It was the year of Kennedy's death. I had been in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for three months when the editor of the newspaper where I worked posted me to the Eastern Highlands. "You're single, aren't you?" he asked gruffly. "Well, there's plenty of romance up there. Lots of hills and waterfalls, birds, butterflies and unusual people. It should satisfy your hopelessly poetic mind."
I was destined to work in Umtali (now Mutare, Zimbabwe's third largest city), ringed by purple mountains and aglow with either jacaranda or red and gold msasa trees, depending on the season. It was a laid back frontier town, so quiet that you could have driven a span of oxen down the main street without anyone noticing on a Saturday afternoon. I thought of the youthful Kipling who reluctantly reported on Indian society in Simla, "hanging by its eyelids to the side of a hill." The Eastern Highlands hadn't quite emerged from the 19th century and that was their beauty.
Nearly 40 years on that pioneering spirit remains, reflecting tough days when gold lured prospectors across the mountains to form the first European settlement in the region. Mutare itself is a tale of three cities, starting with the goldfields of Penhalonga, moving to a location near today's Africa University, before adopting its present site, just over a century ago, revolving around the railway that Rhodes built to reach Mozambique. The city is a springboard to three mountain destinations: Nyanga, with its jagged peaks; the Vumba, with its veil of mist; and Chimanimani, a secret world.
To reach the Eastern Highlands in 1900 was a challenge. The inns that welcomed travellers after a long, weary passage by train from Beira or stagecoach from Salisbury were often glorified thatched huts or corrugated iron creations. Today, the principle of welcome remains unchanged: a roaring fire in winter or a cool bath in summer. The lodges, with their golden-hearted service and affordable prices, make perfect bases for exploring the mountains.
Nyanga never lets you go and never lets you down. Some talk about the Scotland or Switzerland of Africa. It's neither, although a touch of each may be detected. Rather, it is its own spiritual place with mountain guardians and faces in the rocks, long predating the dawn of mankind.
Someone wrote that World's View, a never-ending vista over the Ziwa communal lands, is "a place to fall in love". My editor was right about romance.
The roads to the Eastern Highlands are part of the pleasure, though the cow is king and care is needed when approaching hairpin bends. Often devoid of other cars, flanked by rock and forest, the roads trace a route into history. But your voyage is never lonely, due to the friendliness of the local people. Some carrying heavy burdens, such as winter firewood, with a baby on their back, they wave to travellers and greet those who stop at the little kiosks for fresh farm fruit and trout, sculpture and craftwork. When I visited this July, I bought a huge bag of oranges, fresh from a nearby farm, for less than a pound.
Nyanga's rocks look as if someone has washed them with a giant sponge: in the distance, white as snow; close up, zigzagged with orange streaks of iron. Thank the wind and the rain for these brilliant, beautiful domes. The absence of pollution is notable. The uncluttered landscape reminds me of the ancient Chinese who burned unwanted calligraphy with incense in pagodas. Is a similar method used to rid Nyanga of rubbish?
In July I stayed at an enchanting inn called Ruparara, one of the family of lodges established in the eastern districts by the well-known hotelier, Gordon Addams. Situated serenely among a sea of rocks, Ruparara provides a true Nyanga experience, the surrounding cathedral of stone illuminated at dusk by gold-red sunsets. Later, with a glass in my hand, "Out of Africa"-style on the verandah, I enjoyed the silhouette of a towering formation called Bald Man's Head - a translation of the inn's name - against a deepening sky of cobalt blue. In that instant, I understood why I'd returned to this frontier land.
Ruparara serves some of Zimbabwe's best food (with lovely touches, such as rose petals decorating the plate). The inn is located in a hilly estate containing rare trees and providing the region's best fly-fishing, at a trout farm run by Mike Soltau. Mike often leads hill climbs, with summit views over the Nyangombe Valley. Hiking trails and horse treks abound. It is also birding country, with Black eagles soaring above.
Mike showed us around the 3500-acre estate. He's one of many Zimbabweans who are happy only in the bush. A trout expert, he mollycoddles his family of 31,000. They need protection from the Grey heron (which spears with its beak), the diving kingfisher and the predatory otter. Did you know, he smiles, that the female trout is the tastier?
It's leopard country, so some areas have to be negotiated by vehicle. "There's a powerhouse of a leopard living in a cave nearby," Mike says. "I ventured into his territory and found big baboon skeletons. But there's also a mother with cubs that guests came across the other day." There are also leopards up in the Inyangani mountain - at 2593m, the highest peak in Zimbabwe.
A few years ago, when the group took over new estates, which included the fast-flowing Gairesi River, there were plans to make it a Zimbabwean showcase. However, it has fortunately remained a pristine wilderness, and you should avoid being caught there when the mists descend. There are stories of people who have never been found.
The park's spectacular scenery embraces valleys, high altitude rainforests, extensive fishing waters (trout fishing remains the dominant attraction) and various dams with attendant lodges. The forests are a botanist's dream, with cycads that are unique to Africa. The views across the Honde Valley and Pungwe Gorge - a picnic and rafting idyll - are panoramic, while the M'tarazi Falls, with a drop of 672m, are Africa's second highest.
The lakeside Troutbeck Hotel has abandoned its formerly sedate image and now caters for outdoors enthusiasts, with paragliding from World's View soon to be accompanied by abseiling for team leadership courses. Troutbeck's lounge fire has been burning continuously for nearly 50 years, and its broths, dumplings and puddings give it a North of England / Scottish feel.
The Vumba's mood is completely different. Its hills are gentle and endearing, and sometimes, as you approach Leopard Rock, the mist curtain comes down, sealing you off from the sunshine country below. It's the kind of enigmatic place Agatha Christie would have loved; a place to meander through at will, into little craft shops where furniture or baskets are made and women sell embroidery by the roadside.
The orchid-studded landscape, with layers of distant hills, is an artist's or writer's haven, although many locals specialise in cheese-making, coffee farming or managing the bed-and-breakfasts that have mushroomed recently. The views are endless, and I rate the half-hour journey back to Mutare the best commuting prospect in Africa.
On the way, you pass the award-winning Inn on the Vumba, a perfect hideaway overlooking the mountains of Mozambique. Inside, the elegance matches the glory of the region. "Enjoy your hot water bottle", said one of the immaculately dressed staff as I made for bed on a cold winter night.
Until recently, transport in the Eastern Highlands was a major problem for visitors, with a pronounced lack of tours to give them a real understanding of the region. Most people simply travelled by car. Stella Finch of the United Touring Company has helped change that. Starting in Mutare at a huge 3000-year-old strangler tree which has devoured its mother, she takes people on "back-to-earth" walks in the Vumba. Guests are encouraged to hug the Kissing Tree and express their love for its beauty. Many find it a mystical experience, a chance to tap into their spiritual sides. "Nature is a great teacher",says Stella.
After swinging on the vines of msasa trees (enjoyed even by a recent group of mayors from the United States), guests visit a Shona village to experience native traditions. Then it's on to the banana and pineapple plantations of the Burma Valley. After lunch at the White Horse Inn, visitors follow the road through the ancient Bunga rainforest to the chateau-style Leopard Rock hotel, which overlooks a mountain range called the Himalayas. Its famed golf course is open to all who like a challenge.
The last stop is at Tony's Coffee Shoppe, which has a wide reputation for its delicious chocolate cake and range of beverages. And that's the way in the Eastern Highlands: tea for two and the romantic touch.
Zimbabwe's archeological mysteries, abundant in the Eastern Highlands, continue to attract overseas visitors. Some 22km from Nyanga village lie the Ziwa Ruins, a sprawling complex of stone terraces, enclosures and pits ranging over 80km2.
The Ruins - formerly known as the Van Niekerk settlement after the Afrikaner who introduced them to the noted archaeologist Randall McIver - now have an interpretative centre. Although of Stone Age origin, the settlements are now dominated by 16th to 19th century hill terracing, made by people believed to be of Tonga ancestry who emigrated from the Lower Zambezi. They erected stone pit structures to protect their livestock from predators, both human and animal.
The inhabitants were poor, hemmed into Nyanga's hilly country by other tribes. They had very little contact with traders from the coast, yet their structures are remarkable for the skill, vision and dexterity in their execution.
Loopholed hill forts, thought to be modelled on those constructed by the Portuguese, were built in the same era as the pit villages. It is believed they were rallying points for the Nyanga people when under attack by other ethnic groups, who later drove them into the inhospitable Inyangani range.
Zimbabwe's National Trust, besides administering World's View above Troutbeck, has responsibility for several local historic sites including Murahwa's Hill near Mutare, a nature reserve centred on a kopje with rock paintings and the ruins of an Iron Age village nearby.
When the Scottish trekker Dunbar Moodie explored the area, he called it "the promised land, the loveliest country I have ever seen." Later came the ox-wagons from the Orange Free State and, over a hundred years ago, the settlement of Melsetter (now Chimanimani) was born.
Formerly inhabited by the Bushmen (whose rock paintings depict scenes of hunting and dancing) and later the Bantu tribes from the north, Chimanimani is noted today for its 1,900m-high mountain range, with rivers and waterfalls, evergreen forests, rugged slopes, cliffs, crevasses and abundance of wild flowers.
"Up there you can feel the hand of God," said a 20-year veteran of the British Territorials who had climbed the mountain's 12 peaks in a survival test. "The scenery was so extraordinary you could not paint it."
Roads spiral down to Chimanimani village, two hours from Mutare at the base of the mountains, past thatched villages, wild orchids, red msasa trees and great swathes of pine. It's one of the Eastern Highlands' most beautiful journeys. Once athriving farming community, Chimanimani now focuses almost exclusively on forestry.
The area is cherished by hikers and climbers, with challenging ascents into the remote grey rocks. Outward Bound, based locally, uses the mountains for its leadership courses. In the village, 16km from the heights, the Chimanimani Arms Hotel, gracious and old-fashioned, offers a room with a view.
Colin Gardiner has been writing for magazines and newspapers for more than 30 years. He lives in Harare.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Thirteen: Autumn 2000 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)