'Sandboarders' reclaim Johannesburg's mine dumps

Cherie lands head-first at the base of a sand dune, her feet in the air but still strapped to the “sandboard” she is hoping to master to surf on dunes in Johannesburg’s old gold mines.

One of a group of budding sandboarders, she was taking her first ride down Mount Mayhem, one of several dunes near the airport.

South Africa’s biggest city lies six hours from the sea and six hours from the nearest ski slopes, but the metropolis built on gold is dotted with abandoned mines, many filled with powdery sand that has inspired a new sport.

“There’s no other place like that in the world that runs like this sand does, because it’s so fine,” said Phil du Plessis, a web programmer and instructor for Pure Rush Industries, which organises weekend sandboard outings.

“The sand has been treated, refined. It’s less grainy here—it’s like baby powder,” he said.

“If you go on the coast, the sand is more grainy, you have to wax the board [and] you can’t ride when it’s wet,” he said.

The sand here is so fine because it is a by-product from gold mining—rocks that have been ground to dust to extract the precious metal.

Consisting mostly of quartz, with trace amounts of gold and pyrite, the powdery texture lets sandboarders speed downhill faster than on sandy beaches but with less freedom of movement than on snow, Du Plessis said.

Without snowy slopes nearby, Shaun Langkilde comes almost every week for the rush of the sandboard.

“It’s a huge adrenaline shot. You forget everything in the world, it takes away your stress and worries,” said the 22-year-old from under his red ski mask.

Others like Robert Lanferna de la Motte come to meet new people and get a work-out on the dunes, where there’s no ski lift to get to the top.

“It’s the best I ever had, but it’s also a great exercise walking up the madness mountain,” he said, standing next to a braai grill set up at the base of the dune.

“When you fall, it’s not painful.
The sand is soft.”

Novice sandboarders start out by hiking about halfway up the dune and surfing back down, until they get the hang of it.

After a few descents, the braver ones climb towards the top, where they can see the surrounding neighbourhoods, the minaret of a mosque and four or five other golden dunes along the horizon.

“This reminds me of a beach. If there was an ocean there, I would not be surprised,” said Jai Sewram, a 30-year-old artist with sand still stuck by ears and mouth after a particularly graceful fall.

“I would have never thought a mine dump would be like that,” he added.

“You see it from the motorway,” said Laura Hills, a 34-year-old mother who came with her children. “I expected it to be a little bit dirty and not so nice.”

The dunes have been around for a century, after an 1880s gold rush gave birth to Johannesburg. But modern mining techniques can now extract gold from the sand, and companies are already chewing away at the dunes.

“They have started on the other side of the the dune,” Du Plessis said.

“There would be a day when we came we won’t be able to ride anymore, but it won’t be for six, seven or 10 years.” - AFP

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