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Pole to Pole

Day 126: Johannesburg

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleMartin de Beers, solidly-built, moustachioed in the style of a Southern Hemisphere cricketer, begins a long and doubtless ritualized public relations spiel as we are fitted out with headlamps and batteries.

Western Deep Mine is in The Guinness Book of Records for the deepest penetration of man into the earth's crust - 3773 metres, that's nearly two and a half miles. Within the next year that will be surpassed by a new shaft which will be sunk beyond the 4000-metre mark. It has been honoured on a thirty-cent postage stamp as one of the three best achievers in technology in South Africa since 1961, along with Christiaan Barnard's heart transplants and a machine for harnessing wave power. At any one time there are 7000 men working beneath the surface, and it takes four hours to get them all down. The workforce is seventy-two per cent migratory labour, the majority coming from the Siskei and Transkei (two 'homelands' set up in the spirit of apartheid to encourage Bantus to develop separately), but also from Mozambique - 'very placid, they are the only people who mix freely with all the other tribes'. Martin prefers to talk rather than be asked questions. I sense that there is anger in there, probably a lot nearer the surface than anything else at Western Deep.

I have seen no black faces yet, apart from the gardeners. I presume they're all underground. We pile into a lift to join them. It rattles and clangs towards the earth's core at seventy metres a second. Another form of transport to add to the list. Two kilometres down we are released into a world almost as spotless as the one we've just left. It smells of fresh cement - like a newly-constructed underground car park.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 126
  • Country/sea: South Africa
  • Place: Johannesburg
  • Book page no: 284

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