AS IF TOUCHED BY THE LEGENDARY KING MIDAS HIMSELF, everything from tablets to the water faucets of bespoke private jets are coated with shiny, shimmering gold these days. Indeed, some investors can't seem to get enough of the lustrous metal, especially many of the ultra-affluent, who were made even richer in recent years after placing some huge bets on gold.
Some of that frenzy has cooled in the past year or so. But the excitement from it has spurred a massive and still continuing global hunt to find and extract even more of the treasured commodity. Some call it the world's greatest gold rush. What follows is a rare look into the deepest gold mine on the planet, located in South Africa, through an edited excerpt from the new book, "Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal," by Matthew Hart.
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 headframes made blue shapes against the dawn. Forty miles from Johannesburg, I turned off the highway at Mponeng mine, the deepest manmade hole on earth—a vast, stifling oven of toiling men, thousands of them, buried miles underground as they blasted and scraped for the metal that has bewitched and harassed man for 6,000 years. What else but gold.
Picture Manhattan 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 10 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—30 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 30-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, owned by Johannesburg-based AngloGold Ashanti, the price of gold 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. When the price was rising fast in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, gold attracted one legendary billionaire after another. At the end of 2009, 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 30 minutes.