Panning beyond the pale

For centuries the Chimanimani passes have served as trade routes between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Recently Sean Christie and photographer Lisa King joined the arduous trail in search of intrepid gold seekers

‘The gold panners call the place Musanditera,” said Ben (surname withheld). “It means ‘don’t follow me’, and this was always the message of the panners to their families when departing for the mountain rivers, because, you see, the decision to go panning on the other side of Chimanimani Mountains, in Mozambique so far away from home, is often the last decision a person makes.”

We found Ben in a collapsing A-frame structure on the grounds of a well-known lodge in the village of Chimanimani, in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands.

A tour guide in better times, Ben had been allowed to stay on after the flow of tourists began dwindling earlier in the decade.

Like almost all other major property owners in the village, the proprietors had mothballed the buildings and departed for Harare, then Johannesburg and finally Bahrain.

After some shouting back and forth through the shaded windows, Ben opened the door a little. When he realised it was his meal ticket parked out on the lawn he quickly packed a faded blue rucksack, emptied a bucket of urine into a moonflower bush and joined us in the Jeep.

The wide-boy combination of short dreads and red eyes was offset by a goofy cap, biblical sandals and a thoughtful mien. He had no calf muscles whatsoever but accepted seven additional kilograms of our equipment and bore it for three days without seeming to tire.

“We will climb up through the banana grove,” he announced at the base camp of the Chimanimani National Park. “It is less steep than the other way, and I do not believe in taking a short route if it is steeper, especially at the start.”

This reassuring statement was followed by an hour of silence as we climbed clear of the woodland covering the Chimanimani foothills.

Later, from a rocky outlook, Ben traced the perimeter of Charleswood Estate, the property the Zimbabwean government expropriated from opposition politician Roy Bennett in 2001.

“The people the government settled there renamed the place Pachedu, which means ‘on our own’,” Ben said.

“There used to be coffee plantations, which brought a lot of money to the area but they ripped out [the bushes] and planted maize.

“Then in 2004 diamonds were discovered on the other side of that hill near the Haroni River, and 2 000 people came and started digging. Just as happened at Chiadzwa, the government came after the miners with soldiers and police.

“They beat people and even killed some, and now they have given the land to some Russian miners, who are putting up a fence.”

We headed for the narrow passes after which the Chimanimani are named, and which for centuries have served as trade routes between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Except for the odd shoe sole and a few pairs of mouldering shorts, we saw no sign of panners.

“There are not so many now on the Zimbabwe side—not since National Parks [the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority] started employing excellent runners to catch them,” Ben explained.

“It’s like a kind of a war. Two years ago there were many people here, in this valley and also at Skelton [sic] Pass, where there is a lot of gold. The parks guys used to let them in because they knew the panners had no other way of making money to buy food, but then the government told parks to stop them because they want to give Skelton Pass to a Chinese company. Then the parks guys started beating the panners and stealing their clothes, because they came to learn that the panners sew their gold there. So now everyone goes to Mozambique, to Musanditera.”

The border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe is a barrier of rocky spears, grassed up to a point and then grey-white like sharpened pumice.

In a ravine the panners call “Razorwire” we were passed by two youths wearing green rip-off Crocs and clothes stained with earth. One carried a single-strap rucksack made from a plastic maize bag, which bulged with provisions.

“They are panners,” said Ben. “They are not enjoying their walk as we are. They just want to get to the other side before the rangers see them.”

Soon after clearing the flinty ridge we collapsed on waterlogged soil, watched by a pair of klipspringer. Where the day had been clear and blue above the grassy plains of the Chimanimani National Park, twisted valleys of stone now tailed away to the horizon, under cloud.

“Welcome to Mozambique,” said Ben.

By collapsing next to the path and removing my shoes, I effectively chose our camp site.

The hump of land on which I sprawled tipped into deep river chasms to the right and left. The rivers rushed down to join the larger Munahiwa, where Ben said we were sure to find panners the next day. He was worried about our proximity to the path and explained that the Zimbabwean panners tended to move at night to avoid being robbed by the authorities.

“I am worried they will see us and think we are Mozambican National Parks, who they are fighting with because these men also beat them and steal their gold.

“I am also worried that the mountain mtsikas (markets) have closed since the last visit by parks. These panners need the mtsikas for their food, but if the women who bring the food have been scared away, then the panners will be hungry—they might try to steal ours.”

We scouted around for a more private site but found none as flat and protected as the first.

That evening, from atop the massive boulder shielding our tent, we observed men with pickaxes slung over their shoulders climbing the walls of the valley below.

“They live in caves,” said Ben, and the ridges were indeed beginning to smoke and glint with evening fires.

Around midnight a torch beam probed our tent. We rustled our sleeping bags in alarm, causing several pairs of feet to drum away at high speed.

“Third time that’s happened,” murmured the photographer.

At 5am a delegation of panners carrying pickaxes came to meet us. Word of our presence had spread through the night and the panners were waiting for further intelligence before descending to their works.

Explaining the collective paranoia, the delegation leader, a man called Kudakwashe, said: “Mozambique Parks arrested some of us about two weeks ago. It is a three-day hike down to their small jails in Sussundenga and so we escaped along the way and came back. If they find us again they will kill us.”

We were invited to meet the rest of Kudakwashe’s syndicate, who were panning a dwindling tributary of the Muvumodzi.

“They will have to leave here soon,” said Ben, “because it is not possible to pan without water. Actually, it is the rains and not parks or the police that control the numbers up here. Later you will see very big mining areas where there is nobody, because the water has stopped flowing. When it starts again they will come in their thousands.”

The syndicate’s equipment was rudimentary—2kg hammers for crushing rock, koevoets (crowbars), pickaxes and shovels. Demon­strating their techniques, a man dumped several spade-loads of soil into a zamba, or shallow wooden bucket, which he filled with water from the stream. He washed the ore, picked out stones and poured the slurry on to a strip of carpet that had been placed on a chute of mud.

“It used to be that we used a James Table to get the gold,” said Kudakwashe, producing a sheet of perforated metal of approximately the same dimensions as the carpet.

The holes were not entirely punched out, creating scales of metal for trapping fragments of gold.

“A carpet catches more gold, though. After we have done this we scrape what is left into a bowl and when it is dry from heating with fire, we blow the soil and the gold stays behind because it is heavier.”

What is left behind is compounded and sold to Mozambican or Zimbabwean traders, who sell on to jewellers in Maputo, Harare and even Johannesburg.
A 2006 study (which the Mozambican authorities have ignored) found that panners were liberating two to three grams of gold a day, and sometimes as much as 30g, which is a fair to outstanding remuneration for a day’s labour, gruelling as it is.

Sadly for the panners, either gold is becoming scarcer or the researchers were misinformed, for a gram a week for each miner seems to be the average now.
“They find maybe one or two points a day (one point = 0,1 gram) if they are lucky,” said Ben. The others nodded.

Bidding the syndicate goodbye, Ben led us to a plain latticed with paths. If there was a sign that we were headed in the right direction, it was the gradual build up of litter alongside us: wrappings of vanilla biscuits called Mobiscos, blue-and-red 777 battery wrappers and plastic half-jacks of a pineapple-flavoured gin called Zed Amanas. 

“That stuff,” said Ben, “is banned in Chimanimani. You can only drink it in Mozambique.”

We were headed for a large koppie in the middle of the plain, at the base of which several men stood watching our approach. “Well, well, well,” cried one, descending to meet us. “Ben, do you remember what gold is looking like?”

This salutation confirmed what we had suspected for a while—that Ben’s close knowledge of panning was based on more than hearsay.

“Welcome to amaPotholes,” said Ben’s dreadlocked friend, who introduced himself as Champion. Music crackled from an old radio. Several men sat talking around a fire.

“AmaPotholes is a big market for panners,” Champion explained. “It is also where we mine—over the years a lot of gold has fallen into the potholes of the river that flows here.”

On a shelf of rock, butterfly-cut bream were laid out next to batteries and bottles of Manica Lager.

“A bream costs three points, or 180 meticais, and a beer costs four points. This place is actually like a bar after work, with music and dancing.”

Champion had been up in the mountains for four months and would be returning to Chimanimani village at the end of another month.

“The problem here is some of these guys give all their points for beer when they are drunk, and then they must work another week, and then another, and soon they have been here for a year.”

The mining at amaPotholes was different to the stream works—the potholes themselves had been scoured, and the resident syndicates were now digging extensive galleries beneath the koppie.

“We have had one guy die this year in a tunnel collapse,” said Champion, pointing out residential caves and the tunnels in the ground in which youths on their knees worked at the reddish sandstone.

“We buried him in a cave near here. There are a lot of people buried here, especially after the cyclone in 2006.

“Many people died from drowning and others died because they had no food—150 in the end.

“Some of their families came up to look for them but their bodies were already rotten, so they put them in caves and then put stones in front of the cave like a wall.”

Several miners approached us with flakes of gold wrapped up in worthless Bank of Zimbabwe notes, hoping for a quick sale.

A 13-year-old proudly showed off his collection of black river stones and we wondered what it was like for him, living among men in the mountains.

If the human ecology of ama­Potholes secured our sympathy, a hectare of excoriated earth on the other side of the hill reminded us of the cost of unregulated mining.

“The mountains are slowly changing,” said Ben. “Worse than the diggings are the fires started every year by the panners. They destroy everything: animals, trees, grasses —”

Perhaps wishing to change the subject, he pointed to a large lateral crack in a nearby cliff. “We call that ‘the dormitory’.”

The web of paths gradually coalesced into an enormous swath called “The Highway”, which trailed through the Valley of Wizards to another mtsika called Matomat.

Ben pointed out a third market deeper into Mozambique, called Mudzikwa, and said that mtsikas tended to be named after the people who founded them.

Just as new panners’ paths were overlaying the old ones, anglophile names such as Terry’s Cave and Bridal Veil Falls were making way for Musanditera vernacular.

After passing 54 men at work on a stretch of the Bundi River, we entered the Valley of the Apostle, which was wooded and abundant in game because the Zimbabwean park rangers, standing at the top of ­Skeleton Pass, can cover most of it with their SKS rifles.

“They have made a camp on the other side,” said Ben, who repeated the rumour about the Chinese concessionaires.

Assuming the worst about the Chinese is something of a reflex among Zimbabweans, who use the scathing term zhing-zhong to describe anything defective, be it a political agreement or a cheaply made radio.

We felt we should put Ben’s claims directly to the rangers in the camouflaged bunker built into a slope near the river.

“We do not want this to happen,” said one of the rangers, not quite denying the possibility that it might happen. “Parks will fight this decision—Chimanimani must remain a national park.”

When asked about their purported war with the panners, both rangers laughed and said that a stint in Chimanimani was almost like a holiday, given that they spend portions of the year in Zimbabwe’s major game parks, where “the poachers shoot back with better guns than ours.”

If one gives the Zimbabwean Parks and Wildlife Management Authority the benefit of the doubt in this matter of the Chinese, one must also commend them for doing what their Mozambican counterparts have failed to do—ending, with few resources, all destructive mining practices in their domain.

We returned to base camp not having seen a single tourist in three days. Back in the village we paid Ben, who stated unashamedly that he was off to drink in the Blue Moon Tavern.

“There is nothing else to do. If people know how much money I have they will come begging for it. It is better to spend it quickly before my family know I am back.”

A bleak statement if ever we heard one, but not as depressing as his next.

“Here we are waiting for the 2010 football World Cup. We believe that the tourists are going to come back again, and when they do, the panners will come down again and make other business, you will see—it is too hard for them up there. They want to come down.”

The thought of football fans beating a path to Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands caused a collective chuckle.

Ben shrugged.

“You don’t think so? Well, that is a shame.”

Sean Christie is a Cape Town-based freelance journalist who enjoys combining work with travel throughout Southern Africa.

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