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Pole to Pole

Day 126: Johannesburg

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleThree-men gangs work at the face in temperatures approaching ninety Fahrenheit for six hours per shift. One operates the drill, another checks the equipment and a third directs water into the hole, keeping the dust down. A fourth man, and the only white in the team, is the mining engineer who has to check the face and mark in red paint the bands to be drilled. I am close enough now to the gold seam to reach out and touch it. It doesn't glitter. The gold here is in carbon form, in fact the gold-bearing strip only inches wide, studded with white quartzite pebbles against a dark background of limestone and lava, looks more like black pudding.

Before we leave Western Deep we're allowed limited access to the Holy of Holies - Number 2 Gold Plant - where at temperatures of 1600 Centigrade one of history's most ancient, magical and mysterious processes comes to its conclusion as black pudding is turned into gold. Security is tight; a steel-mesh doorway is locked behind us. Every camera angle is checked by armed security men, and Nigel is given strict instructions: 'You must shoot nothing west or your camera will be confiscated.'

Tension builds as the crucible is slowly upturned and the molten material begins to flow.

'Is that gold? . . . Is that gold?' we first-timers keep asking, but the experts peering through the green visors that enable them to look at the quality of the smelt shake their heads. For the first minute only slag appears. I should have remembered from the rivers of Lapland that gold is always at the bottom. Then a lighter, whiter stream comes through and everyone breathes a sigh of relief as each ingot tray is filled with gold worth £150,000.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 126
  • Country/sea: South Africa
  • Place: Johannesburg
  • Book page no: 285

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