provide enchanting walks along streams and over wooden bridges, meandering among plants from all over the world, including tree ferns, orchids, azaleas and aloes.
Venturing north from the Bvumba, heading for the quiet village of Nyanga, the road meandered through extensive pine forests and montane grasslands. We saw long-crested eagles using the roadside powerline poles as hunting perches.
The air here is distinctly cool, and although the area is sparsely populated, there are several pleasant hotels, inns and self-catering cottages, mostly built around large fireplaces which are especially welcome in the winter months.
An attractive, earthy aroma permeates Nyanga’s dramatic scenery. The area is ideal for walking, with plenty of mountain trails varying from gentle strolls to challenging hiking routes. There are excellent trout-fishing dams and several golf courses, facilities for horse riding and rock climbing.
For the more energetic there is a remote outdoor adventure activity centre set in the beautiful wilderness areas of the Nyanga and Mutarazi Falls National Park that offers mountain biking trails, guided white water kayaking expeditions on the Pungwe and Gairezi rivers, and a strenuous but spectacular three-day hiking trail down to the low-lying Honde Valley.
Nyanga is not only for the adventure-minded, though, as it is also an excellent place to see some very specialised birds, such as the orange ground thrush, yellow-bellied waxbill, black-fronted bushshrike, scarce swift and blue swallow.
We called in at Inn on Rupurara, a beautiful lodge build up in amongst rocky outcrops a fair distance off the road. This classic inn is set in its own private wilderness area, with grassy plains dotted with large granite boulders. A pair of Verreaux’s eagles was soon spotted; and as our tea was cooling we spent time trying to photograph a very confiding white starred robin in the woods surrounding the lodge.
Overnight we stayed in one of the two comfortable self-catering cottages on the banks of the Pungwe River in the Nyanga National Park, where the roaring fire made by the helpful and friendly attendant was very welcome – even though we were in the height of summer!
Not only is the birdlife prolific here, but there is also the chance of finding rare plants such as the Nyanga fireball, as well as several uncommon aloes. The Inyanga river frog and the Inyanga toad are endemic amphibians and there are a few special butterflies to be found, including the Montane charaxes, False Scarlet and Marshall’s ranger.
Aberfoyle Lodge in the Honde Valley was our final destination, and we slowly made our way down to one of the most picturesque locations in Zimbabwe, passing through several villages before arriving at the stunning tea estate that surrounds the lodge. The tea plantations are melded into the hillsides and look in mint condition with singing tea-pickers moving along the lines, harvesting in shifts. In the 1950s the lodge was the original tea club house, and has recently undergone extensive renovations. The food was superb and the service – as we had encountered throughout our trip – excellent.
The golf course at Aberfoyle is still beautifully maintained and we were happy to see the raffia palms on the edge of the course are still home to several palmnut vultures. There are great walks along the course and mountain streams, and through the old spice and peppercorn groves where singing cisticolas were very vocal. Activities such as zip-lining and whitewater rafting (water level permitting) are offered, and, for the more sedate, visits to the tea factory.
We followed the road until it became an overgrown track, and walked the last stretch into the nearby Gleneagles Forest, where we saw many forest species including grey cuckooshrike, square-tailed drongo, bronze-naped pigeon, black-fronted bushshrike and green-backed woodpecker. A hot afternoon down in the vlei (or marsh) below the lodge rewarded us with the monotonous calling (but no sighting) of red-chested flufftails. In the evening after dinner the deep booming of the buff-spotted flufftail was almost drowned out by a raucous but unidentified amphibian!
Without question, Zimbabwe is creeping back onto the tourist map – and rightly so. Political and economic shenanigans aside, the country is brimming with enthusiastic and friendly people wanting to share their beautiful and wild places. We loved our time there and would go back in a heartbeat – and in fact plans are underway for a return journey to the many other places we have enjoyed in the past that are waiting to be rediscovered.
This is fantastic mountain walking or biking countryside. Plot your route and let others know where you are heading.
Some of the best fly-fishing in Zimbabwe is permitted in the lakes, streams and reservoirs, especially for rainbow and brown trout.
Canyoning, abseiling (the 385m abseil down Mutororo Falls is the highest commercial abseil in the world) and whitewater kayaking are among the activities offered by Far and Wide Zimbabwe.
The golf course at Leopard Rock has to rate as one of the most dramatic anywhere in Africa, and the courses at Aberfoyle and Troutbeck are well worth a round.
The Eastern Highlands offer exceptional birdwatching, and a wealth of butterflies, insects and floral diversity. Larger wildlife includes antelope (notably blue duiker, reedbuck, kudu and klipspringer) and primates such as the samango.
Getting there and around:
With public transport pretty much non-existent other than on the main roads to Mutare, you cannot satisfactorily explore the Eastern Highlands unless you have your own wheels (and there are no car rental offices in the region).
As a self-drive destination it is a gem, presenting memorable opportunities to discover great views, visit tea rooms or curio outlets, and explore the wilderness.
This article was published in Issue 67 (Summer 2014)