Nov.18, 2008 -- When the credit crunch hit, I panicked. What to do with my meager savings?
Apparently, in bad times, your best bet is to hoard gold. So I watched the price on the London and New York exchanges rise and fall. I was too scared to dip my toe in the investment waters, but it got me thinking... What's life like for the guys who actually mine the stuff? We persuaded "Nightline" that this would make a story and headed for South Africa, producer of half the world's gold.
Just after dawn, our crew rolled up to South Africa's Mponeng gold mine, which is about to reclaim the title of the world's deepest mine at 2.4 miles underground. Our insatiable desire for gold is pushing the South African miners deeper underground than man has ever gone before.
Sweating under a hard hat and into a boiler suit and rubber boots, we gingerly stepped into the elevator cage for the drop into the bowels of Earth. We dropped into darkness at more than 30 miles per hour. Almin the cameraman worried the humidity would fog up his lens. I was worried about pretty much everything: Killer gas, rock slides, runaway trains, claustrophobia.
A miner was killed at Mponeng by a train in August, and four were killed last year by one seismic shift. There's a huge board at the mine head proclaiming today as the 21st day in a row without an injury. For a gold mine that's a mighty impressive record. For me, little comfort.
"How much further is it possible to go?" I asked Mervyn Gillespie, the mine's production manager, as we dropped at 30 miles per hour. "We don't know," he replied. "We'll see when we get there."
It costs about $260 to produce an ounce of gold from this vast labyrinth. And it takes a ton of rock to produce an ounce of gold. As long as the math makes sense, they'll go deeper.
When we got out of the elevator I had trouble walking. I felt 100 pounds heavier. My heavy arms felt like they were dragging me down -- hardly surprising, since we were nearly 10 times deeper than the Empire State Building is high.
I felt like an ant scurrying along ever-narrowing tunnels until we reached the business end of the mine: The plate. We were with the morning shift workers, who start at 4 a.m. They use an enormous drill to burrow deep into the rock, where they plant explosives. The late shift then drags the blasted rock to the surface.
Crouched next to a frighteningly buckled pillar, I had to operate the drill. I enjoyed it, but I only did it for five minutes, not for a full eight-hour shift. They offer these guys cash incentives, enough to double their salaries if they hit targets.
There were women working down there, too. Equal opportunities at the deepest work place inside Earth. It's a comforting thought as you listen to the rock mass creak and crack above you.
Some great scary facts from our pre-mine safety briefing were spinning around in my head. Down in the deep, you're an hour's journey from the surface. And if you get cut down there you bleed fast because of the pressure. I pictured a wild drill bit ripping through my jump suit and deep arterial blood pumping out like beer from a keg. I briefly wished we hadn't had the safety briefing.
I was soon awed by the sight of what we were looking for -- tiny specks of gold wrapped around ancient pebbles. Three billion years ago this was a huge lake bed. It's pretty amazing to think that, after all that time, Man thinks it's worthwhile to risk life and limb to comb all the way down there to get it.
Anglo Gold Ashanti, which owns Mponeng, is proud of what they've achieved here. We may have gotten a sanitized tour, but they really do appear to stick to their motto of "safety first." I suppose they have to. When you've got 5,000 people working deep underground every day, you really have to have some systems in place. Things have come a long way from the dark days of South African mining, when 500 miners were killed every year.
And up top when the shift was over, we took a tour of the barrack block where most of the miners live. They get a bed, food and free health care. When you consider that one in five miners is HIV positive, free anti-retrovirals must cost Anglo Gold a lot of money.
By our Western standards, it doesn't seem like a great deal. Up to $800 a month and a bed in a barrack block. But for Southern Africa, where there aren't a lot of options and wages are low, this ain't half bad. Every miner we spoke to claimed to enjoy his job. Every one except Elvis, the local union rep and self-proclaimed Communist. "No one likes working underground," he told me. "But we have no choice."
Just before we left, Mponeng's manager arrived back from a business meeting in Johannesburg. I got the impression he'd rather be getting his hands dirty than glad handing at the local Elks Club. Randell Randemann started out 19 years ago as a miner down in the pit. Now he's the boss. Is it the hardest job in the world? I asked him. "I think it's going to rank right up there, yes," he told me with a hint of pride.
This year his miners will bring $450 million of gold to the surface. Randell has got to be tough to keep this place working, to keep it profitable and to keep it safe. The fact that he was once a miner really impressed me.
"Now I won't expect somebody to do stuff which I know is impossible," he told me. "I can expect them to do what I have done before."