We left Harare at first light in Russell’s Series 3 Land Rover hoping to avoid the cross border transport trucks that use this artery known as “Great North Road”. I gazed out the open window at the passing tobacco farms, the mainstay of the Zimbabwe economy at that time, they told a story of wealth and success. Passing through the little farming town of Chinoyi we took a break at Lions Den, a tiny spec on the map that sold the best Pies and Biltong in Zimbabwe , before heading North once again. The road to Kariba veered off to the left at Makuti and snaked down through rocky hills revealing breathtaking views across the valley floor while high above us the occasional ghostly white Steculia trees clung to the craggy hillsides. After a long hot drive we arrived at Kariba Breezes Marina where Russell advised we had to get going, as there was a storm brewing. The wind whipped the Lake into dark green wedges of water with foaming white caps and in spite of being in a large charter boat, we were tossed about on the crossing as the storm raged around us.
As we approached the Jetty the storm broke to reveal the newly constructed Sanyati Lodge nestled in the hillside. It was a magnificent sight and made a bold statement of the change that was to come in the tourist industry of Zimbabwe. We set about coaching our team of hospitality staff on how to work and live in the bush as well as training the local Tonga staff who were new to the tourism industry. The builders were still working around us, adding the finishing touches to the lodge while I was working with the Interior designers helping them hang the cream muslin curtains. On one occasion I return with a cleaning team to get the room ready for the arrival of the guests , only to find that the painters had nipped in and varnished the wooden window frames to which the curtains were now firmly adhered. As Russell bade farewell to the building crew on their ferry at the jetty , he radioed me to advise the house boat carrying our VIP’s was about to dock and we had literally just finished arranging the last furniture and decor as the first guests arrived to check in. It was then over to us to create an atmosphere of 5 star sophistication with a team of staff who were absolutely frazzled and had never worked together before promising a memorable evening for everyone concerned!!!
Our Executive Chef Andre had been recruited from England and found the environment quite different to what he had been used to working in the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Arriving in the Zambezi Valley in the middle of November the heat was stifling and his kitchen was the last space to be completed by the builders, so the day of the opening he was worked in the 40 degree heat, ankle deep in water as the cement floor was still curing in his kitchen. True to his profession he dismissed any offers of help to install the kitchen equipment which included assembling a top of the range industrial gas stove and insisted on doing the job himself. Unfortunately he managed to get the breather pipes assembled upside down but no one realize this until it was too late!
Dinner began with nervous waiters in starchy new uniforms shuffling hesitantly back and forwards , while the strains of Pavarotti wafted out of hidden speakers over the deck, forming a perfect accompaniment to the blazing red Kariba sunset. Unbeknownst to our guests, in the kitchen things had starting going horribly wrong! In the absence of sufficient oxygen the flues of the stove were clogging up with a fine soot until periodically a mini explosion would clear the blockage and shoot the soot about a meter above the stove before settling gently again coating the apoplectic Chef and his sauces in a film of oily black powder. In addition the stove was not getting hot enough delaying service and as the Chef became steadily more unhinged the “coaching” of his team became more clearly audible over the music and eventually overwhelmed Pavarotti altogether! In the face of adversity Andre was undaunted and soldiered on through an amazing 5 Course Dinner , and he would go on to put Sanyati on the map as one of the top food destination in the country.
The main Lodge was open to the elements and it did not take long for the charismatic little Tree Frogs to move in and make themselves at home. They clearly approved of Interior designers Cecile and Boyd’s choice of color palate! They blended in with the subtle tones of cream and grey and would find a comfortable position and go into semi hibernation going unnoticed by most guests who simply assumed they were a part of the overall decor scheme. Mrs B requested that we relocate the frogs which presented something of a challenge. We soon discovered that moving the frogs simply created a vacuum into which more frogs would move! Finally Russell found a workable solution, whenever we received word that the owners were about to visit , he would walk around the lounge collecting up the frogs in a shoe box that would live in his desk draw for the duration of their stay. Once the coast was clear the frogs would be returned to various random perches which started a game of “musical chairs” that continued until each frog found their way back to their preferred spot. An orchestra of croaking frogs would announce the arrival of the first rains and our little cream and grey friends would disappear for a time only to magically reappear once the rains had passed to resume their slumbers.
It was at Sanyati that I met Joao , a gentle giant of a man from Mozambique. Most of our communication was in sign language as he spoke virtually no English and very little of the local dialect either. He never spoke of what had brought him to this, out of the way place, to live among people that were not of his tribe and I always wondered what horrors he may had suffered during the civil war that had wracked his country. Once the building contract was over we offered him full time employment and he became an important part of the new team, spending most of his day carrying heavy fuel containers 60 meters up the hill in 40 degree heat to feed the monster 160 KVA Generator that was the beating heart of the Lodge . He was always there to help me with the unloading of the DDF ferry which crossed the Lake once a week to deliver our bulk supplies and I will never forget his beaming smile after I showed him how to write his name so that he would no longer have to sign for his wages with a hesitant X.
Most of our staff used to enjoy socializing at Dandawa Fishing Village on the weekends and Joao was no exception but unlike our local staff who feared of bumping into Elephant walking back at night, he was fearless and would always take his chances, walking back in the starlight so he could sleep in his own bed. One morning the returning staff came across his body lying where he had been trampled to death by an bull elephant in the night – he had died very much as he had lived, on his own terms! His funeral was attended by all the locals and as we gathered to say our good byes a pair of Fish Eagles circled overhead , their haunting calls echoed around us as they flew off into the distance haze. I felt strongly that Joao from Mozambique had found peace in this wild and beautiful place .
I grew to love moods of this water wilderness , the Cormorants would return every evening to roost in the petrified trees along the lake shore, and an 18 foot crocodile used to glide past the jetty each day just as the sun set. From November to April migratory birds would arrive from North Africa and Europe to nest and rear their young. At night, when the generator was switched off, you could hear the distant hum of Kapenta Fishing Boats far out on the lake, where their lights looked like a sprinkling of stars strung out across the inky horizon. Once a month the rising full moon transformed the lake, casting silver shadows across the restless water and in the dawn light the Lake shone pink and you could hear the waves crashing against the rocks below the Lodge. In my office the Lake shore radio would crackle to life each day and it provided a great sense of community as well as being a great source of entertainment. Everyone was on that frequency from the Lake Captain , to National Parks as well as all the safari operators who in the heat of the moment occasional forgot that this was an open frequency so there were not too many secrets in our little community! I always looked forward to the end of the day when the sun would sink silently below the horizon turning the the lake into a sheet of liquid gold.
Days blurred into months and before we knew it years had passed and we felt it was time to move on . Saying good bye to team of staff that you have shared memories with is never easy. As we loaded our belongings on the B Line charter boat, the staff surprised us by lining up singing and dancing as we left the jetty, I watched until we could not longer see them. The day was humid and the lake looked like a sheet of gently undulating glass as we sped towards Kariba Town and a new and exciting chapter in our lives.