FROM the distance, the seemingly impenetrable sea of mammoth trees in Tarka Forest east of Chimanimani in Manicaland looks imposing and intact. But just behind one saw mill to the eastern end of the forest; huge uprooted trees lie strewn along a rugged small stream, itself a ghost of its past.
And the agents of this wanton destruction are several bands of youths of various ages roaming the timber forests scouring the ground and the riverbanks alike for gold.
The youths do not waste any time once a place is suspected and diagnosed to be containing the precious metal but proceed to remove everything in their way to get to their treasure.
But they are always on their guard, scurrying for cover into the dense undergrowth, at the slightest hint of an intruder approaching.
Once safely tucked in the bushes the youths will steal furtive glances tracking the movements of the purported danger and will only surface and regroup after the purported threat has passed.
This is a coping mechanism they have since adopted after several skirmishes with law enforcement agents have left them unable to trust anybody they do not know.
Last week this writer visited Tarka Forest after hearing numerous stories of how the panners had turned the forest into craters reminiscent to those left by bombs or mortars in a war situation.
The first attempt to reach the panners ended futilely as the roads were simply impassable in the wake of heavy downpours that hit the district in the past week.
And such a development has always worked in favour of the panners who want to do their work in secrecy with minimal intrusions before they can emerge from their natural haven to seek buyers or meet their regular clients who know when to or not to come.
The second attempt was successful. The soils had dried a bit allowing vehicles to move but cautiously. A worker with the timber company accompanied me and my companion on our hunt for the elusive panners but this was before he had pleaded with us to allow him to hide once we stumbled across a group of the panners.
"They may choose to hit back if they know that someone showed you where they are operating. They normally do not want to be seen doing their illegal act. They know it is illegal so whistleblowers are not tolerable," he said.
Indeed we came across a group of the panners that gave away their presence from their loud conversation and bursts of laughter. Our guide duly crept into the undergrowth as he had earlier requested and we proceeded to approach the group.
The panners were enjoying a mid-morning meal of sadza and green vegetables, possibly to re-energise after exerting a lot during their Herculean tasks of uprooting huge timber trees and dislodging equally big boulders from the banks of the stream in search of the precious metal.
They were visibly irritated by our intrusion. But after exchanging a few pleasantries and inquiring on their welfare, they loosened up and even invited us to join them. Of course there was only a morsel or two of the sadza remaining so inviting us to join them was just a formality maybe to make up for their initial silent but discernible hostility.
"Are you looking for the stuff? If that's what you want you have come at the wrong time. There has been no activity. The belt that we have been following has run dry and we are actually looking for a new one" one of the panners who evidently seemed to be the man-in-charge said.
His group comprised six members, four of whom are of school-going age but had, as they later confessed, abandoned schooling to search for gold and generate some income for themselves and their families too.
One of the teenagers, who declined to identify himself but revealed that he is sixteen said he had left school because it was just not working.
"I was never good at school. There is nothing else I can do for a living. We can not talk of farming here because we do not have the resources, as my family is poor. My family benefits a lot from the income I raise here," he said emotionlessly.
At that point the "leader" of the group who identified himself as Chiketo interjected to add that most of the teenagers doing gold panning were being pushed by the harsh economic times the country is currently going through.
"Most of them always talk about going back to school. It is however difficult for them to raise the money at once as we sometimes go for weeks without stumbling on reasonable quantities of gold.
"We sell a point for US$4 while a gramme costs between US$40 and US$42 but it is a mammoth task to gather enough to make a gramme," he said.
He also revealed that most of the panners had temporarily withdrawn because of the heavy rains and continued harassment by police and would soon return to pursue their trade, which they believe will soon take them into Mozambique.
"In Mozambique there are no strict laws like the ones we have here. We are following this gold belt in the direction of Mozambique and hopefully we will soon cross over and that will be the beginning of a money-making period," he added.
Chiketo and his colleagues work as a team and sell as a group and have been camped on the banks of the stream for several weeks now. The amount of uprooted trees and dislodged boulders gives testimony to their activities.
They have since blocked and re-routed the stream to allow them to work without being disturbed by the running water.
The group revealed that there were many of them in the timber forests though they did not work jointly and sometimes clashed over claims.
"Sometimes we get into fights over claims and the winners continue exploiting while the vanquished have to leave and look for another spot. The fights at times get nasty and people can get injured but we do not want violence as many people believe," he said.
Chiketo was quick to denounce claims that some panners have at times murdered each other and buried their victims in disused pits saying his group had never been involved in such a situation.
A supervisor with Tarka Forest Mr Albert Chirimo said the panners were a violent group of people who did not hesitate even to forcibly use people's houses as lodgings without their consent.
"They often come here and occupy empty houses without seeking approval from the owners. The sad thing is that they fight a lot after taking drugs such as alcohol and marijuana.
"They also deliberately start veld fires to stop the police from getting to their positions or to hit back at owners of plantations once they know that the owner has reported their presence to the police," he said.
To date, Tarka Forest has lost 186 hectares of timber forests to veld fires allegedly started by the panners.
But the panners have not stopped there - they have turned the land upside down; digging huge pits and uprooting trees in the process while river banks have also been the hardest hit.
Unlike in the past, traders have this time been unable to establish flea markets in the forests as police have intensified their operations while the panners have also become increasingly elusive yet more destructive to the environment.
Vast tracts of the forests have been scorched to stumps by fires reportedly started by the panners. The fires have also encroached into other estates destroying everything in their wake - property, animals, crops and even people.
But people from the timber plantations and surrounding areas feel the panners are not only destroying the environment and depriving the economy of minerals but destroying the moral fabric of the society as they are always associated with numerous vices.
One plantation worker, Moses Zhuwakinyu said the panners were also destroying the future of most youths as they were schooling them into believing that they could earn big without even securing an education.
"I don't want to imagine what will happen to these youths should the situation wake up normal one day with proper mining taking place and only the educated and skilled being considered for jobs," he commented, staring vacantly into the distance.