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Zimbabwe’s Leopard changing its spots

Cheryl Robertson, eTN  Jun 27, 2010

(eTN) The refurbishment exercise currently underway at Leopard Rock Hotel and its PGA championship golf course in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe is nearing completion.

Owners LonZim investment company, which bought the hotel in April last year, went ahead then with a US$1.7 million face-lift program, which included upgrading the hotel, the attached casino, a 400-hectare private game reserve, and continuing to maintain the high standards of the existing golf course.

Work at the hotel has included repainting all interior and exterior buildings, entire refurbishment of all hotel rooms with new soft furnishings, and a general upgrade of corridors and all public areas. New state-of-the-art entertainment, IT, and communications systems are being installed throughout the hotel.

The staff quarters, laundry, and kitchen have been re-equipped, and a new international standard staff training program has been implemented. LonZim will also, if deemed justified, add a further 100 rooms to the current accommodation of 58 rooms and suites, and a world-class spa.

David Lenigas, executive chairman of LonZim, commented in a statement issued by the London headquartered investment company in May this year, "LonZim's strategy since 2007 is to identify and support key businesses during the tough times so that they retain quality human resources, continue trading, are correctly resourced and capitalized, and ready to address the market as it inevitably recovers.”

“LonZim is beginning to see the results of that strategy. Each of LonZim's seven core businesses is now well placed to grow as the economic recovery continues,” he said.

“We are confident that Zimbabwe has a future. The people of Zimbabwe remain one of the most industrious, valued, and skilled workforces on the continent; the basic infrastructure across the country is strong, and Zimbabwe remains a beautiful destination with significant tourism and agricultural potential. The opportunity for the country to once again become a leading African economy remains tantalizingly available," Lenigas added.

Geoffrey White, LonZim’s chief executive officer, said in the same statement: “I am pleased to be able to report that the seeds of economic recovery are evident in Zimbabwe. However, the progress remains difficult and the market comparatively small in relation to its previous volume.

“Economic recovery from the chaos of hyperinflation will inevitably take time. Confidence needs to be re-built, stability in commercial transactions re-established, and liquidity needs to be available once again in the banking sector for both commerce and individuals to drive the economy."

The turreted chateau-style hotel first opened in 1946 in the country’s scenic Bvumba Mountains to the east some 30 kilometers from the town of Mutare, which was badly damaged by rocket fire in the 1970s bush war, closed in 1980 due to fuel shortages, then reopened in 1993 along with a PGA 18-hole championship golf course built to United States Golf Association specifications.

The PGA of Europe has called it one of the “finest golf resorts” in the world 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.

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 neighboring Mozambique. The views coupled with enchanting walks through the natural greenery make it one of the best walking courses in Africa. Although there is no need for golf carts, 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 grass. 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. Water comes into play on six of the 18 holes, and a large lake sits in the center.

The 14th hole, “The Matkovich,” is on an elevated tee encircled by the surrounding mountains and has a spectacular backdrop of the Burma Valley. The 17th "World's View" is another spectacular signature hole, and the 18th “Tony Taberer” (a former owner of Leopard Rock) has hazards of bush, water, sloping rough, and a large eucaluptus tree in the flight path.

In April 2010, 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. The hotel is managed by Lonrho Hotels.

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.

Zimbabwe’s Leopard changing its spots
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