The Puckle Reef

2010-02-02 00:00

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!

Bright and yellow, hard and cold;

molten, graven, hammered and rolled;

heavy to get and light to hold.

(Thomas Hood)


MAN’S lust for gold probably goes back to the dawn of humankind, but the history of gold in Zululand dates back only as far as the 1800s. Towards the end of that century, the exploration for gold had reached fever pitch throughout South Africa, no doubt driven by discoveries of rich deposits and gold-bearing reefs near Barberton and Pilgrim’s Rest, and in particular by the discovery of the Great Reef at Langlaagte in the old Boer Republic in 1886. Over the next three decades many small gold deposits, too numerous to name, were discovered and worked in Natal and Zululand, but nothing as spectacular as the Witwatersrand conglomerates (sedimentary rock containing rounded pebbles and fragments in a finer-grained matrix that have become cemented together) were ever discovered here in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Wits conglomerates usually contain extremely finely divided gold, invisible to the naked eye, in its matrix. Conglomerate, or banket as it was also known, is what every gold prospector searched for. Any cong­lomerate found anywhere in South Africa was immediately assayed for gold.

With the advent of high-resolution satellite imagery and a multitude of new technologies in the seventies, mineral exploration companies decided to take another look at Zululand. JCI and Shell-Billiton both had geological exploration teams based in Eshowe in 1976 and at that time I worked in a chemical laboratory at Castle Lead Works in Isithebe. In that same year, Castle was approached by Shell-Billiton’s chief geologist, Dr Geoff Franks, who was looking for a laboratory that could undertake assay work. A deal was struck between the two companies and I was given the task of doing all of Shell-Billiton’s assays for copper, lead, nickel, zinc and gold. This arrangement worked very well as I also lived in Eshowe at the time, so the turnaround time on assays was quick.

These exploration activities drew a great deal of attention, especially in a small place like Eshowe. I, in particular, was fascinated to the extent that I did my own bit of research into gold. I started by collecting data on the old Minoru Gold Mine that operated not far from Eshowe in the late thirties, and this work culminated in me writing up the history of this mine for the Fort Nongqayi Museum in Eshowe. During the course of gathering information regarding minerals and prospectors I came across an amazing story.

In 1938, there was a part-time prospector named Len Gray who discovered a conglomerate near Eshowe that was so rich in gold that pinhead sized specks of gold could be seen throughout the reef. Gray, who owned a saw mill in Eshowe, had a partner who was a geologist and they and their wives staked claims along the strike of the reef. Both Gray and his partner are said to have believed firmly that they had located the Zululand extension of the famed Witwatersrand System. Before the news of this could make headlines, World War 2 started and prospecting for gold came to an abrupt end. The geologist partner, whose name I never did discover, died in the war and Gray took ill and died at the age of 57 in 1941.

In 1976, it seemed that the only person still living who would know the whereabouts of this gold-rich Zululand reef was Vie, Gray’s wife. However, she had remarried and was therefore difficult to trace. By a stroke of pure luck, I discovered that she had married a certain Morris Puckle and that the Puckles lived on a farm named Pook’s Hill which happened to be fewer than five kilometres from where I lived. At the first opportunity I rushed out to Pook’s Hill where I found Morris setting up a huge homemade telescope. He happily took time out to introduce me to Vie, whom I found to be a fascinating woman. I was very pleased when Vie confirmed the story of the reef and the claims that she and Len Gray had staked. She told me that the conglomerates occurred north of Eshowe near Nkwalini and that she would take me there and show me where they had staked their claims all those years ago, and we immediately set a date for an expedition to the reef.

The next weekend, I packed my Land Rover with everything we might need for the expedition, including a picnic basket, and set out for Pook’s Hill, but when I arrived Morris absolutely refused to let his wife go on a trip that he considered too dangerous. He said Vie was elderly and not in good health. She disagreed and was keen to go, but nevertheless the expedition was put on hold. I decided that it would be best to visit Vie at a later date and get as much information from her as possible regarding what I had by then begun to call the “Puckle Reef”, and its whereabouts.

About 10 days later, I received the shocking news that Vie had died, and gone was the last person who knew the complete history of the Puckle Reef, together with all of the wonderful stories that she could have told regarding the exploration of gold in Zululand in the thirties. Gone was the last chance of finding what possibly could be a treasure trove. That was in June 1976.

A few months later, *Johan of the Bantu Investment Corporation in Isithebe, arrived at the laboratory with a chunk of conglomerate that had been given to him by a Zululand sugar-cane farmer. The farmer claimed that the rock was rich in gold, but Johan wanted us to prove that it was only “fool’s gold”, or iron pyrites, and was shocked when we proved the opposite. The pinhead-sized yellow specks with which the rock was literally peppered, were actually gold specks and it was the richest piece of gold-bearing conglomerate that I had seen. The farmer had apparently said that the reef ran right across his land, but he did not want any mining activities on his farm and had sworn Johan to secrecy regarding his identity and the whereabouts of the reef. Could this be an extension of, or a part of the Puckle Reef?

In 1980, my brother and I owned an engineering works in Krugersdorp that made mining equipment and after delivering a batch of mine props to West Driefontein Gold Mine near Carltonville, I was invited to a braai there. At this braai, the geologists and mining engineers were telling some amazing stories regarding gold exploration, so I thought I would mention the Puckle Reef and the fact that Gray had had the “ridiculous” belief that it was part of the Witwatersrand System. I was immediately pulled aside and asked to keep my voice down as their exploration people were in fact secretly searching for a missing portion of the Wits System in Zululand. I asked if it was even remotely possible that the Wits conglomerates could occur in Zululand.

“Certainly,” a geologist replied, “look at Swartkoppies — no one can explain why it’s there, but it is, and in any event, seismic tests have indicated that there are extensive sedimentary beds six kilometres below the Pongola Flats which may well be a missing portion of the Wits System. Consider all the Free State gold reefs; they are all more than a kilometre below the surface. For now, six kilometres is too deep to mine, but in a decade or two, who knows?”

To say the least, I was amazed. Could the Puckle Reef be the only portion of a vast undiscovered treasure trove, the rim of which extends to the surface on a hill near Nkwalini? On the other hand, if a vast, deep-seated complex unbelievably rich in gold exists under the Pongola Flats, could it be the edge of this that runs across that anonymous farmer’s sugar-cane farm? Right now a Zululand farmer might be sitting on his veranda with a mug of coffee in one hand and a piece of rock in the other, and saying to himself: “No one will ever know about the gold reef that runs across my farm.”


* Name changed.


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