Gold Prospecting in Liberia: Jungle Gold

Few gold prospectors would decline the chance to go to the rain forest of central Africa on a quest for gold. Only the lack of opportunity prevents it. When I heard about an expedition mounted by two Swiss enthusiasts, I was anxious to have more details and over the last three years, I have slowly pieced together an account of their adventure.

Like many undertakings, it started with “a friend of a friend who knew a man.” Mr. Keller was a Swiss national living in Liberia and, some years earlier, he had searched for gold in the country. Roland Brunner of Bremgarten did not find it difficult to coax Victor Jans of Lucerne to join him and the upshot was an ambitious undertaking which began with the long airplane flight from Zurich to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in late December.

gold prospecting liberia

Liberia is the oldest republic on the African continent and has never experienced colonial rule. Situated on the west coast, it has an area of 43,000 square miles and derives it’s prosperity from rubber production but, since World War II, has become a major producer of iron ore. It’s currency is the United States dollar although local coins are used for the smaller denomination. The warm and humid climate supports tropical rain forests of trees used in the lumber industry as well as rubber, cocoa, coffee and palms. Most communities are villages. The capital, Monrovia, occupies only one square mile. The mineral resources of the country include iron ore as well as diamonds and gold, with possible oil reserves off-shore.

As to be expected, the two travelers were laden with much baggage on arrival at Monrovia Airport and found that some items had disappeared between Switzerland and Liberia but, by good luck, all their gold prospecting equipment was safe and sound. For the next few days, Victor and Roland had much to keep themselves occupied. Some of the lost luggage had to be replaced with local purchases. They submitted applications for permits to enter the interior and found that the police, very conscientiously, wished to make a thorough check on their equipment, their credentials and their ability to survive in the jungle.

At this stage Mr. Keller proposed that Paul, a member of his staff, should join the expedition. “We would never have managed on our own,” confided Victor, some years later, “But for Paul, the journey into the jungle would have been a disaster. He was a great organizer…and just what we needed.” In making a start on planning, Paul concentrated on provisions. The two visitors had brought a range of high protein foods from Europe, such as tinned meat, pate’, and sardines. These supplies were supplemented by local purchases of tomatoes, peppers and pasta.

Transportation into the interior was resolved by making a deal with a taxi driver who agreed to take Paul, Victor and Roland as far as a town called Jhallah, and then return for the party in seven days time. It took a full day to reach Jhallah and on arrival, the so-called town turned out to be three or four cabins in a clearing of the dense forest. Undaunted, Paul’s priority was to recruit some local help and he soon engaged two laborers and a guide, Ce’ce’. The agreement made sure that one of the laborers would also double as camp cook.

By now of course, the two Swiss boys were anxious to reach the gold region and were relieved when the group (by now totalling six persons) agreed to set off the next day. All gear had to be carried in backpacks and it took three hours to reach the gold creek recommended by the guide, Ce’ce. He was a good man. He knew his stuff and was very reliable, stressed Roland while showing me some photographs of the locations. The problem was that the local people had no intention of staying the night in the jungle. With some justification, Roland and Victor accepted this attitude as a healthy respect for wild animals but it transpired that their fear related to a story concerning dangerous dwarfs. With commendable courage under the circumstances, the two Swiss friends announced that they would set up the tent and make an overnight camp. “The thought of a three hour treck back to Jhallah, and a return trip the next morning was terrible. We begrudged wasting so much of the day. In any case, we wanted to save our energy for gold prospecting,” was the unanimous view of Roland and Victor when telling me their story.

It did not take too much persuasion for Ce’ce’ to agree to spend the night in the jungle and for this gesture, a revised fee was promptly negotiated. When the laborers returned the next day to find everyone unharmed and in good spirits, they recognized the advantage of avoiding the three-hour march to and from Jhallah, and so they also decided to remain at the camp by setting up home in an abandoned hut which once belonged to a hunter.

At long last Roland and Victor had achieved their objective: a full work force, a well organized campsite with adequate provisions, a full inventory of equipment, and the minimum disruption to the working day. There were now only two small problems: one of Victor’s rubber boots had split and he had to improvise footwear out of two canvas shoes; also, there was a shortage of water which imposed limitations on the two prospectors who, up until now, were always used to generous supplies for their sluicing and washing operations. Nevertheless, they applied themselves to the task and worked hard for eight hours each day. The natives were very impressed by the dedication of the two Europeans and although there was not a lot of the yellow metal, there was just enough to reward them for their efforts.

They soon worked out that the gold was to be found in a layer about half a meter below the surface of the top soil and in spite of trying, they were never able to increase the average quantity of the take. In a good day, the return was about half a gram of powdered gold and as time began to run out, the Swiss decided to leave the creek where they were working so as to prospect further upstream. All they had to do was follow the course of the Witume River but even so, it was vital to enlist the help of Ce’ce’ so as not to lose themselves in the dense forest.

As if to reward the two adventurers, the last day’s take was two grams and with this encouragement the boys struck camp for the march back to Jhallah for the planned meeting with the taxi driver. All went according to plan, until the car developed a fault and there was an hour’s anxious wait until a passing vehicle was able to take them into Monrovia.

“It was good experience,” claimed Victor, “We learned so much about many things in life…and it was very satisfying to be able to add Liberian gold to our collection of samples.”