Zoe Ross reviews an exceptional retreat in the heart of the African bush at Malabar Hall Chirundu in Zimbabwe and finds invigorating river safaris, transformational massages, sunrise meditation and an infectious joie de vivre.
The effects of a long and sticky journey clung to my skin as I lolloped out of the car, and staggered around the side of the house – whereupon all evaporated into effervescent delight, at the unfolding of a panoramic river view that needs to be seen to be believed, and the immediate presentation of a tray laden with ice-clinking pink gin and tonics (and snacks, crucially for me).
Having spent a week in Harare with host Bibi Schofield and Tibetan Yoga teacher and massage sorcerer Dominique Caubel six months earlier, I was excited and intrigued to throw myself into their stripped-back offering in rural Chirundu. Unlike Bibi’s primary residence at Malabar Hall in Harare, the house here does not take centre stage. Instead, it gives way to the magnificent landscape surrounding it. In its simplicity and unfussy comfort, it only encourages the deep immersion in nature that Bibi and Dominique seek to create here. The aim of this retreat is to take you into ever greater layers of subtlety and stillness.
With daily massage and meditation, we were encouraged to tune into the vibrations of our bodies – and the beauty of introducing the little-known practice of Lu Jong (Tibetan Healing Yoga) to guests is that there is no risk of automatic pilot. Instead of launching into the familiarity of sun salutations and downward dogs, as I am wont to do, this was something of a fresh slate – unfamiliar ways to move your body, and new ways to breathe. We focused on learning five primary movements, and with the progression of the week, pieced together, too, the system of thought that underpins them. As our understanding grew, so too did the depth of our practice. In parallel, as the atmosphere of the African bush permeated, we began to notice ever subtler sounds and colours. There was the immediate joy of monkeys, the fascination of thuggish baboons, the unbelievable glut of hippos on the river, the mesmerising majesty of elephants; but as the week evolved, I also took increasing pleasure in the finer detail of, for example, myriad tiny birds: blue waxbill, Jameson firefinch, Lillian’s lovebirds, masked weavers.
A rhythm and routine quickly settled on the group – sunrise meditation, Lu Jong and pool time in the mornings, and invigorating river safari in the afternoons, punctuated by properly delicious meals. Over the course of six days, the river did not cease to thrill. Imagine speeding up the Zambezi, spray in your wake, slowing to make eye contact with pods of suspicious hippos, and then drifting gently while the sun sets, a glass of crisp white wine in hand. It really did feel magical.
‘What comes across always is Bibi’s flair for bringing pleasure, and her infectious joie de vivre. There is such a spirit of generosity here, with each detail beautifully considered and curated’
There were also surprises along the way. One morning we took the boat out to a striking abandoned water tower overlooking the river, and practiced our Lu Jong there. Another afternoon, we were taken on a game drive. On Valentine’s Day, a little heart-shaped tin of Lindor greeted each of us at breakfast. What comes across always is Bibi’s flair for bringing pleasure, and her infectious joie de vivre. There is such a spirit of generosity here, with each detail beautifully considered and curated. Sharing the experience with me were an interior designer from Beirut, a banking lawyer based in Doha, a PR consultant and an ex-banker running several fascinating businesses – and, of course, Bibi, her husband Kenneth, and Dominique. Together the three of them generated an atmosphere of camaraderie, of heartfelt engagement and positivity. There was plenty of time for solitary reading and lolling around the pool, but there was also a huge amount of conversation and laughter.
Alongside the Lu Jong classes and Dominique’s unparalleled massage (not to be underestimated in its intensity), his grounding energy and wisdom were a huge advantage throughout the week. While Bibi lavished us with treats, such as mascarpone and figs with our toast, or slabs of chocolate studded with hazelnuts, or indeed her wonderfully relaxing Indian head massage, Dominique reminded us of our purpose in being on retreat – at mealtimes he talked to us about Tibetan philosophy and what some of our individual challenges might be, encouraging us to be more reflective and self-aware. He is attuned and insightful, with a gift for seeing you at your most essential, and I came away from the week with some powerful ideas about what I need to change.
Alongside Bibi and Dominique, Kenneth provided essential context – I have been on several retreats in attractive places, but this was more than that. It felt special being in Zimbabwe, and knowing and loving the country as he does, Kenneth really brought alive its history and spirit, and helped us all to plug in to the vibrations of the bush.
Over the course of the week, I saw everyone’s faces transform – tensions dissolved, and something like joy unfurled. To experience both the pleasures of learning and yoga practice, and the thrills of the natural world together felt entirely unique. If I could, I’d go back tomorrow.