I have been researching illegal gold mining in South Africa for the past few months, trying to understand this illicit industry and see what drives people to become zama-zamas (illegal miners). To help me get a better sense of what their underground lives are like, Spencer put me in touch with Lloyd, the owner of the mine he used to work at. Lloyd granted me a useful interview, and then invited us to visit his mine and meet with some of the illegal miners working on the property. We jumped at the chance, as it was also a great opportunity for Spencer to revisit the site where he worked from 2010-2011.
To reach the mine, you first drive four and a half hours from Joburg. Thirty minutes past the nearest town of Piet Retief, you turn off the highway and drive another hour down dirt road. The road becomes increasingly winding as it climbs up into the mountains, occasionally passing dusty homesteads or stray cattle. The road ends at the gate to Klipwal mine, set atop the ridge of a mountain. Hidden below is a maze of tunnels cut deep into the rock.
Spencer gave me a tour of his old stomping grounds when we arrived, from the little house he lived in, to the office full of maps where he did his work, all the way down to the riverside at the bottom of the hill. Although the views are beautiful, there is not much to see or do at Klipwal. It was easy to imagine the depth of 23-year-old Spencer’s boredom after 6 months out there.
We met up with Lloyd and his son in the afternoon, and together we headed to the mine entrance, just a dark hole in the side of the mountain. Outside of the mine, we ran into a group of workers finishing up for the day. They had hauled out tons and tons of rock and dirt for processing. I had hoped to speak to some of the miners, but none of them spoke english, so we walked on into the tunnel ahead.
Spencer donned overalls and rubber boots, but since neither fit me I headed in geared with nothing but flimsy running shoes and jeans. This was not a prudent outfit choice, as we were immediately wading through five inches of thick mud. We all wore helmets with headlamps, for which I was grateful every time I bonked my head on the low-hanging ceilings. Lloyd had a holstered gun on his leg and plenty of rounds at his side. It was only when I caught sight of that that it dawned on me that this may not be the safest scenario to be plunging myself into.
The tunnels were dark and surprisingly warm. The still air had a faint smell of human excrement. That, Lloyd explained, is how you know illegal miners are working the mine. It was these miners that I had come to learn more about, and there were clues to their presence everywhere. Wooden boards indicated a sleeping place, and flimsy ropes and chains led down to holes where they worked the rock. We found and entire work station deep in a tunnel, where these men would stay for days at a time trying to eek out whatever gold they could.. It’s incredibly dangerous work; earlier this year, a rock fall in this mine killed five zama-zamas.
We never saw anyone else in the tunnels, but it was eery enough to see the evidence of their work all around. Even without illegal miners, the mine was a creepy place. Hundreds of dark, mysterious tunnels jutted in all directions, old rotting mine equipment was strewn about, and any misstep could send you tumbling into a chute drops down hundreds of feet to the rock below.
Not content to just let me see the mine, Lloyd decided to teach me a lesson or two in the process. First, he purposefully took a wrong turn and made me figure out the way out. Luckily, I had a vague idea of where we had come from. But when he got us “lost” again later, I hadn’t been paying as close attention. Lloyd explained what to do in case you get lost in a mine: first, take inventory of what you have on you, then conserve battery power on your light, then only move very slowly and mark where you have been. After I floundered a bit on direction, he pointed out clues that will lead to an exit (for example, water only flows down or out). Lesson learned: I will never go in a mine by myself.
As my next lesson, he brought us to a steep, rusted ladder that went straight up into a dark void, and told me to climb. I did, very slowly. It’s crazy to think that illegal miners climb 1o times that distance with 200 lb bags of rock slung over their shoulders.
We finally made it to a tunnel where outside light was visible, and a cool rush of fresh air hit my face. I had only been down in the mine for a little over an hour, but I was so happy to see the light of day. I can now definitively say that my calling is not to be a miner. I’ll leave that to the geologist.
We finished the day the way Spencer ended many days at the mine – with a traditional braai around the grill. We stayed up late eating delicious meats, drinking far too much wine, and engaging in heated political discussions late into the night.
While I did not get to interview the zama-zamas as I had hoped, it was enlightening to see what their working conditions entail and the challenges they pose for the mining industry. Plus, it was fun to get a peek into the short-but-sweet gold mining period of Spencer’s life.
You can read more about Spencer’s time at Klipwal on his old blog from his mining days.
And you can learn all about the zama-zamas from this article I wrote about them.