Museum preserving Millwood gold rush history

15th November 2013 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

The Garden Route, stretching from Mossel Bay to the Storms river along the south-eastern coastline, is undoubtedly one of South Africa's premier and most popular tourist attractions. It is in that coastal corridor that ancient forests, rivers, wetlands, dunes, mountain scenery and indigenous fynbos all merge to form a landscape of spectacular natural beauty.

While the majestic landscape alone is one of the main drawcards that lure hundreds of thousands of local and foreign tourists to the foot of Africa each year, the Garden Route offers a cornucopia of activities, ranging from hiking and adventure sports to animal conservation, gastronomy, historical attractions and cultural heritage.

Nestled among that myriad of activities in the very heart of the Garden Route is quite a surprising and somewhat understated historical attraction: the Millwood Gold Museum.

Because South Africa's mining narrative has been so overwhelmingly dominated by the histories of Kimberley and the Witwatersrand, it is not widely known that the Millwood Forest, just north-east of the picturesque village of Knysna, was the site of a frenzied gold rush in the late nineteenth century. (However, if you have read Dalene Matthee's haunting work, Kringe in die Bos - or the English translation, Circles in a Forest – you will recall that part of the story is set amid a gold rush in Millwood Forest.)

Having said that, the lack of common knowledge of that mineral rush is not all that surprising, given that the Millwood gold rush was rather short-lived and that the total recorded yield paled in comparison with the yields obtained from places such as Johannesburg (even in its very earliest years), Pilgrim's Rest and Barberton.

Interestingly, that particular rush largely coincided with South Africa's greatest mineral discovery, the Witwatersrand goldfield, in the mid- to late-1880s. Although the first gold nugget was found as early as 1876 near the Karatara river, it was only in 1885 that a serious effort was made to discover the source of the alluvial precious metal found in the little tributaries. It was Charles Osborne, a retired government road engineer, who undertook such painstaking investigations and followed the traces of gold found near the Karatara river up into the dense, ancient forest on the slopes of the Outeniqua mountains. It was there, in an area of the forest that would come to be known as Millwood Gully, that Osborne hit the motherlode in late 1885. News of Osborne's discovery spread far and wide and soon hundreds of diggers were panning the rivers and streams and fossicking along the mountain slopes in search of that precious metal. Such was the rush of diggers to the forest that the Cape government was compelled to proclaim the Millwood area a public diggings area in January 1887.

A small town, Millwood, mushroomed overnight to service the needs of the diggers. At its height, the town comprised 75 wood and iron cottages, six hotels, four boarding houses, a hospital, a Methodist church, a number of general dealer shops, bakeries, butcheries, banks and a music hall.

Unfortunately, the gold rush ended almost as quickly as it had started. By 1892, the diggings had largely been abandoned, although the goldfield was only officially deproclaimed a public diggings area in 1924.

It is estimated that, at the height of gold rush – between 1886 and 1891 – a total of 2 600 oz of gold was recovered.

Today, all that remains of that original gold rush town is the main dusty road and a number of signs pointing out where the prominent buildings used to stand. Fortunately for mining history enthusiasts, in 1988, local residents formed the Millwood Goldfield Society to keep the memory of Millwood alive. Thanks to their efforts, visitors are now able to experience aspects of that once bustling town and industry.

A small museum, with a display of photographs, documents, maps and artefacts dating from the gold rush, is housed in the last original miner's cottage, situated on the outskirts of the old town. Visitors can also embark on a 6 km walk through the ghost town and graveyard, past some of the old mines and past a display of old mining equipment and machinery left abandoned and scattered in the forest when the miners left Millwood. That walk offers beautiful vistas of the Outeniqua mountains and indigenous forest. Visitors are also able to go on a guided tour of the main Bendigo mine, the shafts of which descend some 30 m underground. The small fees are for the park entry – Millwood now falls within the limits of the South African National Parks' Garden Route National Park – and for the mining museum only.

To get there, travel west on the N2 from Knysna, turn north at the Rheenendal sign, drive 16 km to Rheenendal, passing over Phantom Pass, turn right at the sign marked Millwood Goldfield and drive a further 10 km along this road to Mother Holly's Tea Room and the Millwood Gold Museum.