Georgia: Svaneti Gold Prospectors Seek the Monster Nugget
His nickname is Mackenna – after the Gregory Peck character, Sheriff Mackenna, who, in the 1969 film “Mackenna’s Gold,” dedicated his life to pursuing a hopeless dream of striking it rich. The remote, hardscrabble Georgian mountain region of Svaneti is where 65-year-old Rezo “Mackenna” Gurchiani does his gold prospecting. His passion is fueled by Greek legends rather than by Apache Indian tales. And he must contend with ice-cold water and deep snow, instead of the dry heat of the American southwest.
The local addiction to gold prospecting in Svaneti is connected to the Inguri River. To Svans, this mighty, 213-kilometer-long river, which courses through western Georgia and into the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, is a liquid gold highway. Many Svans, in fact, believe that the Inguri hydropower station’s dam, the world’s highest arch dam, was built under Soviet rule to accumulate all the gold that flows with the river.
Georgian geologists dispute that claim, but the facts make little difference to prospectors like Gurchiani, who has panned for gold since he was 15. Each day during the winter months, this Svan version of Mackenna ventures down a slippery, frozen canyon trail to the banks of the roaring Inguri in order to try his luck.
From January to March, the waters of the Inguri are low enough to let prospectors pan for gold. Using shovels and his bare hands, Gurchiani, with three apprentices, starts by building a dam. The process, often carried out in sub-freezing temperatures, takes more than two weeks. “You wheelbarrow ten shovels of gravel to pour there, and each time the river washes seven of them away,” explained Gurchiani.
When the makeshift dam is finished, shovels to scoop up soil and frying pans to separate the particles come into play. Gurchiani says it takes up to a week to process a ten-by-ten-meter area.
A Soviet-era sampling suggests that there could be a worthwhile concentration of gold in this part of the river, but don’t expect wary prospectors to reveal any details outsiders. Shota Adamia, a geologist at Tbilisi State University, said that if a ton of soil yields around 1 gram [of gold] then the area is generally considered to be viable for processing on industrial level. In Svaneti, he added, some areas that have been tested were found to have up to 3-4 grams of gold per ton.
Svan gold prospectors claim they can expect to extract about 30-40 grams of gold over the course of the three-month prospecting season. That translates into income of about $1,000 to $1,500. But it’s not the $40-per-gram price of gold that keeps these men standing in icy waters all day. The price, they say, is not worth their efforts.
“Even now I can make double as much money by working as a driver than by gold panning,” commented 52-year-old prospector Rezo Paliani. “But gold panning has become like a sport to me. It’s as exciting as hunting or fishing.”
Svans have panned for gold for centuries, though no one knows for sure when and how it started. Some believe that ancient Greeks brought the tradition to Svaneti. The kingdom of Colchis, which supplied mythical Greek hero Jason with his golden fleece, is believed to have been located in today’s western Georgia, within range of the Inguri’s gold-giving waters.
Svan gold prospectors know that what the mountains give, the mountains can take away. Paliani recalls a sudden avalanche, which descended with “a strange roar, like a plane engine,” flooding the river and washing away his tools and extracted gold. Prospectors themselves are sometimes washed away as well.
Such risks only discourage the younger generation of Svans, who see little reason to freeze in a river for a gram of gold per day. “Young Svans are lazy nowadays,” scoffed Gurchiani. “I tell them ‘Come with me and I’ll teach you,‘ but they just prefer sit at home, even when they are jobless.”
The tradition of panning for gold in Svaneti relies mostly on the enthusiasm of older Svans like Gurchiani or Paliani. “I got carried away and can't stop,” Gurchiani said.
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