Sunday, December 26, 2010

Our group ready to descend into the Bultfontein Diamond Mine in Kimberley


It was in the Bultfontein Mine with a group of others, that I made a jaw-dropping descent for 3 ½ minutes into absolute darkness.  We were entombed in a small Otis elevator like so many sardines in a can.

Our transport rattled alarmingly as we dropped to the 825 metre level. Equipped with a lamp, dressed in blue overalls, and wearing a white helmet, I had a Cesar Hoya (“Help me to breath”) contraption strapped to my waist. The Cesar Hoya was guaranteed to give me 45 minutes of oxygen should I need it!

As rock rushed past us and we plummeted deep into the earth, my imagination kicked into high gear at the thought of getting ever closer to a sea of molten lava.

Exiting the elevator, we made our way along rock tunnels guided by a red line. It is easy to lose one's sense of direction underground we were told. As we walked, the massive boom of explosions echoed through the caves. The air seemed heavier and much hotter as we moved further into the mine.

A 'Refuge Chamber' where people could come for food supplies, first aid and fresh air should there be a collapse loomed up beside us. Need I say I was pleased to see it.  Up to 50 miners could survive for up to a week in this chamber with its separate air system. My fast beating heart slowed somewhat when I heard that it had yet to be used.

When we reached the rockface where mining was underway, a film of dust blanketed everything, wire netting was nailed overhead to close off caverns containing the diamond bearing kimberlite pipes. I was sweating in my overalls and on looking up into the darkness from our eerily lit cave, I saw a man standing high above us watching. Why was he there I wondered.  Why was he watching.  It was creepy.

This is a tough if profitable industry. It takes 10 ½ tons of rock to yield only a handful of diamonds and these would sell for between $1,000 a carat to $100,000 a carat, depending on the quality of the gem. In this same mine, the largest diamond ever found – a 616 carat yellow diamond – was discovered by a native miner. For his discovery he received the maximum reward of $10,000 and a home for his family.

South Africa is still the top producer of quality diamonds in the world and De Beers has absolute control of the world's diamond marketing. Australia's Argyle Mine is the largest producer of diamonds, but 98% of their diamonds are industrial stones.

While listening to the tour guide's story about South Africa's diamonds - as fascinating as it was - I decided that this would be my last ever descent into a mine.  And then suddenly, in this intimidating, foreign environment, where to be quite honest I felt an oppressive fear, I heard the melodious tones of an African miner singing.  Deep in the bowels of the earth his beautiful voice echoing along rock passages, imprinted on my mind an experiences that not only soothed me at that moment, but will live with me forever.

Photos copyright Anne Gordon

Posted by Anne Gordon on Sunday, 26th December, 2010


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