Journey to the world’s highest and lowest gold mines
Figure of the month: 9,100 metres in altitude
At the beginning of the California gold rush back in 1848, the streets may not have been paved with gold, but often enough, it could be found in the nearest riverbed. At that time, a pan was sufficient equipment for anyone drawn to California by the promise of wealth. But by 1854, the era of private fortune hunters in the area was already over and industrial gold mining had begun. The amount of mined gold has since increased dramatically: since 2014, more than 3,000 tonnes have been mined annually. As one of the rarest elements, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find new deposits, and mining companies are expanding their search to ever more remote locations. The difference in altitude between the highest and the lowest active gold mine today is no less than 9,100 metres – especially astounding compared to western Europe’s highest mountain Mont Blanc, which rises “just” 4,800 metres above sea level.
World’s highest gold mine is in Peru
La Rinconada, a town in the Puno region of Peru with currently over 50,000 inhabitants, was built some 5,100 metres above sea level solely because of the nearby gold mine. Most of the inhabitants work in said mine, and under challenging conditions. At an altitude of 5,000 metres, the human organism can only absorb half as much oxygen as would be possible in the lowlands. Anyone exposed to this oxygen shortage for a longer period of time risks the dreaded altitude sickness, which can lead to pulmonary oedema and even death. The lack of infrastructure, which offers neither running water nor functioning sewage system or waste disposal, does not exactly promote a healthy environment either. In addition, the question whether the gold prospectors are at least paid appropriately for these hardships and risks is not easily answered: the employment contracts of the mining company Corporación Ananea stipulate, at least for male gold prospectors, that they work up to 30 days a month without pay but may keep any gold they find on the 31st day. This really takes the term “soldier of fortune” to a whole new level.
A gold mine 4,000 metres deep is located in South Africa
The Mponeng gold mine operated by mining company AngloGold Ashanti is the deepest in the world, thus representing the other end of the scale of extreme gold mining locations. The mine is bursting with superlatives: electricity consumption to facilitate mining at a depth of up to 4,000 metres equals that of a city with a population of 400,000. This is due to the fact that air temperatures of around 55 degrees Celsius in the lowest shafts are reduced to 28 degrees via elaborate cooling technology to ensure practicable working conditions. The mine is located near the town of Carletonville, about 65 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, and it employs around 4,000 workers who enter the mine every day. Incidentally, a trip to the lowest shafts takes about an hour by lift, even though it reaches speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour between the numerous stops. Mponeng and La Rinconada gold miners thus have another thing in common besides their passion for gold prospecting: extreme working conditions. The mining company has shared plans for expansion of the Mponeng mine – downwards, of course. Already a few years ago, AngloGold Ashanti announced that shafts of 5,000 metres depth might soon be in the works.