Gold-hungry treasure seekers have descended on the small Mpumalanga town of Ermelo in search of one of South Africa's biggest mythical troves - the fabled "Kruger millions". A local town councillor and head of the tourism bureau, Athol Stark, is at the centre of the frenzy after he made public his startling story on Friday.

He reported that a Zulu family had discovered a fortune in gold Kruger pounds more than 40 years ago and had been quietly living off their wealth ever since. But since the story of the "Kruger millions" hit the headlines, the family has "disappeared".

The treasure is said to have been buried by retreating Boers, led by Paul Kruger, in 1900 after the British conquered the former Transvaal republic.

Last night Stark was fielding calls from as far afield as London as "gold fever" spread. He said some people had even been spotted watching one another with telescopes.

Others have accused Stark of running a tourism scam to draw people to the dusty streets of Ermelo.

Stark said he had been inundated with questions and threats. Police were patrolling the area and farmers were reportedly ready to deal with intruders. He said he had been harassed 24 hours a day by people, some of whom wrongly believed that he had coins in his house.

"I don't have the coins, they must leave me alone now," an exasperated Stark told Sunday Argus reporters.

"People's lives are in danger. Man, you cannot believe it. A lot of people know about these coins."

He said it was now believed that the Zulu family had not discovered the "Kruger millions", but coins given to the Boer commandos to survive on once Kruger left the country.

If the family indeed found the coins on a farm in the area, as believed, it will have been the first find since 1925 when four brothers are believed to have dug up a sy-kis (side wagon crate). Their identity is not known, but Stark says they are believed to have scattered all over South Africa with their booty.

Stark, who speaks Zulu fluently, has spent the past few years investigating the legendary fortune with a local journalist, Adri Fourie.

Stark, who describes himself as a history fundi, said his investigation began after he heard rumours from local farm labourers.

Then, in 1999, a representative of a family whom he had helped in the past approached him about selling some coins, but he dismissed it, pending proof.

However, when a statue of Paul Kruger was discovered in the area two months ago, Stark believes the family may have become nervous that their treasure would be discovered too.

Three weeks ago, the representative of the family and Stark spoke again. Stark was subsequently shown some of the coins.

He believed the cache of coins he saw was worth at least R15 million.

"I told the family they needed to make a firm decision on what they wanted to do with the coins."

Stark said he had been told the family had recently sold about 400 coins to a person in Tembisa on the outskirts of Johannesburg, for R200 000, a fraction of their probable worth.

A further 100 coins might have been sold to a man from Johannesburg.

"They (the family) haven't worked for 40 years," Stark said.

A media contingent spent Saturday following farmers inspecting their land after the recent media hype.

Among them was an elderly man who moved to the land when just four years old, who gave an invaluable oral history of the caches.

The party discovered dozens of holes dug in the past 100 years in the search for the gold.

"It's been going on since the Boer war," Stark said. "It looks like the Kimberley gold mines."

Stark said farmers had told him that three farms in the area had been overrun with people, often digging

at night.

"Everyone is going absolutely goggle-eyed at the moment."

He said lawyers representing "interested stakeholders" had demanded that he "deliver the missing family". But it was later ascertained that the family had not found the fortune on the land of the farmer in question.

He was not prepared to give farm or farmers' names, for their own protection. "It will just lead to chaos."

The University of Cape Town's professor of history, Richard Mendelsohn, explained on Saturday that the Boers' Transvaal state bourse had been in Pretoria.

After the conquest of the city by the British in June 1900, the Boers retreated along the railway line towards Maputo in Mozambique. The story goes that they took substantial resources - including gold bullion and gold coinage - with the British army hot on their heels.

"It became the stuff of myth," Mendelsohn said. "Treasure hunters would go out in search of this, but without success."

There was another view, however, that the wealthy Transvaal state spent its gold reserves on the war.

On the recent discovery, he said: "I'd like to see it confirmed first. I'm sceptical of treasure stories."