In my recent post about the Chilli Pepper restaurant, I briefly referred to a mine dump at the end of Immink Drive in Diepkloof, Soweto.

Mine dump behind Chilli Pepper on Immink Drive
The big hill in the background is a mine dump.
View of mine dump at the end of Immink Drive
Another look from further down the street.

Like many Joburgers, I’ve always been both fascinated and appalled by these mountains of golden waste. Mine dumps are massive monuments to human greed, reminders of a time when insatiable hunger for gold drove powerful men to empty the earth beneath Johannesburg, pile it up where it didn’t belong, then leave that poisoned earth to blow dust into the lungs of former mine workers who — like the mine waste itself — got tossed away like garbage once they were no longer useful to the money-making machine.

The dumps soared above the city in the second half of the 20th century, competing for attention with downtown skyscrapers. Mine dumps came to define the geography of Johannesburg — one of many weird features that make this city unique.

Then in the early 2000s, the mining companies realized there was still quite a lot of gold in those dumps and began sifting through the waste again, trying to remove every last golden cent. Just like that, the mine dumps (especially the dumps close to the inner city) began to disappear. Since I arrived just over a decade ago, many of these waste mountains have been diminished into ragged, depressing-looking hillocks.

(Geographers: Please feel free to correct this lyrical yet overly simple and probably incorrect history of Joburg mine dumps.)

Street in Noordgesig
A mine dump in Noordgesig, another Soweto suburb not far from Diepkloof. In fact, I just looked at Google Maps and realized this is the same mine dump that looms at the bottom of Immink Drive, viewed from the west instead of the south.

I digressed for a bit there. But what I really want to tell you is I climbed the Diepkloof mine dump a couple of weeks ago with my boyfriend Thorsten and two other guys. Thorsten and his colleague Tebogo Ramatlo are making a TV pilot about the architecture of “matchbox houses”: the cramped, four-room houses built for Black and Coloured people in Soweto (and lots of other places in South Africa) during apartheid. Thorsten and Tebogo climbed the mine dump with their filmmaker, Dominique Vandenhout, to get a birds-eye view of the township. I invited myself along.

I’ve always wanted to climb a mine dump and I’m glad I finally did, although it was rather terrifying. Here are some photos of the journey.

Walking over a toxic waste stream
After crossing Soweto Highway, hopping the knee-height barrier, and wading through some garbage, we had to cross this fluorescent blue toxic waste stream. The rocky bank still looks like it has actual gold in it, but maybe it’s just rust.
Don't drink the water sign
I think this sign is telling people not to drink the water.
Dominique running up the hill
Dominique runs up the steep slope of the dump so he could film Thorsten and Tebogo climbing. I ran with him, of course, so I could stay out of his shots. This was not easy because Dominique is fast.
Guy on a lawn chair enjoying the mine dump
About a quarter of the way up the dump we met this guy, sitting on a lawn chair and chilling. He didn’t seem to be doing anything — just sitting and enjoying the view.
Climbing the dump
Climbing.
Thorsten's sketch of climbing the mine dump
One of a series of sketches Thorsten made to illustrate the sequence of the TV show. You can see few more of these sketches at @thethinking_hand.
Vegetation on the dump
I was surprised by how much vegetation grows on a mine dump. It’s mostly spiky weeds, which can really scratch up your skin if you run through them in shorts. I only realized this when we reached the top and discovered about 20 bloody scratches on my legs. Luckily the scratches have since healed and I don’t think they deposited any toxic chemicals into my body.
Tebogo looking zen
Tebogo, near the top, looking a lot more zen than I felt.
view near the top of a mine dump in Soweto
When we got to what I thought was the top of the dump, then realized with extreme disappointment that there was actually another whole level. We stopped here though. This was also the point when we suddenly heard fierce barking and saw four big dogs charging toward us and I yelled “F*ck!” right in the middle of Dominique’s shoot. The dogs belonged to shepherds who graze their cows on the mine dump and they retreated immediately as soon as their owners called them. They scared the crap out of me though.
Looking down on Immink Drive
Looking down on Immink Drive.
The crew.
The crew.
Tebogo and Thorsten on the mine dump
I’m not happy with this shot due to the positioning of that one pesky weed. But Tebogo loves it so I’m including it here, just for him.
Drawing of the same scene.

Our climb down was uneventful.

Thorsten, Tebogo, and Dominique climbed the dump again two days later to capture some more footage. But I decided one mine dump climb in a lifetime is enough for me. They climbed while I sat at Chilli Pepper and drank a Coke.

If you’d like to learn more about Soweto’s matchbox houses and the TV pilot Thorsten and Tebogo are making, tune in to 93.8 Mix FM at 7 p.m. South African time tonight (April 21st). They’ll be talking to architect and Mix FM radio host David Gurney about the project. (I was also on this show once and it’s super fun.)

Heather on the dump
Victorious “I’m on a mine dump!” shot. If you zoom in, you might be able to see the blood on my legs. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)

Follow 26’10 south Architects for updates on the matchbox pilot. I’ll also post more about the pilot in the near future.

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