Gold Mining In South Africa (Part 1)
Whilst living in Cape Town in South Africa, I regularly had to travel and complete audits on the gold-mining projects which we had running. Many of these were in a town called Welkom, in the Free State. The name may have been welcoming, but a more frontier-like, dustier place you could not imagine. Sometimes the "town" used to experience earth tremors because of the instability of the earth below its crust, which was like a mille-feuille pastry after various mining companies had excavated around forty levels below the surface in the search for the precious yellow metal. Apart from the actual mining itself, there was very little to do in Welkom, apart from hold or attend braais (barbecues), and/or get rat-arsed in the hotel and bars.
So, having arrived the evening before and had the customary session with the lads in the local saloon, I arrived at the project with a classic case of dehydration. The project team were taking the piss out of the Project Manager, and had been taking bets as to whether he would actually go down the mine on our planned inspection, only ever having set foot down there once since the beginning of the project. They therefore let out an incredulous cheer as myself, the PM and one of the consultants made our way over to the changing rooms. There we donned the customary white overalls and rubber boots, and helmets. This is all you wear over your underpants in South African gold mines which are usually uncomfortably warm and humid. That, plus the two litre bottles of water you carry with you, because, dehydrated or not from the night before, you soon will be after the visit.
Off then to "The Cage", the lift which lowers you through the levels, alternately disgorging workers from the depths, and swallowing their shift replacements as the operation grinds on 24/7. When we got there, we met our "guide", Henny, the shift supervisor. Henny was a wiry little Afrikaner, not the usual man-mountain we had come to expect, and looked as fit as a fiddle. We were going down to level 36 in the cage, to then drop two more levels by other means (?) to level 38, where we would be approximately two kilometres below ground. Levels 39 and 40 were, by then, waste levels, where all the useless non-ore bearing rock was dumped without even seeing the light of day. For this was a mine near the end of its productive life, and they had dug deep to scrape out the gold. After descending two kilometres, we would hen be going IN horizontally four kilometres to observe the face advance. This was so far in that they had connected with the next shaft along in the goldfield.
This was my first visit to a working goldmine, which was deep by any standards, although nowhere near the East Rand mine in Johannesburg, at 3.58 kilometres. That requires huge air conditioning machinery to keep you cool enough to work and combat the almost 100% humidity. I am not a mining engineer, but I already had a horrible feeling of what to expect.
The cage (literally a cage about 10 cubic metres) was empty apart from the four of us, as we were going down in between shift changeovers to avoid the crush. Henny pulled the screeching inner cage door shut as the outer door closed. A feeling of claustrophobia crept over me, although I don't normally suffer from the condition. Henny communicated to the cage operator over the radio and grinned over at us.
Suddenly his face seemed to slide in front of my vision, and it seemed like we were in Dr. Who's tardis experiencing some kind of weird time distortion. I felt definitely light on my Welly boots, and my stomach seemed to be crawling inexorably upwards towards my throat. I grabbed the rails at my sides as my feet literally started to lift of the floor. I suppose now that this is what the "Towering Inferno" ride at Alton Towers must feel like (although it wasn't constructed then). Except here it wasn't such a jolly lark. Visions of floating to the top of the cage in freefall then reaching the bottom and plastering myself across the floor at 40 mph flashed through my head (this kind of turbo-lift must rarely be seen outside of the Starship Enterprise). The Project Manager had gone distinctly green around the gills by now, and he'd done this before.
I turned and asked him if it was always like this. He replied no, that normally they drop people off at different levels to change over shift crews. Because we were going from level 1 to 38 in one go, the cage operator had basically "dropped" the cage at full speed. Was this out of benevolence to save us time, I wondered? I suspected not, and that we were about to get the "Royal Tour" only experienced by "visiting dignitaries" who get their arse handed to them on a plate.
The P.M. related to me that one of our directors, whom we both knew, had also gone down a similar mine to this one during "rush hour". The cage had been very crowded and the director was crushed at the back between several men. Now this particular director had a full-on public school accent, which some man-mountain Afrikaners had taken a distinct dislike to. So, as if the discomfort of hurtling down a narrow shaft in a cage at a fast rate of knots, pressed between smelly, hairy-arsed miners wasn't enough, one of them decide to give the Director something to remember, reached between his legs from behind and squeezed his nads as they hurtled down into the Underworld. Apparently the director damn near fainted, and by all accounts his voice was two octaves higher as he stumbled out of the cage at the bottom. I couldn't help laughing, because I knew this guy, but I was extremely happy to have my own personal space at that point in time.
Eventually we reached the bottom and everyone sank at the knees as the cage operator abruptly slowed down our freefall, to the point where we were almost, bizarrely, in a skiing position. Henny, still grinning demonically, opened the cage door, and a scene from Dr. No greeted us…