We can do no better than reprint an early (1875) description of the mine by John Noble, Clerk of the Cape Legislative Assembly, who reported that:
‘A new source of wealth has recently been developed in the mountain range directly opposite the Paarl. Rich veins of manganese ore run through the sandstone formation there in various directions, and at one spot, in the locality known as Du Toit’s Kloof, it forms a great lode, standing out like a craggy ridge on the hill tops, and extending in mass over hundreds of yards. It is said to contain thousands of tons of ore. This is now being worked, and is found to be of a very superior quality, yielding from seventy to ninety per cent.’
The ore that was exposed on the surface of the mountain could be, and indeed was, mined directly. However, in order to extract that portion of the orebody which was underground, the early miners drove a horizontal tunnel, known as a drive or adit, into the hillside until it intersected the orebody. The pieces of ore were then loaded underground into small railway trucks, holding perhaps 200 to 300kg, and these were run by hand along a gently sloping narrow-gauge railway track to the entrance of the adit. Here the ore was sorted by hand with the pieces containing the highest percentage of manganese readily recognisable as being the most dense and the darkest in colour. The poor quality ore, which usually had patches of brown due to the presence of iron, as well as other waste rock, was dumped near the entrance to the adit.
The really daunting problem facing the miners at the time, was how the ore was to be transported to the nearest railhead, which was Wellington, many kilometres away, and from where it would be taken to Cape Town for export overseas. The present road through Du Toit’s Kloof, building of which commenced during the Second World War using Italian prisoners of war and was only opened in March 1949, was of course then not in existence, and the narrow cattle track which ran through the kloof would have been quite inadequate for the wagons which would be required to move such large masses of material.
It was therefore decided to build a cableway – described at the time as ‘an aerial wire tram’! – from the mine to a spot a few kilometres from Wellington, where the ground was relatively flat and from which wagons could readily transport the ore to the station in the town, at that time the terminus of the railway from Cape Town. This meant erecting a series of stout steel support towers, each on a rectangle stone base, and stringing on these a pair of parallel heavy steel cables, starting from the mine, up the Du Toit’s Kloof, over the crest of the neck where the road backtracks and goes down towards Wellington – a distance of some eight kilometres. [The terminus of the cableway is in the Daljosaphat Forest Reserve about five hundred meters above to the right and from Hawequas. I found it some years ago after a fire, but now that the forest has regenerated, it would take a fair hunt to find it again. There were still some old bottles and pieces of porcelain plates that could be found on the site.] Engines at either end of the support cable would pull buckets loaded with ore, from the mine along one of the cables to this terminus near Wellington, while the empty buckets would return along the other cable.
The cableway was designed, manufactured, installed and apparently operated successfully, although many of its technical details are still obscure. Given the remoteness, ruggedness and extreme steepness of parts of the terrain which had to be traversed, as well as the great weight of the steel cables, the support towers and the haulage machinery, as well as the lack of suitable roads along which this great mass of material had to be hauled, this must without question rank as one of the truly great South African engineering feats. Sadly, it has and was never acknowledged as such – or indeed in any way. Unfortunately as well, no photographic record of the cableway appears to have survived, but the illustrations in a roughly contemporary manual, C.G. Warnford Lock’s Practical Gold-Mining (London, 1889) provides us with what is no doubt a reasonably clear idea of what the cableway looked like. (Refer to illustrations below).
Sometime In the late-1870’s the mine closed down. The reasons are not known, but is probably largely due to economics. Perhaps, like so many mines throughout the world, it ran out of capital rather than ore, or perhaps the world price of manganese fell to a point where mining was simply uneconomical? But the situation was to change in a most unexpected way.
In 1882 Robert (later Sir Robert) Hadfield, an eminent British metallurgist, made a remarkable discovery. Steel was tough but not very hard, while cast iron was hard but brittle. Hadfield was therefore searching for a material which possessed the toughness of steel with the hardness of cast iron. Eventually he discovered that a manganese-iron alloy possessed just those qualities – as well as being remarkably resistant to abrasion. This discovery was to change the face of metallurgy throughout the world – and perhaps even the very nature of Western society itself – and make manganese one of the most important of all alloying elements, a quality which it retains to this day in numerous extremely important products such as railway tracks.
Hadfield’s discovery meant that throughout the world there was energetic prospecting for new deposits of manganese, while old deposits and mines were re-examined with fresh eyes. Clearly the abandoned Du Toit’s Kloof mine was one of these, for it cannot simply be a coincidence that in 1883 we learn that, although the mine had not yet actually resumed working, a new cable was being installed in the cableway system. The following year the mine is reported as having been re-opened and was being worked by a private company, the ore being described as ‘plentiful and rich’. Once again, we have no evidence as to how long the mine operated and how much ore was actually transported to Wellington, but there is evidence that by the turn of the century it was definitely closed again, and by 1907 it was already being referred to as the ‘Old Manganese Mine’. A further attempt to work the mine in about 1911 resulted In an attempt to obtain a mining lease from the Government, the mine being on Crown Land, but nothing more is heard of this project and it was presumably not followed through.
Thus ended what is thus far the Western Cape’s largest mining venture. Like so many other mines throughout the world, it raised high the hopes of many people, absorbed a substantial amount of capital, was conceived with technical boldness and vision, prosecuted with skill, determination and courage by the miners themselves, but in the end failed due to one – or perhaps both – of those two eternal enemies of mining ventures everywhere: shortage of capital and insufficient reserves of payable ore. (Fraud has of course also played a prominent role in the failure of numerous mining ventures, with exploration samples all too often being ‘salted’ to increase their apparent value, but there is no evidence that this was the case here.)
Today all that remains of this bold venture are the underground workings at the mine itself (which must be entered with extreme caution due to a semi-collapsed portion about halfway along the adit where it passes through a clay band), there are some very dangerous open excavations above the entrance to the adit, a few of which are flooded, a number of piles of ore, pieces of the original machinery for working the cableway, and a number of rectangular stone structures which served as the foundations for the steel towers carrying the steel ropes of the cableway.
As far as the route of the original cableway is concerned, this can still be traced in many places by the pieces of manganese ore lying on the ground – presumably spilled out of the containers moving overhead. The stone foundations of the terminus of the cableway, not far from Wellington and located as mentioned in the forest, has unfortunately been damaged by forestry operations and is urgently needing restoration by a local historical group. Failing this, then another visible piece of our history will soon disappear. Of the company records there is, sadly, virtually no remnant.
Pass of the Week:
It is perfectly appropriate for us to feature the Bloukrans Pass this week. At least we have good video footage of it for you to enjoy.
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Words of Wisdom: "Opportunities don’t happen, you create them.”