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A visit to a marble mine in Norway got me thinking

The UN Human Development Index ranks Norway as the best country in the world to live in. Life expectancy is high, the standard of living is very high, average years of education are high, the population is small (4.9 million), and unemployment is low, around 1.5%, and the economy is very green.

At face value, Norway and South Africa are worlds apart. However, an excursion to a working marble and limestone mine in Bergtatt, Norway got me thinking. It made me realise just how innovative the Norwegians are, and how South Africans, should take a leaf out of Norway’s book and innovate more.

The excursion to a marble mine, which looked very exciting on the Internet, disappointed. We were taken on a raft along a crystal lake through a few chambers. The marble was lit in places. After a very short ride, we disembarked, drank some of the purest water in the world, were given a brief lecture about marble, and re-boarded the raft. We returned to base, got off the raft and were taken to the grand hall to enjoy a bowl of soup and view a few educational DVDs. Up until this point I was underwhelmed.

Then things started getting interesting. I learnt that the owners hosted music concerts in the auditorium cum dining area where we were seated. The venue had been created in a mined-out chamber. The acoustics were good, and the novelty value of the venue, high. Could we do something similar in a venue such as the Cango caves, or the Sterkfontein caves? Could we host small musical concerts for a few hundred people? Imagine what a thrill it would be to hear Pumeza Matshikiza, Simphiwe Simon Sibamu or the Soweto Gospel Choir perform in either of these venues. For that matter, could we introduce a tourist excursion where we navigate a very short portion of the 1km long lake in the Sterkfontein caves? Tourists may be willing to part with fistfuls of Euros, dollars, pounds, yen or krone for such an excursion.

What about attractions like Blombos Cave, Boomplass Cave, Border Cave, Diepkloof Rock Shelter and Sibudu Cave? Could we turn these into exciting tourist destinations, targeting foreign tourists? How many jobs could we create, and how could we attract tourism, without impacting negatively on the environment? What exotic local dishes could we serve – koeksisters, boerewors, chakalaka and pap, braai/shisa nyama, bobotie or melktert?

South Africa has marble and granite quarries. What could we do to transform these into exciting tourist excursions? Tourists, mainly from Germany and the UK were prepared to travel in the dark, the pouring rain, and snowy conditions to view the marble mine in Bergtatt. The opportunity to view the enormous trucks used in the mining industry in South Africa is a thrill in itself.

Before viewing the mine’s educational video, I believed marble was used for kitchen counters, floor tiles, grave stones and ornaments. However, having viewed their video, I learnt that crushed marble is also used to make high quality paper, the type of paper that National Graphic is printed on.

Although Norwegian marble is amongst the best in the world, the mine only produces marble for the paper industry. The reason is simple – pure economics, it is more profitable. Simply blasting and crushing the marble is much less labour intensive and much cheaper than cutting slabs of marble. What really impressed me is the fact that the mine is operated by three people. They do everything. Every step in the process has been designed to be as efficient as possible.

The real Damascus moment was learning that given the shift to digital media and the decrease in demand for marble for manufacturing high quality paper, the mine has identified new revenue streams – building data storage facilities in chambers deep in the mine.  Marble is impervious to solar flares. Solar flares, which trigger auroras such as the Northern Lights, wreak havoc with technology. Mined chambers in marble mines provide a cheap, cool, dust-free environment. Thinking out of the box, Norway is positioning itself as an alternate data storage centre, to centres such as Frankfurt and Singapore.

Does anyone have any ideas how we could repurpose disused mine shafts in South Africa, create employment, and also create new revenue streams?

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