image: Paul Kruger, photographed in 1900, the year he and the stolen gold disappeared
The southern tip of Africa, home to modern day South Africa, has a long and turbulent history. For nearly a century the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers, called Boers, had an uneasy but mostly accommodating relationship with the British Empire. That changed dramatically with the discovery of gold and diamonds in those rugged, inaccessible hills and the gold rush was on.
Those seeking their fortunes mining for gold flooded in, sometimes outnumbering the locals. The sudden influx of foreigners was bound to spark trouble and, over the years the Boers and the Brits fought first one war, then another. During the second war, which stretched from 1899 to 1902, the Boers interdicted what some believed to be the entire gold production for the region that was bound for England. It was, as you might imagine, quite a lot of gold. After that is where the story gets complicated.
No one knows exactly how big the gold haul really was, as records from those war-torn days are sketchy at best. The few official accounts have been mixed with legend and rumor over the years, but conservative estimates place the dollar amount of that treasure north of sixteen million in today’s dollars. It includes minted British coins, native gold coin blanks and bars, and was (is) rumored to be the largest cache of gold ever collected.
When the war started to go badly, the leader of the Boer forces and the government, headed by Paul Kruger and a handful of local officials, loaded much of the gold on trains and spirited it out of town on May the 2nd of 1900. What happened to the treasure after that is the stuff of legends and speculation. Some say the gold was moved to remote areas where it was transported out of the country by ship. Witnesses claim to have seen the treasure at various times being moved around the country by train before suddenly and mysteriously disappearing.
We know from historical records that Kruger took two million British pounds worth of gold with him when he escaped to Europe late in 1900; a fellow has to have some traveling cash after all, and many believed the rest of the fortune was buried somewhere along the route. For over a century historians and treasure hunters searched for Kruger’s Millions, as the missing treasure in gold was known.
That’s where the mystery seemed to end. It lay dormant for over a hundred years until earlier this year when a bizarre set of circumstances may have led to its discovery. In what has to be one of the most unlikely events in history, the unwinding of the mystery of Kruger’s Millions starts with a kayak club called the Dambulamanzi Canoe Club in Emmarentia, just outside Johannesburg. One of the club’s members, a paddler named Gerrie du Plooy, was out testing a new kayak by the Emmarentia Dam.
In the course of testing out his new kayak, the paddler tipped over near the dam and, while he was upside down he caught a glimpse of something shiny and gold near the dam wall. Anyone who kayaks knows most of them have a forward storage compartment where paddlers stow valuables like their watch, phone and identification. Mr. Du Plooy just assumed that some other unfortunate paddler had dumped his kayak and lost his watch. Being the good sport he is, Mr. Du Plooy dove down to grab what he assumed was a fellow paddler’s lost valuables. Imagine his surprise when he reaches the depths and, instead of a missing watch, Mr. Du Plooy discovers instead piles and piles of gold coins.
Despite what must have been overwhelming temptation to pocket some of the coins and move along, Du Plooy reported his find to the city of Johannesburg, which immediately contracted a dive team to recover the treasure. A comprehensive investigation since then has determined that, indeed, the find represents either all or a significant portion of Kruger’s lost millions.
The exact dollar value of the find has not been released as of yet and jurisdiction has shifted to the city of Johannesburg. There’s also no word on whether our fortunate kayaker is going to get a piece of the treasure as a finder’s fee but that would certainly seem appropriate. You should get something for solving one of the great treasure mysteries of all time, even if it was by accident.