campylite

British Classic Mineral Specimens

Kalgoorlie Gold!

Next morning I woke up and drove down Boulder Road to the mine - Great Boulder. It was a collection of dusty old clapboard sheds, old mine offices built in the 1900's, which housed the Great Boulder Proprietary Gold Mines Limited. I tentatively asked for the manager - and he bounded across the floor from a huge map table in the middle of the room, with a grin on his face - 'Gudday - you're our new geo huh?' I stammered a reply, and he led me out of the door 'Gotta show you the digs first mate - bet ya could use a shower after the journey?' He took me to the single mens quarters - a long row of barrack style buildings which housed the single officials of the mine. I spent the day familiarising myself with my new quarters, the mine office, and the site - which was a collection of old buildings, headframes, open shafts, scraggy opencuts a few yards long, and an enormous mill - abandoned many years ago, and still full of ancient equipment - stamps, shaking tables, tanks full of half treated slimes, laboratory, gold room with ingot moulds, safe, bullion boxes and scales. The wind blew constantly, raising a fine brownish red dust, which filled your nose, turned your clothes orange, and settled in thick layers over everything - including your food. Little black bush flies swarmed around your head and face, crawling into the corner of your eyes in their hundreds, and covering your back with a glossy, shimmering coat. They never went away - if you coated your face with stinging coats of aeroguard, they'd stay away for a half hour or so until the stink of the aeroguard died down a bit, then they'd be back. My first job was to map the area - the group geologist laughed when I said there was nothing to map - 'Its dark brown over there - and light brown over there - there ya go mate - ya first map..'

A few days later, we took the first bucket load out of the Great Boulder opencut. It was to be the first of a new breed of opencut mine - new ideas, new technology -and new geologists learning new things every day. We worked from 4am to 7pm every day, taking about 20 minutes off at lunchtime, and rarely stopping in between. Early morning was beautiful - a subliminal time, quiet, the air was fresh, and there were no flies. The early morning light was strange, it gave the bush an almost mystic quality, luminous, the outlines of trees and grasses knife sharp. Colours are brighter, more intense, more defined - as the sun slowly climbs, everything blurs and the heat joins sharp edges into a sweltering haze. In summer, by midday it's sometimes well over 50 degrees C in the opencut. The heat bounces of the walls of the pit, magnifying and intensifying, whipping dusty air into numerous little whirlwinds called willy willys, which appear out of nowhere, and in minutes turn the pit into a whirling maelstrom of red, stinging dust and sharp spikes of timber pulled from the old stopes. You can't breathe, your clothes are filled with a thick layer of fine, hot dust, your eyes sting even more than usual. If the roaster is running, your face is stripped of skin - the hot, sulphur dioxide fumes are whipped into the pit, and the acid gas burns everything it touches, leaving faces red raw, hands and fingers blistered, and burning your clothes to tatters. Your chest burns, your eyes are cloudy and viciously painful. We hose each other down with a garden hose attached to a hydrant by the mine office. We sent a sampler to hospital with 3rd degree burns - he nearly died after we turned on the tap and aimed the cold water at him - the hose hissed, and a jet of superheated steam shot out and enveloped him, stripping his face, chest, stomach and arms of skin. It was a 50 metre hose, lying in nearly 60 degree sun all day... We were more careful after that...

One morning I arrived at site to find a D11 Caterpillar bulldozer had started to bulldoze the old buildings - the clapboard laboratory, a perfect time capsule from the early 1900's - rows of ground glass stoppered jars with fancy labels in olde english - huge earthenware acid containers, old scales and balances in wooden cases worth a fortune in antique shops - glassware, retorts, crucibles. A room next door was the safe - thousands of maps, some on vellum, and every wage and survey book, journal, mill log book - documents which went back to the early days of mining in Kalgoorle - some dated to 1876. The mine managers office next door held his book collection - leather bound books on mining engineeering, gold mining, early gold extraction methods, and his own journals - leather bound and still in pristine condition. Smoke filled the early morning haze over the pit - flames picked at the clapboard timbers, sticking out of the remains like shattered ribs. Horrified, I ran in front of the D11 and shouted at Tiny, the driver, to stop. The machine ground to a shuddering, vibrating halt - massive silver tracks shimmering ominously in the early morning light - hydraulic oil slowly dripped off the gigantic rams above the blade.. I listened in shock and horror as Tiny explained that Western Mining management had ordered the destruction the previous night after I had left - I think they knew I would be opposed to it. We gathered some of the contractors and frantically scrabbled through the burning wreckage, hooking smouldering journals and maps from the fire. By mid morning, I had managed to recover the earliest mine section ever made of the Golden Mile - a vellum section of a mine already down over 400 feet - and only 4 years after Paddy Hannan found the fabulously rich gold deposits. I have a mining engineering book, signed and annotated by the mine manager, and many of the mine surveyors notebooks dating to the early 1900's, with beautiful copperplate writing and sketches of the workings. The wages books, a gold mine of social history - names of the miners and their pays, and the mill log books, with their detailed notes of struggles with bearings, replacements of the stamp hammers, gold recoveries... These are only the pathetic remains of the almost complete history of mining on the Golden Mile since it started - wilfully destroyed by management with no comprehension of the value of such things. A year or two later, after I left, they did the same to the scrap yard. There were dozens of early Holman rock drills, steam winches, steam winding engines, almost complete stamp batteries - in short, everything you would need to equip a producing mine in the late 1800's. It was all bulldozed into a worked out opencut and covered with millions of tonnes of mullock. I did get some photos of these - the sort of thing every museum would kill for.

I wandered down the pit one morning to check the orebody. They were having a board meeting in the office - grades were down, and it was touch and go as to whether we carried on. I was always fascinated by the Main Shaft - the huge, yawning hole in the middle of the opencut, which every lift, we scaped more off, and followed down into the depths. We laid a huge steel mesh over the gaping hole, and I always had to go and look down it, fascinated by the exposed bones of the timbering, and the main ore chute which ran alongside. Next to the shaft, the vein was exposed as a red smear in the clay, scraped flat by the excavator blades. My eyes slowly adjusted in the glare, to take in the sight of kilograms of brilliant, shining yellow metal - gold - leaves the size of dinner plates, dragged out of the vein outcrop and lying in the morning sun, glittering with that dull yellow colour that only gold has... I collected handfuls, cradling it in my T shirt, and calmly wandered up to the office. The Board meeting was about to close when I dumped about 15 kilograms of gold on the table with a cheeky grin, and walked out. I never found out exactly what was said, but the Great Boulder Gold mine kept going, and it's now Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines Limited - a huge Joint Venture between Homestake and Normandy Poseidon - 4 miles long, a mile wide, and not far off half a mile deep. I used to chuck the contractors off the machines at weekends - they were only too happy to leave me to finish their shift - and I'd drive one of the huge excavators all day. You took ten tonnes at a time and dumped it into the waiting trucks that were lined up in the pit floor. Just a bit more powerful than my old JCB on the farm...

I worked there for about four years. Took about five days off in all that - until the doctor told me at a barbeque one afternoon to take time off or I'd have a breakdown. I got the sack the next day - they didnt like you to take time off - it was ok though - the mine next door offered me a job the day afterwards and it was the opportunity of a lifetime. North Kal was about 2500 feet deep at the time and the last of the great narrow vein gold mines. Everywhere was opencut - but North Kal clung onto its old heritage as a deep shaft mine. I think of all the memories I have of mining, my time here was special. I'd turn up in the morning and get my stuff from the office - bag, geological hammer,compass, sample bags - and head for the lamp room. The old boy smiles, and hands you the lamp - mine was number six - and I'd go and get my overalls on. I walked across the mine compound - everywhere a hive of activity. The blacksmiths shop - hammering, banging, welding, smoke and fumes - drill steels being sharpened, tubs being repaired, an eimco bogger in pieces on the floor. A constant thud of huge diesels in the compressor house, air hissing from joints in pipework - the crash of the ore as it dropped out of the skips into the bins on the headframe. The bells would ding... ding ding...... ding ding ding - go down to the thirteen level... We always dreaded those bells ringing when we were underground - twelve bells they call it - when there's an emergency. We'd wait for the miners to go underground and then the shift bosses and managers would go down together. The cage drops from the merciless heat - that familiar smell of explosives - ammonia, envelops us as daylight disappears to be replaced by racing timbers as they flash past the little cage, hurtling into the depths. The knot of men say little - lost in their thoughts - lamps still round their necks, to be attached to hats when they step out of the cage... its a ritual that starts the day underground. You start to feel leaden - the cage slows to the first working level and the platman waits for the 'ding' from the winder driver to say he can open the plat gates. I step out to the plat, and he shuts the rusty yellow gate behind me, ringing 'ding ding...... ding ding ding ding' for the next level down. I'm on my own, thirteen hundred feet underground - in a gold mine. I splash some water over my face from the tank on the plat. The familiar sound of the mine envelops me - the faint hiss of compressed air, the rumble of ore tumbling down the ore passes into the loading stations, the whine of a fan somewhere in the distance - dripping water... In the shaft, the cable stretched down, a glistening, greasy black lifeline, endlessly going up and down with the cage... I'd walk down one of the haulage drives towards the stopes - sometimes I'd be lucky and a driver would be heading back to the stopes with a rake of empty trucks which he'd dumped in the ore pass. I'd cadge a lift on the loco and we'd rumble down the drive - swaying with the heave of the tracks, scraping the walls, and ducking under low timbers - the tubs banging and rattling in front of us. Some of the drives were nearly two miles long, so it was a long walk. The roof used to move - sometimes we'd come out with a rake of trucks and they wouldnt fit under the timbers any more - so we'd call the timber men, and they'd work for a week or so, cursing and swearing until they'd managed to free the trucks and re-timber the supports beneath the hoppers.

The rusty, dripping cage bumps its way down to the 1200 foot level of the mine. Few words are said. A young apprentice asks where he is to work.

"In the sump" comes the reply...

"I can't swim".... says he...

"Then drink....."

Smiles are exchanged and silence falls upon the little knot of men. The familiar smell of blasting fumes drifts up the shaft. We rattle past the 800 plat - a blaze of light momentarily illuminates our gloomy little vehicle and is gone. Our feet feel leaden, and the cage slows and arrives at the plat. The cageman slowly and deliberately opens the rusty yellow gates, and we step into the silent bowels of the earth.

There was a commotion one afternoon - they'd fired a shot in one of the drives, and apparently the pumps were being overwhelmed. The miners brought their stuff to surface and stomped off in disgust - I offered to go and have a look at what had happened - grabbed a camera and jumped in the cage. Off we rattled and rumbled to the 15 level, where water was pouring across the rails at the plat, and into the shaft. The air was thick with sulphurous fumes, and it was steamy - misty - the drive stretched away in front of me. I could barely see where I was going through the mist. Water poured down the drive, tugging at my boots. I caught a handful and tasted it - quite salty, but fresher than a lot of the water you found down the mine - almost drinkable. The air filled with mist and steam, and eventually I reached the end of the drive. The noise was incredible - water spurted out of cracks and fissures all over the place - it hissed, it roared and splashed... The smell was strange - sulphur, a bit chemical, sharp - but you could still breathe easily.. I took some photos, and soon afterwards one of the shift bosses turned up and took some photos of me in the end of the drive, surrounded by water and steam - it was quite warm - nice stuff for a relaxing mineral bath I'd think.. We left it for a week or two, and it settled down eventually so they could carry on driving through it.

We didnt have many accidents there - somehow everyone looked after each other, and provided you were careful, you stayed alive. I walked down the 1200 level one morning to look at some stopes we'd been working - did a bit of mapping and sampling, and decided to go and see the miner who was working the same vein a couple of levels below. I dropped down through the stopes, clambering down bits of ladders and slithering down air lines and water pipes to the level that Pecka was working. I wandered along the drift, and under the hoppers to the rise where his air lines were fed. A quick clamber up the rise, and I could see the yellow glow of his lamp in the distance. He stood on top of a pile of ore - rockdrill and airleg braced, the drill screaming into the face - water and black sulphidic sludge sprayed around him, creating an unholy halo around his figure.. I scrambled across the top of the stope, which was nearly 30 feet wide - one of our biggest - a solid rib of quartz and pyrite, flecked with gold tellurides and streaks of yellow metal, averaging half an ounce to the ton. Peck saw me and gestured - white teeth grinning in the muddy, black face.. He slammed the air lever on the sig rockdrill, and the scream died to a gentle hiss of air... He sloped over to where I stood at the edge of the stope, and pointed to a flask of coffee. We sat with our backs to the wall, and opened the flask - Peck said nothing.. It was so quiet, I turned to him and remarked... 'You could hear a pin drop'. Peck stood up and beckoned me into a cut he'd made in the wall of the stope - we sat inside the cutout, perched on some bits of wood with our coffee.. The stope collapsed. Hundreds of tons of rock suddenly gave way and slumped into the space we'd been standing in, seconds before. Huge slabs of rock slithered in front of our eyes, dust and shards billowed around us. The rumbling stopped almost as soon as it began. We sat, not quite comprehending, and finished our coffee. We were lucky - slabs had run down the wall and left an opening for us to crawl out to the rise. As we composed ourselves, a plaintive voice from the top of the rise said "hullo.... peck..... anyone there...? hullo...... er.... oh... oh no....... oh shit..... its come down....." It was the sampler, come to take samples of the ore from the working face. He disappeared down the rise, and Peck grinned at me. He slithered along the top of the stope between the huge slabs of rock to the other end, which was still standing. At the top of the far rise was a collection of bags of anfo and rubbish - he turned his lamp off and waited for the glimmer of light from the fleeing sampler way below us in the main drift. The light hove into view, and Peck tipped a bag of anfo down the rise - catching the poor sampler, and covering him with stinging white fertiliser granules - the rim of his hat was full of it, granules ran down the back of his overalls and filled his pockets.. He looked up the rise at Peck - 'Ya bastard - that's a beer you owe me at the Block tonight!' He grinned and climbed the rise. We sat and surveyed the devastation. Its not often that you escape unscathed from a fall like that - someone was watching over us that day.

The sampler plotted his revenge well. Every rock drill has an oil bottle. You fill it with oil and when the air is turned on, it blows oil into the drill and lubricates it. At the end of the shift, you sort everything out, fill the bottles and make sure your offsider on the next shift can start boring out immediately - its a race to break rock - the more you break - the more cuts you fire, the more the bonus at the end of the pay period. The sampler bribed one of the other miners on the back shift, and they doctored the oil bottle. I arrived at the mine the next day as usual, and wandered across the mine compound to the bracemans hut, at the top of the shaft - coffee in hand. The miners had already gone down, and the cage was on the way back up to collect the usual pile of supplies which were dumped in a sprawling heap by the gates to the cage - tags on coils of air hose told which miners it was to be delivered to, and on what level. The air that morning was different. Shift bosses were standing around the hut, smiles beginning to play over grizzled faces. I joined the curious knot of men... The reek of ammonia and explosive smoke coming up the shaft was replaced by an altogether different smell - pungent, cloying - not altogether unpleasant really - a bit like after shave. It was... lots of it. A whole oil bottle in fact. We started to pick ourselves off the floor, shaking with laughter - it could only be something to do with Peck. I pulled my overalls on and grabbed a lamp - jumped in the cage and rattled down to the 1400. The air was thick, pungent - it stank of after shave - miners were reeling down the drive in hysterics - 'Bloody perfume parlour in there mate..... bloody ponce he is....' You could hardly breathe in the drive - we couldnt stop laughing. In the stope, Peck was boring out the shot - supremely indifferent to the fuss going on around him. He smiled and winked at me...