[Image: The Tau Tona mine; courtesy of AngloGold].
The gold mines of Johannesburg, South Africa, Herald Scotland reports, “are veritable underground cities, with tunnels winding for hundreds of miles more than two miles below the surface of the Earth.” To counter temperatures often higher than 40ºC, mine operators “continuously pump down refrigerated air into the subterranean cities where miners and other workers wear special jackets packed with ice to counter temperatures so high that the rock itself is hot to the touch.” Indeed, at the Tau Tona mine outside Jo’burg – “the deepest and biggest [mine] in the world with more than 500 miles of tunnels” – “miners will be working in temperatures as high as 50ºC, requiring cooling systems of enormous power and sophistication with capacities more [than] three million times that of a domestic refrigerator.”
These “capacities” include the production of at least “20,000 tonnes of ice a day, which is crushed and pumped along pipes that run down through the mine tunnels and galleries. As the iced water warms up it is pumped back to the surface to be re-frozen.” Rig several dozen of these up to a small nuclear power plant, and you could gradually make your way to the center of the earth… That, or construct an artificial glacier outside Cape Town.
Glaciers are the future of architectural design.
In any case, the most fascinating aspect of this whole story for me is that, down in the “disused shafts and tunnels” beneath the city of Johannesburg, whole illegal communities have been found. Mineral smugglers – or those who would carry pieces of the earth’s surface across political borders – “live for up to a year at a time below ground without surfacing, mining illicit gold estimated to be worth nearly £400 million a year for three international criminal syndicates.”
Quoting at great length:
The unlawful miners ‘hijack’ closed-off sections of legitimate mines, plunder them and provide the syndicates with tonnes of gold to smuggle abroad. Armed with handmade grenades to fend off intruders, they face death by suffocation and even insanity [!] in the appallingly nightmarish conditions in which they live.
‘There is no fresh air, it can be as hot as 38ºC, everything is very compressed and the humidity is very high,’ said police explosives expert, superintendent Joe Meiring. ‘They work there, they sleep there, they eat there. It is hot and dark, and they age very quickly. They even smoke down there, which is very dangerous because of the methane gas present in mines which can explode as a result of the slightest spark.’
Meiring was one of the commanders of a 20-strong police team, which had undergone months of special training, that last week invaded one of the illegal tunnel complexes and arrested 60 rogue gold-diggers. All of them were black, all of them typically desperate to do anything to earn a living in an economy where unemployment runs at more than 40%, where social welfare benefits are meagre, and where the gap between the fabulously wealthy – both black and white – and the overwhelming majority of the desperately poor is as stark as it is shocking.
Unable to drive out their neighbouring ‘slum dweller’ panhandlers, who use AK-47 assault rifles and beer bottle ‘grenades’ stuffed with explosives and iron waste shrapnel as deterrents, the mine companies turned to the police to begin tackling the problem.
And therein lies a novel (or two).