Saturday, 21 September 2013

South Africa's historic gold rush towns

The recent Base Metals '13 conference was held in Mpumalanga province, east of Johannesburg, and the area where gold mining really began in South Africa.
On the day following the conference, Barbara and I headed north to Sabie and then on to Pilgrim's Rest, a restored gold mining town which has its origins in South Africa's first gold rush. Peaceful and photogenic now, in 1873 1500 diggers worked 4000 claims in gruelling and unhygienic conditions.  Many of them died from malaria and dysentery after arduous treks through the Lowveld, some passing over the giant gold reef which slumbered under their feet, and would be woken a decade later.

Pilgrim's Rest
On the following day we drove south, through Nelspruit to Barberton, set in a basin surrounded by the oldest mountains in the world. The Mkhonjwa Mountains date back 3.5 billion years, with some of the oldest exposed rocks, volcanic in origin, known as the Barberton Greenstone Belt. A bacterial micro-fossil, the first form of life on earth, was found here and has been identified as being 3.2 billion years old.

Gold was found  here in 1883, and in 1884 Graham Barber discovered an incredibly rich gold reef, which created the famous 'Barberton boom' as miners flocked to the area.  Gold was also discovered in the hills above Barberton, and in 1885 the Sheba Reef Gold Mining Company was formed. The Sheba mine is still in operation, the oldest and richest gold mine in South Africa. However Barberton flourished for only a brief period, as in 1886 the Australian prospector George Harrison stumbled upon the giant Witwatersrand gold-bearing reef, which made all other deposits pale into insignificance. The miners moved on to the new town of Johannesburg, and South Africa's 20th century world dominance in gold mining had begun.

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