BBC’s Simpson longs to return to Zimbabwe

by John Simpson

Misses Meikles Hotel … BBC’s John Simpson

YOU can’t please everybody, especially if your job is to report on other people’s countries. I’ve been banned from a range of places, from Iran (for me among the most charming countries on Earth) and Uzbekistan to delightful, stable and prosperous Botswana (my offence there was to report on the dreadful plight of the Kalahari Bushmen). Sometimes the government relents, sometimes not. And sometimes it says it’s relented but hasn’t.

The ban I regret the most is the one by the government of Zimbabwe. Most people think Zimbabwe is a country to avoid, but like everyone else who knows it, I find it intensely beautiful, calm and welcoming. Its troubles certainly aren’t over, but it’s going through a period of relative political stability.

Or so I’m told. I haven’t been there for six years, since I slipped across the border illicitly for the third and last time to do some reporting. It felt as though we were from the Special Operations Executive, infiltrating German-occupied Europe during the war. In fact we never had the slightest run-in with the Zimbabwean authorities, even when we broadcast our reports live from Harare itself. The government later claimed they knew where we were the whole time, but I think they just realised it was better to ignore us than to create a fuss.

Being there brought back a rush of memories from the time when I’d covered the country in the 1970s and 80s. It was just as beautiful as I’d remembered and Harare and Bulawayo were as delightful. But best of all were the vast stretches of mountain and valley and plain, in the morning or afternoon light, stretching to the farthest horizon.

I went back to the Chimanimani mountains, close to the border with Mozambique, which my friend, the writer Peter Godwin, describes in his evocative books about his childhood.

In those days Chimanimani village was called Melsetter, after the birthplace of its original Scottish founder in the 19th century. I based myself at the Chimanimani Arms hotel, the first visitor for six months, and reported on the guerrilla war along the border. The food was excellent, if a little inclined to stress the roast and two veg element, and three magnificent waiters in white uniforms and red fezzes stood politely in the shadows – we only had the light of candles and lamps – and reached forward to offer me anything I might seem to want. I had propped up a book, and one of the magnificent three offered to turn the page, though that seemed to be taking things just a little too far.

One day – this was in 1977 – I took a drive with a white Rhodesian farmer who complained incessantly about the modern British and how wet and liberal and generally useless they were; me too, clearly. As we drove along the dirt road I was certain I saw a landmine in the red earth ahead of us. The farmer was too busy denouncing me to notice. As we got closer I could even see the finger-marks where the earth had been tamped down on it. But I was so scared of being mocked by the farmer if turned out not to be a mine that I kept silent and gritted my teeth as we drove over it. Nothing happened, so I suppose I was just being a wet and useless Brit after all.

I don’t think I have ever seen such magnificent scenery: not in Scotland, not in the Pamirs, not in the Rockies. Chimanimani’s grandeur has great gentleness, and the scarlets and golds and violets of dawn and evening are unforgettable. If ever I’m allowed back, I shall spend as much time there as possible. The locals are invariably pleasant, polite and remarkably well-educated, and being white, I’ve found, never causes the slightest problem – except occasionally with the government.

I miss it all a great deal. I miss Meikles Hotel in Harare, and the mad Nesbitt Castle Hotel in Bulawayo, which is indeed a castle and where the mounted heads of wild animals stare reproachfully from every wall. And I especially miss The Victoria Falls Hotel, from which you can see the Second Gorge of the Falls. You are treated as though you are a passenger on the Cape to Cairo railway, for which the hotel was built, or on an Imperial Airways flying boat. Here it’s King George V who looks down at you from the walls. In 2009 we thought it was too risky to stay there, but had an unforgettable breakfast and I signed the visitors’ book with a flourish.

Many bad things have happened in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe over the years, and it’s not over yet. But if you go, you will be treated with friendship and politeness and perhaps a slight surprise: Western visitors are still pretty unusual. You will come away loving it, I promise. I just wish I could go with you.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News. This article is from The Telegraph at