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Good As Gold

The Metal That Put California and South Africa on the Map Is Still a Hot Commodity Around the World
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Two miles beneath the surface of the earth, in the aptly named Western Deep Levels gold mine in South Africa, there isn't a glimmer of gold to be seen. It's hot and humid, and the battery pack for the hard-hat lamp weighs heavily on the waist . Getting to the gold isn't easy. It takes a half hour of trudging through a labyrinth of tunnels, heading for the seam that's being worked.

Nearing the "stope," the working face of the mine, the tunnel becomes narrower and the roof begins to slope downward. At the actual mining zone, there's just enough room to squat and watch the miners drilling holes in the rock. Water, used to cool theintense heat generated by the drills, drenches everything, adding to the humidity. Each drilling point has been calculated precisely and marked by the mining engineers. As the drillers complete their task, others fill the holes with sticks of dynamite and connect them with wires all along the stope.

At the end of the shift, the miners, supervisors and visitors crowd into the massive elevator cages for the two-mile trip to the surface. You don't just buzz for the elevator in a gold mine; you go down and up on schedule or you don't go at all.

Back on the surface, it's time to set off the dynamite. But first, the metal shelves where the miners' hard hats are stored must be checked. Every helmet is numbered, with a corresponding number on the shelf. The blast button is pushed only when every single hard hat, and therefore every single miner, has been accounted for. The blast releases tons of gold-bearing ore, which the next shift of workers will load up for the trip to the surface. And so it goes, day after day, at Western Deep Levels and every other underground gold mine in South Africa's Witwatersrand, the fabulously rich arc of gold that runs deep beneath the surface near Johannesburg, in the world's most productive gold-mining country. Zulus call Johannesburg E-goli, the city of gold. Johannesburg exists because of gold; the residue of the mining, the gold "dumps" that still circle the city, are a visible reminder of those early mining days.

For every ounce of gold that finds its way into your wedding band or your mouth, coating the tether of an astronaut's suit or the printed circuit in your computer, as much as 30 tons of rock must be blasted loose and processed. In spite of the maddening difficulty in extracting gold from the earth, men have lusted for and fought over gold for thousands of years. It has changed the course of nations, and has been single-handedly responsible for the statehood of California and the economy of South Africa.

Why do we lust after gold? Why do we go to such extraordinary efforts to find it and to mine it? Is it really worth all that effort?

Yes, and yes again. What dreamer could envision a metal that can be pounded so flat, one ounce can cover 100 square feet or be drawn into a wire five miles long yet retain its beauty and resiliency. What fantasist could conjure up a metal impervious to virtually all acids (save for a potent cocktail called aqua regia, a combination of nitric and hydrochloric acids). But the myths are not myths. They are true, and so it has been since the beginning of recorded history. Egyptian monuments 5,000 years old depict the washing of gold ores. Alluvial deposits, gold that has washed into streams from some distant source, have been worked by hand for all these years.

The obsession with gold wasn't all pretty. Spain's search for El Dorado fueled much of its frantic and ultimately destructive exploration of the New World. Spanish explorers are estimated to have melted down more than 30 tons of pre-Colombian artifacts from the Inca and Aztec empires, destroying much of the incredible gold work in those native cultures' temples and buildings. Scarcely all that is left of the treasure are descriptions: in the Temple of the Sun in Mexico, the walls were covered "from roof to floor with plates and slabs of harvest time, the temple terraces were carpeted with artificial cornfields made entirely of gold." Even in the New World, the lost wax casting technique used elsewhere was prevalent and highlighted the sophistication of those cultures. Apart from plundering, gold mining also was carried out at a furious pace. In the century between Columbus' voyages to the New World and 1600, an estimated 250 tons of gold were mined.

The fervent search for gold speeded the opening of the American West. Reporting on the California Gold Rush, the San Francisco Californian wrote in May of 1948: "The field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes." The rush was ignited when a carpenter from New Jersey picked up some gold nuggets near the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers where he was constructing a sawmill--Sutter's Mill, to be exact. By August, there were 4,000 miners on the site. Six thousand wagons, with another 40,000 hopeful "strike 'em rich" adventurers, moved west in 1849 along the California Trail. The first gold mined was found in placer stream deposits, worked easily, though laboriously, with pick, pan and shovel. In time, the gold was traced upstream to the source that led to the so-called "Mother Lode," a gold ore-bearing quartz vein that stretched for more than 100 miles along the Sierra Nevada.

It wasn't the last gold rush in the New World, either. In the United States and the most rugged regions of Canada, the shout would go up: GOLD!!! And the men would follow. Alaska was the site in 1861 and 1880, South Dakota in the 1870s, and then the stampede to the Klondike River of the Yukon Territory of Canada in 1896. And the gold rush continues. At Serra Pelada, deep in the Amazon River basin in Brazil, armies of gold miners scramble like ants into diggings that resemble the great hole left by the diamond rush of the 1880s in Kimberley, South Africa. Clothed in little more than the ever-present mud, they labor to bring up bucket after bucket of wet earth, to be processed at the surface. The site, which means "bald hill" in Portuguese, was discovered in 1980. Ten tons of gold were unearthed in the first 12 months, and that was using the most primitive, and environmentally brutal, recovery methods. It proved to be just the beginning. Gold has been found in tributaries all through the region, followed by the same hordes of miner wanna-bes that turn up at gold rushes around the world. It is called the longest gold rush in history, and it's still going on. But all these previous finds and the current one in Brazil pale in comparison to the world's greatest single source of gold, in South Africa. In February 1886, a handyman digging up a field in what is now the Republic of South Africa uncovered a rock outcropping that he recognized as gold-bearing. He had seen this rock before in Australia. But this was not the making of a new gold rush with picturesque miners scampering around with their picks and shovels. This gold was buried deep within an unforgiving pebbly material called conglomerate, so widely dispersed it could not be seen with the naked eye. This would demand heavy equipment and, especially, a way of recovering the gold trapped in the rock.

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