Msasas by Pauline Battigelli 2009
Part of the Eastern Highlands, a rugged mountainous area which forms the natural eastern border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the Vumba (also called Bvumba) region has a quiet unique beauty. It consists of stretches of open grasslands interspersed with cool dense forests, thickly wooded gorges and mountain streams. It’s far removed from the clichéd African safari experience, yet it is still very much Africa.
What the region lacks in terms of big game animals it makes up for in its smaller creatures including the arboreal blue monkey, the tree civet, the rare blue duiker, bushpig, the four-toed elephant shrew, Samango monkey, dwarf chameleon and lizards including the Zimbabwe girdled lizard (below) and the common flat lizard (above).
And as for the birdlife – it is fabulous. For birdwatchers this area is quite literally heaven, for its different reserves, mixed habitat of montane forest, grassy slopes and gardens house some of southern Africa’s most rare forest species including the range-restricted Swynnerton’s Robin (Swynnertonia swynnertoni), Roberts’ Prinia (Oreophilais robertsi) and Chirinda Apalis (Apalis chirindensis).
Other famous residents include Buff-spotted Flufftail (Sarothrura elegans), enchanting but hard to find, confident birds that hiss like snakes if you disturb them on the nest which is usually of fallen leaves, Delegorgue’s Pigeon (Columba delegorguei), Stripecheeked Bulbul (Andropadus milanjensis), Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceous), Orange Thrush (Zoothera gurneyii), less common than the latter, it forages in the shadows of the forest floor, Livingstone’s Lourie (Tauraco livingstonii), Wood Owl (Strix woodfordii), Silverycheeked Hornbill (Bycanistes brevis), Goldenrumped Tinker Barbet (Pogoniulus bilineatus), Scalythroated Honeyguide (Indicator variegates), Squaretailed Drongo (Dicrurus ludwigii),Bronze Sunbird (Nectarinia kilimensis) and the Natal, Cape and starred robins.
Blue Swallow by Gregory Mandy
Swynnerton’s Robin is, along with the Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerule), listed ‘vulnerable’ on the 2010 IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List Category of Threatened Species - the official red list authority for birds for IUCN. (www.iucnredlist.org)
Butterflies abound, and in the Vumba region alone 63 species of hoverflies were in the 1960s collected by local farmer David Cookson,significant because it is one of very few large collections of hoverflies gathered by an individual from a single location in Africa. Since then, no further research as extensive as this has been carried out here. This collection is now in the Natal Museum in South Africa.
Hills of Zimbabwe & Mozambique by Jenny Jobling
Its characteristic misty, wet weather once made this a highly successful commercial farming area for coffee, tea, fruit and dairy farming as well as exotic timber plantations, but the land reform programme introduced by the Mugabe government from 2000 whereby most commercial farmers were forcibly removed from their lands, has reduced many of these to forlorn neglected fields of stubby stalks. While the country’s politics continue to be unpredictable, the natural beauty of this area remains constant.
Tourist numbers to this region decreased drastically from 2000 because of the instability resulting from the government initiated ‘land grabs’, as well as fuel shortages and at one time the highest inflation rate in the world. Since the re-introduction of the US dollar early 2009 and the formation of a unity government, there’s a wobbly stability and tourism is slowly picking up. There is much still to be done in terms of infrastructure – potholes abound and electricity and water supplies are extremely erratic – but that’s a countrywide problem to be ironed out hopefully, in the fullness of time.
Directions to the Vumba
From the centre of Mutare, take the road heading south east signposted (or not, someone may have borrowed it) towards the Vumba. On your left will be a petrol station with incredibly helpful staff, and the Mutare Board and Paper Mill on your right. You may soon pass a sign for the Altar Site on your left; this is an archeological site but not much to look at. Moving on, there’s a lay-by (stopping place) to take in the panoramic Prince of Wales View over Mozambique; watch out for potential pick pockets here though. After that you will pass a sign to Inn on the Vumba, a cosy 22-bedroom hotel run by Gordon Addams, executive chairman of the Inns of Zimbabwe group (http://www.innsofzimbabwe.co.zw).
The next sign will be for Laurenceville Road to the left. Turn here, and after three kilometres, just after a hairpin bend, is an olde worlde hotel cocooned in forest greenery. The White Horse Inn has a reputation for being one of Zimbabwe’s best known quiet, country hotels. Its genteel ambience, with a Basil Fawlty-like regime which quite rightly insists on correct attire by all visitors come sundown, lends a calming, comforting air where you just know you will be well looked after. The food is a spectacular find, accompanied by first-class service.
Retrace your steps to where you left the main road to the Bvumba and rejoin it, turning left. The next road you come to (about 14 kms from Mutare) at Cloudlands is the Essex Road bearing left, which leads down to the Burma Valley and the Zimunya district. Stick on the main road though, if you want to get to the Bvumba Botanical Gardens at the 25.5 km peg.
Before getting there you will cross a cattle grid and enter the gloomy densely forested Bunga Forest – famous for bird song - in the Bunga Botanical Reserve. Tony’s Coffee Shoppe just beyond this produces rich and fluffy cakes to die for, some laced with alcohol, some not. If you can move after sampling his fare, walk in the well tended Bvumba Botanical Gardens to wear off the effects of the indulgences.
Wooden bridges, aloes, streams and views abound, all intertwined with plants including orchids, hydrangeas, azaleas, tree ferns and fuchsias. There are self-catering lodges, a camping site, tea shop and swimming pool here, maintained by the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
Continuing on your journey, close to the entrance of the gardens you will pass a rickety sign offering accommodation at Ndundu Lodge but this closed at present. About five kilometres further on you will come to a road on the right which leads to the turreted chateau-like Leopard Rock Hotel. It has had a chequered history since it opened in 1946, including bouts of closure and a serious rocket attack during the 1970s bush war. In 2009 it was bought by the investment company LonZim, and a refurbishment exercise will be on-going. There is a PGA 18-hole championship golf course attached to the hotel, and this too is being upgraded, along with the casino and a 400 hectare private game reserve.
Celebrities that have stayed here include the Queen Mother of Great Britain, the late Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, and golf celebrities Gary Player, Nick Price and Ian Botham.
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EASTERN HIGHLANDS VULNERABILITY
Eastern Highlands by Jenny Jobling
The Eastern Highlands consists of three main regions: Nyanga Mountains in the north, where lies the country’s highest peak of Mount Nyangani (2,593 metres), Chimanimani Mountains in the south (Mount Binga is the highest peak at 2,437 metres) and in the middle is the Vumba Mountains.
Conscious of the Eastern Highlands’ frailty, the World Wildlife Fund has deemed its conservation status as ‘critical/endangered’ as fires and tree cutting for fuel are the main threats to the region. Agricultural settlement encroaching upon the natural habitat is a problem, especially in the lowlands.
BirdLife International says the single most important environmental threat to the grasslands in this region is invasion by alien wattle and pine. Some bird species are adversely affected as the highly diverse grasslands change into one species sterile thickets. Wattle and pine change the soil nutrients and pH and cause a decrease in groundwater. “A clear policy and action on the removal of invasive alien plants from these grasslands, inside and outside the national park, is urgently needed,” it states on its website.
Other exotic invader plants threatening biodiversity of the forests include Lantana camara, Mauritius thorn and eucalyptus.
So far the high-altitude areas in the Eastern Highlands are relatively well protected, but there is always a danger of this happening there too.
Walking, hiking, climbing, fishing, golf, horse riding and bird watching are the main pursuits here, possible all year round as the climate is warm to hot in summer and dry and cool – cold at times - in winter. The annual rainfall here is high, ranging from 900 -1,800 mm (November to March).
Click here to see a selection of pictures of the Vumba Region