We move cautiously into a narrow gap in the mineshaft and cross from the orange dusk of the South African veldt into absolute darkness. Beneath us is a subterranean realm that plunges more than a mile into the earth’s core, a hellish place where touch eclipses sight and the rule of law is handed down by desperate men, armed with home-made grenades and machetes.
From deep within this abandoned gold mine comes the distant hack-hack of heavy drilling. “Zama Zama,” says our guide, clutching his old Mauser rifle. “Gold pirates.” His eyes bulge with fear.
The suffocating air smells of diesel fuel and ammonia in a shaft that has not seen natural light since it was sealed by its owners nearly 20 years ago.
The tunnel stretching before us winds down and splits into two. “If we take it, can we make it back?” I ask our guard. Gripping his woefully inadequate weapon, he puts his index finger to his mouth and whispers: “They are right beneath us.”
His face is a mask of terror as we hear the distant crack of a pistol. “They are warning us. They will move up the shaft and kill us. It is time to go.”