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Take a tour of Confidence Reef Print E-mail
14 December 2010

The old caves of the Struben brothers’ mine are an alluring, if dangerous place. If you’re up for a bit of prospecting of the historical kind, this is the place to be.

TAKE a step back into a time when Johannesburg didn’t exist, when ox wagons dotted the hills and ambitious young men scoured for gold. You can do this on a tour of Confidence Reef in Kloofendal Nature Reserve, where Fred and Harry Struben discovered the first payable gold on the Witwatersrand in 1884.

Tour guide Shirley Harrison uses a working model of the mills to illustrate how they work
Tour guide Shirley Harrison uses a working model of the mills to illustrate how they work

The tours, usually held once a month and led by Friends of Kloofendal members Shirley Harrison or Rod Kruger, introduce you to the Struben brothers and show you how they found and mined gold along the reef for a year before it ran out.

Harrison guided the tour on 12 December, describing the abysmal weather as “perfect for a walk to the mines”.

A stroll up the gentle green slopes brings the tour to the gates cordoning off the old mines, where the huge padlock and thick chains serve as silent warning about the dangers of trespassing on a disused mine.

“We have found people who are not supposed to be here wandering around in the past,” she said, “and we have found evidence of people trying to mine more gold from here.”

It’s a risky business. “The mines are collapsing because the shale rocks are crumbling and there are sections that we can’t even go into anymore … Do not touch the walls, and step very gently into the one mine because the floor sounds hollow and we’re not sure how secure it is.”

Her words fell like flakes of gold on the excitable children in the group, who couldn’t wait to start exploring the mines. Harrison led them slowly towards the caves, weaving the history of the brothers through her narrative.

Inside one of the main caves
Inside one of the main caves

People peered into the narrow cave openings and through the bars of the fences barricading the black holes stretching deep underground. One of Harrison’s tales is of two intrepid 16-year-old boys who used ropes to explore the underground cave; they quickly abandoned their search, however, when they heard the cave creaking.

The silence that had enveloped the group as they explored the caves and were transported back to the 1880s, standing alongside the miners as they dug out rock, was broken when a man slipped on wet shale and fell to the ground. Nervous twitters circulated until Harrison announced she was going to take people into the main cave. It is only big enough for her to take two at a time.

The group patiently waited and watched as two people disappeared into the darkness for a few minutes, with only pinpricks of light from their torches and echoes from footsteps on a hollow floor betraying their presence.

Harrison intersperses her history lesson with fun tales of how her own sons had grown up looking for gold in her garden and exploring the reserve. They even, at one point, commandeered one of the safe caves as a hide-out, decorating it with lanterns and candles.

Tour-goers get the chance to embrace their inner Fred Struben by panning for gold. “This is roughly the spot that Fred Struben was in when he looked up and noticed a disturbance in the rocks,” she pointed out, bringing the group to a halt and mixing soil and water in a traditional gold pan. “He ran up the hill, broke off some of the rock and crushed and panned it in a nearby stream.”

The 10-horsepower stamp mills the Struben brothers used to crush raw rock
The 10-horsepower stamp mills the Struben brothers used to crush raw rock

The children got to experience the same euphoria that Struben must have felt when little gold pieces were found in the pan. Parents joked about being able to retire, while their children looked on in awe at the gold cradled in their palms. But Harrison confessed that she snuck the “play-play gold” into the soil so that the children would definitely find something.

This did not seem to worry the youngsters, who carried on looking for treasure. “When you get home you can use your mom’s frying pan to look for gold,” she joked.

The tour winds its way back down the gentle green slopes to the education centre, where there are photographs of Struben descendants who have visited the reserve and mines, and documents such as maps that Fred Struben drew up of the area, which he measured by foot. They are incredibly accurate when compared to modern maps, with only a small margin of error.

The children ran around the restored 10 horse-power stamp mills while their parents viewed the documents or caught their breath on the stairs outside the education centre. The mills, which the Struben brothers used to crush the raw rock dug out of the hillside, were returned to the reserve in May 2009 after standing on the corner of Goldman Street and Seventh Avenue in Florida for about 20 years. They were moved to Florida when Christiaan de Wet Road was constructed as they were in the way.

Struben brothers

Panning for gold
Panning for gold
Frederick Struben – or Fred – was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1851. His mother, Frances, died when he was very young and the family moved to Pretoria soon thereafter. His father died in 1869, and Henry – fondly known as Harry – took over responsibility of his five siblings. He later bought a farm called the Willows, where he settled the family.

Fred Struben always had a keen interest in rock formations and geology, which led him to the diamond diggings in Kimberley. An illness prompted his return to the Willows, but it was not long before he began prospecting again after gold was discovered in Barberton.

He was confident that there was gold in the hills of what is today Kloofendal, but was once known as Cliffendale, and when he found a teaspoon of gold in his pan, he and his brother Harry started mining the site. They named it Confidence Reef because they were convinced there was more gold to be found. The mine, however, didn’t live up to its name and ran dry after only a year.

Kloofendal Nature Reserve
The reserve covers 110 hectares and the mine has been a national monument since 1984. Tours are done by appointment only; to book phone Karin Spottiswoode on 011 674 2980 or 072 595 6991 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . The cost of the tour is R40, which goes towards maintaining the reserve.

Other events are hosted regularly at the reserve. To find out about these, contact Spottiswoode.

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Last Updated on 10 January 2013