Tunnels of death: 17 days trapped beneath Shaft One in Durban Deep
In the narrow tunnels beneath Shaft One in Durban Deep, the home boys were on a body-recovery mission. Methembu Ncube and his friend Raphael Moyo, from the southwestern corner of Zimbabwe, around the town of Gwanda, were last seen 17 days ago.
For hours the human chain of illegal miners toiled, carefully passing rocks and dirt from one person to the next.
The fear among the men was that their actions might anger the two giant mythical snakes that lived in the mines. If angered the serpents would thump their tails, causing a rock fall. What the snakes don't like, says sangoma Cebile Zwane, is when miners drink alcohol or take drugs underground.
But this day was an exception. Some of the miners drank beer and smoked weed, to stoke up courage for this dangerous work. Others took comfort from the rituals the families of the dead men had performed to appease the snakes.
Twelve hours into the operation, the men working closest to the pile of rocks that blocked their way heard a faint shout.
Ncube and Moyo had entered Shaft One on August 23.
Like many illegal miners or zama zamas, they worked in pairs or in small groups and they had with them enough food, water and lamp batteries for two days. They were heading back to the surface, having spent two days underground, when the rock fall happened.
Rocks pinned Moyo and left him badly injured. "He was stuck, and he was very close to me," says Ncube. "Soon the light went out and I thought I was going to die."
In the darkness Ncube encouraged his friend to hang on. He told him that rescuers would soon come. But Moyo kept telling Ncube that he didn't think that he would make it and, in the dark, Ncube lost all sense of time.
"After a long time, I fell asleep and when I woke up I called to Raphael, but he didn't answer." Ncube said he drank his own urine to stay alive.
It took a while before anyone realised the two were missing and, by then, everyone thought it was too late, that it would be a body-recovery mission.
Fifteen men volunteered to find Moyo and Ncube's "bodies". One of these men was Fiso Nyathi, who says: "This is dangerous work. You might not come back."
Ncube shouted when he heard the men talking as they cleared the rumble.
But he was too weak to shout again.
"We were just so surprised when we heard him shout," says Nyathi.
It took a further five hours before they could free Ncube. Then they strapped him to the back of one of the rescuers and carried him to Shaft One.
On the surface an ambulance was called and Ncube was taken to hospital. Moyo's body was tightly bound with sacking and left for the police to pick up. Taking the body to the morgue would invite arrest.
It was at the hospital that Ncube received bitter-sweet news. His wife had given birth to a baby girl while he was underground, but he also learned Moyo's girlfriend had miscarried.
Ncube plans never to go down a mine again. He is looking for other work.
Months later and Shaft One doesn't see the traffic it used to. Few zama zamas use it. It is too dangerous, they say. Close to the mouth of the shaft, a man stands guard.
Miners using that entrance to gain access to the labyrinth of tunnels that stretch beneath the West Rand have to pay him R33.
He believed both trapped men had died. Shown an image of Ncube taken just that morning, he was surprised to learn he was alive. "What! He survived after 17 days? Now that is a miracle."