1: THE UNDERGROUND METROPOLOIS
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills? — William Blake
A saffron light was seeping onto the veld when I drove out to the gates of hell. The midwinter air was dry and sharp. The silhouettes of head frames made blue shapes against the dawn. Forty miles from Johannesburg I turned off the highway at Mponeng mine, the deepest man-made hole on earth — a vast, stifling oven of toiling men, thousands of them, buried miles under-ground as they blasted and scraped for the metal that has bewitched and harassed man for 6,000 years. What else but gold.
Picture Manhattan Island sliced in half at the waist, and the top part set up on its end. Mponeng mine would fill the grid between 59th Street and 110th Street, its tunnels and shafts exposed like a giant ant colony. The half-lit streets would tower into the sky before you, block upon block, to an altitude of almost three miles. You could stack ten empire State Buildings on top of each other in the distance from the bottom of the mine to the surface. This gargantuan warren devours as much electricity as a city of 400,000. Rivers of water pulse through its plumbing. Its maze of passageways howls with the noise of ventilation. Two hundred and thirty-six miles of tunnels lace the rock — thirty miles longer than the New York City subway system. Every morning 4,000 men vanish into its subterranean web of shafts, ore chutes, and haulage tunnels, and the narrow slots called stopes where miners crouch in the oppressive heat to drill the gold.
Their target was a thirty-inch-wide strip of ore. Considered against the immensity of the mine, as thin as a hair. But on the July morning in 2012 when i went down Mponeng mine, the gold price was $1,581 an ounce. That wisp of rock was spilling out $948 million worth of gold a year.
The world is awash in gold. Never has there been so much to buy and such a frenzied trade. We buy it and sell it and buy it again. In 2011 the London bullion market discovered that its members were trading as much gold every three months as had been mined in all of history. We are on the biggest gold binge ever, a scramble for gold ignited by a mouthwatering price, by the click-of-a-mouse simplicity of buying bullion, and by the sense of looming apocalypse that stormed through financial markets in the banking crisis and sent people hurrying for cover into gold.
As the gold price soared it swept up legendary billionaires. George Soros had $663 million in a single fund. John Paulson, the hedge-fund wizard, was reported to have made almost $5 billion personally on his gold bets. Fear drove the price. Banks tottered and currencies shrank, and in the three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers the gold price gained $1,000. Spurred by the rising price, explorers ransack the planet in the greatest gold rush ever. At the bottom of Mponeng mine, in the brutal closeness, where the ore plunges steeply down into the rock below the deepest level, they are chasing it with drills. Certainly they will go down and get it.
I joined a small group that was going down. We met in a thatched reception hall. A table was spread with a breakfast of sweet pastries, little tubs of yogurt, and a steaming tray of boerewors, a pungent, coarse-cut country sausage that South Africans extol but do not always eat. A group of sturdy males from the mine's underground management stood growling among themselves and eyeing us with pleasure, as if we were Christians that they thought the lions might enjoy. Then they sat us in folding chairs to tell us about the dangers of the world we were about to enter.
Deep mining destabilizes rock. Six hundred times a month, they said, a "seismic event" will shudder through Mponeng mine. Sometimes the quakes cause rockbursts, when rock explodes into a mining cavity and mows men down with a deadly spray of jagged rock. Sometimes a tremor causes a "fall of ground" — the term for a collapse. Some of the rockbursts had been so powerful that other countries, detecting the seismic signature, had suspected South Africa of testing a nuclear bomb. "You will certainly feel a little shake when you are down there," Randel Rademann, the mine's general manager, rumbled in his gravelly, Dutch-inflected English. "A leetle shike," it sounded like. He was an enormous man in a plaid shirt, with hands like shovels and a beard that looked as if it would score glass.
After Rademann, a safety officer showed us how to use the Dräger oxyboks self-rescuer, a device that came in a small, frail-looking aluminum case. Self-rescue was not an idea I had grappled with, and now that I was forced to, did not like. In an emergency, you were supposed to open the little case and inflate the rubber bag inside by blowing into it, then strap the bag into place like a gas mask. The device would filter out toxic gases. It would keep you alive for thirty minutes.
We changed into white overalls and steel-toed rubber boots and buckled on heavy belts. They gave us miner's hats and lamps. I attached the heavy lamp battery to my belt, threaded on the oxyboks, and went clumping down a sort of cattle chute to the cage.
Each cage, or elevator car, holds 120 people in a three-deck stack. When the first deck has filled with its load of forty miners, the car descends ten feet and stops, and the deck above it fills in turn with another forty.
The hoisting apparatus for a cage that carries people instead of rock is called a man winder. Sometimes it winds men to their death. On May 11, 1995, in the Vaal reefs gold mine, ninety miles south of Mponeng, an underground railway engine broke loose. Pulling rail cars after it, the engine plunged 7,000 feet down a shaft onto a two- deck cage, killing the 105 men who were returning to the surface at the end of shift. On May 1, 2008, nine miners died in a sub-shaft at Gold Fields' South Deep mine, when a winder rope broke and the cage fell 196 feet.
Once our cage was full, a dispatcher signaled with a sequence of electric bells. Slowly, very slowly at first, the cage crept down. The bright tunnel disappeared and the light faded and the black rock closed in. Almost imperceptibly the speed increased, until at last the operator, controlling the cage from a distant room in a separate building, took off the brake and dropped us down the shaft at forty-six feet a second.
My stomach sailed into my ribs. My ears blocked. Air whistled in the wire mesh. The cage squeaked and rattled as it plummeted down the shaft. Water collected on the metal frame and dripped on our heads. It was pitch dark: the only illumination came from a lamp that someone held in his hand; in its light I could see water falling like a light rain. Sometimes the light of a tunnel flashed by.
As the cage hurtled down the shaft, the suspended weight increased. The cage by itself weighed 20,000 pounds, and a full load of men roughly doubled that. Then there was the weight of the steel rope that held the cage. The rope was two and a half inches thick and weighed twelve pounds a foot. That meant that for every thousand feet we dropped, the rope added six tons to the weight it had to hold — an extra ton every 3.6 seconds. I pictured the steel rope unspooling in a blur, packing steel onto our plummeting car.
In four minutes we traveled 1.6 miles into a zone where the rock was always stirring. Immeasurable tonnages shifted, radiating spasms that miners feel as trembles in the rock. We stepped into a large, bright tunnel with whitewashed walls, and made our way to a second cage.
The depth that a single hoisting system can reach is limited by its design. In the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, fifty-seven elevators shuttle people up and down the tower, often in stages through upper-floor "sky lobbies." We had traveled five times the distance covered by the Burj Khalifa's system, and had done it in a single drop. We made our way to the cage that would take us deeper, to the active mining levels that lay far below. We stepped into the second cage and in two minutes dropped another mile into the furnace of the rock.
In an effect known as the geothermal gradient, the temperature of the earth increases with depth. We emerged into a tunnel where the rock temperature was 140° Fahrenheit and the humidity 95 percent. In this dim sauna, perspiration soaked us in a moment. Sweat ran down my body until the socks were squishing in my boots and the cotton overalls were pasted to my skin. We had gone as deep as we could by cage — 2.3 miles. To reach the deeper levels the miners either rode in open vehicles or, more often, walked. From the surface to the deepest tunnels, the journey took an hour, and most of that time was spent on the last half mile. I clambered into the back of a Toyota truck. We started down a stifling, gloomy, long decline.
In the city of the underground, there are no vistas. I peered ahead through the cab to see where we were going. All I could make out was the endless ramp, the wall rock, thick cables bolted to the granite, looping on ahead until they disappeared where the headlights lost themselves in the dark air.
The tunnel roof scraped by above our heads, lit by bulbs spaced far apart. When at last we came to a corner and turned, I felt a momentary surge of relief to be escaping the airless tunnel; but of course there was no escape. Every turn took us further into the rock, further from the cage, closer to the reef and the deep galleries. We passed a cavernous recess, where men gathered around a large tracked vehicle. They watched us go by. We turned a bend into another hot, dark tube with light bulbs dangling from the roof and cables stitched to the wall, and continued down.
AngloGold Ashanti, the mine's owner, selects miners for the deeps only after screening for susceptibility to heat. In a special chamber, applicants perform step exercises while technicians monitor them. The test chamber is kept at a "wet" temperature of eighty- two degrees. The high humidity makes it feel like ninety-six. "We are trying to force the body's thermoregulatory system to kick in," said Zahan Eloff, an occupational health physician. "If your body cools itself efficiently, you are safe to go underground for a fourteen-day trial, and if that goes well, cleared to work."
I wondered how well any screening could predict the ability to work in that asphyxiating dungeon. Nothing lived naturally in the depths of the mine except a kind of bacteria, an organism that survives without photosynthesizing sunlight. The bacteria take their energy from ambient radioactivity.
It takes 6,000 tons of ice a day to keep Mponeng's deepest levels at a bearable eighty-three degrees. They make the ice in a surface plant, then mix it with salt to create a slush that can be pumped down to underground reservoirs. There, giant fans pass air over the coolant and push the chilled air further down, into the mining tunnels. Cool air goes down at a temperature of thirty-seven and comes back, heated up by the rock, at eighty-six. i walked past one of these hot air returns — a black, growling tunnel that exhaled rank air from the bottom levels.
A deep mine is a truce that will always break. Mining at depth makes rock unstable. Every day at Mponeng mine they detonate 5,000 pounds of explosives. Every day they take away 6,400 tons of rock. The laws of compressive force dictate that the rock will try to close the spaces left by mining. To prevent this, engineers backfill stopes with rock and concrete. They reduce rock stress at the mining face, "softening" the rock before they blast it by drilling complex patterns around the blasting holes. In one deep mine they "fool the rock" by drilling out six-foot horizontal slots above the stopes. Since stress propagates through rock, but not through space, the empty spaces hinder the transmission of stress.
In tunnels, yard-long rock bolts anchor the unstable rock on the tunnel roof to the more stable interior of the rock mass. Patterns of rock bolts inserted in clusters are said to "knit" the rock together. Wire mesh and sprayed concrete stabilize the tunnel walls. Seismic sensors in the mine detect tremors at the first twitch, warning men to leave the rock face. But in the gold mines of South Africa there is a destabilizing force beyond the reach of engineers. It seems beyond the reach of anyone — a huge, pervasive, violent, and desperate invading army of thieves.
Swarming the gold mines, a skilled rabble of impoverished men and women siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars a year worth of ore. Abetted by criminal gangs, they occupy vacant mining tunnels, sometimes inside working gold mines. Because South Africa's leading mines have elaborate security, invaders can't move in and out easily. Once they penetrate a mine, they may stay down for months. Deprived of sunlight, their skin turns gray. The wives and prostitutes who live with them turn gray. In South Africa they call them ghost miners. They inhabit an underground metropolis that in some gold- fields can extend for forty miles, a suffocating labyrinth in which the only glitter is the dream of gold.
How different that dream is from what it was. Gold once had a sacred aura, like the anointed kings who wore it. The skull of the emperor Charlemagne is encased in a gold reliquary in the cathedral at Aachen that he founded in the eighth century. A gold cross tops St. Edward's crown in the tower of London. The cross showed that the king ruled by divine right. Gold was the metal that glorified God. Seville cathedral's golden altarpiece, sixty-five feet high and sixty wide, tells the life of Christ in twenty-eight panels that took more than eighty years to make.
The sacred power has morphed into a different kind of power, the chaotic power of a price that changes by the second, a cipher of nothing but wealth. Gold reflects the society that uses it. In early times it stood for an order that concentrated power in king and church — those who monopolized violence and sacred authority. In our day, power is concentrated in the hands of a commercial elite, and gold stands for that commercial power. In August 2011 the "BlackBerry riots," named for the handheld devices that helped the rioters meet, and dodge police, sent tens of thousands into the streets of London to trash stores. One of the rioters' targets was the banking industry, taken as a symbol of a corrupt system. As the rioters were smashing ATMs the gold price was streaking to new heights. in South Africa, where gold is the very stuff that built the state, all the world's ills seemed to meet at the gold mine door — corruption, organized crime, violence, poverty, despair.
Surely an apocalyptic contest could be seen. On the one hand, people that history did not love: despised refugees from the poverty and war of neighboring countries; former miners discarded by a shrinking industry; masses of the wretched from the slums. And on the other hand, the owners of a substance bid up to fantastic prices by people on the run from an economic disaster some of them had helped create. Where such antagonists contend, guess who dies.
Excerpted from Gold: The Race For The World's Most Seductive Metal by Matthew Hart. Copyright 2013 by The Rough Corporation Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.