Mutare (previously known as Umtali) is Zimbabwe's fourth largest city and is the provincial capital of Manicaland Province. Often called "the Gateway to the Eastern Highlands", the locals also refer to it as Kumakomoyo “place of many mountains” as it is located within a bowl-like valley south of the Imbeza Valley and north of the Bvumba Mountains which divide Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The Mozambican border is just eight kilometres away and Mutare has always been considered the country’s gateway to the sea with the Beira Corridor linking Zimbabwe to the Mozambican port of Beira, only 290km away. Historically the town connects Beira with Harare and Bulawayo via the railway network.
The origins of the word Mutare it is believed may have come from the word 'Utare' meaning “piece of metal”. During the pre-colonial period the name was given to a river running adjacent to the Tsambe River. It is believed this river had deposits of iron resulting in it being named Utare by the local Mutasa clan. What we now know as the city of Mutare today, emerged from a small Manyika speaking society under the leadership of Chief Mutasa. It is believed these people settled in the area decades before the Europeans came. Myths and oral traditions refer to their ancestral claims of the whole territory. There could have been speculation that Mutare was first established by the Pioneer Column in 1890. Infact, the Pioneer Column did not find any empty space, but rather a fully functional indigenous Mutasa society with efficient political structures, a booming economy and thriving agriculture.
Mutare’s original location was at Fort Hill and in 1891 for health reasons and also because of local mining activities that threatened to impede future expansion, the town moved to a site now known as Old Umtali, about 14 kilometres north of present day Mutare. The Police camp and government buildings were erected on this site, on the Mutare River and by 1895 the new township included 78 men, 13 women and 9 children.
Move from Old Umtali
The prime source of the following is from an article by J. Harris ‘’The Move to New Umtali’’ which appeared in Zuro 1975 the Magazine of The History Society, Umtali Boys High School.
Late in 1895 Mansergh, the Beira Railway Company’s’ surveyor, reported that it would be costly and impractical to take the rail line over Christmas Pass and recommended the route along the valley of the Sakubva River and over the Nyamashiri Range to the Odzi River. George Pauling in his book ‘’The Chronicles of a Contractor’’ says in his capacity as Commissioner of Public Works that he proposed to Cecil Rhodes that old Umtali should be moved to the site of the present day Mutare and that the BSAC could offer corresponding sites and pay the townsfolk for the buildings they had erected at Old Umtali. Rhodes was in the country having recently resigned as Prime Minister of the Cape following the Jameson Raid and on 26 March 1896 held a meeting with the residents of Old Umtali. The choice was clear: either the town moved to the planned site of the new railway station, or it remained where it was and became an isolated backwater. There was much debate on the conditions under which the move would take place.
Finally, the meeting agreed that the town would have to move and the owners of stands in Old Umtali would be given corresponding position in the new town with valuations of all buildings in the old town being calculated for which the BSAC would pay the owners. If residents found their newly allocated stands unfavourably situated, they could exchange them for unsold stands. In addition, the BSAC would build suitable government buildings, a hospital and also provide money for water supply at the new site.
A selection committee consisting of Sir Charles Metcalfe, Mansergh, Pickett and Suter choose the final site at the farms Sable Valley, Birkley and Mountain View and paid out £5,000 to the owners. Landowners in Old Umtali applied to the Surveyor-General, J. M. Orpen, to allocate new stands on the new site.
In May 1896 the townsfolk of Old Umtali decided that the Sanitary Board was not representative enough and required more members; their last meeting was held at Old Umtali on 11 August 1897. From the beginning of the year people had begun moving to the new site and commencing building operations. Old Umtali was literally pulled to pieces and all the building materials hauled over Christmas Pass and reassembled on the new site of Umtali. For a period, the population of ninety Europeans was equally split between the two towns, but as more and more wood and corrugated-iron was hauled by ox-wagon over the Pass the new town gradually began to take shape of predominately dhaka (mud) and thatched cottages. There was a shortage of local labour in the town as memories and distrust from the First Chimurenga still lingered so their places were taken by newcomers from Portuguese East Africa and the Zambezi Valley.
Total compensation paid out by the BSAC amounted to over £300,000 and this spending power and the arrival of the first train at Umtali on 4 February 1898, having left Beira the day before resulted in a mini-boom in the town’s fortunes.
The 1896 the settlers had to contend with hazardous roads before reaching the new site and on arriving, buildings of every conceivable size and shape were already being constructed on the ten acres stands that were allotted to them; wattle and daub with thatched roofs were most prominent, as these materials were easily obtainable, but any available piece of iron, wood and timber went into the buildings. Public buildings for the Civil Commissioner and Magistrate were speedily erected in 1897, initially a small thatched hut, beside it a building of wood and iron. Other wood and iron buildings included Mrs. Hayne's tea room, Corderoy & Reynolds Store, the Cecil Hotel was a plain block building without a veranda, the front portion being a bar.
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Bekker and Smith state that in the early days of Umtali there were no less than thirteen hotels, clubs and canteens which were continually changing ownership. In 1898 a brewery opened business but could not compete with the imported duty-free beers and soon closed down, although the creek where it was sited retained the name “brewery creek.”
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The Public Works Department supervised the building of the Adams Hotel and eventually the hotel became the Umtali Club in 1900, which remains to this day. Construction of Government Offices, the Residency, the Drill Hall with all its stables, and the Stock Exchange were started. The Goal seemed to have had priority as the workmen being inmates were allowed out on parole during the day and in the evenings, they were obliged to report back, and often could be seen knocking on the goal door seeking admittance. The Kopje House Hospital was also started in that year, a great necessity for the sick men constructing the railway from Beira and the Odzi Railway Bridge that was also being built at that time.
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The Stock Exchange thrived right up to 1924, but then the market declined, with the realisation that Umtali was not going to be a second Johannesburg. Today the building serves as The Mutare Club.
Mutare once boasted of having the only tramway in the then Rhodesia which transported passengers from the railway station up to the centre of Main Street where the palm trees now stand at the Mutare Club. The necessary capital was raised. George Hall did not start work on the tramway until July 1901. The line was laid in a month, from the Railway Station to the top end of the town. The following day after completion, Hall invited the residents to journey over the new track on passenger cars and thus the first passengers were carried on a street tramway in Rhodesia. The passenger cars were supplied by an American company, Jackson Sharp & Company, each nineteen feet long and seating eighteen passengers, and drawn by two mules but as these cars were too heavy for the track and too slow, most passengers preferred to walk. The tramway operated until 1914, when motor lorries appeared on the streets to cart goods.
The first travelling theatre to visit Umtali in 1904 was the Sass & Nelson Company, a tremendous thrill for Umtali. The Royal Hotel boasted a fairly large stage and when the theatre company arrived announced that their intention was to stay a week in Umtali and put on a new play every night, many people booked for the whole week. Plays such as "The Bell of New York", "Merry Widow", with a change of scenes, were much appreciated by all. After a week of intense excitement and enjoyment, the town returned to normal.
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At the time of the new move there were some unusual homes. A man called Engelbrecht built a house from bottles, which were easy to come by as the hotels were only too pleased to get rid of them. The only drawback to living in a glass house (as we all know) was small boys throwing stones at it. Eventually Engelbrecht was forced to plaster the walls. The building remains standing today and is believed to still be lived in. One of Mutare’s architectural gems is the Mutare Club, designed by James Cope-Christie in 1897 which is at the junction of Herbert Chitepo Street (formerly Main Street) and Fifth Avenue. This was originally designed as the Stock Exchange, a sign of the exuberant spirits of the time when 160 gold mines were in the early stages of development in the Penhalonga / Mutare area. There are signs of previously chic 1930’s homes in the Avenues with the brilliant scarlet blossom of the flamboyant trees lining the streets.
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Despite Mutare's tropical location, the city has a temperate climate, with an average annual temperature of 19°C this is due to its sheltered location amongst the mountains. The coldest month is July and the hottest month is October. Most rain falls in the months of December to February, although showers occur outside this period.
Mutare is situated in the heart of Zimbabwe’s timber growing areas. The timber grown locally includes softwoods, such as pine, blue gum and black wattle and also hardwoods on a smaller scale and from this derives timber-based industries such as board and paper, joinery, roof trusses, and furniture manufacturing for local and export markets.
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Local Agricultural products include apples, bananas, grapes, oranges, tomatoes, peas, and beans. Large commercial operations produce tea, coffee, wheat, cotton and tobacco which give rise to Agro-processing industries for canning, freeze-drying and packing these resources. Two large food producers in Zimbabwe, Cairns Foods and Tanganda Tea, have their headquarters in Mutare.
The city of Mutare is best for outdoor activities and retreat expeditions. The climatic environment offers a serene environment away from the buzzing noise of city traffic. The mountainous terrain offers the best experience for hiking fanatics. The Mutare National Museum offers a historical appreciation of the city through displays of artifacts. Lodges and hotels scattered all over the city give a wide array of choice for the visitors. The most notable include the Leopard Rock Hotel, Holiday Inn Mutare, Troutbek Inn, Aberfoyle Lodge and Juliasdale in Nyanga. There are a number of game parks, unique views, leisure centers, botanical gardens and many other beautiful sites which offer a plethora of entertainment facilities for both locals and visitors young and old.
So why not take a weekend drive and visit this beautiful city!
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Credits: ZimFieldguide
Photo credits: Fad3d Design, The Wasu, Pindula, NewsDay Zimbabwe, Rhodesias Intaf and Zimfieldguide

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