Since the late nineteenth century, the undisputed king of gold mining has been the Republic of South Africa (formerly known as the Union of South Africa whose initials, U.S.A., could be used in tricky geography questions). But in the past week it has been reported that this venerable King Midas of gold producers may have finally lost its crown, being perhaps edged out by China with the U.S.A. (OUR U.S.A.) and Australia not far be-hind. I say perhaps because there is some dispute.
However, if no longer the king of the annual gold mining hill, South Africa will probably forever retain the lifetime achievement award. It has produced nearly 40% of all the gold ever mined. That is about 1.25 BILLION ounces (Whew!). No other country is anywhere near that and not likely to catch up. Their best year was 1970 when they cranked out more than 1,000 tons (31 million+ ounces) of yellow. Lately they've been under 300 tons and dropping. The mines are depleting or are so deep that they are no longer economic. Mean-while China, with new-found free enterprise, cheap labor, and foreign capital has been creeping up. But China's hundreds of mines are all runts com-pared to the South African "reefs."
Geologically, the reefs are not actually reefs, but rather fossil placers. They may have been the best places to pan for gold in all of earth's history. The envi-ronment is believed to have been a place where a large river flowed into an inland lake. The resultant loss of velocity caused the river to unload, just as it would to-day. Through time the river migrated from side to side and upstream and down with changes in the lake level so that the gold-rich layer was spread over a wide area. Finally with the lake and river long gone and the area buried by thousands of feet of sedi-ment, the placers solidified into nearly solid quartz with the gold scattered in-side. Earth movements then tilted the country so that the rich layers angled steeply downward. The gold is still there at depth but again economics deter-mine where it can be prof-itably mined. The deepest mine currently is the Sa-vuka at about 12,000 feet. The average grade is only about .16 oz/ton, which is a tribute to mining technol-ogy.
Our current claim to gold-mining fame is the Carlin Trend in northeast Nevada. With reserves of 150 million ounces of gold, this is defi-nitely world-class, although by now the easiest ounces have been mined. But even that is smallish beside the mighty figures of the Rand District of South Africa!