Goin' Down Down: Bloggers Mine Gold in South Africa

01/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So I'm crawling on my hands and knees through a space about the size of a sewer drain. It's about 105 degrees and hot as Hades and so dark I think I might pass out from fright. But passing out right now would be a very bad thing to do. Because apparently there's a young man to my right laying explosives. Must hurry.

I'm literally at the bottom of the earth in Tau Tona, the deepest gold mine in the world. I'll warn you straight off -- there are going to be a lot of puns and cliches here. I'm not sure how many feet down we are, but Ray Lewis, one of my fellow bloggers on the tour, says it's akin to nine Empire State buildings stacked end to end. Pretty darn deep, in other words.

To get to this garden spot, we had to walk in rubber boots with a safety pack and a helmet strapped on through dank muddy tunnels, climb down several flights of stairs, and take three separate elevators and a train. I'm exhausted just describing it. Sort of like Alice going down the rabbit hole only with more noise, dirt and sweat.

Besides the prospect of being blown to bits, the cage, as it's aptly called, was the scariest part. That's because we were truly packed in like rabbits and hurtling down at what seemed to me was the speed of sound. While water occasionally dripped on our helmeted heads. (Aside here to the mine's owner, Anglogold Ashanti: that African lion logo you have is swell, but you engineers should really talk to Disney about making the ride more fun. It would really boost morale.)

At one point a safety officer squeezed in next to me looked up and made a crack to his buddy about some ceiling bolts being loose. I remarked that I didn't think that was very funny but he just laughed. The environment is so awful it's understandable. You have to resort to a lot of black humor if you're going to work here every day. While we were waiting on the train, some bloggers started singing "Hi Ho," that cheerful ditty from Snow White. It was one of those I-wish-you-were-here moments.

Apart from The Discovery Channel, not many American reporters have visited the mine. I'm not sure why, but the only reason I did is because it was on our itinerary and curiosity got the better of common sense. And I couldn't bear to face the withering looks of my family and friends if I chickened out. You mean you had the opportunity to go to the deepest level in the world's deepest mine and you didn't? What a baby!

Call me a baby, but I don't think I'll be going back. And it's not what you're thinking: because I didn't find any gold. Yet for many of its 4000 employees, the mine is the only game in town. About half the miners are from South Africa, while the rest are from Botswana, Zimbabwe, and other African countries where employment is scarce. As a staunch supporter of equal rights, I was pleased to hear that 10 percent of the workers are women. Right on, sister! We even met a 23-year-old geologist fresh out of the university. This was her first job. Let's pray it's not her last.

To communicate in the mines, the workers have developed a common language called fanakalo. It's a good thing they know how to talk to each other because it's kind of
dangerous, what with boxes of explosives everywhere and falling rocks and occasional fires. As if it couldn't be any hotter. Everywhere you look there are signs reading "SAFETY IS OUR FIRST VALUE" just in case you forget. If someone gets injured they hoist a certain color flag in the courtyard so everyone knows. Because no one had been injured in seven days that morning the flag flapping in the warm South African breeze was white.

The miners work incredibly grueling hours -- nine-hour shifts, five, sometimes, six days a week. And here's the thing that really floored me: they don't even get a lunch break!
They're given a package of porridge to stuff in their pocket and when they get hungry they pull it out and mix it with water. I don't know about you, but the lunch situation alone would make me quit.

As for salaries, the manager who escorted us in the mine hedged when we first asked him. But we eventually got him to open up. Starting pay for miners is 5000 rand, or $500, a month. They also get medical benefits, a month off at Christmas and two weeks in the summer, and money to send home to their families. You can't retire before age 60, but if you die before then their benefits are very family friendly -- your son or daughter can take your place.

Of course I asked about accidents. So far there have been four deaths this year. One of the safety officers minding us, a soft-spoken white South African, told me about a man from Botswana who was killed during a seismic episode last June. He'd worked at the mine 30 years. About forty miners took the man's body back to Botswana so he could be properly buried at home and then stayed for the funeral. The man's name is etched into a black granite memorial on the grounds along with those of other miners who've died. As the safety officer recalled all this to me, the light on his helmet illuminated his face and there were tears in his eyes.

If you want to learn more about our trip to Tau Tona -- and who wouldn't?--you can go on weblogtheworld.com. Blogger Zadi Diaz, who gives new meaning to the word "trooper," captured the entire excruciating event on video. Don't forget the popcorn.

I realize this is long, but one last impression: After our day at the mine we drove to the Magaliesburg, an area that is home to some of the oldest human fossils, and checked into a private game reserve called the Plumari Game Lodge. The back porch of my thatched chalet looked out over a field of wildflowers and grasses and a pond. I was just about to take a nap when I glanced outside and saw an elephant. He was pulling leaves off a tree with his trunk and a man in an orange baseball cap was riding him. At first I thought I must be delirious with fatigue. But then I saw, about 30 yards from them, another man atop another elephant. Then I went inside and took a hot bath in a claw foot tub with a view of the wide sky.

What a land of contrasts South Africa is. A little bit of heaven, a little bit of hell.