Tuesday, 31 July 2018

No.67 - Cycling into Zimbabwean history: a slightly mad journey

The slightly mad journey described here occurred in 1991; the account may have been printed in an obscure Harare broadsheet, the Northern News, maybe in early 1992, but I have no record of that, so venture to resuscitate it here.


The early white settlers called him a murderer and a nuisance and a mercenary and a cannibal. Later, black liberation fighters would hail him as a kind of proto-nationalist hero and protector of the poor. In his 1893 novel, Solomon Mutswairo called him “the last and greatest fighter of his country against Cecil Rhodes’ squatters”.

Even as new, often contradictory evidence comes to light, Mapondera remains controversial. But his career in Zimbabwe’s north-eastern districts, from the 1840s to 1904, is astonishingly well-documented.  His tracks are pretty clear.

In his footsteps, very crudely, my friend David and I decided to follow – on bicycles. It was altogether the wrong season to cycle anywhere, over Christmas: very hot, very wet. We also had to do it too quickly, either for comfort or to locate and visit Mapondera’s old haunts with any real precision.

But we did it anyway.

We began where Mapondera ended, both literally and symbolically: Harare. Here he was finally imprisoned and died; and here also his name is enshrined on the facade of the High Court building on Samora Machel Avenue. When he was captured and brought here, so the legend goes, his broken chimurenga spirit possessed him for one last time and he flew about the heads of his terrified captors, before floundering back to earth and final humiliation.

But David and I set out rather in search of the living countryside, the present setting of a once very real, violent and chequered life.


[All photos courtesy D G Roux]

Clear day, soft morning light through Harare’s northern suburbs, early joggers on the Mazowe road. The flat tarmac, cleaving rich red farmland and the research stations, makes for relaxed progress, long shadows mimicking us as we pedal. We stop once near Maryvale to watch a heron hunting through a vlei, take a slug of water in the warming day, and press on down the winding exhilaration of the Golden Stairs. Mazowe Dam on the right, firefinches along the road by the Rowing Club, wagtails in the gorge beneath the high wall. None of the famous oranges at the store: off season.

There has long been citrus at Mazowe: Frederick Courtney Selous wrote of finding lemons here in the 1870s, left maybe by Portuguese wanderers a century before. Though the village originally served goldmines – the map is littered with the crossed picks of mine-sites – citrus took over after the early 1900s when Robert McIlwaine and others started up the Mazoe Syndicate, and built the first citrus factory in 1930.

Mazowe village skulks off the main road among the trees. Beneath huge jacarandas is the moss-greened monument to Blakiston and Routledge, the two youngsters elevated, in the manner of all nascent political powers, to heroic status for little more than getting themselves rather futilely killed in the 1897 Chimurenga. This countryside is full of such mementoes of that rebellion. We divert a short way along the old Fort Road to the hilltop site of Fort Mazoe, from which operations were initially coordinated against Mbuya Nehanda and Kaguvi. Nothing here now except the remnant of a ditch, a thatched shelter for a display of historical accounts and glassed-in photographs; settlers with their pinned-up hats and bandoliers and walrus moustaches; Nehanda and Kaguvi before their execution, a sad, haunted-looking pair whose spirits hovered for seventy years to inspire the second, more successful Chimurenga.

On the way back to the village the rear wheel of Dave’s mountain-bike seizes. We strip it down to find the inside of the bearing housing shredded into flakes. Nothing for it but for him to hitch back to Harare for a replacement. Cursing cheap Taiwanese junk, we pile his gear onto my racing bike (dubbed Mercury, after the god of travellers), and push to the hotel, and he sets off, armed with his wheel. I start to read Newman’s Birds from cover to cover, doze, watch the people who ebb and flow from the veranda: rough-handed agriculturalists, government officials, a lonely farmer who nurses a beer for two hours without removing his baseball cap, a horde of sweaty brittle Danes from a Zambian aid project.

Seven and a half hours later, Dave returns, Isak’s Cycles having generously given him preferential treatment. We retrace our tracks to pitch our Little Red Tent at the rowing club, the rowers’ chant and oar-clank drifting over the water until dark.

We’ve covered the terrific distance of 40 kilometres.


My primary source for this historical sections.
Just north of Mazowe, to the south of Chiweshe communal land and in the lee of Nyota Mountain, is the country of Negomo: Mapondera’s original homeland. Negomo’s chiefly name still adorns our map: his people came there, as the stories tell it, around the late 18th century from the semi-mythical territory of Guruuswa (“upriver”), and claimed descent from the great Changamire. Maybe links still existed with the north in the 1830s, as Mapondera said he was born on the Zambezi River.

It was a turbulent time then of internecine strife, foreign invaders. Alternate trade and conflict were carried on with the Portuguese – vazungu­ – along the Zambezi, particularly in gold (gold panning is still today devastating large sections of the lower Mazowe river, alongside Umfurudzi). One Magumu is said to have won the present Negomo lands; after the death of Magumu’s adventurous successor Chiwodza, credited with killing a magician in Dande, the Negomo dynasty split and the chieftainship erratically circulated between brothers. One of Chiwodza’s sons strangled another, a third committed suicide. When Mapondera was born, Chiwodza’s grandson, the “quiet man” Dandera, held sway – but little power that was, at a time when Zwangendaba’s Ngoni madzviti were foraging disruptively northwards on their way from Natal to Malawi.

Dendara was succeeded by Gorejana, maybe Mapondera’s father (even Mapondera’s grandchildren debate this) and a renowned settler of disputes. Mapondera seems to have inherited some of this ability, though it’s arguable whether he didn’t provoke more conflicts than he solved. Little is known of his childhood, but certainly he distinguished himself in resisting Ndebele raiders who scattered through this area in the 1860s, and in sundry Shona civil wars over land, stolen grain, a robbed woman. Either in conquest or arbitration, Mapondera won himself some 25 wives over the years.

In 1884, Mapondera met his first white man, a Montagu Kerr, who was following in the tracks of Selous. Three years later, the great white hunter himself met the Shona chief. Selous extracted (or they concocted together) a fraudulent concession, apparently designed to forestall the encroachments of equally mercenary Portuguese “warlords”, who were making a concerted effort to take over Zimbabwe’s central plateau even as they squabbled among themselves.  By 1891, whites were making more serious incursions from the south into the Mazowe valley; clashes occurred over labour and tax; missionaries arrived in Nyota; in 1892 a white trader was murdered. The build-up in tension was steady until the outbreak of widespread rebellion in 1896.

But by then Mapondera had gone, heading north-west – as we did.



For the second time we cross through the gap in the Iron Mask range, past Concession’s ranked grain silos, turning off towards Mvurwi. The day heats up rapidly. Mapondera’s Nyota (Thirst) mountain faint in the east. The turnoff to the Howard Institute, the Salvation Army school and successor to the first mission in Chiweshe, which in 1891 included maybe Zimbabwe’s first black missionary. Acres of citrus trees, tiny oranges peeping.

We both suffer in the heat, welcome the stop to watch a Longcrested eagle on a telephone pole, its self-assured stance, that fierce crest of black feathers, white windows on its wings as it flies. Dave labours particularly: he’s carrying more gear on his sturdy mountain-bike, suffers more road-friction from its fat tyres, more wind-resistance from his upright posture. He drinks vast quantities of water, and I rib him about it; I find that when on the move more than a mouthful makes my stomach turn and legs go leaden.

We stop at a store for cool drinks, craving ice and sugar. Reggae music blasts numbingly from scratchy speakers. People stare; boys convulse in laughter. We are a sight: Dave in sandals, straw hat, multicoloured shorts, intellectual’s glasses, long muscular arms gripping those spacious handlebars; me in boots and binos, Indiana Jones hat, purple panniers. All the way we suffer from this intense self-consciousness.

Mvurwi’s granite koppies sail into view, ghostly overturned galleons, well before lunch. We collapse on grass on the curving main street, chat to a South African couple and their Zimbabwean daughter: “You’re going to Gooroovy? Why the hell would anyone want to go to Gooroovy?” We’ll die in the Valley, we’re told. But we’ll head for Guruve anyway, as soon as we’ve got over feeling like the “heap of pieces” the name Mvurwi means. Once called Dawsons, the village became Umvukwes in 1935.

We drop in on an acquaintance; his kind, bluff landlady entertains, allows us to shower in humid pre-storm heat. Clean, we launch into a skyscape of riotous, steely storm-cloud, dark sheaves of approaching rain thundering through Gertrude Page country: this 1930s novelist’s grave at Omeath is just a few kilometres south as we turn towards Guruve.

A cool, magnificent tailwind lifts us over the Great Dyke at Mupingi Pass: a protected area and the northernmost crossing of the 530-kilometre serpentinite mass, the world’s longest, 2,500 million years old. If there are any of the Dyke’s 20 endemic plant species along this route, we don’t notice, the storm-wind hurtling us down the Pass’s exhilarating loops, making nearly 30 kilometres an hour. We stop momentarily for more wanter, race on in the dusk through the bleak flatlands of Guruve communal lands, scattering stones and chickens, finally turning aside to pitch the Little Red Tent near the headwaters of the Dande River.


A mere 20 kilometres downstream of us, in late 1894, Mapondera came to rest with 50 followers, on the rugged edge of the Zambezi escarpment.

Why did he flee his homeland at Nyota, where he had lived for nearly 50 years? Probably many reasons. There was drought in 1893-4; a lot of people had to move. There was the conflict with the new white raiders (they could hardly be called a government yet), especially after the killing of the trader Henry Austin and the arrest of his killer, Rwanga. The notorious Native Commissioner Kenny was stretching his tax-collecting tentacles into the Mazowe valleys.

But Mapondera had avoided friction with the whites himself: he just raided his neighbours. As one described it: “About 3 days ago Mapondera’s men came to my kraal. Mapondera was there himself with a great many of his men. They said they had come for cattle from us. We had no cattle of theirs. They came and took all our cattle – about 14 cattle – and killed a boy and a girl. The boy was stabbed by an assegai and the girl was a little girl they caught hold of her and dashed her against a piece of wood. ... They took away my wife and her two children. My wife and my children.”

So it was probably Mapondera’s neighbours who pushed him out, despite his prominent position.  Here on the Dande’s steep hills, he was beyond the reach of British, Portuguese and vengeful Shona alike. This northern curve of the Dyke, the Horseshoe, had always been a place of refuge for Nagomo’s people; it was here that Chiwodze had killed his magician and returned to power.

Mapondera would never return to power in Nyota. He was left alone until 1900; the 1896-7 chimurenga entirely passed him by. But in April 1900 he fatally drew attention to himself by raiding in his old home ground, too close to Mazowe to be ignored, and again in June by attacking, for no known reason, one Mavuri. One of Mapondera’s own daughters tried to warn Mavuri, but too late: Mapondera shot him through the thighs, and both the traitorous daughter and the wounded Mavuri prudently fled to the white camp at Chinhoyi’s.

The result, of course, was a punitive patrol. Twenty whites under Gilson set out on what would be called “The Chastisement of Mapondera”. However, Mapondera ambushed them just west of where Dave and I were camped, and they were scattered, with one man killed. So, equally inevitably, a bigger force was despatched. A hundred and eighty men attacked Mapondera’s base on 5 July; four of Mapondera’s men were killed. More importantly, his crops and villages were destroyed, his family and followers dispersed.

Mapondera had to move his people again.



The peaks of the Horseshoe – smoky, sheer-sided Mavurwe among them – close in on Dave and I as we negotiate the dirt farm roads. This is where Dave’s mountain bike scores over my bony, frail 10-speed.

We skirt Guruve township – some stores still bear the pre-independence name, Sipolilo – thus unfortunately missing the famous Tengenenge sculpture workshop. The Tengenenge river flows from the Dyke to the Dande, the source of the gleaming serpentine they coax those world-renowned sculptures from.

We tether our bikes near the tobacco barns of Penrose Farm, asking permission to walk to Tingwa Raphia Palm Reserve, one of two small designated preserves in an area known generally as the Palm Block. A hot 4-kilometre tramp across the northernmost curve of the Horseshoe’s great question-mark, through maize fields and uapaca woodland, chittering woodhoopoes and Amethyst starlings, unidentifiable raptors screaming on the high thermals. Somewhere to the east, a mountain beckons with its name: Incognito.

The raphia palms (Raphia farinefera), the last insular remnants of a once popular tribe, cluster along the narrow head of the Mavare stream as it flows through vlei north-west into Mavuradonha: towering, creaking fronds fanning from layered bases – the longest leaves in the plant kingdom, up to 18 metres tall. Returning, we find ancient rock paintings in the lee of an outcrop: magical flaking renditions of energetic hunters, waterbuck, giraffe – some, strangely, upside-down (dead?) – maybe 10,000 years old.

Press on, tough farm roads, alternately sandy and rocky; onto a short stretch of tar north of Guruve, then dirt again. Horrible, this bit: recently graded, with a treacherous sheath of loose stones; Mercury slides and rattles and fishtails, and I dread the blowout that doesn’t come.

Almost last light: Bakasa Business Centre, perched on the lip of the Zambezi escarpment: RMS trucks and buses grinding up from the valley, music, lemonades (all we can buy in a time of shortages), beer-cradling youngsters on holiday crowding us with friendly questions: Are you on a race? Who is sponsoring you? Who are you raising money for? They can’t believe it is just for fun (is it?), have heard only vaguely of Mapondera.

Valleys fall away on every side; habitation everywhere. In my halting Shona I ask to pitch Little Red Tent on a flat spot near some huts. Little girls gather with badzas to clear the stones for us, awestruck by the “piccanini kaya”, sleeping-bags (“Brunkets!”), sadza being cooked on a meths stove. And I sleep out, pasted with repellent, listening to the bushbabies cawing in the donga, the sky weighted and bouyed at once with its wheeling stars.


Mapondera needed to plant a new season’s crops, rebuild villages before the rains. He was caught between British and Portuguese tribute-collectors. In the Dande there was talk of further rebellion against the new white overlords, with rumours that many of the whites had left to fight a big war against the vabunhu, the Boers, far to the south.

Mapondera was less keen to fight than to find security, food, the means to hold his diminished people together. It was an desperate move to go into the Zambezi Valley, with its tsetse fly, its heat, its poor Kalahari sands. But in July 1900 another white patrol caught up with him; he escaped, and dropped, somewhere in the vicinity of Bakasa, over the escarpment to a point on the Musengezi River.

He returned once to Dande to recover some of his belongings, and shot in the leg a youth who turned obstinate. It was his last appearance in that traditional haven.



Like Mapondera, we drop precipitately from Bakasa to the valley floor, 600 metres down treacherously loose hairpins. Dave positively enjoys it on that muscular bike of his; I nurse complaining Mercury over the rocks and avalanching pebbles; more than once the machine despairs and throws its wheels in the air and sends me leaping.

That liberating floodplain comes intermittently into view round the wooded corners, blurring into mysterious, unreachable blues towards Kanyemba and Cabora Bassa, where Portuguese gangsters once traded and slaved and lived the violent, polygamous lives of minor potentates.

Shoulders aching and paintwork scratched, we arrive at the Fly Gate (extra wide, to admit exceptionally large flies?), a store without drinks, mangoes on pole-and-thatch stalls. We head west along the foot of the escarpment, trying to make as much distance as possible before the heat hits us. We stop for tea beneath a thorn tree, not far from Mutota’s Ruins, a schist oval structure, possibly connected with the Mwenemutapa imperial complex, pottery dating it to around the 15th-17th centuries (this is book-learning: we don’t actually find the ruin ourselves, far too much effort in the growing heat).

After crossing the Musengezi, not far upstream from where Mapondera settled, we find a steel-and-concrete blessing: a roadside borehole. A laughing man pumps the long handle while we duck and writhe in its pulsing stream, the nearest we’ve had to a wash since Mvurwi. Finally, dripping and sapped, but having made some decent progress on well-kept gravel, we reach Muzarabani shops and irrigation scheme. No electricity, no ice’n’sugar. We buy biscuits and exorbitantly expensive oranges, crash for a few hours under a pair of corpulent baobabs, refreshing ourselves in the irrigation sprinklers.  A snazzily-dressed young lady in scarlet shoes and straw boater comes across to chat, wrinkling her face in utter amazement: “From Harare! And back again? My God, you must know how much I hate cycling!”

Mid-afternoon: back up the escarpment, thankful for the tarmac of the Alfa Trail. Push, ride; push, ride. It’s exhausting, dispiriting to see the road loop back and forth above us. Dave, tractor-treads and Mister Tuffies anti-thorn strip inside his tyres notwithstanding, picks up a slow puncture, keeps stopping to pump, grows irritable and despondent.  (I’ve been there, buddy.) Elephant dung on the road; no elephants. At last, after three hours of backbreaking climbing, we arrive at the campsite at Mavuradonha, absolutely empty. Even the manager’s away. Up goes the LRT; down go the weary heads.

I wonder if we’re the only crazy coots ever to have cycled down and up the Zambezi Escarpment, by two different routes, on the same summer day.


Mapondera, like us, was not long on the Musengezi – a few months. He was too close to the Portuguese warlord Fonseca for a start, and by October 1900 he had moved bodily eastwards, 150 kilometres onto the lower Ruya – well inside Mozambique and just north of that sharp north-eastern corner of Zimbabwe enticingly called Baobab Beacon – but there Dave and I can’t follow.

It was a pretty horrendous place to live. Mapondera put down new crops in the local transhumance style, but the soils were poor, rains inadequate. Between plantings, raiding was endemic. Mapondera was implicated in some raids, including the killing of a white trader in late 1900, but many of the tales were probably spread by Mapondera’s slanderous rivals. But every man had a gun; Portuguese slaving threatened every woman; British raiders, claiming suddenly to rule the whole area and demanding tax, erratically came, were resisted, and went away again.

Mapondera sandwiched himself between two tough local chiefs, Chiuti and Chioko, who, along with Chimanda and Pfungwe on the upper Mazowe, continued to offer spirited resistance to the incursions of Native Commissioners Taberer and Kenny, who had set up an advance base at Pfura (Mount Darwin).

For his part, Mapondera’s own experiences rankled. He had more or less consistently avoided conflict with the whites; those few he had met personally, he had treated hospitably. They in return had repeatedly attacked him under some misguided judiciary impulse which compelled them to control affairs which had never had anything to do with them. As a result, Mapondera had been reduced to shiftlessness and virtual destitution.

But he was by no means finished yet.
Our route, going clockwise.



We relax at the Mavuradonha campsite for the morning. I wander about, watching birds, a pair of Wahlberg’s eagles harassing baboons on the hill. David repairs his puncture; our steeds are groomed and fed, their wheels relaxed in the air.

After lunch we leave into a forbidding prospect of storm. After yesterday I have no energy for the initial hill, barely appreciate the cold witch-brooms of rain that sweep the Tingwa and Musengezi valleys to the west, vagrant patches of sun on the Mulingura Hills. Almost invisible beyond, the eastern slopes of the Horseshoe. We turn east towards Mount Darwin, afternoon sun burning our shoulders. Magnificent downslope into the farmlands, exhilaration reluctant to brake, youths shouting hoarsely from the banks, whether encouraging or abusive is impossible to say.

Slow climb again; I feel drained, irritated that Dave isn’t hanging back for me. We stop at one store in search of that self-renewing grail of Ice’n’Sugar; about thirty people are already there, an unlit stuffy cavern, another thirty curious children crush in behind us: the dark crowding and sudden lack of air overwhelm us and we flee, buying nothing. Another store along the road offers celebratory music, friendly poring over our maps by sundry young men, cold LemonTwists. Darkness overtakes us thirty kilometres short of Mount Darwin; the LRT goes up on tussocky burnt grass against a swarming termite-mound, rain-clouds threatening again, scotching fantasies of a friendly farmhouse: “What, camp? No. no, come in, have a drink, have a bath, roast chicken, a nice bed!”

Ho ho. We wriggle and toss in the confines of the hot tent, tussocks nudging our spines, ants running over our feet; we’re trying to find a miracle in the fact that we haven’t been rained on once yet.


By Februrary 1901, the disgruntled Mapondera was ready for a major assault on the white outpost at Mount Darwin – the only such deliberate attack of his career. For weeks messengers had shuttled back and forth across the north-west region, gathering soldiers and carriers. Chiutsi joined in, as did groups from Pfungwe, Chitange, Makuni, Chipara; Manyozi and Chimbangu from further west, from Mkote and Nyombwe to the south.  Some never joined at all: Chioko had already aligned himself with Kenny; others deserted when the crunch came; others still arrived too late. On Mapondera’s line of march, only Chimanda, 70 kilometres east of Darwin, failed to supply some sort of support. In the end, he had maybe 600 men with him.

On 15 February, a hundred of Mapondera’s men attacked Chimanda’s villages. Though beaten off, possibly because the powder for their muzzle-loaders got wet in the rain, they forced Chimanda to flee, and later captured him. Mapondera then secured his flanks on the flooded Mazowe and Ruya rivers with incoming recruits, and camped with his full force for several days on the small stream of the Matitima, only 40 kilometres away from Kenny’s base at Darwin.

The delay was fatal.

On the night of 1 March, a force of eight whites and a hundred African supporters moved out of Darwin. They swung too far north initially, only realising their mistake when they bumped into some recruits hurrying south to join Mapondera on the Matitima. Turning south, the white column quite accidentally surprised Mapondera from behind. Foolishly, they split in two: one half was taken in the flank by Mapondera’s men, who committed themselves in full faith in Mapondera’s nyambe medicine-tail, by which he had promised to turn enemy bullets to water.

The fighting was fierce, and the white force was saved from annihilation only by the timely arrival of its other half. Among other casualties, Chiutsi was shot in the stomach, and died later. Like two boys daunted by each other’s ferocity, both forces then backed off the field.

Mapondera had failed in his apparent objective of killing Kenny and driving the whites from the Mount Darwin area, and had lost the necessary momentum to continue. His supporters, who had anyway joined for a muddle of motives – territory, loot, vengeance, loyalty, taxation – scattered back to their homes. Mapondera regrouped at Chimanda’s, badly mauled, losing a son drowned in the Mazowe on the way.

For all the effort, he had left himself even worse off than before.



Christmas Day. It was both hot and wet in the night. Light drizzle in the morning. Not far to Mount Darwin, originally named Pfura (rhinoceros), and renamed after the evolutionary theorist by F C Selous. We roll into its main street, enormously wide, as if still to take in turning ox-trains, a gravelled straight with spaced, high-fronted shops, looped with electricity wires, verandas, for all the world like a Wild West town, with cycles for horses.

The atmosphere here is really strange. Everywhere else we’ve felt either warmed by people’s spontaneous greetings, or uncomfortable under uncomprehending and shameless stares, or claustrophobic in tightly gathered curious crowds. But here we merit only the casual glance, the polite nod. People just go about their business as if they have itinerant cyclists coming through every day of the week. It’s at once liberating and prickly.

It’s Dave’s turn to feel ennervated. Leaving him and all my gear in Darwin, I attempt a 40-kilometre sprint to Mapondera’s battlefield at Matitima, out on the Rushinga road. A tailwind helps, a faint rain refreshes, and I revel, I have to admit, in the solitude. Dave and I are close friends – but still I feel something special in travelling alone.

Through Chesa small-scale farming area (formerly Purchase Area, the white government’s tool in synthesising a compliant black rural middle class), the plots becoming more sparsely worked the further I get from Darwin, giving way to more woodland. Orange-throated longclaws startle and drop into the grass, bolt-upright and alert like mongooses.

A few kilometres short of Matitima rain and wind strengthen. I get to a rise where I think I’m overlooking the battle area through grey walls of rain and time; rolling woodland, wink of a tiny dam through the msasas, Ndorohwe Hill up ahead, the rising ground of Umfurudzi Safari Area not far to the south. This then is where Mapondera’s career climaxed, though not quite ended. Impossible to discern more detail now; I turn back, tiring rapidly in a strong headwind, until a truck stops and I accept a ride, cold in the rain, to rejoin Dave.

For much of the afternoon we shelter on a veranda. Children peep round corners and shrink back when we wave at them. A young unemployed man, beer-bottle clutched firmly by the throat, shuttles back and forth from the hotel: “This government is rubbish! The people are suffering.  The prices go up! We should have white people in the government. They know how to organise.” It’s hard to tell how drunk or genuine he is.

At last, we detect, with some effort, a slight slackening in the rain. Let’s go for it. We mount our rearing stallions and hit the road south.  The rain falls harder.  And harder. The headwind all but halts us in our tracks. We battle on in raincoats (psychological value only) through drenched passes, putting away our specs as worse than useless, hoping for that mythical farmhouse, fretting about the gathering darkness.  Soaked by rain from above and wheel-spray from beneath, we finally cross Huck’s Drift and hole up on the veranda of a store. Drunken youths roar with laughter from a bus-shelter; Dave makes the fateful and inevitable discovery that even Karrimor panniers aren’t watertight in an African thunderstorm.  We cook in the dark. But we’re more dry than wet; we welcome even this unyielding concrete and the company of two men who stay on all through the lightning-riven night, guarding their store against Christmas-Day thieves.


Those thieves, I surmise, are the modern equivalent of Mapondera’s raiders. Having reaped little or no food that season, Mapondera reverted after Matitima to his customary habits of avoiding conflict with the whites and plundering his Shona neighbours.  But the whites weren’t going to let him go so easily. Apart from his depredations on other Shona, Mapondera was endangering their gold trade between Mazowe and Tete in Mozambique, and beginning to skirmish with the nearest Portuguese trader, Martini.

On 25 June 1901 Mapondera was ambushed at a beer-party by a force of over a hundred British, but with his usual cunning escaped. He raided northwards, while his son Gotora, in alliance with other local chiefs, marauded south beyond the Nyadiri river and plundered a white gold-panners’ camp. They gained little, since only the poorest of whites would venture so far north, but it was more than enough to provoke the despatch of another white force in January 1902, this one consisting of over 400 men, including some 280 carriers. Mapondera’s men sniped at the force for nine days running, but could do nothing to prevent the year’s new crops from being entirely destroyed.

That spelt final disaster. Some of Mapondera’s people surrendered to Taberer. The despairing Mapondera himself made a humiliating move he would not have contemplated just a month before – he gave himself into the hands of the Portuguese at Cachomba on the Zambezi.

There, Mapondera was permitted to plant a new crop, but the Portuguese weren’t going to give it to him for nothing. They were just then renewing their efforts to infiltrate the plateau region, and in 1902 hired Mapondera to lead a long-distance raid on Makombe of Barwe, a hundred kilometres due east of where Dave and I slept on Christmas night. The incursion was beaten off; either Mapondera was captured by Makombe, or he escaped and went underground, for nothing was heard of him for another eight months.

When he resurfaces in the records in mid 1903, he is running south again. In Nyota, old Negomo had died; his people were offering considerable passive resistance to the whites; the Negomo succession was wide open. For the last time, we cross Mapondera’s tracks as he finally returns to his original homeland.



Turning south to follow Mapondera home, we find Boxing Day cool, faintly drizzly in patches, with a steady tailwind. Dave seems to have found his cycling legs: where heading north he had generally lagged, now it’s all I can do to keep up with the beggar. We hurtle through Madziwa communal land, over the beautiful turns of the Shashi Pass, across the muddy flood of the Mazowe river, making excellent time despite the steady climb of 500 metres from Darwin to Bindura. We stop for lunch in this extensive mining town (originally named Kimberley Reefs after the 1901 goldmine, now host to Trojan, Zimbabwe’s largest nickel producer). For the first time in a decade, I have this absurd craving for cheese and bully-beef on white bread, washed down with cold milk.

Replete, and having had a conversation with a Shona farmer about the situation in Romania (of which we’ve heard nothing for a week), we press on in alternate sun and shade, the hills of Mapondera’s Nyota reappearing, ice-blue and glittering with their granite tips, on our right.

And our journey ends, as unexpectedly, though with a rather more satisfying kind of ignominy, as Mapondera’s, in Mazowe.

Here, we cruise up to the hotel, intending to trough out in Ice, Sugar, and Chips, and to camp again before tackling the Golden Stairs in the morning. But we meet an acquaintance of mine. He has a Land-Rover. An empty Land-Rover. Going to Harare. We throw up our hands. After the last 500 kilometres, what’s another 40? Pride dissolves in the prospect of hot showers, spongy chairs, clean beds with real sheets.

As we motor that final stretch, I think of Mapondera’s end.

He had not come back to Nyota to vie for the chieftainship, nor to join the resistance against the whites. Instead, he passed through to Mazowe itself and gave himself up to the subordinate of his long-standing foe Taberer, M D Fynn.

Over this road, pretty much, he would have been carried to his final abode, Salisbury Jail. He was photographed after his surrender: shackled, enormously gaunt, worn, still faintly defiant with the flat glaucoma’d eyes photographs gave people in those days. He was tried but, strangely, insufficient evidence could be accumulated to execute him. Instead, he was given seven years’ imprisonment. At his age, the judge noted, it was tantamount to a life sentence. Still, Mapondera danced as sentence was pronounced.

He lived for barely a year after that. The circumstances were strange. The prison record says he was putting on weight. His family asserts that he died on hunger strike, saying, “Though I may serve that sentence and go out of gaol, what am I going to do, the chieftainship has gone, the country has gone.”



  1. I'm amazed at the detail you recall Dan.
    I remember the mongooses running by the side of the road and the big chameleons.
    And the wet miserableness of Christmas day in Mount Darwin.
    I thought you were usually the one out ahead but then you did once say that from the rear I looked like a muscular woman.
    There was also the persistent hum of the tyres on the tar but you wouldn't have heard that, on your racing bike.

  2. Quite a journey, not just a cycling tour but a voyage of discovery and self-discovery! Thanks for sharing it.