“If I wrote a book about my life excluding Ruckomechi it might be half an inch thick; if I wrote a book on my three years at Ruckomechi it would be at least one inch thick, filled with stories…” – Garth Thompson, Ruckomechi Camp Owner and Guide – 1984 to 1987
Humble beginnings: Ruckomechi Camp: 1982 to 1987
In 1982, a young guide named Rob Shattock and his friends Ollie Coltman and Alistair Hull made their way by boat from Chirundu, a village and border post in Zimbabwe on the Zambian border, to the wild and remote Ruckomechi Concession in Mana Pools National Park. Rob had always had a deep interest in the area and when the tender for Ruckomechi became available, he was ready to take on this beautiful paradise and live out his dream of creating a camp on the banks of the Zambezi River. He was one of very few people who had shown interest in taking over the lease.
Soon a camp consisting of an old caravan, a few smallish tents and some rooms had taken shape. But with little money and with the camp not being on the tourist map, these were hard times - to say nothing of keeping it going: It took a full day to walk to Chirundu where Rob would collect the post and meagre supplies for the camp. The situation however took a turn for the better when Peter Evans and Ian Craigie, who headed up Nissan Zimbabwe and who often visited Ruckomechi with their families, heard that their beloved camp was in need of financial help and offered to buy it.
Rob continued to run the camp and, with the help of the new team, set to work constructing a new kitchen and dining area according to the excellent Swiss standards of Alpina, owned by Rolf Hangartner. The old Peta 4.5 generator was replaced by a brand new Yanmar 8KVA – this was the same as buying a brand new Ferrari to replace an old lorry and the excitement was clear to see – this was a rarity in those early years in Zimbabwe!
As time passed and with little income from the camp, staff to pay, maintenance and operating problems, Peter and Ian decided to sell Ruckomechi in 1984 to Garth Thompson who was a guide and manager of Zimbabwe Sun Hotels, and Paul Connelly, owner of Canoe Safaris. Garth later recalled his conversation with Paul: “I told him I would call him back after consulting with my wife. Five minutes later I called him and told him we were keen to throw our entire life’s savings into this new venture!”
Paul and Garth arrived at Ruckomechi in September 1984 to have a look at the concession. “We went out in the only working vehicle in camp, a battered old green Land Rover, which proceeded to break down 400 metres from camp, so we decided to set off on foot instead. At that time of year, the albida pods were dropping from the trees and the area was teeming with animals; most notable were the frequent sightings of black rhino we had. We walked back to a camp that was run down, where nothing worked other than the new Yanmar generator. However we were young, enthusiastic, foolhardy and ready for any challenge.”
In October 1984, Garth recalls driving from Hwange National Park with his entire life’s possessions in his short wheel base Land Rover along with his domestic worker who was to head up the cleaning of the six rooms, all in desperate need of maintenance! Other staff at camp comprised people from the nearby Vuti community who did not have work experience. Jeffery, however, who had stayed on from the Nissan staff, was a very proud and dignified waiter who was excellent with guests (even though there were not many guests at the time!). And there was Lucky, who was an excellent chef – he would bake fresh bread in the early hours of the morning. He could also drive, mix cement and build. Lucky was the star of the camp!
The Ruckomechi team was later able to purchase a 20HP Evinrude boat engine for the banana boat, and a reconditioned Land Rover. They also had Old Blue, an old Series 2 diesel Land Rover given to them by Canoe Safaris. Garth explains, “In those days there were no canopies or comfortable bucket seats on the game viewing vehicles. The seats were wooden planks wired onto the back of the Land Rover tray and covered with sponge and canvas or just blankets.”
When it came to looking after the camp, Garth quickly got to work calling up his artist friend Craig Bone to help build new rooms. After a lot of hard work their team had managed to source gravel, treat wood, thatch the roof and purchase new mattresses – all before the season’s rains arrived!
This long and winding road, filled with adventures and dedication, lead to Wilderness Safaris beginning its own love affair with this scenically splendid and diverse area; in 1999 we obtained the lease for the Concession. Since then, Ruckomechi’s fame (and that of its daily pachyderm visitors) has grown far and wide, and now, with the rebuild of Ruckomechi and the opening of Little Ruckomechi, we look forward to adding more chapters to the book, more stories that evoke the crackling fire, the rustle of albida pods and the snort of a hippo.
The photographs below showcase some of the many happy memories of these early days at Ruckomechi. We have also included a few of Ruckomechi today. While a lot has changed in terms of the comfort and luxury, the view, the friendly staff and spirit of the camp instilled from these early pioneering days still remains!
“My daughter was born in Room 1. They were large wooden prefab cabins and it was the one closest to the reception. Her name is Christine Oena Buchanan Atkinson: ‘Oena,’ which I believe is unique, is the generic name of the Namaqua dove (Oena capensis). There are many Namaqua doves at Ruckomechi.” – Tich Atkinson, Ruckomechi Guide 1987
The naturally hollowed baobab often referred to as 'The Honeymoon Suite.' Garth Thompson and guests of the Topeka Zoo with 'Mama Safari' in the bottom left of the picture who had done well over 50 safaris in Africa and continued well into her 80's.
The staff at Ruckomechi in the nineties
The 2016 Ruckomechi family. Photograph by Dana Allen
The outdoor bath – then and now!
Andrew Bone in the first game viewing vehicle with proper seats.
David Thompson on his first canoe trip aged three months old with Mel – going past the infamous hippo 'Henry'
"Incidentally, we named Parachute Pan when one of the guys (Ian Riddell or Al Chambers I think) found an old parachute harness from the war days, at the site of the pan." – Brian Worsley, Ruckomechi Guide 1986. Photograph by Caroline Culbert
“My favourite thing about Ruckomechi was the camaraderie of the guides – Troy, Fausto Carbone, Basil Moss, Carl Nicholson, and Brian Townsend and Al Hull who did some of the canoe trails. As well as the amazing leopard and lion sightings; we had a good knowledge of the lion families and their history.” – Dave Christensen, Ruckomechi Guide 1997
Mark Element watching elephant next to one of the early rooms built by Craig Bone.
The elephants' favourite camp! Photograph by Dana Allen, 2016
Garth Thompson with son David who came to live at Ruckomechi at the age of six weeks and lived there until nearly three years old.
Brian Worsley dressed in the Cowabunga elephant rig!
Ruckomechi 2016. Photograph by Dana Allan
“What I love most? So many things: the sounds – mourning dove calls, starlings, hippo, cicadas – the smell of Strophanthus blooms on a night drive, becoming so familiar with a place that when the lions called, you could tell almost to the metre where they were calling from, or where they were heading to – even kilometres away. Perhaps I loved most of all the simplicity of it all.” – Brian Worsley, Ruckomechi Guide 1986
Mel Thompson recently pregnant and still bare foot with son David.
Kate grew up exploring the bushveld on her family rose farm, living among Nguni cattle, geese, warthogs, ostriches and horses. After completing an Honours degree at the University of Cape Town, Kate began working at Wild magazine as a journalist and as the Digital Editor of the Wild Card website. Kate has travelled to destinations throughout southern Africa, enjoying the many rich offerings of our country. Her work at Wild magazine helped secure her next move to Londolozi Game Reserve where she worked in their Creative team managing online communications and assisting guests with their wildlife photography. Kate now lives in Johannesburg and is proud to be a part of Wilderness Safaris in her role as copywriter. “I am very excited to work for a company that makes such a huge difference to people’s lives and to the wild places throughout our incredibly beautiful and diverse continent.”