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Streets of Jo'burg

We both slept well and were awake really early. Our clothes were not yet dry as the tumble dryer had absolutely no heat whatsoever so we left them draped over chairs and headed off for breakfast. For the price of the room I’d expected to get a cup of tea and a piece of toast but it was a full cooked breakfast and very tasty too. Today is Gabriel, one of the owners, birthday. As we were eating we got snatches of the ladies in the kitchen singing. Soon Gabriel appeared and all the staff together with his wife and daughter gathered round to sing him a birthday song. The standard Happy Birthday was preceded by the Lord’s Prayer. The singing was superb seeming to rumble up from the stomach and it was a really melodic harmony led by one voice that was stronger than the rest. There seemed to be genuine affection between the white owners and the black staff, something we have not really seen in Namibia.

With internet access available at the hotel we camped out to start the mammoth upload that we had wanted to do last night. Unlike last night’s connection this one was very fast and stable and we were soon making a dent in our list of stuff to do. Gabriel, the owner, was talking to an elderly British couple about a gold mine nearby that you can visit and it sounded quite interesting. About half an hour later he asked us if we wanted to go to it too. We had planned to spend the day at the hotel but decided to go. We had a quick rush around to get ready and were soon off and out.

Our driver, Alfred, was a really entertaining guy who pointed out the local sights as we drove along. We had to go into the centre of Johannesburg to drop off an Algerian guy at the bus station for his 19 hour bus journey down to Cape Town. The hotel seems to give people free transfers to and from the hotel which is a really great service. The centre of Johannesburg is not one of the nicest places I have been to. In some ways it looks just like any other city with a few high rise office blocks and lots of shops. Some of the buildings are very old and wouldn’t be out of place in a large British city but many are new. The whole place though has a seedy feel and it doesn’t really make you want to wander around it.

After dropping off the Algerian guy we headed to the Carlton Centre where they have a viewing platform on the 50th floor. On the way we came across some sort of a protest with lots of people marching along the road chanting and banging long sticks on the floor. It reminded me of the Zulu war dances you see in films and but for the modern clothes and police escort it could have been. We have no idea what they were protesting about but I sensed from Alfred that protests like this happen on a fairly regular basis.

We drove around for a few minutes looking for a parking space and were then ushered across the road and into the centre. The entrance to the tower is tucked away down a level from the street and you have to pay R7.50 (about 75p) to get in. It is well worth it though because you get great views out over the city. Alfred showed us the various local landmarks and while he was proud of his city on the one hand he also told us that it had changed a lot in recent years and is no longer the clean and safe place it used to be.

From here we carried on to the gold mine. This is just on the outskirts of town and is key to the city’s history - Johannesburg was founded as a gold rush city as it is home to the world’s largest gold reef. What we hadn’t realised that the mine was closed in 1977 so rather than visiting a working mine we were visiting a theme park that has been built on the former mining sites. It comes complete with casino, roller coaster rides, souvenir and curio shops as well as pretty gardens but you can also go down into the mine and see a gold pouring demonstration.

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Zulu warrior at Gold Reef City

Having made a detour in town we only had a couple of hours in the park, which wasn’t really long enough to walk around and see all the old mining related buildings and bit and pieces that are still housed there. We went to see the gold pouring demonstration which was really interesting. You have your bag searched on the way in and then sit in a small auditorium. In front of you at ground level is the demonstration area. Behind it to the left is a hug walk in safe and in the centre is a small electric furnace.

We were sat in the third row, probably about ten metres away from the furnace. When the doors to the furnace were opened the blast of heat coming out of them made me catch my breath. The inside glowed a bright orange and you could see two crucibles that were full of molten gold. It took two men to bring the crucible out and to pour the contents into a mould. Gold is a cold metal and molten gold cools very quickly. A couple of minutes after pouring the gold into the mould they tipped the mould out and there was an unpolished gold bar weighing 12kilos.

That one was put back into the crucible and back into the furnace in preparation for the next demonstration but out of the safe was wheeled another gold bar, this time a polished and shiny one. As we all filed out we were allowed to pick up the bar and test its weight. The other couple from our hotel were also there and like me they tried to persuade the chap to let us take it with us but we failed. It was a strange sensation to be holding over £100,000 of gold in my hands.

From the gold pour we went for the underground mine tour. It’s a short tour lasting just over half an hour but worth it to see the conditions the miners used to work in. We went down shaft number 14 in the original miners lift with hard hats and battery lamps so that we could see where we were going. In all the mine has 57 different levels to it, the deepest taking two hours to reach from the surface, time the miners who worked there were not paid for. We only went down to level 5, a short hop in the overall scale of things.

Most of the mine is now flooded as water has not been pumped out since it closed in 1977. However they are still pumping water out from level 19 (why was not made clear and I forgot to ask). The water is then recycled and used to keep the mining equipment cool so in time it ends up back at level 19 ready to be pumped out again. I had expected the mine tunnels to be very small and cramped but for the most part we could easily walk standing up. The mine was electrified in and the 1920’s vastly improving conditions for those working there. Prior to that each miner was issued with 4 candles a day to light their way and enable them to see what they were doing.

The miners drilled holes into the rock, at the rate of 1 per day, which would then enable the rock to be cut away. Dynamite used to be used in the mine although they could only store it below ground for up to 48 hours, after which it would become so moist that it was not useable. Modern mines now use plastic explosives. As conditions improved in the mines men hacking away with a chisel and hammer were replaced by power drills with five or six drills operating in the same area at any one time. The noise must have been incredible.

Our guide showed us where the gold seam was and how the tunnels themselves were shaped to follow the seam. On level 5 the tunnels are wide enough for a small “train” to run carrying the excavate ore up to the surface. Shoots lead down from level 4 so that the ore excavated from there could be sent down to level 5 to then go up to the surface. It is all shored up with large wooden posts and long metal poles that are drilled and screwed into the rock bed to take the pressure and weight of the rocks above.

Our guide stated that this mine had not suffered from rock falls but the miners all knew the drill if one did happen. They would follow the draft of cold air which would lead them back to a lift shaft. It was likely that they would have to find their way in the dark and to ensure they didn’t get lost they would walk with their left foot against the rails of the train track. We had to turn off our lamps and give it a go and I can tell you it was hard work and difficult to do. It was pitch black ahead and very difficult to walk in an unfamiliar place without being able to see even your hand in front of your face.

Escape routes were also incorporated into the mine design in case the lifts were out of action. From level 5 it is a 1,000+ step climb up to the surface, a trip that takes about an hour to complete, if you’re fit! The mine is still an attraction though and as well as the people that visit during the day they have turned one of the “caves” of the mine into a private function room and bar so you can have a party down there if you want to. It’s quite an original setting. I wonder what the people who worked here, just under 7,000 per day, would think of that.

After the mine we had just enough time to sneak a quick look in the casino before Alfred came to pick us up. It was very reminiscent of the ones we went into in Canada with row upon row of slot machines. Here they all had a small number pad and if you pushed number 3 someone would come and take your drinks order, just one more way to keep the punters playing without interruption. The whole casino was decorated to look like an old gold rush mining town.

Outside we all sat and waited fro Alfred to arrive and he did just a few minutes after the time we had agreed. The poor chap had had a terrible time. For the few minutes before he dropped us off the minibus had started to make a rather strange sound and it seemed to be leaking water. About five minutes after he left us, as he was climbing uphill on the motorway the bus conked out and overheated. He had to call Gabriel from the hotel to come and help him out and was only just back on the road. I think he was starving hungry and very thirsty.

Back at the hotel we got back down to catching up with all our internet stuff. Wafts of gammon ham cooking kept coming through to us and tantalising our taste buds. We later ate at the hotel and the food was simple but mouth wateringly delicious. It was a really tasty home cooked meal of gammon, rice, spinach, coleslaw, and mashed pumpkin. They have a lot of cargo pilots staying at the hotel and the home cooked food seems to be part of the draw.