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Zimbabwe’s Leopard gets a face-lift
Leopard Rock Hotel and its PGA championship golf course in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe is currently under-going a US$1.7 million refurbishment exercise, seen as a much needed boost to the country's struggling tourism industry.
The deteriorating economic conditions in the country over the last decade hampered most businesses - this time last year Zimbabwe had one of the highest inflation rates and the lowest valued currencies in the world. When the US dollar was officially adopted as the legitimate currency it brought expectations of commercial stability, and so owners LonZim investment company, anticipating that the hotel will be able to trade profitably, went ahead with the ambitious face-lift programme which includes upgrading the existing golf course, the hotel, the attached casino and a 400 hectare private game reserve.
LonZim will also, if it deems justified, add a further 100 rooms to the current accommodation of 58 rooms and suites, and a world class spa.
In 1993 a PGA 18-hole championship golf course was incorporated at the hotel site to United States Golf Association specifications. The PGA of Europe has called it one of the “finest golf resorts” in the world as it stands today, and one of the most challenging too - its variety of holes lays emphasis on accuracy and tactical awareness as opposed to distance. The course was the official venue for the Zone 6 Amateur International Championships in 2000. The same year it was awarded the Hertz International Travel Award for the Best Golf Course in Africa and Middle East, and last year it joined the Prestige Collection, a group of the world’s best golf resorts. It rubs shoulders with the likes of Celtic Manor (home to the 2010 Ryder Cup), Druids Glen, Le Touessrok and Aphrodite Hills.
Designer Peter Matkovich of South Africa built the course around the existing landscape of the surrounding Bvumba Mountains, making good use of the natural ecosystem. Thick trees and lush rain forest-type vegetation hug the course, while from every hole there’s a magnificent view, some over neighbouring Mozambique. The views coupled with enchanting walks through the natural greenery make the Leopard Rock one of the best walking courses in Africa. There is no need for golf carts, although some will be made available for guests.
The greens of Penncross Creeping Bent grass are laid to full USGA specifications, with the fairways and tees of kikuyu, a grass indigenous to East Africa. These are maintained to high standards despite the difficulties in acquiring and retaining water, one of the many infrastructure problems the country has had to face. It is 6,164 metres off the gold markers, with a PAR rating of 71. Water comes into play on six of the 18 holes. Features are a large lake in the centre and large boulders on many holes.
The 14th hole “The Matkovich” is on an elevated tee encircled by the surrounding mountains and has a spectacular backdrop of the Burma Valley. Regarded as a signature hole, this par 3 measuring 184 metres from the club tees, is played from the highest point on the course to a green that drops down 30 metres.
The 17th "World's View" is another spectacular signature hole.
The finishing hole - the “Tony Taberer” (a former owner of Leopard Rock) 18th - is a par 5 measuring 455; hazards are bush and water on the right, sloping rough on the left, it is played over water to a large well bunkered green, plus there is a large eucaluptus tree in the flight path!
In April this year, after a 10 year break, the Zimbabwe Open Championship returned to the Sunshine Tour schedule and Leopard Rock’s own on-site golf professional, Byran Rocher, participated in the event. The same month LonZim announced the appointments of Richard Johnston, formerly manager of the Cape Grace in South Africa, as the hotel’s new general manager, and Greg Gautier as the hotel’s new executive chef.
According to the company, Leopard Rock started the year with encouraging room occupancies of 34% and 12% increases in January and February respectively. LonZim chairman David Lenigas said: “We are delighted that the Leopard Rock is making such good progress in returning to its original quality as one of the foremost hotels in Africa.”
The turreted chateau-style hotel first opened in 1946 in the country’s scenic Bvumba Mountains to the east some 30 kilometres from the town of Mutare, was badly damaged by rocket fire in the 1970s bush war, closed in 1980 due to fuel shortages, then reopened in 1993.
Notable celebrities that have played on the course include golfers Gary Player, Nick Price and Mark MacNulty, and cricketers Ian Botham and Ian Chapel. Once visited by the Queen Mother of Great Britain and Princess Margaret, and later on by the late Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, the revamped Leopard Rock Hotel and its golf course may well host others of their ilk.
Said Lenigas: “The Leopard Rock Hotel is one of Africa’s most famous grand hotels and will be instrumental in the economic recovery of Zimbabwean tourism in the years to come.”
“We intend to hold a PGA golf tournament as soon as the refurbishment is completed to re-launch this very special hotel,” he said.
The acquisition of the hotel enhanced LonZim’s hotel strategy for the development of quality hotels throughout the region, complementing its previously announced development on the coast at Beira, Mozambique and a planned new five star ‘Leopard Hotel’ in Harare. A further ‘Leopard Lodge’ property is planned at the Victoria Falls.