Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Siyalima - Amid the Mavuradonna Wilderness of Zimbabwe

Photographs by James Fennell.

There is something refreshingly straightforward about Mike McGrath's approach to life. He is without doubt a genius and yet he is a man who totally shies away from all the adulation and praise bestowed upon him by friends and customers. His genius lies in his architectural prowess, the signature vaulting archways that abound across his Zimbabwean homeland, from the suburbs of Harare to his own private hideaway in the Eastern Highlands.

The son of an Australian-Irish building contractor from Harare, McGrath was one of the original pioneers who, aged 15, made the great trek up to the virgin wilderness of the Mavuradonna Wilderness after World War Two. He built his first home there aged 19 in 1949 and began developing what was soon to become one of Zimbabwe's leading tobacco and maize farms.

Mike McGrath is a spontaneous and restless man, living life day to day as residents of this volatile country so often do, tending to keep one eye on the broody skies above, as farmers so often do. His impulsive nature is strongly reflected in the creation of his own home, Siyalima, which he built ad lib, so to speak, in 1993.

Siyalima, which translates as "The Place without Ploughing" in the local Shona dialect, came to be when Mike's wife Barbara, a racehorse breeder, suggested he build some stables at the foot of the kopje on which they originally lived. Breeders will know well that having one's stables out of sight does not mean its equine residents are out of mind.

"We found that we were forever coming down to the stables to see how the foaling was coming along and eventually we decided why not build a new home down here and give our old home to our son and his family".

Siyalima is a gorgeous open-plan house of giant vaulting corridors that twist and turn through arched doorways and clamber along irregular red-tiled Romanesque staircases that themselves twirl and soar to reveal Moorish domed bedrooms and cool blue verandahs, elevated brick fireplaces and high wooden beamed ceilings.

The house might seem too elephantine for a home were it not for the serene hues of Barbara's designs: bull-reed shutters, soft cotton curtains, supple pink and camellia mushroom coloured walls, fresh paintings by Marco, Nero and Doug Tanehill, photos of racehorses in the winners enclosure of the Mashonaland Race Club, colourfully draped wicker chairs rocking comfortably beside hanging baskets of dried flowers and fruits.

The impression is one of sprawling comfort and isolated permanence. Even the exterior of the building has been adopted by the ancient wilderness, barely visible for the thick, well-cropped blanket of tikki creeper and Durban ivy clinging to its brick walls. As you rise through the house, large window frames unveil the great outdoors. An ancient gangly mountain acacia towering high against the blue sun-soaked sky, its limbs and boughs swaying calmly over a vine-covered courtyard and neat Sicilian lawn wallowing a merry course across the granite surrounds to a garden blooming with roses and anthriums.

Perched on a rugged granite outcrop above the stables, Siyalima looks as though it was always meant to be, but McGrath concedes that Mother Nature was sometimes reluctant to play along.

"If you build on rock then you either have to incorporate parts of that rock into the building or build around it. I didn't want to see granite all over my home so I had to build staircases, some spiral, some straight, to bring the floor up over them".

Another option was the marble-topped tables that comfortably hide the occasional chunk of granite, perhaps supporting a racing trophy, a Matabele bust or a fax machine.

McGrath treats architecture like a cryptic crossword and won't rest until he's sorted it out. The hanging lamps in the living room were made from scrap glass and spring-tyne bars from an old harrow. The heavy chairs around the massive mopani banqueting table were created from a tobacco drier. All his bricks and tiles were likewise made on site. He used to have tiles on his roof too but, when the local monkey population began throwing them at each other, he decided to use tarred metal shoots from an old Curing House instead.

McGrath gets bored of his creations quite quickly. One of his first sidelines was the creation of furniture from palm trees - a successful venture, yet nowhere in his home will you find any palm furniture. Similarly, both telephone and fax are constantly ringing with requests for the red clay tiles that he began producing in the 1980s. McGrath raises his eyes to the sky in heavenly despair. Perhaps he will get around to it one day. In the meantime, if only the skies would open and let the rains bucket down on his parched crops.