Writers’ places: Nantwich

Posted on 28 April 2020

Words by Tony Park

There is a grave on a hill, overlooking a dam where the roan, sable and big cats come to drink, and a view of uninterrupted Africa so perfect that it makes you think the man buried below got it right. This is a place to rest in peace for eternity.

Image supplied

Writers need three things – time, place and inspiration. I found all these at Nantwich, in the remote northwestern corner of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Nantwich, by turns a farm, national park rest camp, gutted ruin and private game lodge, takes its name from a pun by the late owner, Percy Durban Crewe – the towns of Crewe and Nantwich in Cheshire, England, are near each other.

The inscription on Percy’s grave (below) describes him as a pioneer, but this colonialism captures nothing of the real man. Percy was, in fact, a drunkard, failed prospector, reluctant soldier and unlucky farmer, but above all he was an Africa lover.  One of the first white settlers hunting for gold, he became a confidante of King Lobengula of the Matabele. With conflict brewing, Lobengula sent Percy and two of his emissaries to Cape Town with a letter for Queen Victoria, asking for peace. The mission failed and Percy, after a leisurely trip back to Matabeleland – made noteworthy by his exorbitant expenses claim for alcohol – ended up fighting the people he loved.

After the war, he was given the parcel of land known as Nantwich where he ran cattle and failed at growing sugar cane. He saw out his days in the arms of a Ndebele woman, Vuvuka – famed, appropriately, for the strong beer she brewed.

I landed a publishing contract while serving in the Australian Army in another futile conflict, in Afghanistan, and came to Africa for my seventh visit determined to write. Zimbabwe, struggling under hyperinflation, was empty of tourists and at Nantwich I found the time to write.  The place, with its spectacular wildlife, brave anti-poaching rangers and stunning vistas, was perfect for my early novels, Safari, African Sky and African Dawn. I watched glorious sunsets from an outdoor bathtub, beer in hand, as elephants splashed in the dam.

I saw my first kill at Nantwich, over lunch. A pride of seven lions took down a buffalo as I ate my sandwich in the dated dining room of a national park chalet. It wasn’t a mad chase, like on TV, but a slow, drawn-out affair in which a fearless, cranky old dagga boy fought and groaned through two hours of often-inexpert attack. Peace for him was a long time coming. When it was done, breathless and moved, I wrote the story of his passing into the novel I was working on.

Inspiration. That’s the other thing you need to write a book. On one level it’s stuff, fodder for stories, but it has another meaning: to be uplifted, inspired. Sitting at Nantwich, I found it was all there in front of me – beauty, valour, tragedy, death, survival. Africa.

When I die, I want my ashes scattered next to Percy, and for strong drink to be consumed. I, too, want to look on this place for eternity.

• Tony’s latest book is Ghosts of the Past.

Stay here

Tony and fellow investors have rebuilt the old Nantwich Camp as a private eco-lodge where you can stay for R5 ,160 pp sharing, hideawaysafrica.com
For those on a budget, Robins Camp is only 10 kilometres away. From R295 pp camping. robinscamp.com



This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of Getaway magazine.
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