Updated: Jan 11, 2021
I was in Ghana during August-September of 2013 to research illegal gold mining, which will be the background for the 4th Inspector Darko Dawson novel. See my previous posts for the story of how Chinese miners have engaged in widespread illegal mining in Ghana with destructive consequences to the environment. The mad hunt for gold is a fascinating intersection of human behavior, mineral science, and environment. I was surprised by the number of ways gold is mined.
1. Individual panning
This is the oldest and simplest method. Get your pan, scoop some gravel from the riverbank into it, then wash the sediment with water while swilling it around and looking for the telltale glint of gold.
LONE PANNER AT RIVER NEAR (Photo by Kwei Quartey)
We found Kofi, the solitary young man shown above, panning for gold at a river near a village called Nyame B?kyer? (God will show it). Kofi is a high school graduate trying to collect enough gold to pay for admission to one of Ghana’s mining training institutes. He showed us his yield of gold so far for that day (below). Note that although the area he is working in was being illegally mined by the Chinese before they were ejected by the Ghana government, as a Ghanaian citizen, Kofi is legally permitted to engage in small-scale gold mining–foreigners are not.
TINY SPECKS OF GOLD (CENTER) AFTER WASHING GREY-BLACK GRAVEL, WHICH HAS THE HIGHEST YIELD (Photo Kwei Quartey)
2. Group digging and washing
To increase the yield of gold, which can be notoriously poor, many people get together with friends and/or family, digging up as much gravel and sediment as possible, typically at a river site. The gravel is washed on a device called a sluice box, and if one is lucky, one might find some fragments of gold.
A LARGE GROUP OF PEOPLE USING A SITE DESERTED BY CHINESE MINERS–SOME MAY BE WORKING TOGETHER OR BY THEMSELVES (Photo Kwei Quartey)
A SMALLER GROUP (FAMILY) WASHING GRAVEL FOR GOLD DEPOSITS (Photo Kwei Quartey)
I TRY MY HAND AT THE SLUICE BOX (Photo Kwei Quartey)
3. Mechanized excavation
The problem with manual labor, of course, is that the amount of gravel that can be washed in one day is limited. To move hundreds of tons daily, buy one or more excavators and earth movers. Only an excavator can create the kind of tremendous depth of the pit shown below, for example. This particular site has already been prospected on and is known to have substantial deposits of gold. One can often find a site like this by sound: follow the drone of the excavator.
GOLD ORE MAY DIFFER WIDELY IN COLOR AND SHADE (Photo Kwei Quartey)
The gold here is reportedly so plentiful that the area is protected by armed guards.
PUMP ACTION SHOTGUNS ARE THE WEAPON OF CHOICE FOR GUARDS AT MINES (Photo Kwei Quartey)
Of all excavators, CAT machines are still the favorite for performance and reliability, but one can also pick up lots of other brands from China if so inclined. Whichever brand is used, these powerful machines help miners dig up, destroy, pit, and scar the landscape in the obsessive quest for gold.
MASSIVE CAT EXCAVATOR AT A MINING SITE, WASHING TROMMEL IN BACKGROUND RIGHT (Photo Kwei Quartey)
An industrial-sized trommel (background right in the photo above and closeup below), which can handle the huge output of an excavator, is used to wash the gravel.
GOLD-WASHING TROMMEL WITH A ROTATING WASHING CAGE CAN HANDLE HUGE AMOUNTS OF GOLD ORE DAILY (Photo Kwei Quartey)
4. Riverbed dredging
Another technique is to attack the riverbed itself, rather than the banks. Workers churn up the bed with dredging poles and the alluvial deposits are pumped up onto the barge for washing, as shown in this short video. This technique can be fraught with dangers such as being swept away by river currents and/or drowning, and if you are to work on the barge, you’d better be a strong swimmer.
5. Deep mining
Although I saw mostly alluvial mining sites, I did get to some deep mines. Digging this deep can be particularly dangerous because of issues with inadequate oxygen, and the findings of gold can be notoriously rare. However I was told that if one does find gold by this technique, the amounts are likely to be many times greater than with surface mining.
A MINE SHAFT GOING STRAIGHT DOWN AND OUT OF VIEW TO THE RIGHT (Photo Kwei Quartey)
Now that you have your tiny nuggets of gold, what do you do with them?
After all your labor, you now have small bits of gold. How do you combine the fragments together into one convenient piece that you can sell to the gold buyers? Answer: mercury. In the first stage, one combines elemental mercury with gold to form an amalgam. This short video shows how it’s done by the small-scale miner in Ghana and many other parts of the world. The mercury is then burned off with a blowtorch, as shown here. Mercury is toxic to humans and animals in both liquid and gaseous form, and it accumulates in rivers and fish because of mining activities.
From the Museum of Chinese Illegal Mining Artifacts:
AN OLD ANALOGUE DIAL PANEL FROM AN ABANDONED WATER PUMP (Photo Kwei Quartey)
SPENT SHOTGUN CARTRIDGES FOUND AT THE SITE OF ABANDONED CHINESE MINES (Photo Kwei Quartey)