“As you get older, you tend to look more in the rear-view mirror than you do at the road ahead,” a retired Australian Army general said to me, when I interviewed him for a book I was writing.
As I sit here, on the wide, shady stoep (verandah) of the main building at Nantwich Lodge, I’m constantly reminded of what this stunning corner of Africa was like. It’s tempting to stare into that mirror and focus on the good old days.
History is everywhere here, overseen from the highest point of the property where the colonial-era owner of Nantwich Farm, Percy Durban Crewe, watches over the golden, grassy vleis of his one-time estate for eternity, from his grave.
It would be tempting to look back and construct an ‘Out of Africa’ fantasy about Percy, but he was no Robert Redford. The real Percy was a failed prospector, hapless farmer, opium smoker and drunken-philanderer. He was also unable – despite his best efforts – to stop a war between the white settlers of what was then Rhodesia and the Ndebele, the people of the woman he loved.
On the hill behind me are three former national parks cottages, overlooking the dam where a herd of 600 buffalo were drinking this morning. Nantwich Camp was built in 1961 and for just over 40 years existed as Hwange National Park’s true hidden gem.
Despite having the highest density of lions in the park, this remote corner of Hwange was always just that little bit too far away for most people to visit. Those who knew about Nantwich did little to spread the word of her charms.
My wife and I ‘discovered’ Nantwich in 1998 when some Zimbabwean friends let us in on the secret. Here were three two-bedroom self-catering cottages, spread apart to allow privacy, with no fences, no shop, no restaurant, no nothing. Just us and the wildlife.
Each cottage had its own dedicated attendant who cleaned and changed the linen every day, washed the dishes and set the table. He (they were all men back then, and an AK47 was in the laundry room in case of dangerous game) would set the braai fire each evening and would do washing, for an additional gratuity. It was paradise – for us.
As Zimbabwe descended into political unrest and economic turmoil at the turn of the century tourists stopped coming and the currency went into free fall. We could stay at Nantwich, just the two of us, for the equivalent of US$5 a night, so we did. For a month or two at a time. I wrote much of several of my earlier novels – African Sky, Safari, and African Dawn from the dining table of one of Nantwich’s cottages. I saw my first ever lion kill here, over lunch.
Down on the vlei, next to the dam and away from the national parks’ cottages was ‘Isilwane’, a stately safari mansion and executive retreat of the Wankie Colliery Company. The coal-mine at Hwange supplied fuel to the park and as a trade-off they had been allowed to build their own bolthole in the late 1960s.
When I look in the rear-view mirror of my life it would be tempting to count those as the best days of my life and that Nantwich, with its coal-fired donkey boilers, chipped old outdoor bathtubs and not another tourist in sight as the best Nantwich. Yet, as I drank ice-cold Zambezi in a hot bath while watching animals, the country that I loved, Zimbabwe, was imploding.
Nantwich became untenable. It was handed over to a hunting operation who took their clients into the adjoining Matetsi Game Reserve to shoot game. The hunters put their clients in Isilwane and used the quaint little cottages as workshops and staff accommodation and workshops.
When the hunters left, Nantwich and Isilwane were abandoned. A fire destroyed one of the cottages and the whole camp fell into ruin until Garth Jenman from Hideaways Africa obtained a lease on the camp. Together with my wife and I and some other investors we resurrected Nantwich as a luxury safari lodge. The three cottages were repurposed with three double suites each, and Isilwane became our communal lounge and dining area.
It is still beautiful, and still the place where I want my ashes scattered, alongside Percy. Sure, part of me sometimes wishes it could just be the two of us, staying in a cottage for $5 a night, but our ‘best days’ memories came at a much higher price.
It’s better, I think, to heed the advice the general gave me, and keep an eye on the road ahead. I’m looking forward to a time when Nantwich is busy again, people are travelling, and Zimbabwe is reaping the benefits of tourism.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Nantwich. Come visit, make some memories, live the best days of your life.
Tony Park is the author of 19 bestselling African novels. His latest, Blood Trail, wen to number 1 in South Africa. He is a shareholder in Nantwich Lodge.