Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gold Mine!

"You should write a book about us, just like that one that oke Wilbur Smith wrote," said the burly mine manager as Mrs Blog and I wedged ourselves into a bird cage suspended from a steel cable.

"Oh, yes," I replied croakily, "just like Wilbur's book in which the greedy mining company drills through a dike (dyke?) against all prudent advice, unleashes a torrent of undergroud water and most of the main characters either drown or are crushed by falling rocks?"

The mine manager switched off his head lamp - the only one that was on at the time - and pitch blackness (and I do mean PITCH blackness) engulfed us. "Yes! That one! Hahahahahahahahahahaha."

Not a good start, not a good start at all, to our tour of the nether world, Legion of Fans (LOF). But there we were, bravely supressing hitherto unknown fears and, slightly hungover, visiting a gold mine which until recently was owned by friends of ours in Zimbabwe.

It's probably not a big operation by world standards, but we're not talking dwarves with picks and shovels, LOF, either. There's an impressive array of large, grimy machinery topside, belching a cocktail of foul smoke and gases, and lots of things that go Grrrrrr and ker-plunk. A foreman gave us a tour of the above-ground mills and other workings, and most of it washed over my non-scientific head, except for the good bits like "... see that water there - it looks clean but if you fell into it you'd die from arsenic poisoning... hahahahahahahahahaha!"

The first part of the tour ended at the location for the money shot - where the extracted molten gold is poured into these conical-shaped thingys. It was, LOF, quite frankly an anti-climax. I expected the pouring to be done in some bomb-proof vault, by robots with mechanical arms, while mining magnates in pin striped suits with big cigars watched on greedily through foot-thick glass. In fact this - perhaps the most interesting part of the process - takes place in an open car port and involves a machine that is similar, and about as interesting, as a cement mixer.

Whatever. The really interesting bit was going to be the descent just that little bit closer to hell. Underground - where men are men and writers try and be as macho as they can be, and not go small potty in someone else's crisp new overalls.

"Going underground is a bit like a really tough game of rugby," said our friend, the until-recently owner of the mind. "The only good thing about it is the shower and the beer afterwards."

Right.

The mine manager's wife must get quite annoyed at him, as his muscles seemed to be perpetually bulging and making, or expanding, the tears in his frayed overall shirt. The sleeves had been shortened high, up close to his armpits, presumably because his biceps wouldn't make it through the holes.

"We normally fit 10 people in the cage," he said, as we dropped, much faster, or so it semed, than the lifts I'm used to in city skyscrapers. The five of us murungus (whiteys) were crushed together like Japanese bullet train commuters as it was.

"Ten?"

"Well," the manager explained, "We do work on an average weight of 75kg per man, usually. Hahahahahahaha!"

I felt everyone of my thirty-ish kilos above the average weight and tried to suck in my belly a little more - not easy when you're standing half-bent. It appears the average height of the mining fraternity is also nowhere near mine.

Anyway, it was a relief to get out of the cramped cage and hi-ho, hi-ho our way off in search of 75 kilogram short people at work.

"It's warm down here," said Mrs Blog. And she was right, though little did we know that this first brightly-lit tunnel was, in fact, the good cool bit, where a remnant breeze occasionally reached us from the lift-shaft.

I won't pretend to know what I'm talking about here, and would have to do much more research if I ever did write a book about city slickers getting trapped underground and dying in an avalanche of rock or torrent of subterranean water, but it goes a little like this...

After going deep into the earth (the main shaft is a bit over a kilometre long) you branch out into these big tunnel things. These are easily big enough for even a tall person like me to walk upright in. It's here that you see the little train cart thingys being pushed and pulled on rails, full of big bits of black rock.

From there, more tunnels are blasted upwards, at angles, and parallel tunnel whatshisname things are dug, above and on either side of the one with the little choo-choos. Still with me?

We (the boys in the group, not the two girls, that is) climbed up a rope ladder into one of the working tunnel bits. Gripping the rough-hewn rungs was not easy, given that the two blokes before me had deposited a thick layer of black ooze from their boots. This was my first inkling that it was, in fact, quite possible to suffer serious injury or death down here.

Anyway, I made it, and realised, for the first time, that I was dripping wet.

The heat creeps up on you underground, like a giant invisible sweaty-palmed uncle's hand, slowly, gently, squeezing out all the moisture from your body. My new overalls were as wet as if I had jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool. It was hot, I suddenly realised, damn hot, though there was no breeze to cool or dry the sweat gushing from my body. It was like the time a plastic bag got plastered across Tonka the Land Rover's radiator grill and he very nearly spontaneoulsy combusted. Being drenched in sweat did, however, have an upside, I realised. If something really scary occurred, I could wee myself and no one would notice!

This was the serious part of the operation, it appeared. I could no longer walk upright and whereas the main tunnel was pleasantly lit in a manner which would make a fetching cover picture for a mining company's annual report, with the light bouncing off smooth rock walls and smiling dwarf-like workers bidding us good-morning, this part looked like a bomb had hit it. Which, of course, it had. Or, rather, explosives had been used to blast great chunks of the earth from the tunnel walls. From there, mightily muscled little people drag or shovel the bits of rocks down the passageway to the waiting mini train carts in the gallery below. Still with me?

Us chaps walked/stumbled/crawled through the working a bit and came to a rope ladder which we'd actually passed earlier in the main tunnel. We then played a wizard mining jape on the ladies waiting below. We climbed down, turned off our lights and crept up behind the gals, whereupon the mine manager yelled "OUT, OUT, OUT! GET OUT OF THIS F-ING MINE IMMEDIATELY OR YOU'RE GOING TO DIE!!!!!! Or words to that effect.

The ladies stayed put. They either realised it was a joke, or were too terrifed to move, or had no idea which way to go - or all of the above.

Mine-humour over, we then saw lots more things I can't remember, with the highlight being a ride up to the next level, sitting in a bucket the size of a garbage bin, fixed on rails and pulled by a motorised cable. Mrs Blog likes this bit the best. So did I, except for the beam which seemed to be designed to decapitate anyone over 5'3" tall.

There should be a wooden cut-out of a clown up on top at the entrance, I thought, with an arm held out at that height and a sign reading "If you're taller than me you're a f*ing idiot if you get into this bird cage full of little muscly people".

I've been to more than my share of media events and construction-site tours back home in Australia where everyone is forced to don a brand, spanking new white plastic construction helmet. At 6'6" I'm convinced that this is a plot by site supervisors to make politicians visiting them look like gubers, and dorky pen pushers like me look like, well, even more like dorky pen pushers than we actually are. But never, LOF, have I been so pleased to be dressed like the construction worker in the Village People.

Blow after blow glanced off my plastic hat. The stocky bullock-like mine manager wore a different hat to the rest of us. It was one of those old fashion, vaguely military looking things like John Waybe wore as Red Adair. His hat was heavily scarred and battered as well - proof that mining's even dangerous for short people.

"We actually dig DOWN," he yelled, over the deafaning whine and bash of a HUGE pneumatic drill. One sweat-drenched miner was holding the drill up, bracing it against his shoulder and leaning against it with every one of his 75 kilograms, while a comrade steadied both man and machine. "That way the rock doesn't fall on US!"

Except, as we found out by clambeing up another swinging ladder if there is a "whoopsie".

"A whoopsie?" I asked, this being the first time I'd heard that word since the most-welcome withdrawl of Frank Spencer and 'Some Mothers do 'ave 'em' from TV screens around the world many years ago.

"That's a whoopsie," the mine manager said, pointing to a chunk of rock the size of a small asteroid. "Sometimes bits do fall down."

Soaked, begrimed, and thoroughly knackered, we made our way gratefully towards the bird cage. I was buggered, LOF, and all I'd done was walk around and look at what goes on down there.

As we sat - slumped, actually - waiting on a stone bench polished smooth as black marble from decades of sweaty miners' backs and bottoms, I realised just how lucky I was to be a dorky 6'6" pen pusher in a funny scarred hat, instead of a real miner.

6 comments :

Crookedpaw said...

Wow

meggie said...

I can't believe Mrs Blog was brave enough to go with you!
Congratulate her for me.

ali g said...

Maybe the things you saw down there and now cant remember were Morlocks

noddy said...

Pip, pip RSM

What possessed you to go down into the actual mine. Can't you remember way back in 93/94 when we went into a vault full of gold bricks in Hong Kong. No helmets or overalls required, just a lab coat and a frisk by the security guard when leaving. That's where we get gold from.

redcap said...

Oh, ick. Don't think I'll go there. Thanks for saving me the trouble, mate!

I'll wave if I see you in Kruger in a coupla weeks :)

Java said...

Either brave or hang over enough that's right :-) I'm even to scared to go on the Perth prison's underground tour. Maybe one day.