We used to say the Gwayi River hotel was the sort of place where you arrived as a stranger and left as a friend! In 1953 my Grandparents drove up the endless miles of strip road and arrived at Van Niekerks Private Hotel for the night . The owner was a larger than life character Pieter Van Niekerk who told tales of giant Vundu being caught in the river. Oupa and Ouma loved fishing and stayed a few days before they traveled on to Northern Zambia . As fate would have it , after returning to the Northern Cape Oupa Neels saw the advert for the sale of 98 000 acre ranch in the Gwayi Valley and within a year the family had moved and settled on Karna Block.
My first memory of the Gwayi Hotel as a child , was taking long walks with Sophie to see the orphan baby elephant who got up to all sorts of mischief around the hotel. Kids parties in the lush gardens ,where we paid hide and seek , you could get lost forever in your childhood thoughts waiting for someone to find you. Father Christmas arrived across the low level bridge on the Gwayi River and if it was in flood and we got to spend the night at the hotel which was a real treat. Put put and table tennis kept us entertained for hours , while our parents were busy socializing at the Lion o Rama held in the thatched lapa at the front of the hotel every year.
Returning from boarding school we passed the days playing tennis and cooling off in the pool. On cool summer evenings after the rain, we would lie on the damp trampoline and gaze up at the vast night sky framed by the shadows of Syringa trees. From the bar you could hear Maxi Stephan playing honkey tonk on the piano lustily accompanied by the raucous chorus of Hunters, Forestry Officers and National Parks Rangers for whom the Gwayi was the local watering hole on time off. Waiters clad in crisp white uniforms and jaunty red Fez hats shuttled silently back and forth over the polished red floors . Since we were banned from the Bar they kept us supplied with club sandwiches, Salt and Vinegar chipstix with Rock Shandy’s. Christmas Dinner , Nero the chef would appear through the impressive swing doors to check on the Buffet , with the biggest big smile while the punka walla swayed and creaked above our heads to keep us cool. People came from all over Zim for New Years Eve Parties which we all looked forward too as young adults, partying the night away, this always culminated with the traditional singing of Aul Lang Syne as the clock struck twelve , watching the the sunrise from the Gwayi Bridge which was a New Year tradition.
Harold and Sylvia Broomberg were a part of our lives, the hotel was their home and all were welcome. Friday in the late afternoon the RMS truck blew its horn as it rumbled in and parked next to Dahlia Trading Store, bringing all our much needed supplies from Bulawayo. The tailor would sit on the veranda, serenely pedaling his antique Singer sewing machine ,seemingly oblivious to the chaos going on around him, as boxes of Steri milk, sacks of sugar and sundry car parts were piled up around him . In 1994 while I was struggling to load up our supply truck for Linkwasha , I was helped by a tetian haired guide with tawny brown eyes …… He was drop dead gorgeous and had a wicked sense of humor that made me laugh. Little did I know back then, I had just met the man I was going to marry …. Russell doubled back to ask the the Barman who I was ( he knew everything about everybody) …. and the rest, should we say is history.