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On 10th August 1867 William Hunt discovered a rich body of gold-bearing quartz when he struck his pick into the face of rock beside a waterfall. Within a year, at least 15,000 men had rushed to the Grahamstown gold fields to try their luck. The name Grahamstown was later changed to Thames, and this is the story of a visit to the 'Golden Crown' goldmine while on holiday with Rob.

So far, the day had been very disappointing. For years I had wanted to visit a small cheese factory at Miranda and even though Rob is from one of the great cheese producing countries of the world, I dragged him along. It was shut! Then we found another small cheese factory, but they had just finished for the day and were cleaning out the vats. We had lunch at the local hotel I and thought and thought, 'What can we do on a winter afternoon, and I came up with the idea of visiting the gold mine. I had passed it many times but never stopped to look. We drove up through the small town of Thames, a town steeped in gold mining history. The old gold miners cottages have been preserved and are still in use, so the town is quaint and picturesque. Just at the edge of town, heading north, is a sign 'Gold Mine and Stamper Battery Tours'. We pulled over to the right and parked the car. It was about 3 pm, and as we were getting out of the car a man was walking in our direction towards a van parked beside us. He was wearing an Australian slouch hat and carried a bucket in one hand and a box of seedlings in the other. As he approached, he said 'Are you for the tour?' He looked just like Basil Fawlty: long arms, long legs, long sad face with a sad looking moustache. We said 'yes'. He slowly put down his bucket and box of seedlings, took off his hat, lifted his arm high into the air, stood on one leg with the other held in the air, bent, and slammed his hat into the ground. 'Well **** me! I've been waiting here since 10 this morning and not a damn sod has been near the place! Just as I decide to go home, you bastards turn up.' Imagine Basil Fawlty, arms flailing, legs stepping, first this way, then that. What had we struck?

Rob looked at me; I looked at Rob. And we both said 'If it's too much trouble, we'll go.' Basil said 'No, no, no. It's only $6 each but you really owe me $200 for all the waiting around I've done, but come on anyway. So we paid our $12 and for the next hour we were well entertained.

A stamper battery is a large piece of machinery that breaks up lumps of rock, pounds it to a fine powder and delivers it to a shaker table as a first step in extracting gold from the rocks that the miners have brought out of the mine. I can only liken it to a very large engine with huge pistons pumping up and down, making the most horrendous noise as each piston rises up and thumps down, pounding the rock that has been tipped into the hopper fom above. Imagine the noise that 40 such machines would make, the number that were operating in the heyday of the Thames goldmining era.

The powdered rock is then washed onto a shaker table. Imagine a giant washing board lying down, ridged at the end nearest the stamper and then changing to a smooth surface. As the powder moves down the table, washed by a light flow of water, the lighter particles are moved by the shaking action of the table down to the long edge. The heavier minerals are left in stripes the full length of the table, which is about 7 metres long. Gold, being the heaviest, is the topmost stripe and easily separated from the rest, but at this stage it is still far from pure, and the processing continues until at last a gold ingot is produced.

But how did the raw rock get to the stamper battery? This was the next part of the tour: into the gold mine itself. We were each given a torch and a yellow hard hat, the sort construction workers wear, and we followed our guide out to the carpark from which rises the face of a cliff, part of the Coromandel ranges. We stepped into a small opening, just wide and high enough for a man to pass through, into another world. It was dark. We switched on our torches and the passage stretched before us deep into the side of the cliff, the walls showing the marks of the picks and shovels used by the miners, long ago, to hue their way to the gold bearing quartz reefs. In places we have to bend down to pass: a lot of the old miners were from the tin mines of Cornwall in the UK, and they were rather short in stature but very powerfully built, through years of hard manual work. Now the tunnel forks, and to the left is a lifesize model of just such a man, his muscular arms pushing a truck load of rock, the effort required evident in the expression on his face. We take the right fork, and as we progress we can hear voices echoing from further along the tunnel, and a man coughing from the dust that is hanging in the air and that he breathes constantly, causing him to die young. The sound of a steel pick hitting solid rock reverberates around us, and at any moment we expect to come across a man working. But it only a recording to add realism to the dank atmosphere, and it surely does. We continue till a set of steps, almost vertical, rises before us. The handrail is damp and the steps slippery so we take care as we ascend to a higher level. Halfway up, we stop, turn to look behind us, and there is another tunnel disappearing into the darkness. The network of tunnels is multilayered, multi-directional, a spiderweb dug into the hillside in man's attempt to grow rich. From the top of the steps it is only a short walk to where we exit the mine, into the bright sunshine and back to reality.

If you have enjoyed this story, there is another at the link below.

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The Waitomo Caves Story