Flying into Bulawayo we land at Joshua Nkomo International Airport. But instead of entering the imposing blue and white airport terminal we board a bus and are whisked away down the airfield to a dilapidated old tin shed.
This is Bulawayo’s “temporary terminal”, in use for the last decade and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future – until such time as the “new” airport terminal is finally completed. Welcome to Zimbabwe, the land that time forgot.
The country’s west and south west, a.k.a Matabeleland, has forever been the poor cousin to the east and the capital Harare, colloquially dubbed Bambazonke (grab the lot). Bulawayo is Funazonke (want everything).
It’s a tribal thing. Octogenarian president Robert Mugabe is a Shona whereas most inhabitants of Bulawayo are of Ndebele stock. There’s no love lost between the tribal groups. Prizing funds from Harare’s coffers to complete Bulawayo’s airport – or any other infrastructure improvements – is a mighty struggle.
Curiously, the possibility of a brighter future is captured best in the anachronistic Bulawayo Club. A city institution since 1895, this staunch bastion of long-gone colonial days has been revamped as a boutique hotel.
Think Raffles … but with a quirky African twist. The Long Bar on the ground floor remains off-limits to women – can you believe! But the rest of this handsome building, which dates rom 1935, is now open to all.
Old leather armchairs, ornate clocks and wooden cabinets stuffed with old silverware maintain an ambience of yesteryear, of exclusivity. Footsteps echo off polished mahogany floors.
The local daily paper where I once worked, the Bulawayo Chronicle, is filed in a reading rack in the lobby. Walls are decorated with formal black and white photographs of past Governors General of Rhodesia, a display now augmented by the untitled portraits of recent and current Zanu-PF luminaries.
The former ladies lounge on the first floor, formerly accessed via stairs leading up from a discreet side street entrance, has become the Lobengula Cocktail Lounge, named after a famous Matabele chief. It’s the perfect place to down a good old gin and tonic prior to dinner.
The Governor’s Restaurant is the essence of colonial elegance with its distinctive double pillars and chandeliers, monogrammed napery, heavy silverware and white-jacketed waiters. It serves the best fish and chips in town.
The revamped club’s 15 top-floor rooms, which include two suites, are quite possibly the finest accommodation in a beleaguered city that’s otherwise bereft of grand style. Cecil John Rhodes would most certainly have been quite at ease here.