5 February 2012 by Chris Marais

A digger’s life

Gold diggers of yore lived rough. They worked hard and partied hard in some unforgiving conditions.

Whenever I drive around Barberton, the little Mpumalanga nugget that lies at the foot of the Makhonjwa Mountains, I wonder what it really was like to be a gold digger here back in the old days.

You lived rough, that’s for sure. It was you, your floppy old hat, your prospecting pan, your pick ‘n shovel and your donkey. Oh, the donkey. Not always the brightest member of the equine family.

You had some form of large-calibre firearm, which was the equivalent of a modern-day shopping card. Pity the digger who possessed a high-acid, meat intolerance. Imagine humping your gear through these hills with a big toe throbbing with gout.

Then there were optional extras, like a battered old guitar or a banjo to play on moonlit nights, when thoughts strayed to womenfolk left behind in a city somewhere in England, France or America. Mostly, I suppose, they carried harmonicas because they were both tuneful and portable.

No digger, it seems, went without his square-face bottles of gin. Amateur archaeologists and hill-stepping historians have been finding discarded gin bottles in the De Kaap Valley around Barberton for more than a century. So the boys drank, that we know.

In fact, a bottle of Holland’s square-face gin was broken on a piece of Barber’s Reef in honour of the new town of Barberton. The town itself was a long string of tents and canteens, as diggers and prospectors from all over the world yacked, gambled and fought the night away.

Amateur archaeologists and hill-stepping historians have been finding discarded gin bottles in the De Kaap Valley around Barberton for more than a century.

The few girls brave enough to sell their wares in Barberton made a fortune. But women were so scarce out here that the men ended up bull-dancing in the bars out of desperation. A lot of toes were stepped on in the process, one can only surmise.

You have to understand that the place was utter madness in 1880s. There was so much gold being dug out of the surrounding geological formations that stock exchanges were going up in Barberton, cheek-by-jowl with the cathouses.

To me, the most amazing fact of it all is that after carousing all night, the digger would pick himself up from the floor of the canteen, shake the sawdust from his britches and stalk out into the cruel sunlight. And then toil the day away in the heat.

And then, when the sun went down, he would make for the tavern once more and spend all his earnings. Like they say out here in the Karoo, there’s no pill for stupid…

Category: Culture & History

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