Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

There’s gold in them hills!

Roger Gaisford has a Jeep, a CJ2A to be precise, which he bought on a military surplus vehicle disposals sale in Pretoria in 1971. It is one of the 300 or so that were supplied to the South African Defence Force in 1948 by Stanley Motors, the Willys agents in South Africa. He has many fond memories of not only the vehicle, but also the places it has taken him.

The Tati River forms the border between western Zimbabwe and eastern Botswana. This area was once known as the Tati Concession, with Francistown at its centre, and it was here that Daniel Francis found gold in 1870. A gold rush ensued, and as prospective miners flocked to the area more discoveries were made to the east in what became Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

Prospectors went at it hammer and tongs. Mines such as Todd’s Creek, Selkirk, The Moth, Double Luck and Signal Hill were developed but the Monarch Mine, which was in operation until the late 1960’s, turned out to have the only worthwhile deposit. The bush in the Tati area around Francistown – which, incidentally, developed as a result – is littered with abandoned workings, pits, shafts, and holes, some predating modern European efforts, and all offering a fraught future to anyone who falls into them.

During the late 1960’s The South Eastern Districts Geological Exploration Company (SEDGE), an Anglo American Corporation subsidiary in Rhodesia, began prospecting the area again, the major effort concentrated on a copper/nickel deposit at the old Selkirk mine southeast of Francistown. At the same time the gold workings were also sampled, led by a Dutch geologist named Dirk Diedericks. It was into this cauldron that I was thrown in 1970.

My academic career at the University of the Witwatersrand was interrupted when I was accused of spending more time in the Devonshire Hotel Bar than in class. Not particularly wanting to wander about kicking cans, I took the road taken by other mates who had also found themselves on backroads to nowhere and applied to a mining house for a job in mineral exploration.

The Anglo American Corporation of South Africa obliged with an opportunity on a gold exploration project in Botswana, run by SEDGE. With high hopes, I boarded my 1948 CJ2A Jeep and headed north. I arrived at the SEDGE office in Francistown two days later. Parked in the street outside stood an old British Army Humber FV 1601. I was welcomed by John Kernick, the exploration manager. He was a Rhodesian who had spent his life in exploration and was known as ‘Pop’ by all. He handed me a beer and asked if I knew anything of machines. I said that I did, as my grandfather had a drilling business in northern Natal, and I had made study money driving trucks for him.

John wanted me to operate a wagon drill in the dry sand of the Ramokgebane Riverbed to find deep holes where water dammed beneath the surface. This would be pumped out by a well point sunk to the riverbed to feed the drilling machines at Selkirk. That done, I would commence working with Diedericks on the gold exploration project.

I asked John about the Humber parked outside. He said it had been left by a British army unit sent to guard the radio station in Francistown. A number of Austin FV 1801 Champs and Austin K9 trucks had also been left behind.

Diedericks, a gangly Hollander whose head was adorned by a drooping felt hat and his upper lip by a similar moustache, occupied a neighbouring office. He was assisted by Hedley Gerhardt, a student from Cape Town who, like me, had taken a year off to work and accumulate study money.

Diedericks explained that in the 1860’s gold was discovered in the Francistown area of the Tati Concession of Bechuanaland, now Botswana. These discoveries led to further discoveries to the east in what became Rhodesia. SEDGE was involved in prospecting a copper/nickel deposit, but also in sampling old gold workings.

At precisely four thirty Pop put his head around the door and called: “Beer!” Without further ado we traipsed around the corner to settle into the Grand Hotel bar for beer, steak, egg and chips. The weekend was spent exploring Francistown, but despite its importance as a major junction there was very little to see in the very dusty dorpie.

On the Monday morning I was assigned a Land Rover and a pleasant assistant by the name of German T Nhlangano and set off to the prospecting camp at Selkirk, which consisted of a collection of tin-roofed shacks and tents. Mouldering in a heap of scrap metal lay the remains of an ex-South African Defence Force 1952 Ford F6, used by miners years before. A drilling machine at work in the yard was built on a CMP C60 chassis, still running on its original axles and wheels.

I met the rest of the staff over beers at sundowner. As explained by Pop, my first job was to locate pools or areas in the bed of the Ramokgwebane River, from where water could be pumped and piped to the drilling machines at Selkirk. This involved towing a wagon drill powered by compressed air behind the Land Rover… a somewhat arduous occupation as the only way in which it could pull the heavy drill through the soft dry sand was by laying a track of sheets of corrugated roofing iron. To exacerbate matters, the hypochondriac Land Rover’s gearbox, clutch and other components needed constant attention.

One morning I was approached by two fellows, Gary MacDonald and Rob Clarke, who walked across the dry riverbed to see what was going on. Gary farmed cattle on the Rhodesian side of the border, while Rob was a policeman, who was stationed at Mphoengs nearby.

After explaining my work, Gary asked if I could do him a great favour. Pointing upstream, he indicated an outcrop of rocks on the Rhodesian bank, about 500 metres away. He explained that there was a permanent pool of water there, water on which his cattle depended, and he would greatly appreciate it if I left it alone. “Join us for a beer sometime, my house is in the bush on the hill up there,” he said. That was the beginning of a great friendship…

Shortly thereafter I crossed the Ramokgwebane River late one afternoon and drove to Gary’s house. This was a mini fortress. The yard, about a quarter of an acre in extent, was surrounded by a three-metre high concrete wall. The small main house – consisting of a sitting room, kitchen, main bedroom and bathroom – was built along the back wall, with a rondavel at each end serving as dining room and spare bedroom. I was greeted by Gary’s wife, Adie, who immediately offered beer. Sitting on the shaded veranda she told me something of life cattle farming at Mphoengs. A little later Gary came in, more beers were served, a fire was lit, and we got down to discussions and stories… and a forever enduring friendship.

A short while later I joined Gerhardt on the gold prospecting programme. He was involved in grid soil sampling, surveying and pegging lines on the ground. My job was somewhat different. I had to take soil and rock samples from every mine shaft, stope or prospecting pit in the area. This involved lowering an aluminium ladder into the shaft, often 30 or more metres deep, with the top rung secured by a good rope to a bush or the Land Rover’s front bumper. Then, hooking on a safety chain, I would descend to the bottom of the ladder where – sometimes precariously balanced – I chiselled a rock sample from the width of the shaft with my geologist’s pick. Visits to the ever-hospitable Gary and Adie helped soothe my nerves.

Over a public holiday at the end of September to celebrate Botswana’s independence, five of us boarded Dave Le Maitre’s diesel Land Rover pickup and headed to Maun, on the edge of the Okavango Delta, for a change of scenery and to do some fishing. In places the road crossed sections of the northern shore of the great Makgadikgadi Pans. While crossing just such a spot, one of the boys called out: “Look, there’s a plane!” It was, in fact, a four-seater Piper Cherokee which had landed due to engine failure. It stood nose tipped into the mud. As we drove past, a man and woman climbed out of the aircraft.

Gingerly driving onto the pan, we stopped and offered assistance. They were flying to Maun to take a boat safari into the Okavango Delta and were booked to stay at Lloyd Wilmot’s Croc Camp, which was also our destination. With them squashed into the not-quite-comfortable Land Rover cab and the rest of us perched on the baggage in the back we continued to Maun to arrive in time for sundowners.

After a few days enjoying the clear water and bream fishing in the Boro River, exploring the nearby reaches of the Okavango Delta and draining many beers in the Croc Camp bar, we headed back to Maun. The year was drawing to an end and after a momentous party at the Grand Hotel I loaded my Jeep and headed home to Pretoria.

Botswana… what an adventure! I have returned many times since and have explored its every corner. My friends, family and I now own a tract of land in one of its wildest corners. I love the place, and still have my most cherished 1948 Willys Jeep.

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