THERE'S GOLD IN THAT THERE HILL

But in Nambija, the world's most dangerous gold town, striking it rich could cost you your life.

The sombre man in the grey suit looks concerned. "I will gladly register your visit," he says, "but Her Majesty's government can take no responsibility for the outcome. Please come back sir, and say hello, if and when you return." This is the guy from the British Consulate.

Meanwhile an Ecuadorian friend of mine in Quito thinks I've lost the plot completely when I tell him that I'm off to Nambija, the site of South Africa's largest and most dangerous gold town.

"It is just like the Wild West out there, totally lawless. Full of convicts and bandits. you'd better go armed my friend or you're end up being kidnapped."

Sixteen hours later, after plane and bus rides from hell, I'm standing in our stopover town, Zamora, in southern Ecuador. The next morning I am joined by Paul, my translator, and we set off on the last leg of our journey: an excruciating, bone-rattling, three-hour drive in an open sided truck through some of Ecuador's remotest and roughest terrain.

Nambija is perched in an equatorial, rain sodden valley 2000m above sea level, its corrugated iron shacks, bars, billiard halls and brothels clinging precariously to the steep hillsides. Low-lying clouds trap the noxious pollutants belched out by the mining process.

Nothing can prepare you for this town. There's no on-line electricity, telecommunications or sanitation. There is no school, hospital or post office, and the only bank closed after six months: it had been stripped clean by its own clerks.

Running water, syphoned off from surrounding streams into rubber pipes, runs through the town. Filthy rivulets of raw sewage, mining sediments and years of untreated garbage and debris flow unchecked past people's front doors. A heavy, dirty industrial plant, that's sensitively located slap bang in the middle of the town, thunders on through day and night, punctuated only by the deafening blasts of dynamite being detonated in the mines.

Just like the gold-rush settlers of the last century, who mined the dust bowls of the northern Californian hills and the frozen wastes of the Yukon, Nambija's miners don't give a damn about the squalor or the ruined views. Mostly landless peasants, they are here to strike it lucky and make their fortunes. The pockets of gold found in Nambija rival South Africa's in purity. Since the gold rush began, 18 years ago, a staggering 100 tonnes of gold has been mined from the hillsides.

Gold mining in Nambija goes back to the 15th century at least, when the Spanish Conquistadors moved here hoping to find exotic spices. Instead they discovered Shuar Indians mining the hills for gold. The Spanish commandeered the gold mines for themselves and, being good Christian evangelists, they used the unbelieving Shuar as slaves. When disease struck in the late 17th century it was the final straw. Gold or no gold, they had had enough, and they packed up and went home.

PIGS IN THE RESTAURANT OF GOLD

For the next 300 years the town's mines lay deserted. They were accidentally discovered by local farmers who were following the Nambija river upstream looking for fresh pastures on which to graze their cattle.

The rising price of gold at the time led to a rush of almost Klondike proportions and, despite the remoteness of the region, thousands of miners from right across Ecuador made the tortuous trek through the forest to stake their claim. By 1995 Nambija had become a shanty town of about 10,000 miners and their families.

It's not easy to get around the town's muddy paths and by the time Paul and I reach the ambitiously named Restaurant el O (Restaurant of Gold) we are both exhausted. It is actually only a corrugated-iron hut, but we're not here to argue the Trade Descriptions Act. We're here to meet Bolivar Espinoza, a miner and veteran of Nambija.

While we wait for him a huge pig saunters into the restaurant and lies at our feet. The proprietor ignores it. In the corner two drunken miners ask us if we would like to go with them to the disco. Did they say 'disco' or 'back alley to have your throat cut'? We politely refuse on the grounds that nine in the morning is a little too early for us.

Bolivar Espinoza arrives and joins us at our table. He is a well-dressed man in his mid-50s with an air of calm assurance. We crack open some beers and he tells us about life in the town.

"When I arrived in 1981 there were only a 100 people here, all of them locals who had arrived from the provincial towns and villages. In those days you had to walk along a trail through the forest for 17 hours just to reach here. The cost of living was very high as all of the supplies had to be brought in by mule. I came out for the adventure really, to be part of the town's pioneer spirit. It was exciting because no one knew how their lives would pan out.

"Few people had experience of mining," Espinoza continues. "They had little money and sold what valuables or land they had to raise capital. They formed the '11th of July' co-operative and pooled their resources to buy equipment."

Generators were brought in along the trail, but the heavy industrial plant needed to crush up the rocks had to be transported in sections by helicopter. The co-operative hired one from the military, paying $400 a trip. Then they registered the whole area with the Ecuadorian government. But by 1982 word about the amazing gold finds had spread and another 8,000 miners arrived from all over the country. "The co-operative had no way of enforcing its land title," Espinoza says. "It just became a free-for-all with miners forming themselves into small associations to mine where they pleased. This meant mines running into each other and disputes over ownership. These disputes were often settled by the gun."

Unrestrained by the regional government, which seemed reluctant to impose social order and regulations, Nambija quickly became as famous for the brutality of its criminal underworld as its gold. The town's brothels, night clubs and billiard halls got a bad reputation for their drunken fights and shoot-outs.

"Yes, Nambija was like the Wild west...probably worse," Espinoza says. "Gold rushes in California happened outside towns. In Nanbija the town and the mines are one. A seething mass of humanity and industry is crushed together in an area of only one square kilometre. With this sort of pressure there's bound to be violence.

"Many of the outsiders who arrive here have no money or are straight out of prison. They can't buy equipment or pay their own way into associations. What else can they do apart from thieving, pimping or dealing drugs?"

A police station was set up in 1983 but there was only four men to police a town of more than 10,000 people. "Well I tell you the police didn't bother," Espinoza says, "if you committed a crime you just paid them to turn a blind eye."

It was the wealthy gold traders who bore the main brunt of the robberies. Walking the trail to get into town they would be robbed of their money and then walking the same trail out of town they would be robbed of their gold.

Before the road was built in 1986 five people a day were murdered along this trail. "In the early days you never walked out of your house unless you were armed," says Espinoza, "and at night, when it was particularly dangerous, you went around in twos and threes."

Though many of Nambija's miners have spent their lives digging for gold in vain, the town does have more than its fair share of people who have made and lost fortunes beyond the dreams of avarice. One man, known locally as The Crab because of his cleft hands, used to pay four men to carry him around in a wooden chariot. When he went to the disco he paid for everyone's drinks all night. Then his mine dried up and he was left without a penny. He now begs by the side of the road in Zamora, his brain cells riddled with alcohol.

Our next stop is the ranch of Luis Alberto Delgado, governor of Zamora-Chinchippe during the 1980s, when Nambija was discovered. As the first director of the 11th of July co-operative he's an old hand at explaining the dangers of gold mining.

"You have to understand that the miners in Nambija had very little formal training," he says. "The methods they use are at best rudimentary and they lose 50 per cent of the gold that they mine to the environment. Their lack of expertise exposes them to many dangers."

The miners' tunnels are unsupported and prone to collapse, especially as they are sunk one on top of each other. If one collapses the others fall in a domino effect. Twenty miners a year die in these circumstances.

"Then there is the problem of bad ventilation," Delgado says. "Most of the mines are more than 100m long but rarely more than one-and-a-half meters high. The miners have to double up just to get into them, and if they hit a pocket of poisonous gas it can be fatal." Many miners also suffer from respiratory problems caused by inhaling dynamite dust.

"But the most serious long-term risk to the miners' health is their exposure to mercury," says Delgado. Mercury is used in the ore separation process. When the rock has been mined, it is crushed into dust, mixed with water and mercury, and placed in a series of revolving drums. The mercury adheres to any gold particles present to form an amalgam. This mixture is then sluiced down a chute covered in carpet, which traps the amalgam in its fibres. The carpets are wrung into barrels and the 'white gold' is panned out in a bowl. It is then taken to a trader in the town who burns it to recover the gold. But if the miners can't be bothered to make the trip, they can burn the amalgam in a small cup in the open air.

"The mercury is either inhaled by the miners in the form of vapour or is washed away in the water channels that service the town," Delgado says. "Scientists who visit the area tell me that mercury can cause brain damage in adults and birth abnormalities in children and that it can accumulate in the food chain. So when the pigs and chickens drink from the streams and then the miners kill them for food it is a recipe for disaster."

HOLLOW PROMISE KILLS HUNDREDS

Though many of the miners are aware of these dangers they know that the rewards can be fantastic, with some mines yielding up to ten kilograms of gold per week. But the odds are sadly stacked against them.

This is because the gold in Nambija is found in small and isolated pockets. These pockets do provide rich pickings, but they don't work in the way that continuous seams do. This means that in some mines you may never discover any gold at all. And mines that do yield large quantities of gold can, like The Crab's, suddenly become exhausted. Miners have no choice but to sink one mine after another in the hope of eventually striking it rich.

This widespread excavation meant that by 1990 Nambija's hillsides had become virtually hollow. Experts warned that further mining could cause a landslide. The warnings were ignored: more mines were sunk and more machinery was brought onto the hillside to service them. Nambija was an accident waiting to happen. Then on, May 1993, the accident finally did.

Part of the mountainside suddenly collapsed, burying more than 400 people. In the areas of the town unaffected by the disaster, mining went on as usual. This was despite a stark warning from the authorities that the vibrations from the heavy plant might cause a secondary landslide that would hinder the rescue operation.

After the disaster Namibia was forced to calm down. The Ecuadorian government declared the whole area a zone of national security, and the military were brought in to restore some sort of law and order. Most of Namibia's underworld was either arrested or thrown out of town.

"In Namibia we are used to living with death, but for many of us leaving here would mean going back to farming and poverty," says Wilson Zambian, one of a handful of miners who was buried by the landslide, and then pulled out alive. A small wiry man in his mid-30s, Zambrano is ingrained with the fatalism that's common in the town. Nambija might sound a poor option, but he still defends it.

"This is our town and it is us who built it. What outsiders don't realise is that life here is really surprisingly normal. We have well-stocked shops and cinemas. Our children are content and well fed. God has given us the gold to guarantee their future."