TAKE your next tipple almost a quarter of a kilometre underground in a donkey-stable pub in what used to be one of the world's richest and deepest gold mines. That is, of course, if you don't mind damp, dark places and don't suffer from claustrophobia.
You can book this pub any day of the week from 5pm to 9pm, and get there by taking a large, clangy lift down 226 metres to spend a few hours where, back in the 1920s, some 300 donkeys stayed for three months while pulling cocopans filled with gold-laden rocks for removal above ground.
Mining headgears tower above Shaft 14 ... fancy a ride? Picture: Lucille Davie
The pub is on level 5 of the mine known as Shaft 14 on what used to be Langlaagte, the farm on which the main reef was first discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, some six kilometres south of the city centre. The mine goes down 57 levels or 3 500 metres, and over its 90-year lifespan produced some 1.4 million kilograms of gold, blasted out of the ground by 30 000 miners.
The mine is part of the 100-kilometre reef stretching from Boksburg in the east to Randfontein in the west, and visible from a distance with its impressive head gear protruding above the surrounding mine dumps.
The pub – or the wooden doors of the old stable - is visible in the underground mine tour of Shaft 14 at Gold Reef City, the historical village, casino and pleasureland. The tour takes 35 minutes and will give you a glimpse of what it must have been like to work 12-hour shifts down the mine.
When Shaft 14 was opened in 1897, just 11 years after Johannesburg was established, there was no electricity at the mine. Lighting underground was by means of candles, which posed a risk for explosions caused by methane gas. Combined with the darkness, the wetness, the heat, the closeness and the ear-shattering noise of the drills, it was a tough way to earn a living.
Get ready to block your ears! Picture: Lucille Davie
The underground temperatures range from 30 degrees to 50 degrees, but with cooling systems temperatures can be maintained at around 28 degrees. With each drop of 100 metres underground, the temperature increases by one degree.
If you were wondering why the donkeys only stayed below ground for three months, it was because after that time they had invariably gone blind.
As you step out the lift underground, you look ahead to a whitewashed tunnel – to help returning miners adjust from the darkness to the brightness outside – and spend the tour walking down two-metre high tunnels, with the cocopan track down the middle of the tunnel.
You are supplied with a hardhat and a torch – you'll need the torch. You'll walk past the mine manager's station, where each miner placed his identity card in a large box. If a blast did occur, miners picked up their cards in their rush to the surface, and any cards remaining told the manager who was missing.
Further down the shaft sits a lone miner, with a candle and a large drill. Prepare for a loud sound burst – the miner will give you a blast of the drill, and suddenly you forget about the dark and the damp – the sound fills your world. Thank goodness it only lasts five seconds. Miners are supplied with earplugs and if they don't wear them, will eventually go deaf.
You get to look up several stopes with their bluegum timber supports – they are at a 35-degree angle and don't offer much head room.
"If the electricity fails, you will have to take a walk up a wooden stairway up one of those stopes. It will take over an hour to slowly walk up, bent over, in the heat," says smiling Henrietta Mohapi, guide for the underground tour.
You walk past the dynamite box with its red-painted angled lid to prevent miners standing a candle on it, for obvious reasons.
And you will learn about fanagalo, the miners' language created because miners came to the mines with 50 different languages and had to have a means of understanding one another. Developed in 1910, it consists of 2 000 words, 500 of them swear words.
"It would be insulting to use Fanagalo above ground," says Mohapi.
Visit Gold Reef City
Gold Reef City is about six kilometres south of the city. Take the M1 South and follow the signs from the freeway. It's open Wednesdays to Sundays from 9.30am to 5pm. Tours down the gold mine run throughout the day, and tickets can be bought at the mine, inside Gold Reef City. Phone 011 248 6800 for more information.
Near the mine manager's station is a board with rows of 10 holes across and down. Miners placed a peg in a hole for each cocopan filled – most of the men in the early days could not read or write and this was a way around the problem. One cocopan takes 1 ton of rock, and that produces 4 grams of gold.
"Thousands of men have died in this mine, for that gold. In the mid-1900s, 1 500 men died in a methane explosion," adds Mohapi.
There is still gold in the mine, but at the current gold price, it is not profitable to mine. When the mine closed, people showed an interest in buying sections, to open a disco or a restaurant, but mine management was against it.
"So now from the 19th to the 57th levels, the mine is flooded," says Mohapi. What this in fact means is that the water at those levels is no longer pumped out. Normally 2 000 litres of water are pumped out each hour.
Once above ground again, take in the gold-pouring display. 12,5 kilograms of 88% rough gold and 12% silver is poured into a gold bar mould. And you can take it home . . . if you can pick it up with two fingers on your first attempt.
But the gold is just one aspect of Gold Reef City. Go early because there's a lot to do: a turn-of-the-century gold mining town has been re-created on the site, with its charming wood and iron buildings now housing shops and restaurants.
Victorian Jo'burg recaptured in the Gold Reef City Hotel.Picture: Lucille Davie
There's the SA Mint where you can buy gold and silver jewellery, watches, medallions and coins, and watch a press making Kruger Rands. There's Gemstone World, the Glass and Crafte Shoppe, the Gumboot Bar Shop and Tobacconist, and there's the town square. Here you can get off your feet and enjoy a five-piece band called Unity, playing throughout the day, while you eat your hamburger.
If you're feeling smart, take in the Hands-On Science Centre, where you can test yourself on various machines and experiments. If you're feeling brave, go on one of 28 rides including the ferris wheel, the earthquake tunnel, miner's revenge, the tower of terror and the river rapids.
For a different experience, hire a penny farthing bike and take a spin around the village.
Gumboot dancing, which the miners began early in the century and which became very competitive between different mines, can be enjoyed in three daily displays at points throughout the town.
If you're feeling you need to get off your feet, take the train which runs around the perimeter of the town. Or hop on one of several horse-drawn carriages that canter around the place.
On the lower terrace of Gold Reef City is the Gold Reef City Hotel with 73 rooms in Victorian decor. The nearby 60-person chapel is popular for weddings, with its beams, alter, pews and organ, originating in the first Dutch Reformed Church in Johannesburg.
On this level you'll also find the Odin Bioscope, showing old-time movies, and the Musical Hall of Fame, exhibiting musical instruments and artefacts. Further down the street you'll find Arms & Outdoors, Craftsmen with Disabilities, and Classic Profiles, a hardwood craftsmen store.
The younger kids are catered for at this level too: there's a farmyard, stables and funfair.