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In Search of a Lost Empire

I recently returned from central Mozambique where I viewed the solar eclipse from the remote 4km-long Dona Anna Bridge that spans the Zambezi between Sena and Mutarara. This spot is so remote that most maps don't even show the tracks which lead up to it. I had expected that my little group in our trusty Nissan 4x4 Double-Cab would be the only 'tourists' for miles around, but as the due time for this coincidence of celestial proportions approached, so too did about a dozen of us 'umbraphiles' who were soon gazing intently skywards through 'Darth-Vader' eye-wear.

Having never before experienced a total eclipse of the sun (never mind one of the heart...), oddly enough the opportunity to remedy this glaring gap on my little list of meaningful things to do in life, came along not while I was chasing the proverbial (and actual) moon-shadow, but during a search for chunks of carved rock, preferably arranged in neat piles. I had read in Malyn Newitt's fascinating 'A History of Mozambique' (Witwatersrand University Press) that 'Great Zimbabwe'-style citadels had been built by the Karanga people at various places in Mozambique, and Nissan South Africa had supported me in my humble quest to place some of these on the tourist trail.

Myself and my four companions (who were not quite so convinced as I about the wisdom of beating about the bush in a country reputed to be 'Land-Mine Central') spent our first night in Maputo at contrasting types of accommodation: the five-star Hotel Polana and the friendly 'The Base' backpackers. The Polana has secure parking so, being responsible for the Nissan, I was obliged to lay down my weary head in luxury, however 'The Base', with it's warm welcome, comfortable rooms, dormitory and very clean bathrooms, was a worthy alternative. The staff at the Polana didn't seem to mind that, not only did I eat almost everything on offer at their world-famous buffet breakfast, but took away (as 'padkos' you understand) enough pastries to feed five hungry adults.

According to Newitt's book the dynasty of the paramount chief of the Karanga, or the Mwenu Mutapa (also known as Monomotapa), began in 1506 when he 'was expelled from his stone-built capital (Great Zimbabwe) and took refuge with a kinsman'. Not really an auspicious start for someone whose title still conjures up images of a vast empire built upon the fabulous wealth of the fabled mines of King Solomon. In fact, according to Newitt, even at its height the lands under the Mutapa's control were never extensive and 'There is... no evidence...that there was ever an 'Empire' of Monomotapa.' Not that this bothered me much, I wasn't expecting to come across anything of 'Lost City' proportions, just a pile of rocks in the veld would be exciting enough.

Now, anyone who has visited Mozambique south of the Rio Save, might have noticed that this is one very flat, sandy piece of wild Africa, hence anyone seeking to 'cast the first stone' would initially have to overcome the obstacle of finding one. And, for historians and the likes of me, herein lies one of the mysteries of Mozambique's 'Zimbabwe's' - why build stone citadels where the nearest decent source of building material is hundreds of kilometres distant? Another puzzle perhaps is just how we could expect to actually find any overgrown ruins in an area the size of both Northern Province and Mpumalanga put together. True, the book (A History of Mozambique) does refer to the Karanga capital of Manekweni and reveals several tantalizing clues such as: 'The continuous occupation of the same site...35 miles from the sea on one of the main trade routes from the Vuhoca coast to the interior'. Not much help on it's own, but bearing in mind that this spot must be fairly close to the Save river and that there are only a couple of roads which lead to such an area, our search becomes far less futile.

Armed with 1:250 000 topographical maps of the suspected region (nowhere on which could I find the names Manekweni or Vuhoca) we headed north on the E.N.1 for around 500km to the town of Massinga, from where we had noted that two roads headed westwards into the interior. Experience has taught me that the best people to speak to when trying to find out about roads are transport drivers, and so we pulled in at the 'chapa' (long-distance taxi) stop and asked around. Drivers we consulted were unanimous that the only route west after the heavy rains was from Mapinhane to Mabote which is also the way to the Parque Nacional de Zinave (Zinave National Park) and so we should watch out for the singposted turn-off. Fortunately all of these places were marked on our maps and so it was with a little less skepticism that we stopped over for a meal at Bar-Restaurante Dalilo in Massinga and then continued on for 130km to the neat little village of Mapinhane where we overnighted at the basic but neat and friendly 'Pousada da Motorista' (Drivers' Inn).

Anticipating that our trusty Nissan would soon have it's off-road capabilities tested to the limit midst the mud and mires of Mozambique's endless floodplains, we topped up the tank, filled our Jerry-cans and asked the beaming pump attendant for the road to Zinave. He told us to simply drive past the 'Escola Secundário' (Secondary School) and to turn left at the 'chapa' or signboard marked 'Parque Nacional do Zinave' which, sure enough was right where he said, but was accompanied by another marker which, for us anyway, was of far greater importance. Perhaps the comparison is a little far-fetched, but after all the research I had done, and the trouble I had taken to get hold of the large-scale maps, when I read the neat lettering on the small sign, I did feel a little cheated. It read: 'Arquivos do Património Cultural: Zimbabwe de Manyikeni 30km' which I think needs no translation. Now try to understand my point of view by considering what Livingstone's reaction might have been if on 'discovering' those awesome falls on the mighty Zambezi, he had found a little stall nearby selling postcards and curios.

Watching the odometer closely so as not to miss the turn-off we continued on down the recently graded track to another newly erected marker and turned right down a comfortingly indistinct track which, after around a kilometre terminated at, yes you guessed it, a pile of stones. Manekweni or Manyikeni? I'm not sure whether Newitt or the Mozambican government got it wrong (or right) but there can be no denying that here, not quite as close to the centre of nowhere as expected, was a mini 'Great Zimbabwe' complete with information-boards (in Portuguese), but delightfully devoid of an entrance fee, curio sellers or loud tourists. According to Newitt: 'Peter Garlake, who excavated the site (in the seventies), suggested that the earliest building dates from the twelfth century when newly arrived Karanga chiefs tried to use the local limestone to replicate the stonewalling of the plateau. ' (i.e. Great Zimbabwe).

Close to the ruins there are the foundations of a building which the Secretário (local administrator) informed me was formerly a Museu (museum) which once housed artifacts but had been raised to the ground by the rebel Renamo movement during the past civil war. The setting, amidst monumental baobab trees close to perennial fresh-water pans, is still favoured today and there are little villages seemingly populated by hundreds of small children nearby. Aware that this spot would be plagued by mosquitoes after sunset, and our 'Quest for the Mozambican Zimbabwe' somewhat satiated, we paid our respects to the souls of those who had once lived here and drove on to Vilankulo where 'Baobab Beach Lodge' has campsites with sea-views, and 'Na Sombra' (The Shade) restaurant has excellent food.

And the eclipse? Well, as mentioned above, we did get there, but that, as they say, is another story...

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