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Dusty Miller
23/10/2012

Shanghaied to grubby, gritty Gweru

I was neatly inveigled into an 11th hour trip to Gweru on the vague promise of a major story at Antelope Park Nature Reserve.

It’s one of the few tourist attractions of this country I’d never visited and I’d rather cynically shrugged off suggestions it was Zimbabwe’s second most popular destination after Victoria Falls.

Gweru — or Gwelo as it was called when I was based there for a freezing June-July month in the mid-1970s — was a “city” of grit, smoke and dirt. Lovely, friendly, generous people live there…but, then, someone has to.

Much of Gweru’s industry is now shut—either permanently or mothy-balled until the recession ends — and the place looks decidedly tatty; in much need of tonnes of TLC as I usually drive through non-stop between Bulawayo (or the Falls/Hwange) and Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital.)

I’d heard nothing but good about the 3 000 acre Antelope Park from people who’d been there and vaguely recalled seeing a good DVD about the place at Amby Post Office in the days when we used to queue for hours at such places. For the life of me I can’t remember why I had to steel myself up and queue silently (sometimes not so quietly) fuming about the incompetence of postal workers.

As far as I was aware…that was it, Antelope Park was the assignment. We arrived minutes before dusk on Friday, just time for me to enjoy a brief twilight watching a splendid assortment of African birdlife besporting itself on the river in front of my comfortable rustic lodge.

I’d made a cup of tea when my hosts came out of the bundu and told me to pull finger, we were off to dinner at Fairmile Hotel in 45 minutes.

Fortunately I’d packed longs, but my weekend grip, branded “Head”, I’m sure it’s a counterfeit — it was five quid at the back of Leeds Market in 2007! didn’t hold a dinner jacket…or indeed any jacket — of the sort my hosts wore when we RV’d at reception.

This was, after all, Central Africa in the sultry Suicide Month of October. I was “doing” a game park, why should I carry a tuxedo?
Nice one, guys, I thought as we arrived at the Fairmile, which was a great establishment when owned and run by the late Tony Berkhout, MP. It’s now a Regency Hotel, owned by the Zvobgo family and, like the rest of Gweru, needs some urgent attention!

It was the annual awards dinner of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe and as, unusually, I hadn’t been invited to the full three-day congress, I began to smell a rodent!

Executive chefs from Meikles Hotel in Harare and African Sun’s exec chef, Leonard Moyo had taken over the kitchens and in the beautifully decorated (but too hot-ceiling fans cover only half of the area and one of those was knackered!) conference room we were served:

Tropical cocktail of avocado, cherry tomato and crocodile with “merry rose” (marie-rose) sauce, which neighbours told me was delicious; or memorably good roast butternut and mushroom soup with biltong shavings.

(The flavour was a revelation, but I was starving and would have murdered for a few crispy croutons or warm roll!)

Chris Gonzo from Meikles and Leonard from Monos cooked for their peers and every effort was made with chicken escalope with flamed cream of tomato and mushroom sauce, oriental fried rice and seasonal vegetables which I chose. Almost everyone else at the table of 12 oohed and aahed over prime grilled beef with peppercorn sauce, spring-onion-and-herb mash and roast veg.

Pudding was the grotesquely named death-by-chocolate gateau or fruit salad and rapidly melting ice-cream I went for. Unusually for these functions, the food was plated and rapidly served still piping hot on professionally heated plates; accompanying wines were provided free by Brands Africa.

Thankfully I wasn’t asked to make a speech of acceptance when—rather flustered and red-faced — I was called out of the 200-strong crowd to receive the President’s Special Award (president of Haz, Tich Hwingwiri…!) presented from time to time for “outstanding contributions to the promotion of tourism and travel in Zimbabwe” as a long-standing travel and food writer.

Amiable Peter Jack won the major Haz Hospitality Award for 2012 in recognition of nearly 40 years’ service in the industry. He’s in charge of the hotels inspectorate at Zimbabwe Tourism Authority. Other awards were:

Jeanette Creewel Award of Excellence, presented in memory of the late hotelier John Creewel and given to a personality who has shown excellence in his or her operations within the industry: Gordon Addams, executive chairman of the Inns of Zimbabwe group.

David Geddes Award for Young Host of the Year, presented in memory of long-serving Bulawayo hotelier David Geddes and given to a person under the age of 40 who has made a unique mark on the industry: Nigel Newmarch, deputy general manager Meikles Hotel.

Eric Chademana Award, presented in memory of later hotelier Eric Chademana, a Haz president in the 1980s, and given to a small-to-medium-enterprise operator who has provided leadership and innovation: David Saunyama of Sika Lodges, Chiredzi.

Tamuka Macheka Award, donated this year for the first time by Tamuka Macheka, a Haz vice president, and given to a chef was made a significant contribution to the development of cuisine went to Chris Gonzo, executive chef of Meikles Hotel and president of the Zimbabwe Chefs’ Association.

Charles Bvunzawabaya Award, presented in memory of the late Mashonaland East hotelier Charles Bvunzawabaya, and given for exceptional service to the industry by a female operator: Cindy Masimbe, HR director Rainbow Tourism Group

Golden Peacock Trophy, presented to the most impressive stand at the Hospitality Fair which runs concurrently with congress: Bio-Bins, a green product launched at the fair by Bulawayo-based H J Teasdale and Co.

I’ll certainly be returning—soon—to Antelope Park, where I took more than 400 pictures mainly of birds…but some mammals and big-game, between first light and a big, burly bush, breakfast eaten al fresco. By 9am it was back on the road to cover a sporting event in Harare!


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