The Keeper of the Dynamite

by | Mar 30, 2013 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg Day Trips, Museums and Buildings | 18 comments

A few weeks ago, while Dad and I were staying at DeHoek Country Hotel, we found ourselves with an afternoon to kill in the Cradle of Humankind.

We considered going to Maropeng, the flagship attraction in the Cradle. But after two weeks of stuffing his brain with every facet of South Africa’s history, Dad couldn’t face the prospect of absorbing the history of humankind in an afternoon.

I was also a bit exhausted with my role as enthusiastic Jozi tour guide. I sat on my luxurious bed at DeHoek and flipped idly through the hotel’s guest services directory. Something caught my eye.

“Old Kromdraai Gold Mine,” I read aloud.

“Yes,” said Dad. “Let’s go there.”

There wasn’t much to go on — a phone number that didn’t work and a numberless street address (Ibis Ridge Farm, Kromdraai Rd., Kromdraai) that didn’t pop up in my phone’s GPS. Miraculously, we found it.

Kromdraai sign

There was a teeny-tiny sign at the entrance to the farm. We nearly sped past it. In fact we did speed past it. I had to stop the car and back up.

We turned into the narrow gravel driveway and arrived on a dilapidated farm. The farm seemed deserted save for a herd of small dogs.

2 dogs

Kromdraai dogs.

We walked to the nearest farm building, climbed the porch steps, and found a sign that said, “Mine tour in progress. Please wait.” We sat down and waited.

dad waiting

Good time to catch up on Instagram.

The sign said tours occur on the hour. We arrived at 3:20. I peeked into the small “museum” inside the house. It was filled with old, musty stuff. I turned a few pages of the dog-eared museum guest book. The ancient book had hundreds of entries dating back to 2000, from people all over the world. Despite the lack of advertising, word somehow gets around about this place.

Kromdraai toys

Creepy old toys inside the museum.

By 4:00 p.m. I was dying of boredom. At 4:10 I looked at my watch. “I say we wait five more minutes and leave,” I said.

At 4:13 we heard voices. A thin, nutty-professor-ish man in a khaki vest — obviously the guide — rounded the corner of the house, accompanied by a tourist. I took one look at the guide and knew we’d made the right decision by waiting.

The guide shook hands with us and introduced himself as Gavin. “I normally close at 4:00,” said Gavin. I opened my mouth to protest. “But I’ll make an exception,” he said.

Gavin with map

Gavin Whatley, owner of the Old Kromdraai Gold Mine.

Gavin pulled out a giant old map of the Kromdraai mine. I must admit that I didn’t listen carefully enough to what Gavin was saying; I was too busy photographing him.

Kromdraai was one of the first gold mines discovered in South Africa. Gold was discovered on the Kromdraai farm in 1881, five years before the gold rush began in Johannesburg.

The farm had been abandoned for years when Gavin and his wife purchased it in the 1990s and moved back to South Africa from the UK. Although the Whatleys knew there was an old mine on the farm, they had no intention of restoring it when they moved there. Gavin is a sculptor and planned to use the farm as a place to run his art business.

But this is South Africa and things don’t always turn out as expected.

Gavin took us inside the musty museum.

desk and portrait

Old desk with a portrait of the guy who managed the Kromdraai mine in the 1880s. Unfortunately I have forgotten the man’s name. However, I do remember one interesting fact that Gavin told us about this guy: He taught Paul Kruger — the first president of the South African Republic — how to read and write. According to Gavin, Paul Kruger was illiterate until after he became president.

Finally it was time to go into the mine. We walked out the back of the musty museum to the mine entrance. As we walked down the path toward the entrance, I felt a wall of cool air pushing toward us. The mine is the same temperature all year round. (It would be nice if I had written down what that temperature is, as I’ve now forgotten. But it felt pleasantly cool compared to the heat of the late summer afternoon.)

mine entrance

The mine has been restored to look just as it did in the 1880s. A local mining company (can’t remember which one) lent Gavin some of its workers and helped him to restore the mine properly.

Gavin gave us each a flashlight and we followed him in.

inside mine


Quick note to the animal-phobes: There are bats in the Kromdraai mine. Lots of them. They fly around and whoosh past your head at very close range. It’s actually kind of a cool feeling, but rather disconcerting. Apparently there are snakes too, although we didn’t see any. Do not go on this tour if you are afraid of slithering reptiles or flying rodents.

A little way down the tunnel there is a mine shaft. We stood under it and Gavin took our picture.

Dad and Heather mine shaft

Father-daughter portrait, in a mine shaft. (Photo: Gavin Whatley)

We crept deeper into the mine. Gavin showed us the “magazine”, where the explosives for blasting deeper into the mine used to be kept. “It’s a shame,” Gavin said as we looked at the magazine, which is now just an empty cavity in the wall of the mine.”The keeper of the dynamite isn’t here.”

On the way out of the mine, Gavin stopped and shone his flashlight on the ground. “Oh, here he is!” said Gavin happily. “The keeper of the dynamite.”

the keeper of the dynamite

The keeper of the dynamite. He is much larger than my hand. I wouldn’t mess with him — would you? (Photo: Tenney Mason)

I loved the Old Kromdraai Gold Mine. It was the perfect quirky experience to end my Dad’s visit to South Africa. It’s worth a visit, if you can find it. Admission is R100 for adults and R50 for kids.

toad by Heather

The visit is worth it for the keeper of the dynamite alone.

Post-script: I’ve discovered the correct phone numbers to reach Gavin and his wife at Kromdraai. Call 082 259 2162 or 073 147 8417.


  1. Janet Hopkins

    Sounds like a really interesting visit,.

  2. beeseeker

    This is really a superb piece; you take some fantastic photos, such a range, the small, the intimate and the thought-provoking: great job, thanks for sharing your experiences and your thoughts … and a magical title!

    • 2summers

      Thanks so much, I really appreciate that!

  3. larkycanuck

    iId be shit scared to venture in this cavernous place.

    • 2summers

      Haha. Caves aren’t for everyone I guess.

  4. eremophila

    Fascinating! But then again, I’ve got a mining background….. Glad you waited!!

    • 2summers

      You would’ve loved it in there!

  5. Owls

    What a great post!! Loved it!

  6. Sylvia Harding

    Wow hey I know Gavin and his wife, my husband and i lived in Bryanston Joburg
    and bought his art that was around 1992-3. South Africa is filled with interesting
    to see and do. We spent two and a half years there, loved it all people the country
    the food.

    • 2summers

      Hi Sylvia, wow, small world! Thanks very much for your comment and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my blog.

  7. berlie

    We have just been there.. it was a last minute change of plans. Loved every minute of it!!!!!

    • 2summers

      So glad to hear that!

  8. Jane

    We visited there last week. You are so right – he is the epitome of the nutty professor, but what a lovely man. The temperature of the mine, by the way, is 16C.

    • 2summers

      Oh, I’m so glad to hear you went there too. Cool.



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