SOMEWHERE in the world — Matobo Hills Lodge to be precise — the evening breeze is threatening to turn into a proper wind blast. Still, the night air is warm as the fire in the dining area’s open-shed serving point is benignly dispersing heat “balls” which keep the chill at bay.
It could be you sitting on the canvas-backed chairs enjoying the leisurely ambience and joi de vivre of friendly staff and friends. But I am here tonight courtesy of the Matobo Hills Lodge’s management and kitchen team headed by Michael Mpofu, sous chef (assistant head chef) Arnold Mlambo and Michelle Maguta, Sharon Dube, Tineyi Tasara and Godfrey Mkhwananzi.
“For tonight, we have beef stir fry, baked herbed fish, garlic mesh, and rice and roast veggies. Ingredients sourced first port of call from the local farmers in the areas surrounding Matobo National Park and from koBulawayo,” says the head chef.
Along with the other guests from Germany — one party of over five headed by Sonia Mitterendorfer of Travel Ride Africa, based in Pretoria, South Africa, and another party of six headed by Alex Stauch, courtesy of Tarok Travel Agents from Namibia, who also runs Paragliding Namibia — we tuck into the fire-cooked truly sumptuous dinner. It must have been Thandi, one of the cheerful waitresses whose turn it was to beat the drum roll at 7pm which announced the meal-time to guests.
Thandi is one of the 32-member staff complement including six chefs, two tour guides, six office staff and the rest includes waitresses, barman, kitchen and housekeeping. Employing locals is one of the values of the lodge. Given Ngulube (my serious but dedicated tour guide on the rock climb), Sipho Dube, Mongameli Ncube and Terrence Dube are all drawn from the villages surrounding the national park.
“Fair trade is one of the values of the lodge in the procurement of our materials. Our curio shop (by the reception office) has crafts from local artists and it’s a good feeling to hand over wads of cash to them. We take nothing from the proceeds. We are also merit-based in our recruitment and human resources management and we pay our staff a lot better with our salaries pegged at the US prevailing rate, which is a great motivation we think,” says Josh Elliot, one of the directors of the Matobo Hills Lodge, himself, a Whitestone School and Falcon College-educated scion of a hospitality industry family who came back to Zimbabwe after a varsity education in Australia and stints travelling and working overseas.
Next to where we are having the three-course meal that has a creamy sweet corn soup as a starter and the promise of the cheekily named “death by chocolate” dessert, a sparkling pool seemingly carved out of rock and filled with water from nearby Mamlongwe River, a sand extraction scheme glistens in the moonlight.
On the other side is the spacious bar room where, upon arrival, guests are welcomed by cool ice tea drink made from a combination of Rooibos and Tanganda teas with lime cordial and lemon.
A two-and-a-half kilometre pipeline delivers the water to the pool. Water from Maleme Dam also fills up the fish pond.
“There was no water when we took over this place in 2015 and the thatch roof didn’t exist. No lights, no gumpoles. It was more of a shell,” says Elliot of the pool and lodge, which was built in 1992 and previously run by Rainbow Tourism Group until 2014.
Using local materials and built out of rocks, the stone masonry undergirds the deftly thatched roofs of the chalets which are dotted around the rocky surrounds of the lodge. The carrying capacity of the lodge is 48 persons and the chalets are divided between one, two, three and four bed arrangements.
“It (Matobo Hills) is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site because of all the amazing things that are within it,” quipped Alan Stauch, the tour guide from Namibia who came with German visitors.
Elliot is second generation in the business. His father Alan Elliot, now 82, is retired, but he once ran the now-dormant Touch the Wild brand which was a famous Zimbabwean tourism brand before selling it in 1997 to a Mauritian company who later disposed of it to Rainbow Tourism Group.
For now, Josh carries on the legacy and the lodge, which he is renting, is winsome. A five-time Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence winner and a personal accolade for tourism personality in 2016, is vindication of a world-beating business contributing to the overall country brand as tourism destination of immense beauty and potential. You will not regret the rhino trekking, rock climbing, Cecil John Rhodes’ grave tour, Khoi-San cave paintings and grain bins and, of course, just chilling by the well-maintained pool which are all part of the package of activities that come with a visit to Matobo Hills Lodge.