A strange disturbance among rocks on a hillside caught the eye of Fred Struben, one day in 1884. He and his brother Harry had spent years prospecting for gold on their farms 60 kilometres north of the Vaal River.
The Strubens were not the only people who had bought farms on this drab and treeless plateau, less because they had faith in the soil, than because they were convinced that gold ores were to be found here. Gold had already been discovered to the east, in Barberton. The rock here looked very similar. Scores of prospectors had been patiently panning for gold in this area for years - without success.
Fred Struben discovered gold at the Confidence Reef Mine - but his luck didn't last long
Struben clambered the hill, broke off a piece of the disturbed strata of rocks, crushed and panned it. A teaspoon of gold appeared in his pan. He and his brother named the find the Confidence Reef Mine.
Years later, Fred was to write an article for the Rand Daily Mail, describing his moment of triumph: "Suddenly I looked up against the southern range, and saw that a disturbance had taken place in the rocks. I immediately conceived the idea of the possibility of a reef in that formation. The thought gave me new life and vigour. All depression and tiredness left me, and I moved quickly forward to the spot. I was not wrong in my opinion for there I found a reef cutting right through the displaced strata.
"Hastily I broke off a piece of the surface rock, and took it to a stream nearby which ran down the valley only some fifty yards away. I crushed the stone on a large flat rock, slipped it into the pan I always carried with me and panned it . . . Imagine my joy, when, out of that little bit of rock, there came almost a teaspoonful of gold, the pan being literally covered with it."
One of the samples revealed an incredible result: 913 ounces of gold in one ton of rock. Fred said: "The gold permeated the quartz and was visible all through."
Alas, Confidence Reef did not quite live up to its name. The gold was in quartz rock, which contains flashes of gold and other minerals, rather than long-term, payable rock. As Fred's article explained: "After this first discovery, however, all trace of it was lost, and further prospecting failed to locate its destination." The Confidence Mine lasted for a year before it ran dry.
Most prospectors of the period were working on quartz rock. But what they needed to tap into was a "banket" or conglomerate, which most prospectors were not familiar with and did not yet recognise. Banket is a Dutch word, used because the rock resembles a Dutch sweetmeat. A banket indicates a deep, payable reef.
But Confidence Reef Mine, nonetheless, is where Johannesburg's history as a city of gold began. It was declared a national monument in 1984. The remains of the mine are still visible, inside the Kloofendal Nature Reserve, in Roodepoort, on the western flank of Johannesburg.
It's a pleasant 500 metre walk from the car park to the diggings, a series of shallow caves and pits in the side of a koppie. The diggings can only be visited by appointment. Phone the Roodepoort Museum on 011 761 0225 to arrange a guided tour.
The name 'Witwatersrand' means "white waters", but there are no prominent white waters around Johannesburg. The name refers to an optical illusion caused by quartzite, a white rock found on the Witwatersrand. Seen from a distance after rain, quartzite rocks look like glistening water. The rock also contains pyrite which is visible as gold specks, hence the name "fool's gold".
The Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust does a tour of the city's remnants of gold prospecting, several times a year. It takes in the head gear at Langlaagte where the first gold was found, the Crown Mines village south of the city, and the Chamber of Mines building in the CBD. Phone 011 482 3349 to find out when the next gold tour takes place.