Note: The following entry is taken from my travel journals during a stopover in South Africa in 1995, and parts ot the text have been updated. In general, it still needs editing and is written in a very rough note form. At the time, I was travelling home with my father after a tour of Australia.
Our plane arrived in Johannesburg at the ridiculously early time of just after five in the morning, which gave us an entire day to do our own thing before having to catch our onward flight. Unfortunately, of course, the tourist office at the airport was closed for the night, so we found a bookshop which was inexplicably open and picked up a couple of guide books so that we could sit on our backsides on the hard plastic seats provided and work out what we wanted to do with our time. There was a special room full of phones for calling taxis and hotels, so after coming to the conclusion that waiting for the tourist office to open would severely cut into our day, we changed up some money and started calling around to see if we could get ourselves onto a tour. It didn't take long to realise that people don't generally tend to turn up at the airport in Jo'burg without any plans, and everything was fully booked - plus, our rand were quickly vanishing into the phones. The public phone system in the airport was strange, to say the least - once inside the phone room, we had to go up to a man at a desk and have a phone allocated to us. After this, we just used it as though it was in our living room, without being expected to insert any coins or purchase a phonecard or anything like that. After making as many calls as we liked, we then went back to the man at the desk who gave us a ticket listing all the calls we had made which we then took to a cashier on the way out in order to pay. You certainly don't want to have to use a public phone in an emergency in South Africa. Mind you, I reckon I shouldn't have been surprised to find this level of complexity in an airport which can't even make up its mind what to call itself - prior to our arrival, the place had gone quite happily under the name of Jan Smuts Airport before one of those politicians with altogether too much time on his hands had decided to implement a policy of not naming airports after people in positions of power. Since Field Marshal Jan Smuts had served as Prime Minister of South Africa on two occasions in the first half of the twentieth century, having an airport named after him was suddenly simply not good enough. Jan Smuts Airport became the more boring sounding Johannesburg International. Later, after there had been a fair amount of reshuffling within the government, somebody else decided that not allowing airports to be named after important historical figures was rather stupid, and the airport was renamed again. This time, however, they decided to call it the Oliver Tambo International Airport in honour of the anti-apartheid campaigner of the same name - an altogether more politically correct thing to do at the time.
Before leaving England, we had thought briefly about what we could do in South Africa and decided that, if there was nothing else to do, we'd just get on a bus and spend the day at Sun City. Sun City is internationally known as the country's main holiday resort, with casinos, hotels, theme parks, and anything else a tourist with a bit of money burning a hole in their pocket could possibly want. Those who like to cast a suspicious eye over these sorts of places choose to call it simply "Sin City". Originally built back in the late seventies by one of the countries biggest hotel magnates, Sun City is situated two hours drive from Johannesburg in what was once the independant state of Bothuthatswana. Well, I say "independant state" - in fact, Bothuthatswana was one of a number of regions which the old apartheid government of South Africa had created and named "black african homelands" in order to segregate black inhabitants of the country from the rest of the population. As a result, Bothuthatswana was not expected to abide by the same rules that applied to the rest of South Africa and was free to open up casinos and strip clubs which would've been banned elsewhere. Naturally, Sun City became to South Africa what Las Vegas is to the United States - a place to go where you can have altogether too much fun while sticking your tongue out at the rest of the country.
Of course, Sun City is now a popular tourist destination in post-apartheid South Africa and boasts hotel resorts, theme parks, golf courses, casinos and six thousand seat venues for sporting events and concerts by international artists. We never did get to find out if the reputation of the place was deserved, because there were no scheduled buses to the complex and the only response we could get from any of the tour companies we phoned was "Sorry, all booked up. Please call again." - so even our plan B turned out to be a non starter. However, one of the companies we phoned had obviously staffed its phones with people who understood the concept of customer service, and the kind lady on the other end suggested that we might like to go on a morning trip to another nearby Theme Park called "Gold Reef City" because she had a tour available with plenty of seats and could arrange to have us picked up immediately. For about two seconds, we wondered whether the fact that this was the only tour with any seats available was any sort of indication of just how awful it was likely to be, but then we thought about our growing phone bill trying to find anything at all to do and decided to grab it. At the time of our trip, Gold Reef City came across as an old Mining community where visitors were invited to take a trip down the mine, watch gold being refined, and wander the streets of the old mining village. To say that the place has changed since would be an understatement - a quick look at the website shows that this small community style guided tour has become a massive Disney style complex with roller coasters, flumes, casinos, hotels, nightclubs, and anything else you can imagine. They certainly know where the money is. In fact, I had to look at the website several times and do quite a bit of exploring online before I was even certain that I was looking at the same place - the only thing which reminds me of the tour we took was the gold pouring display in the "town square", but more of that in a moment.
When we arrived, we were led through the front gates of the park and introduced to the young lady who would be showing us around. Several more people turned up in minibuses from various destinations, rather than one bus driving around to pick everyone up - which I assume explained the ease with which we were able to get onto the tour from the airport where we were collected by a virtually empty van. In fact, the only other people who joined us from the airport were a couple of trainee tour guides who had obviously flown in especially, and they spent the entire trip nodding thoughtfully and pretending to make notes on their clipboards while actually drawing smiley faces instead and then attempting to hide them whenever I glanced in their direction. Oh, and I mustn't forget the delightful Tracey, an Australian girl of around my age who had been sitting only a couple of seats away on the plane and was probably one of the most bubbly and outgoing people I had met on the entire trip. As soon as she recognised me from the plane, she'd plonked herself down in front of me on the bus and I don't think I got a word in edgeways until we reached Gold Reef City. But I didn't care, because she was beautiful - so I just nodded, agreed with everything she said and hoped that she might ask me to marry her.
One of the highlights of the tour, for me, was getting to see bars of gold being made. We were led, in single file, into a heavily fortified room in the middle of the central square, and made to sit in neat rows of tiered seats facing a sort of makeshift stage. In the middle of this stage was a large furnace and a container which looked to me to have enough liquid gold in it to set most of us up for the rest of our lives. Naturally, to ensure that none of us tried anything, some of the meanest looking guys on the planet were standing around with guns both at the sides of the stage and at the doors. Somehow, I found it hard to imagine that any self respecting gold thief would be unable to come up with a better plan than booking himself onto an organised tour, jumping up in the middle of the presentation, grabbing the gold and making a bolt for the door - especially since all the gold in the room was in a liquid state and had clearly been heated to astronomical temperatures. Anybody thinking about grabbing any of it would've had to have come prepared with a heavy lead container and asbestos gloves. After we were all seated, and had been suitably scrutinised by the guards to determine if any of us looked slightly dodgy, somebody came in and gave us a demonstration of how gold bars are cast. I should say here that there is a big difference between cast gold and minted gold - what we saw here was the casting process, and involved taking molten gold and pouring it into a mould to create a bar. Minted gold is made in a totally different way, and involves simply cutting bars out of a large sheet of pre-pressed gold. I consider this to be the lazy approach, and it results in perfectly uniform bars of gold which are totally flat and square - you can tell a bar that has been cast because it has lumps and bumps all over it and has obviously come from a mould. We all came away from the demonstration suitably impressed with what we had seen, and you could tell that one or two people really wanted to make some smart-alec remark about taking away a sample but thought better of it after having another look at the thugs on guard. I must admit, on reflection, that the whole thing was obviously a show put on for our benefit - the mine is no longer in operation so they obviously mould the same gold into bars at every demonstration and then melt it down again afterwards in preparation for the next group. They probably could've saved a lot of money by dying some lesser liquid metal gold and doing away with the guards altogether - but I guess that wouldn't have made the experience so entertaining.
Next, we were taken down into the actual mines in a huge lift which was probably large enough to hold all the miners at once - after all, why make two trips when you can make one, and who cares if the cable snaps on the way down? We were all supplied with miner's helmets, the ones with those ridiculous torches glued to the front of them, and shuffled slowly into the lift in the belief that it couldn't possibly hold us all and we would almost certainly be plummeting to an untimely death at any minute. A number of people, both men and women, immediately kicked up a fuss about having to wear a silly hat which would mess their hair up, but became mysteriously silent after bashing their heads a couple of times on the increasingly low jagged rock ceilings as we progressed further into the mines. Again, the whole experience was clearly staged for our benefit - once we reached the bottom of the lift shaft and filed out into the mine, we found the place to be alive with miners apparently chipping at the walls and loading pieces of rock into barrows. It added to the atmosphere, of course, but there was something about walking past a miner and having him suddenly turn around and start giving us a lecture on the history of gold mining in South Africa which didn't quite ring true. I came very close to spending the rest of my life with a loud ringing in my ears when I inadvertently turned to one of these guys to ask him a question just as he turned his pneumatic rock-drill on a few inches in front of my face. It seems that South African health and safety officials are quite happy to insist on hard hats for the guests, but don't seem to be too bothered about them going deaf. We were actually naive enough to think that we'd gone far down into the mines and would be able to return home to boast that we'd ventured hundreds of feet below the surface - but after it was all over we were slightly dismayed to discover that the tour had only taken us as far as level five of the mines, even though it felt as though we had been descending in the lift forever.
Twenty-eight levels were currently accessible, we were told, and another forty below that had been dug out but were considered too dangerous for anybody but the most professional miners with a death wish. We were actually told just how deep the mine was at level sixty-eight, but my brain had gone numb at that point from trying to imagine people spending their entire lives miles underground digging for small chunks of gold for a pittance so that somebody else could get rich, and the exact number escapes me. Believe me, though, when I tell you that it was frighteningly large. I think I may have had to look the number up when I got home, in fact, just to make sure that it was possible to count that high.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date. You can check out his travel site at www.burfordstravels.co.uk.
Simon is also currently running a science fiction movie project to raise money for Cancer Research UK, following the loss of his parents. You can lend your support and read the script for free at www.rewindthemovie.net