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South African mines dig deep into technology

CAPE TOWN // Four kilometres under the earth and it is hotter than the burning sands of Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter on a summers’ day.

At the West Driefontein gold mine to the west of Johannesburg, a small crew of men brave heat under a million tonnes of rock to extract a thin sliver of gold.

They use technology from decades ago; pneumatic drills hammer into the rock to prepare for blast charges. When ready, the miners hastily leave. Later a clean-up crew arrives to poke the roof with crowbars to check it is not about to cave in. If deemed safe, the rubble is removed, to be hauled to the surface above.

Producing gold steadily since the 1950s West Driefontein is the grand old lady of South African mines, but it is on the edge of its life expectancy. The trouble is not so much that gold is running out, it is that it is now so far below the surface it may as well be on the moon.

South Africa’s gold mines are in trouble as they go ever deeper in search of ore bearing rock in conditions increasingly deadly to humans. A new generation of robots and underground drones may be the breakthrough technology the industry has been waiting for.

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