A South African gold mine that goes two miles beneath the Earth’s surface holds far more than just precious metals
Over the years at 60 Minutes, we’ve been in more than a few tunnels. We explored Mexican drug lord El Chapo’s subterranean escape routes, burrowed through a Roman villa buried by Mt. Vesuvius and traveled the depths of the New York City subway. But nothing prepared us for a place called Moab Khotsong, a South African gold mine that extends nearly two miles beneath the surface.
In their pursuit of gold, South Africans have dug the deepest holes on Earth. The country was the world’s top gold producer for decades. Now the gold is running out, just as these ultra-deep mines have attracted a new breed of miner — on a very different quest. We went along for the adventure.
In the early morning light, tall mine shafts loom over the Vaal River basin two hours southwest of Johannesburg. This once was a booming gold field, now most mines lie abandoned but Moab Khotsong is bustling. Long before the sun rises, thousands of miners start lining up for the triple-deck elevator called “the cage.” It’s jammed but more always push on, and early one morning, so did we.
We’re packed in as tight as sardines, the electric bells signal we’re ready, and the cage drops. Slowly at first, then picks up speed fast. We plunge 450 stories straight down. It’s the longest elevator ride on Earth.
The cage rattles and whistles as we descend, the air gets more humid the deeper we go. Our lifeline to the surface is a machine called the manwinder, massive coils of steel rope two inches thick that attach to the cage and unspool faster and faster. We dropped two miles in a couple of minutes and emerged in an underground city.