Mining in Tsumeb
The greatest crystal-producing mine on earth
Mining was started in the place now known as Tsumeb well before historical records were kept. Then it's thought that the San, who were known to have settlements at Otjikoto Lake, 24km away, were probably attracted by the hill's green colour, and perhaps mined malachite here. This they probably then traded with Ovambo people who would smelt it to extract the copper. Perhaps the earliest records of this are from the writings of Francis Galton who, in 1851, met both Bushmen and Ovambos transporting copper near Otjikoto.
In 1893, Matthew Rogers came to the Green Hill here for about a year, sinking test mine shafts and concluding that there was a major deposit of copper and lead here, with also quantities of other commodities including gold and silver. Later similar tests in 1893 and 1900 quantified this further; all suggested a very rich area for minerals and ore.
To exploit this deposit, a railway was built in 1905 and 1906, linking Tsumeb with Walvis Bay. By 1907 the mine was producing high-grade copper and lead ores. Despite halting production during the First and Second world wars, mining expanded steadily here. By 1947 the mine extended to 576m below the surface, and most of the higher levels of the mine had been exhausted. Further investigations showed the existence of further reserves.
Various changes in ownership of the mine occurred after the wars. By 1966 the mine had produced over nine million tonnes of ore; its reserves were estimated at eight million tonnes. However, in May 1996 mining ceased in some of the deeper levels (which, by then, were around 1650m below surface) because the cost of pumping out water from these levels had finally outweighed the cost of the ore recovered. This was the beginning of the end. In June one of the main shafts was flooded after its pumps were switched off, and a large strike (July/August 1996) finally stopped mining operations, and the mine closed.
As well as producing huge quantities of ore, Tsumeb was described as 'the greatest crystal-producing mine on earth' for its amazing variety of geological specimens, crystals and minerals. Numerous rare minerals had been found here, some had been completely unique to Tsumeb. Thus, in October 2000, a specialist mining company – Tsumeb Specimen Mining (Pty) Ltd – again started mining the upper levels of the complex. This time they were looking for one-off 'specimens' of minerals, rather than large quantities of ore.
For much more information on the mine and its minerals, both past and present, see the excellent www.mineralmining.com. Here you'll also find updates on what's been found most recently there, and some very technical information on the mine's geology.