Thursday, September 30, 2010

The big-wigs are in town

It has been a good week and a half since I've been underground, so it was almost nice to return to the deep dark depths of Klipwal Gold Mine today with my partners in crime Leonard and Phillimon. We went down to 7 level and I mapped a small portion of the main drive shaft. Changes have already been made with the happenings of last week with the illegal miners, which have taken shape as a security hut outside the 6 level entrance which is now manned by two security guards from 4pm to 8am. When we got back to surface today, Pietrus came down in the Unimog with a crew to install a lock on the big steel door to further secure the 6 level entrance.

When they eventually took us back up to the offices, I was pleasantly surprised to see Grant, a friend of Lloyd's and a mining geologist, waiting for me in the survey office. He proceeded to give me a crash course about just about everything I needed to know for underground mining, mapping, and sampling, which I desperately needed. I don't think I have ever learned so much in three or four hours. It's amazing how much help it was to actually hear from an economic geologist what the hell I should be doing when I'm underground and how I should be doing it.

This was a bit of a precursor to this evening's arrival of Lloyd and his potential investors from Australia. Tomorrow they will be shown around the mine and Kortnek and will be asking questions regarding the functionality and viability of the mine. Tonight, however, involved a massive braai with plenty of booze, which is what I have come to expect when Lloyd visits to be honest. Lloyd, Grant, and the Australians with big pockets joined Hans, Nick and I for the usual big barbecue at Nick's place.

Hans, who runs the plant here at the mine, brought his three kids along who are visiting Klipwal for a couple of weeks. He has two sons that are 8 and 10 and a daughter who is "15 days from turning 13." I talked to his daughter for 10 or 15 minutes, and I don't think I have ever met a more scarily intelligent 12-year-old. She spoke with a very proper and precise English accent, and summarized to me her plan of studying in the UK after school. She said she wants to either be an architect or an author, but wants to "have a law degree to fall back on." Her vocabulary was that of an English scholar and while she was talking to me she was sipping on a Smirnoff Ice. She's 12.

It was reassuring to witness her two younger brothers restore sanity in the world by chasing each other with burning sticks and whining about when the food was going to be ready all evening. Meanwhile, conversation roared on with the potential investors, Lloyd, and Grant. They were laughing when Lloyd told them he met me on a golf course, and they asked me the question so many have asked me since arriving here: Why did you come to the middle of nowhere in South Africa? It's a fair question, and one that I'm still attempting to answer fully.

Tomorrow should be very interesting, as I am sure Lloyd and others will be nervous about whether or not these potential investors will throw down some cash to really get this mine going. On the other hand, Lloyd is very good at always seeming in control, and if tonight was any indicator, they'll just be back eating pork chops and getting drunk on red wine no matter how tomorrow pans out. It's pretty fun to be along for the ride.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ticks and Clicks

I’m sorry about the lack of posts in the past few days, but I was a bit under the weather this past weekend. The students left on Friday morning and I was pretty tired that day so I just stayed in relaxing. Saturday Nick and drove east, passing through the town of Pongola, with the aim to get to St. Lucia on the coast so I could dip my feet in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately there were hiccups, including myself feeling more and more tired and feverish, so we never made it out to the coast. Sunday was the same unfortunately, and I had so little energy I barely got out of bed. Monday they scheduled me an appointment with the doctor in town and I have now just arrived back in Klipwal from there. The doctor found that I have a case of Lyme disease, or as they like to call it here “Tick bite fever”, which I think sounds a lot more impressive and ominous. Turns out the two mosquito bites I had on my leg that were turning purple ended up being tick bites.

It’s nothing really to be worried about, but it does explain why I have had zero energy over the past few days and annoying aches and pains when I try to sleep. I’m on special antibiotics now and I should be back to normal as soon as tomorrow, so that’s good. It’s been extremely frustrating not being able to do anything fun or exciting over the weekend and just as frustrating not being able to go to work on Monday, but on the bright side I have been getting through a lot of Lord of the Rings. Yeah, I’m finally reading it.

I do have a little more insight on the Zulu language that I can talk about, as I have been picking up bits and pieces from Leonard and Phillimon as well as some of the students that came through last week. “Saubon” means hello and “yebo” means yes, for instance. I was very lucky though to be taught by one of the university students the intricacies of the clicking sounds used in the Zulu language. Like many of the African tribal languages spoken in South Africa (there are at least 9 different ones), Zulu uses clicking sounds in some of the words. Zulu uses three distinct clicks:

Version 1 is a soft click made by clicking the tip of your tongue just behind your two upper front teeth. It is soft but high-pitched, and there needs to be a decent amount of saliva behind your teeth for it to sound right.

Version 2 is a harder click but is still high pitched. It is made with the back of your tongue against the side or roof of your mouth, but your lips must be parallel and mouth slightly widened while making the clicking sound so it comes out as high-pitched.

Version 3 is a lower, deeper click that is performed virtually the same way as version two but with the lips slightly puckered to create the lower sound.

So there are some decent explanations of the clicks, but it can only really be done right when you hear them for yourself. A useful word that uses one of these clicking noises is the Zulu word for “sorry”. It is pronounced “KO-LEE-AY-SAH”, with the letter K here representing version 3 of the clicking noises. I’m not sure how it is spelled or how they represent the clicking noises in the alphabet yet, but that’s how it sounds. So “koliesa” for not posting in a while but hopefully I’ll be back to work soon with plenty more adventures to share!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Crib

Here's the view from my front door...
And here's the house itself.
Just like every house here, there's a built-in barbecue out front. Click on the photos for bigger versions.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kortnek with geology students

Late last night a group of 20 4th-year students from the University of Kwazulu-Natal geology department arrived at Klipwal along 4 instructors. I met them this morning and was assigned to lead them back down to the Kortnek prospect and show them around.

It was a great opportunity to talk to some of the instructors who were economic geologists. They invited me down to Durban where the university is located so I can take a look around and maybe even do a master's there if I end up getting really into this gold mining stuff, so that was pretty cool. It was even cooler talking to the students about their class, about Durban, and about South Africa in general. It was amazing how similar the dynamic of this class was to my geology class at St. Andrews. And just like some of our field trips, there were always a few people who you could tell were getting a bit tired of looking at rocks all day (been there!). The unbridled enthusiasm of the lecturer balanced against the general weariness and indifference of the class was all to familiar. Geology can be fun though!

I took them down to the same areas I described before, and I recognised most of the people that were working filling the hand-spun, home made mills and hammering away at the rocks. A lot of the people in the geology class spoke the Zulu language, and they got to talking to the artisanal miners, even getting a chance to spin one of the mills. The workers at Kortnek are nice, extremely hard-working people who are out there in the middle of nowhere scratching out a living selling tiny amounts of gold for cheap.

In a similar situation, the illegal miners making their homes underground in the Klipwal gold mine are now facing some trouble. Lloyd is still here and has gone underground again in search of more of these rogue miners. I'm not sure how dangerous or violent they are as people, in fact they probably aren't at all. The problem is that they are armed with hand-held drills and explosives and are using them without any discretion underground. Mines are carefully constructed with pillars and supports in ways that prevent the possibility of cave-ins and serious rock failures. When the illegal miners drill explosive charges in any gold-rich areas they can find, they are potentially destroying the structural integrity of the mine. This makes it dangerous for all of the Klipwal employees, hence Lloyd going down with his small militia to hunt them out.

Now it's a shame that you have these illegal miners who are fighting just to make a living being taken out and essentially thrown into jail. It's just even more damaging to leave them down there to wreak havoc on themselves, the mine, and its employees. It's not pretty, but what Lloyd is doing is just another step in getting the Klipwal mine into production again. There is always a chance that these illegals could be employed by the mine at a later time, but when they are caught with explosives, as they were last night, apparently there are looking at least a few years in jail.

Of course the root of this problem is held by the upper class black market dealers operating in South Africa. The gold being produced by the illegal miners is purchased and an often extremely low price and then sold on at the market price for HUGE profits. It's a sad but true blemish on the South African mining industry.

Now on a lighter note, I am going to join the geology class for a big braai-up and get to know a few people so I have somewhere to stay when I visit Durban!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Breaking News

Lloyd is back in town, and unexpectedly. I got a knock on my door at about 7 this evening and it was Lloyd, complete with handgun, knife, and night-vision scope. The previous night there was apparently a scuffle between some illegals who have been camped somewhere in the Klipwal mine and the security guards at the gate. Lloyd was informed of this and drove here this afternoon.

He went underground with Hans at about 7:30, and at around 9 I was eating dinner with Nick when he received a call from Lloyd saying that they had found two of them armed with explosives down at 8 level. They took them into custody and the police are on their way to arrest them. More later.


On Tuesday morning Nick sent me to check out Kortnek, a small artisanal gold mining prospect about 5 miles north of Klipwal. The Kwazulu-Natal University geology class is scheduled to visit there and he wanted to me to check out if it was safe, and said Kortnek can sometimes be “quite the experience.”

I was driven by Hans, the metallurgist who works in the plant lab. He’s the one the produces Klipwal’s finished product: sponge gold. In a controlled laboratory, he takes the gold concentrate after it has done its rounds in the processing plant and separates the gold from the waste material by using Mercury. The resulting sponge gold doesn’t looks a little bit like a cork made of gold, with numerous air holes and small imperfections. The gold color is not as bright and shiny as you would expect, but the sponge gold itself is about 95% pure and a cork-sized piece of sponge gold will fetch around $10,000 dollars with today’s gold prices.

Along with Hans, Leonard and Phillimon would once again accompany us to Kortnek, as they have been there on numerous occasions sampling soil over the past 5 years. With my backpacked full of food, water, and a few geological accessories I went to sit in the Land Rover and wait for Hans. Leaning against the passenger seat was a rifle, which was a bit surprising to see. Hans eventually finished with whatever he was doing and hopped in the driver’s seat. I asked him if the gun was necessary, and he said “just in case” while hiding a slightly creepy grin. Apparently the artisanal miners, who technically are illegal miners as the Kortnek prospect is owned by Lloyd and the Klipwal mine, have been known to be hostile in the past.

Up the dirt road we drove, leaving Klipwal to the west. The road eventually bends north and meets the road to Kortnek about 5 miles later. This road shoots east from the main plateau towards the Pongola river valley. We were nearing Kortnek, and the outskirts of any sort of civilization, when Hans stopped the rover at a small cement building called “The Restaront”. He asked for a cold drink, and apparently they didn’t have any, because no sooner than he asked, a woman ran out of the shop, down the road, and returned about five minutes later with a big 2 litre bottle of coke. That’s some dedicated service just to sell a coke.

Less than a mile after the shop, we turned off the main dirt road, which was ending just ahead anyway, and continued down a much less travelled road that skirted the side of a steep hill. The road continued to steepen until we had dropped a good 100 meters of elevation in a very short amount of time. With hillside to our right and a steep drop-off to our left, Hans methodically guided the rover over an awful dirt track. It was only about 8 am but the sun was already high enough in the sky for it to be hot out.

With the river bed and small hut-like dwellings hiding in the distance, Hans stopped the rover at the end of the drivable portion of the dirt track. A large, parched tree rose to about 30 feet with sprawling branches filled with various man-made curiosities. One of the was a cane-like stick with a spiralling Kudu horn attached to one end. We all exited the vehicle, Hans carrying the rifle over his shoulder and I with my backpack. It took about 5 minutes of walking down the dirt track before running into the first artisanal miner. Leonard and Phillimon immediately broke into conversation with him in Zulu and from his body language he motioned for us to look around. In the side of a hill was an enormous 4-foot wide, 10 foot long, and who knows how deep hole in the rock. They had been hand-drilling this with electric drills for over a year apparently, and it eventually yielded nothing.

As I would continue to discover upon walking around in Kortnek, life as an illegal artisanal miner requires extreme amounts of work in horrible living conditions for very little reward. Various groups of people, all working for themselves, employ a mining process that was used over 100 years ago. The men bash at the rock with hammers and drills while the women sit by the river grinding the rock into smaller, finer pieces. They then use homemade mills to get the pebbles into a fine enough material to process. Next, using dams and ramps constructed out of rocks in the river, the fine material is floated in water down the ramp which is covered in cloth towels. The cloth towels that they use have ridges, and the heavier gold particles sink and are caught between these ridges while the lighter material floats down the river. Ultimately, they use old, inefficient techniques for processing rock which they have very little geological understanding of. The little gold they produce is sold off to black market purchasers, usually coming in from Swaziland or Mozambique to the north, at a fraction of the market price.

The living quarters at Kortnek were simple shelters with plastic bags and tarps used for roof and wall cover. With all this talk of the artisanal miners being dangerous, I have to say I completely disagree. I could tell from being there that they were a group of people who probably knew nothing else in life than mining for gold. Their parents and grandparents would have been doing the same thing at Kortnek for the past century. The truth is that with artisanal mining practices, there is only so much you can get out of the ground. It’s quite clear that the easy stuff has already been mined at Kortnek so the miners are working much harder now for smaller returns. That is why Lloyd’s plan is to develop Kortnek into a working commercial mine, and aims to employ the artisanal miners that have been working there for years. I’m not sure if that will work, or how well the artisanals will take to working for a paycheck, but these miners have had it so tough that they might welcome it with open arms. I am struggling to think of a more difficult way to make a living.

It was an eye-opening experience indeed, but what happens at Kortnek is known to happen all around the world where there is gold. It goes to show the great lengths which people will go to try to get rich off the metal. I’m enjoying my experiences here so far, but I can’t say I’ve really been hit by the gold fever yet. Who knows, that may change a couple months from now.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gold, Goats, and IPods

It was back to business today and lots of things were happening at the mine. I suited up to go down to 9 level, the deepest I’ve been so far, to check out what they call the “J”reef. This is the zone with the highest grade of gold mineralisation, and actually has places with visible gold. Prior to today, the areas of gold ore that I have seen are mineralised with pyrite. There are tiny microscopic pieces of gold hiding against and within the pyrite crystals which get separated out by various circuits within the processing plant. Today I would actually see gold with the naked eye, none of this fool’s gold tomfoolery.

On the way down to the 6 level adit, Thys stopped the Unimog and found a baby goat lying curled up on the side of the dirt track. The normally stone-faced Thys instantly melted into letting out the classic “Aaaawwwwwwwwwwwww”, as did a few of the miners in the back of the truck. It was exceedingly cute to be fair. Thys picked up the bread box-sized goat (I played 20 questions with Leonard today to help him with his English) and I could see a bit of the umbilical cord still attached to its black coat. Thys reckoned it was born just the night before. I’ll bring my camera next time!

He eventually let the goat free, hopped back on, and took us to the mine entrance. Slowly Phillimon, Leonard and I worked our way down to 9 level from 6 level, about 120 meters of descent on ladders. Fortunately the ladders were not rusty at all and seemed a lot sturdier than the previous adrenaline-inducing ladders at 4 level last week. After mapping down on 9 and 8 level, we returned up the ladders and by the time I reached 6 level I will admit I was pretty exhausted. Not winded like I was playing soccer yesterday, but walking out from 6 level my legs and arms seemed to be shaking all over the place. Typing this up tonight I can tell you that I am pretty sore all around. I guess I haven’t really done much uninterrupted ladder-climbing in my life until now.

I showered down and returned to the surveying office for lunch with Phillimon and Leonard. We looked at some of the samples we took and found a good one of “J”reef with some specks of visible gold, although most of the shiny stuff was the usual pyrite. That’s when I played 20 questions with Leonard, and he also asked me about a few “electronic devices” that he had seen me use in the past couple weeks. He recognized that I had an Ipod but did not know what it was used for. I got it out and showed him how it’s used for listening to music and various other things, and let him play around with the wheel. He landed on T. Rex and played a song, laughing at first but then he seemed to enjoy it a little. Explaining to him the process of getting the music from a CD to a computer to the Ipod proved quite difficult but I think we got there in the end. Leonard was also very interested in my laptop and the amazing things it was able to do. It was a perfect example of things we all take for granted nowadays when it’s difficult to realise the amount of people that will never have the privilege of enjoying things like listening to music on an Ipod.

Tomorrow I’ve been told that 20 students and 5 instructors from the nearby University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban will be arriving at the mine. They’ll be camping out here for the next two days and I will be partly in charge of showing them around the place and a bit underground. I’ll finally get to chat with some kids my age, so the next couple days should be fun!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The best day so far

Today marked a huge leap forward in my personal rural mining life. After going into Piet Retief in the morning and purchasing some running shoes, I got my soccer stuff on this afternoon and headed down to the local pitch. On the hour drive north to Piet Retief, we pass about six or seven soccer fields of various shapes and sizes. Many times, especially in the late afternoons, there will be a game going on and it’s made me even more anxious to get out and kick the ball around. I haven’t had the time yet, or the footwear, until today. I walked from my house up the dirt road to the entrance of the mine and turned right down a dirt track which heads into a small settlement just north of the mine.

I first passed a couple of little local boys, probably both around 5 years old. One was carrying a chicken, and the other chattering away in Zulu. I said hello, and the one holding the chicken said “good morning”. Now it was the afternoon but I have to give him credit, he’s 5 and knows just as much English as I know Zulu. He saw me carrying a new soccer ball and looked very interested, eventually beginning to speak to me in Zulu. I attempted to speak in English and when I realised this was futile I just smiled and kept walking until arriving at the pitch.

Now the soccer field at Klipwal is situated, as I said, just north of the main mining area next to a small settlement along a creek. Some of the houses here are mud huts and sticks while there are also a few rows of cement dwellings that were part of a community project run by the mine several years ago. As I arrived at the small path that takes you down to the field, I spotted two small fires burning on a nearby hillside, a very normal occurrence in South Africa in general. Stuff was on fire all the time by the sides of major roads near big cities when I was here back in June.

The path leads down to the field, which is a combination of dried grass, red dusty soil, and cow shit. The field drops off on three sides steeply and straight into the bush (not ideal for when the ball gets kicked out of bounds), while one side behind a set of goal posts is a steep rocky slope, providing a great backstop for errant shots. When I arrived at about 4 pm, the field was empty, as I have always seen it, so I sat down and put on my new shoes, wishing some locals wood come out of the woodwork to play with me.

And that’s exactly what happened. Within two minutes (I had barely even got my laces tied up), to local guys showed up, I kicked one of them the ball, and that was that. Five minutes later two more boys came and eventually a fifth showed up. They all seemed to be somewhere between 15 and 20 years old, and none of them spoke very much English. We started with lazy shots on goal and eventually played a competitive game. The communication was extremely limited between the Zulus and me but it didn’t matter. When someone made a great save, they cheered. When I duffed a shot, they laughed. And when I whizzed one past the keeper (yeah, I still got it), they let out a big yell. After playing with them a while, I realized they did know some English, a lot of it soccer based like “keeper” and “pass”, but I could more or less communicate with them.

I also realised in this short amount of time that I was incredibly out of shape, which is what happens when you don’t do any exercise around for 3 straight months. I was huffing and puffing out there, and to be fair, they were too, just not as much. And they didn’t have shoes, or water bottles, or Nike dri-fit moisture-wicking technology. I cannot possibly describe how great it was to be back kicking a ball around in an environment and with the company I had.

The best part was, when we were all suitably exhausted about an hour and a half later, I gathered my things and took the ball. That’s when the oldest one of the bunch looked at me and said “Friday.” So I’ll see them again on Friday, and hopefully I'll be a little less winded next time.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Old Rusty Ladders

Friday was a big day, starting of course with my morning trip underground with Phillimon and Leonard. This time we would be travelling up to 5 and 4 level from the 6 level entrance, so I got to enjoy my first experience with the ladders.

The basic structure of the mine consists 14 levels that run roughly north-south at various lengths between 400 and 1500 meters. All these main "drive shafts" run more or less along the angling Klipwal shear zone, which is where most of the gold seems to be hanging out. Each level is connected by a vertical shaft which runs through the center of the mine as the main artery, carrying ore, equipment, and people out of the mine. The only problem at the moment is that the elevator in the main shaft is broken at the moment. This is why we get trucked down to the 6 level adit, opening up in the side of the mountain below, to enter the mine. This is also why travelling from level to level while underground means using the series of ladders, like the one pictured below: (It took a ludicrously long amount of time to upload this pic so enjoy!)

Towards the north end of 6 level, I found myself with Phillimon and Leonard staring up at a rusty ladder disappearing into the blackness above. This was the way up to 5 level, so we started climbing. At first the ladders were fairly angled, but got steeper on the way up. Each step I made was completed with extreme care, and I could tell P and L were waiting behind me, but I took my time. The ladders worked their way up a cramped, near-vertical shaft and switched sides of the shaft every 5-10 meters, where there was a large steel beam to rest on if one was to get tired. Methodically I made my way up until eventually I hit 5 level, 40 meters above where we had started. It seems a lot longer than 40 meters!

Eventually we were done looking around 5 level, so we found the ladders to 4 level and began the ascent. This time, P and L went first because they had never been to 4 level (one of the older parts of the mine), and it was potentially dangerous on the way up. The picture above was taken when Phillimon scouted ahead and Leonard and I were resting on the ladders about halfway up the 40 meter vertical shaft. Shortly after this photo was taken, Phillimon yelled down to say it was unsafe. I later learned from him that at the top of that ladder shaft, there was a large boulder perched dangerously on the steel frame supporting the top of the ladders. Lovely.

Now fortunately the vast majority of my further excursions underground will be down below 6 level, which has much newer and less corroded infrastructure, namely the ladders. These shafts are well travelled by the miners here and are allegedly much safer, but it sure was exciting to get my first taste of the ladders on one of the scarier parts of the mine. It's been a steep learning curve here with everything that I've been doing at the mine, and the ladders were certainly no exception!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Going Underground

Mining just got real today, because I finally got to go underground. I arrived to the offices at 7 as usual and met with Pietrus to organize for someone to take me and my surveying dream-team of Leonard and Phillimon down to the 6th level adit, currently the only entrance for personnel into the mine.

Now Pietrus is kind of the all-round handyman of the mine and seems to be helping everyone out all the time, whether it is in engineering at the plant, smelting in the lab, driving the Unimog (more later), or issues with the water pump underground. He is a tall and very tough-looking guy, mostly because he is missing two of his upper front teeth. He is married to Fifi, a thirty-something year-old man who prefers to be called a lady. They live together in one of the houses here and while Pietrus is at work, Fifi usually spends his time smoking a cigarette in his boxers admiring their garden. I know this because their house is on the walk to and from the offices for me, and everyone time I go by, this is what Fifi is doing. I met him once at a BBQ on the weekend, very nice guy and funny too, but if you could hire a comedian to write a heavily stereotyped version of an extremely flamboyant gay guy, I’m telling you Fifi would be it. He’s just one of the many characters this place has to offer.

Pietrus gave us 10 minutes to get ready, so I packed a bag with water, measuring tape, a hammer, my compass and my notebook, dawned my brand new, super-cool blue jumpsuit, and hopped into the Unimog with Pietrus and the guys. The Unimog seems to be the pride and joy of a lot of the people working at this mine. It’s a Mercedes, after all, but it’s a Mercedes built in the mid 1960’s, and essentially looks like a double-bed frame on 4 massive wheels. There are two seats in the front, where one can view down a gaping void in the cabin to the enormous engine and gear box. This thing rattles like you would not believe when it isn’t in gear. The thing it does do well is taking up to 12 people down the treacherous dirt road to the 6 level entrance. I rigged up my headlamp to my safety belt and helmet on the way down before we were dropped off at quarter past 7 to be picked up at 11 from the same spot. Then, in we went.

As we first entered the mine, I needed to stoop pretty low before it opened up to a more generous cavern after about 15 meters. A pair of old rusty narrow-gauge rails split the muddy floor that stretched to about 3 meters across in the wider areas. The ceiling of the main drive shaft always seemed to be just high enough for my 5’11 frame to stand up straight. Then, every 10-20 meters, side bores would go off in various directs including diagonally up or down. These fingers shooting off the main drive shaft are the stopes that crossed into the heavily mineralised zones and were mined for gold in the past. The handy thing was that in many of these stopes, the grade of the gold was spray-painted on the wall where they took samples from. So basically I knew where there was gold and I knew where there was no gold. My task in the coming weeks is to go all around the mine and basically record where the high grades are, what the host rocks look like, and then try to build a three-dimensional picture of where the good stuff is that the previous owners haven’t got to yet.

About 600 meters in horizontally, we reached the main centre shaft, which open up at the top of the hill adjacent to the offices, almost 200 meters above 6 level. Crossing the shaft brought is into “6 level north”, and a further 600 meters until the end of the drive shaft. Along the way I was taking samples and looking at the rocks as much as I possibly could. To be honest it was a bit overwhelming but it should all seem quite familiar a couple weeks from now when I will have spent 30-40 hours underground. A lot of the rocks are heavily mineralised with pyrite, but I can happily say I wasn’t fooled into thinking this was gold, so there.

Tomorrow I am going up to explore 4 and 5 level, which means an added element of excitement: climbing the ladders to different levels! The ladders we passed climb along steeply dipping and pretty claustrophobic-looking caverns, and are between 25 and 40 meters long. Should be slightly more hair-raising than what was essentially a straight walk in the dark today. Now I can’t say I loved being underground, especially for that long, but it wasn’t terribly uncomfortable or scary either. I’ll definitely have to get used to it because I’ll be spending most of my mornings down there over the next couple weeks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Road Trip

Today was a big travel day for me and a few co-workers, travelling four hours north to Barberton for our medicals. We left Klipwal at 5 in the morning in a pick-up truck driven by Tace, the mine timberman. I sat in the passenger seat and we left my house, taking the dirt road around a small knoll that sits between the houses and plant at the mine. As we approached the exit gate,


As I was typing this, Lloyd entered the house all dirtied from being underground today. Wearing a belt with a handgun strapped to it, he proceeded to tell me that they could hear illegals (locals who illegally enter the mine and dig and process gold right then and there. They then sell it on to corrupt individuals for cheap, who then sell it on to the market for the real gold price and make big bucks) on 7 level (that’s the 7th level down from the top, about 200 meters). He said he was scared because his night vision goggles weren’t working. Now, for the record, the gun is for self defence as illegals in gold mines in South Africa have been known to carry weapons (supplied by these corrupt purchasers) from time to time. It is very rare that they actually do but Lloyd takes it as a precaution when he knows there are illegals in the mine. He has assured me I will be nowhere near illegals when I go underground, so you can relax, Madre.

Okay time in...

As we approached the exit gate, 4 local workers hopped in the covered back of the truck and we were off. The drive out of Klipwal starts out with a steep ascent on a dirt road, passing along many of the typical local Zulu dwellings here made of mud, rocks, and bush wood. After gaining 100 or so metres of elevation, we reach the plateau and head north over rolling hills. The closest shop to the mine is a 5 by 5-foot cement building with a rusty piece of corrugated iron sitting on top for the roof. It sits on the side of the road with the words “TUK SHOP” scrawled on a wooden sign above a window. A few miles further along there is a town square with a bar, general grocery store and mobile phone shop sitting by a taxi rank on the dirt road. It’s the fact that all these buildings are what the Western world would consider to be makeshift, decrepit shacks that makes you realize you’re in rural, poor South Africa. That doesn’t stop the people from being happy and going about their daily business though. It’s just so different for me that it’s hard to comprehend at first.

After eventually passing through Piet Retief an hour later, we continued north through the massive timber plantations and over a mountain pass into Barberton. Before arriving at the medical clinic, Tace drove around the town a bit, perched on the side of one of the mountains surrounding the area. This is where the whole gold-mining boom in South Africa began in the late 19th century. The Barberton greenstone belt has produced many successful mines in the 15 miles surrounding the town, the most famous being Sheba to the east and Agnes to the west. We saw the building that was home to the original exchange that was built in Barberton, where miners would take their gold nuggets and trade them in for cash.

Getting the medical was pretty much the same as any other medical except I got a chest x-ray which was cool to look at and also did a hearing test. I passed as being “fit” (yessss!) and so did the other guys, so we piled in the truck and drove back home. Time for a braai and a good night’s sleep.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Phillimon and Leonard

Today marked the first day of real work for me at Klipwal. I met the two people who will be accompanying me in the field and down the mine: Phillimon and Leonard.

Phillimon is about 50 years old and Leonard is in his early 30’s. They are both locals and Phillimon has worked in the survey department at this mine for over 20 years. He grew up around here and knows the land very well, so he’s the perfect person to be with in the field. Because he worked as an apprentice surveyor for so many years alongside upper management, Phillimon is one of the few locals who speaks good English. I learned a bit of Zulu from him today (“hello” is “sau-bon”) and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more during our future expeditions. By the way, he doesn’t like being called Phil.

Phillimon often refers to Leonard as “my son”, although I’m not quite sure whether that’s a figure of speech or if they are actually a father-son team. Leonard helps Phillimon basically as an assistant, and as I learned today he is responsible for the wonderful job of carrying the rock samples as we go along. Conversing in English was a bit cumbersome with Leonard compared to Phillimon, but it was still manageable and they both seem like great people.

I feel pretty lucky to have two people working beside me that a) know the area inside and out, b) are such eager and hard workers, and c) always seem to be happy. They were very excited at first and curious to learn that I was American. I particularly remember Leonard being shocked about how far away that was and what a long time on a plane that would be to get home. It made me appreciate just how different their life is to mine and how lucky I am to be experiencing their culture for a bit. I think looking back at the experience I will have working with guys like Phillimon and Leonard will definitely stand out as one of the main reasons I came here in the first place.

After cleaning out the big survey office in the morning with P and L, I packed a bag full of water and food while they packed nothing but an empty sample sack and some marker pens, and we walked north down the hill to investigate some old prospecting pits that we saw on a map. I struggled to keep up with Phillimon at first as he took me down a shortcut through the thick African bush. The vegetation here is extremely dry and brittle with many plants carrying big thorns. Both my excursions into the hills so far have ended with lots of scrapes on the arms but other than that it’s not bad at all navigating through the shrubbery. The next few hours were spent taking samples, mapping, and marking down locations before we headed up back to the offices. Our trip took place from about 11 to 1, not an ideal time to be out with the sun at its most intense, but Phillimon and Leonard coped fine as I was constantly slurping water and sweating profusely.

We spent the rest of the afternoon pondering over some geological maps Leonard found in the office and trying to work out the geometries of the shear zone we are looking for that will ultimately supply us with that yellow shiny stuff that everybody seems to like. Phillimon doesn’t have great geological knowledge but as a surveyor he has amazing mapping skills and the ability to picture and draw things in three dimensions, which is key for the kind of work we are doing. It’s nice to have a couple people to work with now and fill up the massive office that I was alone in last week.

The general shift here is 7am to 4pm, and after Phillimon and Leonard left right at 4, I packed up my things and walked 5 minutes to my house. For the first 3 months I am staying in what is one of the guest houses at the mine. It’s a simple rectangle made of concrete (pretty much all the buildings here are) with a pitched roof and an awning over the front door side. The view from the front of the house looks past a small yard with a big braai pit to the Pongola river valley to the southeast. It’s about a 250 meter drop from my house down to the river and further in the distance are bigger mountains that rise into what looks like a plateau.

As you enter the house there are identical bedrooms to the left and right of the central living room. In back of the living room is a kitchen fully-stocked with food since my Friday trip to Piet Retief. I have the luxury of a double bed for the first time in, well, ever, so that’s pretty nice. There’s a big closet for clothes and a pretty standard bathroom attached. Oh but you do have to fill the cistern with water each time you use the toilet before you flush, remember that.

Not a bad place to live but it can of course get a little lonely out here, which is why it’s nice to be next door to my boss Nick who is often cooking big meals and always keen for somebody to watch TV with him.

Well word on the mine is that big bad boss (not really) Lloyd is coming tomorrow, so there was definitely a bit of tension in the air with people at work today. I may be here to see him or I may be off to Barberton for a Miner’s medical which would clear me to go underground hopefully at the end of this week!

PS: I’ve been having trouble uploading photos with my internet connection so hold tight while I try some other options and resizing. Hopefully I’m using enough adjectives in the mean time.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The thriving metropolis of Piet Retief

Piet Retief is the name of an old Afrikaans settler who moved into what is now the Mpumalanga region of South Africa. He is honored by the town of Piet Retief that sits 10 miles from the Swaziland border to the east and about 60 miles northwest of Klipwal mine. This is the place that staff at the mine go to get all the essentials like food and gasoline. Friday was my first trip out to Piet Retief for a big shop, and I was joined by my boss Nick who drove me there in one of the mine’s pick-ups (known as bokkies in Afrikaans).

Nick was born in England but moved to South Africa when he was six months old. He only learned of his British citizenship when he was in his mid twenties serving his obligatory tour of duty as a medic in the South African army. He studied to become a pharmacist at University and worked as one for a good 10 years before taking over the family electrical engineering business for 6 years. On the drive over, where a good 20 miles are over a extremely pot-holed road, he talked a lot about wishing he had gone to the UK after university, lamenting about his split with his wife, and telling me his excitement about this new adventure working basically as the mine manager at Klipwal. He was another seemingly impulsive hire by Lloyd, who apparently called up Nick one day about 4 months ago and asked him if he was “up for an adventure”. I say “seemingly impulsive” because I was pretty shocked myself when Lloyd offered me this job when I had very little experience of mining geology. It turns out there was more to it than that, but that’s a story for another time.

Aaaaannny-hoo, we arrived in Piet Retief about an hour and a half after we set off from the mine, this time driving in daylight so I could see the sustenance farming plots gradually turn into larger commercial farms as we got closer to town. There were lots of people walking around on the dirt roads, always putting their hands out for a lift before eventually getting picked up by taxi vans. Apparently it’s a no-no to pick them up as it’s in a mine-owned vehicle, and an accident would result in some serious trouble in terms of liabilities.

We arrived into town, passing a 9-hole golf course on the outskirts, to find an enormous traffic jam on the main drag. It turns out a large truck had broken down at one of the intersections, and despite their best efforts, the two police men who were directing traffic were getting all sorts of abuse from angry drivers who were getting out of their cars to complain. First on the agenda was to get a pair of gum boots for going down in the mine with. Nick recommended a shop in what I quickly realised seemed to be the dustier, poorer part of town. Here there were various run-down shops, often with big signs advertising mobile phone SIM cards and TV’s, and many fruit and vegetable stalls making up the side of the dirt road. Later on we visited Pick n Pay, the biggest supermarket in Piet Retief. This was on the other side of town in a strip mall. The scene looked like it was straight out of a place like Alamo or St. Andrews, except for the ubiquitous parking attendants that come with most shopping centres in South Africa. I was shopping for food for 2 weeks, so my first food bill was quite a big one.

Nick and I quenched our appetite with a meal at Wimpy Burger for lunch, a fast-food chain that is just about dead in the UK but is super popular in South Africa. It was pretty crappy food if I’m being honest. We finished at another strip mall where I bought some essentials for life on the mine: flip-flops, notebooks, beer, and a brand new soccer ball. Finally we got in the bokkie and drove back home.

I’ve constantly been asking myself whether or not I want to stay working at Klipwal for more than 3 months. I’m sure I will have a much better idea in time, but I’m thinking about various pros and cons in the mean time. Some I’ve noticed so far:

Pros: awesome scenery, wild animals, nice people, local interactions, great food (BBQ’s every day!), and a great incentive for doing a good job at work...GOLD!

Cons: nobody my age, everyone smokes like a chimney, super-slow internet (okay I spend too much time online anyway), giant African millipedes (harmless but they scare the hell out of me), and known poisonous snakes in the area

Too close to call this early on.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Day 3 Ramblings

My first full day at Klipwal. After arriving last night in the dark, I woke up to a view to the South across the Pongolo river valley towards dry and rugged terrain. Across this river is the Ithala game reserve, home to the “Big 5” of the African wildlife. My boss Nick lives next door and this morning he gave me a ride in an old gutted-out Land Rover Defender to the top of the hill where the main offices of the mine are. This is the vehicle I’ll finally learn how to drive stick in. No place better to learn than on steep dirt tracks on the side of a mountain!

When we got to the offices, I met the whole of the management staff of the mine. They all speak Afrikaans as well as English so I’ll have to learn fast, but they were all very friendly and seemed happy to see a new face. Ben is the “underground manager” and is the expert on everything happening within the mine, so he’s setting me up to go underground on Monday of next week so I can get face to face with the geology.

I’m very lucky to have been set up in their surveying office, which had been empty before but is a massive office with tons of supplies and maps and cross-sections of the mine area. I should explain now that Lloyd bought this mine very recently, so all the staff have only been here for 3 months or less. Before this the mine was closed for almost two years and the previous staff left a lot of goodies behind for me. Now the price of gold is ridiculously high, hence the mine is economically viable and open again.

The management crew, including myself consist of about 15 people. Then the mine employs about 50 to 60 locals from the adjacent villages to do things like security, secretarial stuff, manual labour etc. They all speak native Zulu, some Afrikaans, and a few speak some English. One of the secretary’s at the office, a woman whose English name is “Patience”, has already taken to making enormous amounts of tea for me at all hours of the day. I felt very weird at first and even guilty when she made tea for me. I don’t know I just don’t feel like I deserve it. One time I went into to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water when Patience swiftly leapt from her desk and insisted she make me the cup of tea. I told her I was just getting water and she apologised profusely and went back to her desk. That is the general demeanor of the local workers here though, very eager, hard working, and helpful but timid at the same time.

It’s very nice now to actually be able to sink my teeth into the geology and start actually doing my job. I can’t wait to get down in the mine and check it all out. I’ll be entering in an adit at 6-level, about 100 meters below the top of the hill. This horizontal tunnel bores about 1.5 km to the North before ending. There are then shafts all the way down to 14 level, 450 meters below surface. My first job is to basically get a 3D picture of the geology of the area by looking at outcrops on the surface and within the mine, so lots of exploring to do!

On a non-geology related not, several less-nerdy things are exciting me about Klipwal. One, there is a football/soccer pitch at the mine next to a local village. I already bought a soccer ball and can’t wait to play! Secondly, the potential to see some pretty amazing wildlife. Crocodiles, elephants, impalas, snakes, and lots more are crawling all over the area. I am also very keen to learn some basic Zulu and Afrikaans so I can relate to some of the staff a bit more. Only downside so far: there’s nobody her that’s my age! Hopefully I meet some kids playing soccer this weekend. And hopefully there will be some good landscape and wildlife pics to come...

Day 1 9/6/2010

Day 1

I am completely and utterly exhausted. More mentally than physically, but it’s a great feeling, something I haven’t felt in a while. It might be due to the fact that today was one of those days that you just cannot prepare for, no matter what you think you know going into the situation or how much you’ve been thinking about it. And believe me, I have been thinking about this day all summer. So what happened?

I woke up in Lloyd’s (my boss) mansion in Pretoria at 6 am, set to leave at 7 for a visit to a gold mine at Pilgrim’s Rest. This was not the original plan for me. Lloyd’s right-hand man Nick was set to drive me to Klipwal today, the mine I’ll be working at for the next 3 months. This changed when Lloyd decided to purchase yet another gold mining enterprise, centred in a small mining town called Pilgrim’s Rest. He thought with the 3 hour drive it would be a good opportunity to brief me on my responsibilities at Klipwal, and also give me a chance to experience mine dealings first hand with some experts in the field.

On the drive over, I managed to get my point across to Lloyd that regardless of what I choose in the long run, that I will be here in South Africa for just the 3 months initially. I am coming home in December to see the family, talk to them about my experiences, and discuss whether this is something I want to do as a career. He was perfectly fine with that, which was good to hear after all his musings that implied I would be here for 2, 5 or 10 years working my way up the latter. Maybe that will happen, but I’m very sceptical at the moment.

That doesn’t mean I’m being close-minded about the enormous wealth of knowledge I have the potential to gain in this situation. When we arrived at the mine today in Lloyd’s big diesel Land Cruiser (complete with all the off-road bells and whistles), we had come from the hot, hazy plains of northern South Africa into a valley covered in a dense, misty fog. We drove into the mine’s parking lot, signed a guest log, and joined a meeting already in progress. Lloyd had enlisted old friends from previous ventures (a mine engineer, a metallurgist, a senior geologist, and a lawyer) to help him basically grill the current owner of this dormant gold mine about every bit of resource and infrastructure he had to offer. They sat and talked for a good 2 hours before walking around the site and inspecting all the ore processing equipment. As much as I was trying to be sponge-like and absorb everything they were saying, it was very overwhelming listening to 5 people with a combined 120 years mining experience mulling over nuances of this deal.

The company Lloyd was looking to purchase has mines all over this region (about 15 miles in all directions from Pilgrim’s Rest, look it up on google maps), so after lunch we drove with Lloyd’s mining dream team down to a town called Sabie and found an old gold mine addit. The lawyer, engineer, and metallurgist were concernedly discussing logistics with access road width and whatnot, when Lloyd and the geologist went straight to the opening of the addit, tore open the fence that read “Dangerous, do not enter”, and invited me in. 250 meters later I was walking along a muddy path in pitch black with a headlamp to guide me along with Lloyd and the geologist Dale. We were looking for the main mineralised quartz vein or reef that was within the granite country rock, closely examining outcrops along the ceiling and walls of the mine, when all of the sudden...bats. Not just a few, but just like we were in a movie, and endless stream of bats poured out of a crack in the ceiling. Lloyd, because he’s slightly insane, was laughing while the geologist and I were trading obscenities. I expected bats, and in the end it was fine, but man was that surprising when about a hundred of them just rushed out at us all at once.

After snooping around that small mine, we said bye to his four colleagues and drove back to Pilgrim’s Rest, where I am writing this account from before we drive to Klipwal tomorrow (where I’ll be working). First we stopped at the local pub for a drink, where we were met by a dark bar room filled with locals and a few flickering candles. Turns out the power was out in Pilgrim’s Rest, so the locals had gathered in the pub (it’s a very small town), and Lloyd and I joined them. The general chat was you’re normal everyday small mining town talk: why there aren’t any tourists coming through town, gay jokes, racist jokes, and of course, ghost stories. So an hour and 2 pints later, Lloyd and I left the pub to complete and utter darkness (power was still out), and drove up a hill to where I am staying the night at this moment. Luckily the power has come back on and we enjoyed a nice meal in their restaurant.

Tomorrow I will arrive at the place I’ll be living at for the next 3 months: Klipwal. The mine sits atop a mountain 750 meters above sea level and skirts the Pongola River to the south, home to massive African crocodiles. Lloyd has told me on three separate occasions today about these crocodiles and that I am never to go closer than 3 meters from the river. Safe to say I think I’ll stay much further away than that. He also told me today that in gold mining you must “find the gold, extract the gold, and sell the gold. You’re job,” he said, “is to find the gold.” So here’s to finding gold...