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Eastern Highlands on a roll December 2009 Travel Zimbabwe 33 whose slopes were partially clad in pine forests knew the threat the moment it materialised. When Thomas placed the coconut- orange cake smothered in molten chocolate alongside my hot cocoa, with its ice cream and crumbled meringue float, I had little hope of emerging from the cafe with my belt buckle intact. In all honesty, an overload of sugary treats at Tony's Coffee Shoppe was the biggest hazard I faced during my self- drive adventures in Zimbabwe. The country has long been a popular destination for either self- driving South Africans or fly- drive tourists from Europe, due to its well- maintained roads, vehicle- friendly national parks and diversity of accommodation. Now with fuel back in the petrol stations, I road tested the situation by hiring a vehicle for a region tailor- made for motoring, the Eastern Highlands. However, I soon hit my first roadblock. The friendly policeman quickly got me on my way though, with an " Enjoy your journey, and I hope to see you again. Travel safe." The only money I handed over to roadside officials was an occasional road maintenance toll of US$ 1. Despite some potholes, the roads were generally in reasonable condition. And they were invariably empty - instant stress relief for anybody who commutes daily in rush hour traffic. I'd travelled to the 300km- long Eastern Highlands which border Mozambique before, spending several days hiking in the fabulous rugged scenery of the Chimanimani range. This time I decided to sample the With towering peaks, pockets of pine forest and twisting roads, the Eastern Highlands is ripe for a self- drive adventure. With oodles of calorie- burning trekking options, it turns out it's also the place to indulge your sweet tooth. ERIC GAUSS

FLASH OF ORANGE A fl ash of orange on the forest fl oor? You might just have spotted Swynnerton's robin ( Swynnertonia swynnertoni), a confi ding little bird that feeds on insects among the leaf-litter. This is one of three bird species endemic to the Eastern Highlands and adjacent Mozambique, leading BirdLife International to recognise the region as an ' Endemic Bird Area' - one of only nine in southern Africa. EASTERN HIGHLANDS' FACTS OF LIFE Eastern Highlands 34 Travel Zimbabwe December 2009 two other mountain ranges that make up the region. First I'd take in Nyanga, which is a national park like Chimanimani, then I'd head south into the Vumba. After three hours driving eastwards from Harare in my rented Mazda, I could've sworn I'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in Scotland. Switchback roads had led me into misty valleys beneath towering, rounded peaks of dolomite whose slopes were partially clad in pine forests. I crossed bridges spanning trout- fi lled brooks and drove through September forests of indigenous msasa trees with foliage as crimson red as a New England fall. Nyanga felt so completely different to the sultry Zambezi Valley, the chilled mountain air proving enchantingly refreshing. Stopping at the Hare & Hound pub at the Troutbeck Inn, I ordered a lunch of trout ( how could I not?). Located at over 2000m, and with eye- catching displays of proteas, the inn has a cosy fi replace that has been warming the place unextinguished since 1951. After eating I called in at the Rhodes Hotel, one of Cecil Rhodes' former residences in the early 20th century. The receptionist Praise showed me a US$ 80 per night suite that had been Rhodes' former bedroom. The hotel also houses a small museum of his memorabilia on site. I stayed just south of there at the Inn on Rupurara. Their comfy, cape country- style cottages are set in 1400ha of forested grounds. The whole estate is dwarfed by a gargantuan monolith named Rupurara, which aptly translates in Shona as ' bald head'. Guests may horseride, fi sh for trout, or hike to the Nyamgombe River's waterfall. Those with less energy could simply sit on their cottage's verandah and watch cheeky baboons scoff wild fi gs. I decided to visit several mysterious ancient pits, which were thought to have once held either slaves or fi ltrate gold ore. Then next morning I hiked up Rupurara for horizon- busting views across the Nyanga range at sunrise. Epic. After 90 minutes' worth of driving south, I'd cruised through the city of Mutare and was in the Vumba. Exuding an altogether different ambience, this range clearly rejoices in its sobriquet ' Mountains in the Mist'. Lower in altitude than Nyanga, with swathes of brachystegia woodland and moss- covered trees, Vumba feels more intimate than Nyanga. With less eye- popping panoramas and more small lanes enclosed by rampant vegetation, it's perfect for exploring by car. You'll fi nd plenty of picturesque farms, craft shops and plant nurseries tucked away in its depths. At the luxuriant Vumba Botanical Gardens and Reserve I submerged myself in jungles of aloes, azaleas and hydrangeas. Afterwards I called by one of Africa's leading golf courses at Leopard Rock, where the caddies wear leopard- skin bibs and cycads crowd the most striking fairways I've ever seen. Later I stopped to buy a local craftswoman's remarkable hand- embroidered tablecloth, which I had spotted hung along the roadside like a piece of drying laundry. Whatever you decide to see in the Eastern Highlands, it seems all roads inexorably lead to the institution that is Tony's Coffee Shoppe. Thomas, who bakes each day's succulent offerings, always produces a metre- long menu fi lled with fancy coffees, teas and mouth- watering booze- fi lled cakes. " Was it tricky getting all these exotic ingredients during recent years?" I asked Thomas. " Yes," he nodded. " We had to cross into Mozambique to buy things, or have ingredients sent from South Africa. Being able to buy food locally again has made life much easier." If I'd visited last year, perhaps I wouldn't be leaving with such an exotic mix of sweetness swimming around in my belly. ? Mark Stratton stayed in the Eastern Highlands with thanks to Inns of Zimbabwe ( www. innsofzimbabwe. co. zw). I crossed bridges spanning trout- fi lled brooks and drove through September forests of indigenous msasa trees as crimson-red as foliage in a New England fall FLAME LILY The fl ame lily ( Gloriosa superba) is Zimbabwe's national fl ower, and its long petals - which vary from pure yellow to blood red - are a common sight around the Eastern Highlands. It was adopted as a national emblem after a diamond fl ame lily brooch was presented to Queen ( then Princess) Elizabeth during the royal visit of 1947. MARK STRATTON