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Day 44: Ouro Preto

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Eighteenth-century churches dominate the hills of Ouro Preto.
Michael Palin - BrazilHeavy rain and thunderous wind in the night. In the semi-darkness of dawn I can see the cars coming down the hill into the town, weaving their way in between the baroque churches, headlights twinkling like another layer of decoration. Rush hour in Ouro Preto.

Yesterday, when I asked the Mayor if gold-mining was still a part of the local economy, he'd told me that these days it was cheaper and easier to extract gold from Amazônia, and the last mine here had closed down twenty-five years ago. But, in keeping with Ouro Preto's spirit of conservation, it has been kept open as a mining museum. As the rain spattered against the windows it seemed the perfect day for going underground.

To be honest, the Mina da Passagem looks as if it might have closed down a lot more than twenty-five years ago. The outbuildings are grubby and the mine itself is accessed by a cable-hauled trolley driven by a clanking, wheezing piston engine which first entered service in 1825. It was made in England, as was much of the gear on show at the museum. Perhaps not surprisingly, as the British owned and ran the mine for much of the nineteenth century before selling it on to the French.

I'm bent almost double on a hard seat in a very old, low-slung rail trolley when a hooter goes and the ancient winding gear propels me, quite rapidly, down through a hole in the hillside and along a cavernous tunnel chipped out by thousands of miners over a period of 277 years.

When we come to a rest some 120 metres below the surface, I'm only too glad to get off the trolley and follow my chirpy young guide Ícaro into a network of subsidiary tunnels that lead to an underground lake which divers come to explore at weekends. On the way he pauses and traces a band of quartz on the rock face, until it meets tourmaline, iron oxide and calcite. Where all these materials come together is where gold would have been found. Always in dust form here, never in nuggets. The tunnels are extensive and easily wide enough to stand up in, but when you consider that mining went on here more or less continuously from 1719 to 1985, it's perhaps not surprising. Extraction was labour-intensive. For every six grammes of gold, 1,000 kilograms of rock had to be removed. For much of its existence Mina da Passagem was dug out by slaves, who would often secrete gold dust in their hair or their clothing in the hope of using it to buy their freedom. For reasons like this, accurate production figures are hard to come by, but in the final fifty years of its life, when it was in Brazilian government hands, the mine produced thirty-five tonnes of gold.

This being Brazil, religion is ever present, even below the ground, and we pass a sizeable shrine to Santa Bárbara, patron saint of miners. Beside her is her African Candomblé counterpart, an orixá particularly known for her vanity, so she has been propitiated by a row of lipsticks. Some of them have been used to daub names and messages on the rock face. This turns young Ícaro into a bit of a Colonel Blimp.

'These are not good people!' he says, shaking his head in disapproval. 'They are, how you say, vandals!'

Ícaro, who has never been out of Minas Gerais, let alone out of Brazil, loves being a guide. He's taught himself French, English and German, so he can do it better. When we reach the clear, cool water of the underground lake, he tells me that it is nearly seventy-five metres deep and conceals thirteen square kilometres (five square miles) of caves and tunnels beneath it. Then he adds, 'Take a glass for your mother-in-law. It contains arsenic.'

This joke, he confides, works in every language.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 44: Ouro Preto
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Ouro Preto
  • Book page no: 182

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