It began in the time when the world was young, in the time before man, in the time before life itself had evolved upon this planet.
The crust of the earth was still thin and soft, distorted and riven by the enormous pressures from within.
What is now the flat, compacted shield of the African continent, stable and unchanging, was a series of alps. It was range upon range of mountains, thrown up and tumbled down by the movements of the magma at great depth. These were mountains such as man has never seen, so massive as to dwarf the Himalayas, mountains of steaming rock from whose clefts and gaping wounds the molten magma trickled.
It came up from the earth’s centre along the fissures and weak places in the crust, bubbling and boiling, yet cooling steadily as it neared the surface so that the least volatile minerals were deposited deeper down, but those with a lower melting point were carried to the surface.
At one point in the measureless passage of time, another series of these fissures opened upon one of the nameless mountain ranges, but from them gushed rivers of molten gold. Some natural freak of temperature and chemical change had resulted in a crude but effective process of refinement during the journey to the earth’s surface. The gold was in high concentration in the matrix, and it cooled and solidified at the surface.
If the mountains of that time were so massive as to challenge the imagination of man, then the storms of wind and rain that blew around them were of equal magnitude.
It was a hellish landscape in which the gold field was conceived, cruel mountains reaching stark and sheer in the clouds. Cloud banks dark with the sulphurous gases of the belching earth, so thick that the rays of the sun never penetrated them.
The atmosphere was laden with all the moisture that was to become the seas, so heavy with it that it rained in one perpetual wind-lashed storm upon the hot rock of the cooling earth, then the moisture rose in steam to condense and fall again.
As the years passed by their millions, so the wind and the rain whittled away at the nameless mountain range with its coating of gold-rich ore, grinding it loose and carrying it down in freshets and rivers and rushes of mud and rock into the valley between this range and the next.
Now as the country rock cooled, so the waters lay longer upon the earth before evaporating, and they accumulated in this valley to form a lake the size of an inland sea.
Into this lake poured the storm waters from the golden mountains, carrying with them tiny particles of the yellow metal which settled with other sand and quartz gravel upon the lake bed, to be compacted into a solid sheet.
In time all the gold was scoured from the mountains, transported and laid down upon the lake beds.
Then, as happened every ten million years or so, the earth entered another period of intense seismic activity. The earth shuddered and heaved as earthquake after mammoth earthquake convulsed it.
One fearsome paroxysm cracked the bed of the lake from end to end draining it and fracturing the sedimentary beds, scattering fragments haphazardly so that great sheets of rock many miles across tilted and reared on end.
Again and again the earthquakes gripped and shook the earth. The mountains tottered and collapsed, filling the valley where the lake had stood, burying some of the sheets of gold-rich rock, pulverizing others.
That cycle of seismic activity passed, and the ages wheeled on in their majesty. The floods and the great droughts came and receded. The miraculous spark of life was struck and burned up brightly, through the time of the monstrous reptiles, on through countless twists and turns of evolution until near the middle of the Pleistocene age a man-ape – Australopithecus – picked up the thigh bone of a buffalo from beside an outcrop of rock to use it as a weapon, a tool.
Australopithecus stood at the centre of a flat, sun-seared plateau that reached five hundred miles in each direction to the sea, for the mountains and the lake beds had long ago been flattened and buried.
Eight hundred thousand years later, one of the Australopithecus’ distant but direct line stood at the same spot with a tool in his hand. The man’s name was Harrison and the tool was more sophisticated than that of his ancestor, it was a prospector’s pick of wood and metal.
Harrison stooped and chipped at the outcrop of rock that protruded from the dry brown African earth. He freed a piece of the stone and straightened with it in his hand.
He held it to catch the sun and grunted with disgust. It was a most uninteresting piece of stone, conglomerate, marbled black and grey. Without hope he held it to his mouth and licked it, wetting the surface before again holding it to the sun, an old prospectors’ trick to highlight the metal in the ore.
His eyes narrowed in surprise as the tiny golden flecks in the rock sparkled back at him.
History remembers only his name, not his age nor his antecedents, not the colour of his eyes nor how he died, for within a month he had sold his claim for £10 and disappeared – in search, perhaps, of a really big strike.
He might have done better to retain his title to those claims.
In the eighty years since then an estimated five hundred million ounces of fine gold have been recovered from the fields of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. This is a fraction of that which remains, and which in time will be taken from the earth. For the men who mine the South African fields are the most patiently persistent, inventive and pig-headed of all Vulcan’s brood.
This mass of precious metal is the foundation on which the prosperity of a vigourous young nation of eighteen million souls is based.
Yet the earth yields her treasure reluctantly – men must coax and wrest it from her.
Even with the electric fan blowing up a gale from the corner it was stinking hot in Rod Ironsides’ office. He reached for the silver Thermos of iced water at the edge of his desk, and arrested the movement as the jug began to dance before his finger tips touched it. The metal bottle skittered across the polished wooden surface; the desk itself shuddered, rustling the papers upon it. The walls of the room shook, so that the windows rattled in their frames. Four seconds the tremor lasted, and then it was still again.
‘Christ!’ said Rod, and snatched up one of the three telephones on his desk.
‘This is the Underground Manager. Get me the rock mechanic’s lab, honey, and snap it up, please.’
He drummed his fingers on the desk impatiently as he waited to be connected. The interleading door of his office opened and Dimitri put his head around the jamb.
‘You feel that one, Rod? That was a bad one.’
‘I felt it.’ Then the telephone spoke into his ear.
‘Dr Wessels here.’
‘Peter, it’s Rod. Did you read that one?’
‘I haven’t got a fix on it yet – can you hold on a minute?’
‘I’ll wait.’ Rod curbed his impatience. He knew that Peter Wessels was the only person who could read the mass of complicated electronic equipment that filled the instrument room of the rock mechanic’s laboratory. The laboratory was a joint research project by four of the major gold-mining companies; between them they had put up a quarter of a million Rand to finance an authoritative investigation of rock and seismic activity under stress. They had selected the Sonder Ditch Gold Mining Company’s lease area as the site for the laboratory. Now Peter Wessels had his microphones sited thousands of feet down in the earth, and his tape recorders and stylus graphs ready to pinpoint any underground disturbance.
Another minute ticked by, and Rod swivelled his chair and stared out of the plate glass window at the monstrous head gear of No. 1 shaft, tall as a ten-storey building.
‘Come on, Peter, come on, boy,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I’ve got twelve thousand of my boys down there.’
With the telephone still pressed to his ear, he glanced at his watch.
‘Two-thirty,’ he muttered. ‘The worst possible time. They’ll still be in the stopes.’
He heard the receiver picked up on the other end, and Peter Wessels’ voice was almost apologetic.
‘I’m sorry, Rod, you’ve had a force seven pressure burst at 9,500 feet in sector Sugar seven Charlie two.’
‘Christ!’ said Rod and slammed down the receiver. He was up from his desk in one movement, his face set and angry.
‘Dimitri,’ he snapped at his assistant still in the doorway.
‘We won’t wait for them to call us, it’s a top sequence emergency. That was a force seven bump, with its source plumb in the middle of our eastern longwall at 95 level.’
‘Sweet Mary Mother,’ said Dimitri, and darted back into his own office. He bent his glossy black head of curls over the telephone and Rod heard him start his top sequence calls.
‘Mine hospital . . . emergency team . . . Chief Ventilation Officer . . . General Manager’s office.’
Rod turned away, as the outer door of his office opened and Jimmy Paterson, his electrical engineer, came in.
‘I felt it, Rod. How’s it look?’
‘Bad,’ said Rod, then there were the other line managers crowding into his office talking quietly, lighting cigarettes, coughing and shuffling their feet, but all of them watching the white telephone on Rod’s desk. The minutes crawled by like crippled insects.
‘Dimitri,’ Rod called out to break the tension. ‘Have you got a cage held at the shaft head?’
‘They’re holding the Mary Anne for us.’
‘I’ve got five men checking the high tension cable on 95 level,’ said Jimmy Paterson, and they ignored him. They were watching the white phone.
‘Have you located the boss yet, Dimitri?’ Rod asked again; he was pacing in front of his desk. It was only when he stood close to other men that you saw how tall he was.
‘He’s underground, Rod. He went down at twelve-thirty.’
‘Put in an all-stations call for him to contact me here.’
‘I’ve done that already.’
The white phone rang.
Only once, a shrill note that ripped along Rod’s nerve ends. Then he had the receiver up to his ear.
‘Underground Manager,’ he said. There was a long silence and he could hear the man breathing on the other end.
‘Speak, man, what is it?’
‘The whole bloody thing has come down,’ said the voice.
It was husky, rough with fear and dust. ‘Where are you speaking from?’ Rod asked. ‘They’re still in there,’ said the voice. ‘They’re screaming in there. Under the rock. They’re screaming.’ ‘What is your station?’ Rod made his voice cold, hard, trying to reach the man through his shock. ‘The whole stope fell in on them. The whole bloody thing.’ ‘God damn you! You stupid bastard!’ Rod bellowed into the phone. ‘Give me your station!’ There was stunned silence for a moment. Then the
man’s voice came back, steadier now, angry from the insult. ‘95 level main haulage. Section 43. Eastern longwall.’ ‘We’re coming.’ Rod hung up, picked up his yellow fibreglass hard helmet and lamp from the desk. ‘43 section. The hanging wall has come down,’ he said to Dimitri. ‘Fatals?’ the little Greek asked. ‘For sure. They’ve got squealers under the rock.’ Rod clapped on his hat. ‘Take over on surface, Dimitri.’
Rod was still buttoning the front of his white overalls as he reached the shaft head. Automatically he read the sign above the entrance:
STAY ALERT. STAY ALIVE.
WITH YOUR CO-OPERATION THIS MINE HAS WORKED
16 FATALITY-FREE DAYS.
‘We’ll have to change the number again,’ Rod thought with grim humour.
The Mary Anne was waiting. Into its heavily wired confines were crowded the first aid team and emergency squad. The Mary Anne was the small cage used for lowering and hoisting personnel, there were two much larger cages that could carry one 120 men at one trip, while the Mary Anne could handle only forty. But that was sufficient for now.
‘Let’s go,’ said Rod as he stepped into the cage, and the onsetter slammed the steel roller doors closed. The bell rang once, twice, and the floor dropped away from under him as the Mary Anne started down. Rod’s belly came up to press against his ribs. They went down in one long continuous rush in the darkness. The cage jarring and racketing, the air changing in smell and taste, becoming chemical and processed, the heat building up rapidly.
Rod stood hunch-shouldered, leaning against the metal screen of the cage. The head room was a mere six foot three, and with his helmet on Rod stood taller than that. So today we get another butcher’s bill, he thought angrily.
He was always angry when the earth took its payment in mangled flesh and snapping bones. All the ingenuity of man and the experience gained in sixty years of deep mining on the Witwatersrand were used in trying to keep the price in blood as low as possible. But when you go down into the ultra-deep levels below 8,000 feet and from those depths you remove a quarter of a million tons of rock each month, mining on an inclined sheet of reef that leaves a vast low-roofed chamber thousands of feet across, then you must pay, for the stress builds up in the rock as the focal points of pressure change until the moment when it reaches breaking point and she bumps. That is when men die.
Rod’s knees flexed under him as the cage braked and then yo-yoed to a halt at the brightly lit station on 66 level.
Here they must trans-ship to the sub-main shaft. The door rattled up and Rod left the cage, striding out down the main haulage the size of a railway tunnel; concreted and whitewashed, brightly lit by the bulbs that lined the roof, it curved gently away.
The emergency team followed Rod. Not running, but walking with the suppressed nervous energy of men going into danger. Rod led them towards the sub-main shaft.
There is a limit to the depth which you can sink a shaft into the earth and then equip it to carry men suspended on a steel cable in a tiny wire cage. The limit is about 7,000 feet.
At this depth you must start again, blast out a new headgear chamber from the living rock and below it sink your new shaft, the sub-main.
The sub-main Mary Anne was waiting for them, and Rod led them into it. They stood shoulder to shoulder, and the door rattled shut and again the stomach-swooping rush down into darkness.
Down, down, down.
Rod switched on his head lamp. Now there were tiny motes in the air – air that had been sterilely clean before.
Dust! One of the deadly enemies of the miner. Dust from the burst. As yet the ventilation system had been unable to clear it.
Endlessly they fell in darkness and now it was very hot, the humidity building up so the faces about him, both black and white, were shiny with sweat in the light of his head lamp.
The dust was thicker now, someone coughed. The brightly lit stations flashed past them – 76, 77, 78 – down, down. The dust was a fine mist now. 85, 86, 87. No one had spoken since entering the cage. 93, 94, 95. The deceleration and stop.
The door rattled up. They were 9,500 feet below the surface of the earth.
‘Come on,’ said Rod.