Beyond the Ultra Deep Levels: Getting to the bottom of things at the world's deepest gold mine.


Cosmos Magazine, Jan. 2007

Behind ‘South Africa's equivalent of the moon program.'

– by Dan Drollette, reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa

I am in a miner's lift, or ‘cage,' about to descend to the bottom of South Africa's Mponeng Mine, the world's deepest gold mine in the world's richest goldfield. Nearly a third of all the gold mined in human history came from this region, an area centered around Johannesburg and known as the Witswatersrand, a 40-mile long, roughly semicircular belt of gold-bearing ‘reefs' of conglomerate rock. The discovery of such vast quantities of this precious yellow metal led to what was arguably the world's biggest gold rush. It also contributed to the career of Cecil Rhodes, the founding of South Africa – and the Boer War.

The crowded, closely packed, aptly named cage contains myself, a few other journalists, some mining officials and miners. We try to talk, but we plunge down the black hole of the mineshaft so fast – 65 km/hr – that the air roars by, making it difficult to be understood.

Not that I would have been able to comprehend much of what I overheard anyway, even with the aid of multiple dictionaries. There are people from 11 different language groups down here; as a consequence, the mine's 5600 employees usually communicate via a unique "mine language" containing bits and pieces of English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho and other tongues. (There is even a company-operated school devoted to teaching mine language; everyone, including administrators, must take a 2-week class in it before working below.)

I try to remember the three main points that Mponeng's general manager, Johan Viljoen, told us – in English – during our half-hour orientation on the surface:

* we are going to one of the safest parts of the mine's "Western Ultra Deep Levels;"

* with today's geophones and other underground monitoring technology, any "seismic event" such as an earthquake tremor can usually be predicted before it occurs, allowing for evacuation from sensitive areas;

* they have not had a fatal methane gas explosion in a long time.

However . . . all I can think about is the fact that soon the weight of the world will be just above my head.


The rest of this story can be found in the archives of Cosmos magazine, at

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