It was the day after the conclusion of the Elephant Hills Golf Classic, and the luxury hotel, full to capacity the day before, was “recuperating” from the excitement of the famous golfing tournament, and all the local and international celebrities that it always attracted.
The guests had all left the evening before, on the daily Air Rhodesia flight back to Salisbury, and the hotel was empty, apart from hotel staff busy cleaning and preparing for the next expected influx of guests.
The terrorist rocket, fired at the hotel from Zambia, hit the top floor Gary Player Suite, vacated just the evening before by Commander, Combined Operations, Lt General Peter Walls, a guest of the golfing classic.
The missile, attracted by the heat of the air-conditioning unit, caused extensive damage, and an uncontrollable fire soon raged throughout the building with staff running in and out of the stricken hotel trying to retrieve prized furnishings and equipment.
There was no fire brigade in the Victoria Falls village, and the nearest fire engine was at the Airport, some 13 kms away. Used only for the occasional slow run along the runway, the fire engine now raced at top speed along the main road from the airport to the hotel. The first problem encountered was to find that the electricity to the hotel had been switched off in the village, presumably as a precaution, and the fire engine was unable to pump water; it was quickly decided to pump water from the swimming pool and it was then that the fire engine, overheating from its rush to the scene, seized with a loud bang! Everyone on the scene then had to help manually pump water from the pool.
The hotel was destroyed, and remained a shell for the next five or six years, with only a squash court and a bar still operating.
With the war escalating, Meikles Southern Sun then had to decide what to do with a number of its more remote hotels. Top of the list in 1978 was the 100-roomWankie Safari Lodge.
Peter Bester and John Moore went to see the Minister of Defence, PK van der Bijl, to ask for military protection for the hotel. During a very frank discussion, the Minister said there was simply not any manpower available. When asked if weapons could be supplied, the Minister replied that this would not be a problem, and so it was that a highly proficient soldier was recruited by the company to form, and train to the highest possible standards, a full time militia – the only hotel company in the world with its own private army!
Coinciding with the introduction of the militia, the company installed powerful spotlights fitted to the tops of tall poles surrounding the hotel, facing outwards; this gave the patrolling militia a clear night view of the surrounds – but it also added a further attraction for hotel guests as it was soon found that wildlife were coming up to the deep trenches a short distance from the hotel, designed to keep elephants clear of the gardens, and sleeping under the lights, almost as though they afforded some protection from other animals! To this day, the hotel has retained the lights and the wildlife continue to gather in large numbers and sleep under the “protection” of the lights, much to the enjoyment of guests, able to walk close to the trenches and the nearby animals.
Wankie Safari Lodge was eventually forced to close in 1979 when Air Rhodesia cancelled its flights to and from Wankie Airport, following the shooting down of the second Viscount over Kariba. This flight had been the regular Victoria Falls – Wankie – Kariba – Salisbury evening flight, and carried many tourists on their return journey.
For a number of months prior to the closing, visitors to Wankie had experienced the thrill – or fear – of flying from Victoria Falls to Wankie at tree top level – literally – as Air Rhodesia took brave evasive action against terrorists who might have been operating in the area. A very bumpy flight which really did scare many passengers.
The hotel militia remained on duty during the year that the hotel was closed, protecting this valuable resource day and night.
Undoubtedly one of the most popular hotels in the country is Troutbeck Inn, in the Inyanga Mountains.
As the war in the eastern part of the country escalated, it was decided to extend the company’s militia at Wankie to include Troutbeck as well; a new force was formed and trained and, to its credit, was able to beat off one attack when terrorists fired at the hotel from across the lake, damaging one bedroom.
Guests were not allowed to leave the hotel in the mornings until after the Army had “swept” the main (dirt) road to Inyanga for landmines.
During the last year of the war, the staff were “abducted” by terrorists in their aim to close the hotel. An attempt was made to find them and bring them back but only one was found – the housekeeper – in a rural area close to Inyanga; she was moved to Salisbury’s Meikles Hotel for her protection. It seemed that there was nothing more the company could do but to close the hotel: but the “locals” in the area would not allow it! The area around the hotel was home to a number of retired army types, who regarded Troutbeck as their “pub”! They started putting small advertisements in the Rhodesia Herald announcing that “Troutbeck was still open”, and after an approach from Government, the company decided to keep the hotel open, albeit at a reduced status (six bedrooms) which could be handled by a small staff.
Towards the end of the war, John Moore, asleep late at night in Salisbury received a frantic phone call from the Manager of the hotel: “John, there are terrs in the hotel”. This was the night of the movement of terrorists into camps controlled by the Commonwealth Monitoring Force, and this group had missed the cut-off deadline, and so had decided to make for Troutbeck. Here they were welcomed as a liberating force by the staff, who were coming from their compound showering them with gifts. The problem was that the bar was full with celebrating army and police reservists, all of whom had diligently checked in their weapons at reception; and it was in reception that the Manager of the hotel had managed to stop the terrorists whilst they were being royally entertained by the staff! John told the manager he must keep the two factions apart; the manager replied that he was doing that and had given the new arrivals drink and sandwiches. John then called the JOC who managed to get a New Zealand captain to journey out to the hotel, arriving about an hour later to take the terrorists to the camp. And the party went on in the bar with no one any the wiser!!
Although the only possibility of an attack at this remote hotel situated high on a hill overlooking the expanse of Lake Kariba was from elephants, the company nonetheless had to take steps to minimise a surprise terrorist attack. After careful consideration it was decided to plant an impenetrable barrier of cacti along the entire foot of the hill between the hotel and the Lake. This did not stop the elephants from their regular visits to the hotel, startling guests returning to their rooms from the Dining Room or Bar, but there was no other attempted attack on Bumi!
The Victoria Falls Hotel
Last, but not least, the grand old lady of Rhodesian hotels had its fair share of activity during the War years. There was no particular reason to suspect that there might be an attack on the hotel as the Victoria Falls area was a hive of Security Force activity from the outset, although precautions were taken after the destruction of the Elephant Hills. Care had always to be taken not to alarm guests, nor to scare off would-be visitors, and after a failed mortar attack on the Victoria Falls area, with one off target shell narrowly missing the laundry outbuilding, causing slight damage, it was decided to warn guests by sticking notices onto their bathroom mirrors:
The hotel quickly found that the stickers were being removed by guests as souvenirs, and new stocks had to be constantly reprinted!
Of course, staff had been well trained and prepared for a “what if” situation, but fortunately this did not occur.
John Moore was a director of Meikles Southern Sun – later Zimbabwe Sun – and President of the Hotel Association