The Way to Kukuanaland, from King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Eça de Queiroz

A sturdy figure clothed in leather stumbles through the mostly unknown wilderness of southern Africa’s Transvaal in 1865.A revolver, compass, sextant, hunting knife and tin bowl dangle from the man’s belt. He cradles a double-barrelled rifle in his hands and a blanket slung over his shoulder – poorly equipment for his dangerous quest. 

Since boyhood, Karl Mauch had been fascinated with faraway places and lost kingdoms. He spent his youth studying and acquiring the skills needed to pursue a life of adventurous archaeology – languages, mapping, minerology, history. While still young, Mauch decided he was ready to find the lost city of Ophir.

He arrives by ship in South Africa in 1865. Supporting himself as best he can he explores and maps the Transvaal. In 1866, accompanied by the English elephant hunter ,Henry Hartley, Mauch visits and maps the region between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. He also hears many tales from Hartley about ancient gold mines and lost cities. The following year, now travelling alone, the German explorer discovers a number of old gold smelting works and fields in Mashonaland. He also discovers rich gold deposits near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border.

In 1868, still following his dreams, Mauch is kidnapped by the Matabele and is lucky to survive.  He makes a brief trip in early 1869 and finds indications of gold along a tributary of the Zambezi. He has no further funds until 1870 when he travels in a leaky boat along the Vaal River in another epic journey of hardship and survival. Again, the following year he sets out to find an ancient city he believes lies beyond the Limpopo River. He is robbed by natives and left with nothing. Starving and on the verge of suicide he is rescued by another group of Africans and comes into contact with the enigmatic German American hunter, Adam Render(s).

After an adventurous life in the bush and as a soldier, Renders had deserted his family a few years earlier and was living with the Shona people. He takes Mauch in and guides him to some ruins he stumbled across in 1867. After examining the broken stones and talking with the local population, Mauch concludes that he has found the mysterious golden city of Ophir and so, King Solomon’s mines.

The city or region of Ophir is mentioned in the Bible and other early religious texts as a source of great wealth. According to the story, Ophir (various spellings) was the foundation of King Solomon’s riches. He was surrounded by an excess of gold and dispensed justice and wisdom to his people. Every three years Solomon received a shipment of silver, ivory, sandalwood, jewels and gold from Ophir, along with apes and peacocks. All these things were greatly prized in the ancient world and are the origins of what would become the legend of King Solomon’s mines.

Of course, no one knew where the mines were located. Until the early sixteenth century when a member of Vasco de Gama’s 1502 voyage to India, Tome Lopes, claimed to have found them. Lopes saw the astonishing ruins of Great Zimbabwe and decided that this must have been the region called Ophir. He wrote a report of his adventures and ideas that circulated widely in Portugal and elsewhere, popularising the idea that Ophir and therefore its wealthy mines must be in southern Africa rather than the middle east. 

The rush was on. Expeditions of hopeful treasure hunters flocked to the unknown continent. Maps appeared showing the alleged location of the treasure trove. The legend grew. By the time Karl Mauch was seduced by the golden mystery Ophir and King Solomon’s mines were perhaps the world’s best-known lost treasure legend. 

After his hard-won find, Mauch returned to Germany expecting, with some justification, to be hailed as a great adventurer, mapmaker and archaeologist. He was not. Without formal qualifications he was unable to gain an academic or museum post. He briefly took part in an expedition to Central America in 1874 but was only able to find work back in Germany as a foreman in a cement factory. His health failed and just before his thirty-eighth birthday he somehow managed to fall from his first-floor window while sleeping. He died a few days later.[i] The legend claimed yet another hopeful soul.[ii]

Karl Mauch had not found the fabled city of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, nor the King’s gold. But he had found a much greater treasure. The city of Great Zimbabwe was erected  during the 11th century and grew to be an important trading hub in the 13th century. By the time the Portuguese arrived 300 years later, the city had been abandoned. No one knows why. Another enduring mystery in its own right.

Solomon’s mines and Ophir remained in the mists of myth but the existence of Great Zimbabwe’s ancient architecture, together with the real riches being extracted from southern Africa, fuelled belief in the mines. The legend received its greatest boost with the publication of ‘the most amazing book ever written’ in 1885. H  Rider Haggard’s boys’ own adventure titled, of course, King Solomon’s Mines.

Haggard was an old Africa hand. He was familiar with the local traditions of lost treasures and Mauch’s quest, as well as the Biblical story of Ophir. Perhaps the greatest best seller of the nineteenth century, and still in print, Haggard’s romance and its many spinoffs in popular literature and movies have kept the notion of King Solomon’s mines in the public consciousness ever since. The fabled mines are regularly ‘found’ though the claims are just as regularly debunked.[iii]

But, of course, the quest continues. 

Mauch’s drawing of Great Zimbabwe

[i] C Plug, ‘Mauch, Mr Karl’ in S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science,, accessed March 2016.

[ii] ‘Karl Mauch’ in National Geographic Deutschland, accessed March 2016; F O Bernhard (ed and trans), Karl Mauch: African Explorer, C Struik, Capetown, 1971.

[iii] James D Muhly ‘Solomon the Copper King: A Twentieth Century Myth’ in Expedition, vol 29, no 2, 1987, pp. 38-47.