As time permits, I'll build this page into something of a backwards blog - notes, jottings, thoughts of times gone by when I used to collect with Dick Barstow and hit all the best sites. We collected Campylite from Drygill, Sphalerite from Smallclough mine, Fluorite from the Weardale, Barite from Cumberland, Pyromorphite from Roughtongill and Burgam... the list goes on into Cornwall, Scotland, Wales and overseas into Greece - Laurium, and Morocco - Mibladen and Bou Azzer, Australia, China... The list of people we used to work with reads a bit like a who's who of the mineral worlds greats. They were great days, and we had a lot of fun finding fabulous specimens, great new sites, and drinking lots of beer.
After a 20 year lay-off, enforced by my working in Australian and South African gold mines and Chinese Gem mines, I'm back in the UK and ready to go again. A bit older and wiser no doubt.,
Hopefully these pages will give a little insight.. some background to the great discoveries, some laughs, and a bit of colour to the specimens that now grace collections all over the place...
It all started when my mum did the washing on Monday mornings. My pockets would be stuffed with little pebbles picked up in the garden. Then I was given a little Ladybird book about minerals… and the rest, they say, is history.
My first experiences in the Midlands of England were in quarries and piles of rock by the roadside. My long-suffering mum, Joy, would organise visits to local museums, and discovered the whereabouts of abandoned quarries which we’d go fossicking in. A slow trickle of broken fossils, tiny bits of quartz, lumps of calcite, and amorphous lumps of rock began to collect in my room. I began to get frustrated.. the Ladybird book had nice crystals in it. How did I find some – where were the vughs – crystal lined monsters buried in hillsides all over England? Long suffering mum came to the rescue with Geological Society membership, which took me on field trips all over the country collecting fossils from every epoch. Then came that fateful Christmas morning. I woke up shortly after midnight, to find the floor of my bedroom strewn with minerals – quartz crystals, turquoise, cassiterite.. They’d found a collection for sale in the local paper and bought the lot. It was all from China Clay pits in Cornwall – and from that point onwards, I was hooked. The chap they bought it from gave them the address of a collector in Cornwall who worked in one of the mines. My mum organised a trip to Cornwall which I counted the days down to…
In the meantime I’d sold my train set (which would have been very valuable now – it was huge!) and used the proceeds to buy specimens on the family holiday to the Isle of Elba. My bedroom was soon stacked with specimens of haematite, ilvaite, and pyrite from Rio Marina.
This little shop was in Rio - it was crammed with specimens - tourmaline, pyrite, haematite, ilvaite, and more. It was about 200 yards from the hotel, there was a coffee shop next door, and I lived in the place!
We stayed in a little bed and breakfast not far from Penzance. On the first day, we went in search of our contact, who worked at a mine called Geevor. It wasn’t hard to find – Pendeen village sits on the edge of the cliffs, old engine houses dot the landscape, and piles of rock are everywhere. We drove up to the mine, and asked in the office where we might find him. The tough looking Cornish bloke in a mining hat surveyed my slim, beautiful, long brown-haired mum (who used to be a model) and his face slowly cracked into a smile...
‘Dick Barstow… oh, he’s in the sample compound up the hill. There’s two blokes up there – a big tall bloke and a skinny little runt – he’s the little bugger!’
We walked up the track to where two figures were sorting long lines of calico sample bags of drillchip. The little one straightened and came over to us... 'Dick?.. ' my mum asked. A grubby hand was proffered, and without further ado some pieces of malachite and chalcocite were plonked into my disbelieving hands. That night, we ended up at the pub with him, talking about mining, listening to tales of crystals and miners.
Over the next few days, we explored Cornwall to his directions, returning every night to his little cottage - 26, Tregeseal, St Just - to be precise, where his long suffering wife Yvonne prepared tea, and left me to sit, awestruck at his tales of specimens, mines, crystals, old books. He started to show me his collection, letting me pick pieces up, ask questions, and wonder at their perfection. Chalcocite, Cassiterite, Bournonite, Liroconite, Clinoclase, Langite, Botallackite, Bornite, Cuprite... the list went on..He took me to Cligga - I remember scrambling down the slope and into workings which led off the cliff. We spent the day hacking out a big vein of Stannite - I still have lumps of it to this day. I remember seeing bits on the monthly list afterwards and thinking 'I halped get them out'. Dick spent all day with a big lump hammer, mauling away at a pointed chisel, prising lumps of granite off the wall, working around the vein. I got the easy bit - breaking lumps of the soft stannite away from the wall when he'd exposed it all. At the end of the week, we left with a collection of little pieces he'd given me, and a promise to stay in touch - and a firm place on his collection of addresses to which he mailed out the monthly 'List'.
The next month, the list arrived. With it, my life changed forever. Gone were the attempts to find crystals in local quarries - I badgered my parents to take me down to Cornwall again - to ring and write to Dick and find out localities I could visit. The correspondence deepened, and over the next year or two we bought numerous specimens from him, and made repeated collecting trips to Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, the Weardale, Alston Moor, Cheshire and other localities too numerous to mention. One of my precious posessions is a collection of all the letters from Dick - he wrote long letters about collecting and the mineral market, and they provide a fascinating insight to this legendary figure - also to the philosophy and history of collecting in the 70's - a real snapshot of what was going on in those halcyon years.
My mum learned to wear a mining hat and oldham caplamp. Not quite the social scene she was used to, but having a model for a mum made it easy to pass her off as my sister. We used to go to the mine offices in the Weardale and she'd sit in the office with the managers whilst I was sent underground with the geologist - collecting bag and hammer in hand. They never found out she wasn't my sister.... They gave her some lovely specimens....! The photo is me, outside Redburn mine, in the Weardale. We 'did' Allenheads too, then Blackdene - always returning with bags full of lovely pieces. I remember Alan Emerson - the manager at Blackdene, daring me to pick up the enormous lump of purple fluorite that sat on the window ledge in his office - at the top of the flight of stairs which went up the side of the building by the old horse level. I struggled, and couldnt lift it - but went away - a determined nine year old, and returned a year later after spending a year doing press-ups and getting stronger. We went up to see Alan again, and this time, I managed to move the huge piece as far as the door. Alan relented then, and organised a collection of specimens for me!
I started to frequent the Natural History Museum at Dick's suggestion. One day, a door opened at the end of the long mineral gallery, and the chap walked straight up to me, extended his hand, and said 'I've been watching you - you come here often - pretty interested in this stuff are you?' Seeing my confusion, he gestured to the door, and said 'Fancy a look behind the scenes?' I nearly feinted. I trotted behind him as we entered the secret world of rooms and turrets - specimens strewn on top of boxes, up stairs, over desks, under cabinets, on top of books and bookcases - and he finally introduced himself - 'I'm Peter Embrey - the curator here'
I'll never forget that first visit. He took me into the vaults. Made me stand with my eyes closed whilst he put things into my hands - I'd open them on command, to find myself holding the Latrobe Nugget, or the largest Platinum nugget in captivity, and many other wonders that are so often illustrated in mineral books. We sat drinking coffee in his office - talking about Russell, Kingsbury, Sowerby and Rashleigh as though they were old mates. I was sworn to give him an example of anything I found.. a promise which in later years I always kept. I still have the letters from Peter and John Fuller, thanking me for the latest donation.. At about the same time, Dick was frantically denuding the Russell exchange collection at the museum, through a constant stream of exchanges. I didnt realise that I could have exchanged rather than donated!!! This was the source of much of Dicks good Cornish material. (I did eventually cotton on, and have some nice cassiterites with Russell labels). I used to stay with Peter in London in later years - I enjoyed many fascinating evenings sitting in his flat around the corner from the Museum, looking at the draft of Minerals of Cornwall and Devon, and talking about collecting philosophy. Peter always wanted me to retain specimens in an uncleaned state - to him it was more important to see how they were found - their environment, as well as the perfect, cleaned version, stripped of its associations. They told more of a story in that fomat, and I always tried to make sure the museum got a 'dirty' piece to go with anything I gave them after that.
School gets in the way of things like collecting. You only have holidays in which to escape. By the time I was in my early teens, I had a ring of friends who lived mainly in the north, and spent most of their time underground. My mum would take me up, dump me, and return a week later to pick up a grubby boy with boxes of specimens containing fluorite, sphalerite, barite, calcite and pyromorphite. It was heaven. I learned to drink beer, and a few years later, the local policeman came up to me on my birthday night bash in the pub - The Crown, in Hesket Newmarket, with a foaming pint. 'Pete.... we've drunk together all these years, you and me - here's your first LEGAL pint!!' I had some great friends in Hesket - Richard, who owned the little garage in the centre of the village, Grant and Noel Waller - who both later worked in Carrock - Grant now lives in devon, and Noel over in West Cumbria, where he runs a drystone walling company. We'd have lively debates with Chris Bonnington - who always argued to close the mines - saying they were dangerous and should be bulldozed - we nearly got thrown out of the pub one night after a particularly heated exchange when I reminded him that he killed more people on mountains than any mine in the Caldbecks had killed explorers and collectors. His wife, Wendy took him home, still grumbling! They still live up there now, all these years later.
I'd seen some bright red crystals from Caldbeck - a place called Drygill. I wanted some. Badly. It was about 1976. Dick intervened. He'd started a dig and here were some contacts. Grant lived at the farm at the foot of the fell, and we soon struck up a friendship that resulted in me almost living on the farm. Funny - I lost contact with Grant for years, but this year (2008) we finally found him again, happy as ever, living in Devon. Our first visit to Drygill was on the old Massey Ferguson tractor - the collecting gear stacked in the sheep carrier on the back. It soon became apparent that this was a major locality. More digs were organised, and I became Campylite King - boxes of the stuff piled up at home - almost every week I'd be up there digging away - sometimes on my own for days at a time. My mum came up to one dig - it was a fine summer's day and she sat in the opencut picking away at rocks. She came over with a little piece of quartz with a lovely blue mamillary coating on it. Grant grabbed it and his face split into a laugh - 'Hey - Guys... look.... it really DOES come from here - Plum Bog ummite ...' My mum was a hero...
This was the first plumbogummite specimen found in recent times, and it confirmed that the mine really had produced good material. I still have it, in pride of place, sandwiched between trays full of specimens we mined in later years, together with the lovely material that Ralph Sutcliffe found lower down in the bottom stopes - they collapsed on him while he was in there - to this day we dont know how he got out alive.
Drygill attracted a lot of people - I've found most of that old crew who were there in the late 1970's - Ian Plenderleith, Haggis Murray,(both in photo to right) Chester Forster, Grant Waller of course, Les Jackson, Guy Heelis - we had some grand times down the old stopes, bashing out orange crystals.
Dick was getting worried. I was finding as much as he was - if not more. The monthly lists were carrying campylite, pyromorphite, sphalerite, fluorite, barite - all dug during the many visits I was making up north. My collection grew steadily - I'd swap my boxes of specimens for a single piece - usually a corker of a West Cumberland barite, or an ancient Witherite. He started to accompany me on some of these trips - especially Drygill. One day, we'd gone down the shaft and Dick was burrowing in a hole on the south side of the shaft. There was a little wooden platform there, and he was perched on the end of a plank of wood which crossed the shaft. I was digging into the pillar which held the stope open, and with a huge rumble, a pile of stacked deads and vein material fell out of the pillar and crashed down onto Dicks' staging. He disappeared in a thick cloud of choking black psilomelane dust... I picked myself up from the rubble pile at the bottom of the shaft where I'd fallen, and started to look for him. After a while, I heard a plaintive squeak from above my head, and looked up to see a pair of white eyes peering from a sooty black face - at the TOP of the shaft above where I'd been working. He was safe. The rock had hit the end of the plank, and catapulted him upwards to land in a small recess cut into the side of the stope! Many of the campylites shown on the minerals page of this site were found during those trips with Dick. About this time, Chester Forster entered my life - my mum used to take me up to Scotland to meet him - but he was one of the original crew who were in Drygill in the early 70's, almost before Ralph and Lindsay started doing anything. Chester was a stalwart of Hilton mine, and still knows every nook and cranny there, together with Murton. The photo here shows Geoff Smith looking into a mud filled cavity of huge tabular barite crystals - in amongst the sprawl of fallen blocks that is the Carbonate Shake.
Another member of the old guard who appeared around this time was Les Jackson. We found the big cavity that's at the top of the website - about a foot across, full of huge green campy crystals - world class...
Geoff Smith and I had been down in the bottom of the opencut for about a week, at the bottom of a little shaft we'd dug, working the cavity. I'd had to hire a generator and kango hammer to drill holes around it, so we could split out the specimens without damaging them. Les appeared one day, jumped down the hole, and squeezed past us with barely a word... I shouted after him that the level further on was dangerous, and barely were the words out of my mouth than a low rumble of falling rock reached our ears. Incredulous, we crawled down the narrow tunnel to where Les had last been seen. It was filled with rock. Somewhere underneath was Les. Geoff scrambled out of the hole, muttering curses under his breath about the fruit cake who had just stopped our extraction of the best cavity of campylite ever found - he headed for Calebreck, and roused Harry and Grant Waller, who sorted the rescue team. Meanwhile, I dug... and dug. By the time the rescue team arrived, I'd found some fingers, and followed them through the rock to a hand. I squeezed it, just as the rest of the team arrived with Grant and Harry. It squeezed back - he was alive! It took many hours of digging to get him out - the roof was a mass of running rock, and he was pinned beneath a huge slab which had protected his chest and kept him alive. He kept shouting at the top of his voice ' I can't breathe.... I can't breathe!!' So good old Les was ok - they airlifted him to Carlisle in the rescue helicopter, after everyone had a jolly good time on the fell, and Geoff and I crawled into our sleeping bags in the landrover, exhausted. Next day we managed to finish getting the rest of the cavity out - mind blowing specimens, one after another, just kept dropping into my trembling hands.
Around this time, I met Freddy Humbersot. He was a young French collector, with family connections in Madagascar and Morocco. After becoming firm friends, and taking him around many of my localities in England, he asked me to go over to Morocco with him. We were to meet up in a mountain village, at a small hotel. I got there a day or so early, and spent the first day by the pool, taking in the sunshine. I was swimming in the pool when a body crashed past me and swam strongly away. I struggled spluttering to the surface, to see a stunningly beautiful girl hanging onto the end of the pool, laughing at me. She kept diving at me, and I gave up swimming and retreated to the bar, where inevitably I was followed. Eventually plucking up the courage to talk, in my broken French, I discovered she was called Catherine and was on holiday from France. We explored the area over the next day or so, swimming, eating and drinking together. I thought I was onto a good thing for a while - and then Freddy turned up one morning - walked straight past me, and up to Catherine - gave her a big hug and turned to me and said "I see you've met my sister...!" We brought some fantastic specimens back from Morocco - cerussites and vanadinites mainly.
Freddy and I went to Cornwall and spent a week or so with Dick. He'd been muttering about Wheal Alfred for a while, so we decided to pay a visit. I'd seen the pyromorphites, and they were good. We parked the car at the end of a track and walked the last couple of hundred yards to where there were some dumps and a shaft. Digging into the dumps, we excavated quite a large hole, and started to find a layer of material that was quite rich in pyromorphite - mainly little thumbnails, but very pretty. We dug for a couple of hours, almost hidden by gorse bushes until I got bored, and wandered off to look at the shaft, and other dumps. All of a sudden there was as bang and shouting from across the field nearby. I ignored it and carried on digging on the side of the shaft, until Fred and I were accosted by a rather angry looking farmer, shotgun in hand. He was a little chap, not much bigger than Dick, and quite a bit older. He ranted on about folks invading his land for a while, and then demanded to know where 'the other one' was. We glanced around, and seeing no sign of Dick, played dumb. Not to be outdone, the farmer started thrashing around in the gorse bushes, loosing off the odd barrel from the gun at imagined bodies lurking therein. After a few minutes he headed for the other dump where I'd last seen Dick, and started thrashing the gorse with the gun barrel - at which point Dick came flying out of the bushes like something out of an ejector seat, and landed in a tumbled heap at the farmers feet. We then got a lecture on how we were disturbing his animals, and were shown the road - not before we managed to retrieve several bags with nice specimens and a large collection of tools. We had some fun in the pub that night - I don't think he told Yvonne. We stayed at Dick's - spending days in the coach house going through boxes - and it was around then - about 1980, that Freddy started getting regular shipments from Dick of Chessy azurites. He also bought a lot of Weardale pieces - which have only just started to reappear. I remember Jeremy, Dicks son, was about 7 or 8 then - not old enough to tell if he'd be interested in minerals or not. That same trip we went to Devon - to an old manganese mine he knew about. We levered big blocks of rhodonite out of the ground, and loads of little bits. The big blocks went back to Dicks, and he later took them to the Dartmoor prison workshop to be cut into slices and polished. I still have a big polished slice that Dick gave me, and Freddy has a couple of smaller, unpolished bits in his collection. I can't remember the name of the place - it was just below a high Tor, with an old ruin on it. We collected some lovely childrenites from the George and Charlotte mine that trip - not sure if theres any dumps left now - there was plenty to go at in those days.
Freddy was my best mate. We went everywhere together, and sure enough, Catherine became my first real love. Freddy went on to get married and have three children - I was his best man. The photo here was taken in the Atlas Mountains where we spent a lot of time collecting and buying specimens . He built a magnificent collection of English material, which his wife still has, and there are still vast quantities of stock which we accumulated over our years together to exchange for better bits for our collections. Its mostly still there - trays and trays of campylite, burgam pyromorphite - there must be many thousands of specimens. We lost Freddy after I went to Australia - he cut himself shaving and died of blood poisoning. Cathy married, adopted a load of kids, and recently lost her husband in a car accident - this world we live in.. This year, 2009, I finally got to go back to France and stay over Christmas, with Fred's wife - Brigitte, and his three fantastic kids. Bits and pieces of the collection were on display - but I knew there was more. Brigitte finally gave in, and took me out to the garage where the rest was. I gingerly opened boxes that had not seen the light of day for nearly 30 years. Classic after Classic fell into my unbelieving hands. Finally, after more than two hours of opening boxes, I came to one which weighed more than most of the others. An enormous Chessy azurite dropped out - nearly 9 inches across, with crystals to an inch - with an old Dick Barstow label. It was the piece alongside it that floored me - bright silver - huge cubes six inches on edge, covered with bright, shining quartz crystals, with pyrite and calcite - over a foot across. It is the most incredible Blackdene galena specimen I've ever seen. I gingerly lifted it clear of the box and placed it on a table. The crystals gleamed dully in the light of the single bulb hanging from the ceiling of the garage - the specimen just sat there, sparkling - just like it did when the miner found it in the late 1970's. It too had a Barstow label with it - for a couple of hundred pounds - and that, in days when £200 bought you a world class piece of anything. Brigitte asked me what it was worth - I muttered something about thousands, and she asked me to bring it inside. We sat it on the table in the dining room, and the family stood for a while, just watching and looking at it - and then she turned and said 'Its yours - please take it home with you..' I couldnt look her in the eye - my eyes were too full of tears. As I write this, I've spent the last couple of days with a good friend, cleaning and sorting Freds exchange and reserve collection. There are thousands of specimens, all from the 70's - many from Morocco - some with Sorbonne and BRGM labels - an incredible mix of material that will probably end up at Ste Marie this year.
Peter Embrey rang me one day and asked if I could take an American collector around the country - it was Dick Hauk - of Franklin, NJ fame. Dick arrived with his wife and family, and together with Freddy, we set off around the country. We decided to go to Tremadoc, to the famous brookite locality. freddy and I spent the morning working at one side of the big hole there, and managed to open up a new cavity. I looked down the cavity - crystals of brookite to an inch, sat perfectly arranged on quartz crystals, with smaller crystals covering the matrix. It was a long cavity, and would take a day or two to extract. Excitedly, we waved Dick over, and pointed him at the cavity. He picked up a long chisel, and before we could blink, had thrust it into the open hole, and tried to knock off one of the quartz crrystals, shaving every brookite off the matrix in the process - he never even saw them. Freddy and I sat in shock, shaking our heads in disbelief, and then slowly began to extract the shattered mess of brookites - I still have the biggest crystal, and the quartz it sat on, and one or two of the matrix specimens. We took Dick up to Roughtongill, Burgam, Smallclough and over into the Weardale - I think he had a very good time - I've not heard from him since - and I guess the girls must be grown up and married by now. We dug calcite and haematite out of the tips at Pallaflat mine, in West Cumbria - got some very nice calcites in big blocks in the dump. Its all gone now - bulldozed for road materials.
Dick told me about a little place called Burgam. I took Freddy up there - it wasnt far away from home, and we soon had many trays full of lovely pyromorphite.. I still remember the days we spent there - Dick, Freddy, Ike Wilson, and a bunch of American collectors. You could stick a chisel into the wall, and with a bit of luck it would go through into a hole, and pyromorphite would pour out of the hole like a river. I can remember bringing dozens of trays of specimens out of that place - rivers of green would just land in boxes - and we'd not even wrap it - just lay it into a tray and put a layer of newspaper over it before covering with another layer of specimens. Freddy still has hundreds of pieces from there - although the big bits are rare - one of the bigger, better ones is in the Shropshire Mines Trust building at Snailbeach - nice piece.
Dick also came up with us sometimes, and I remember taking American collectors - I'm sure Dick Hauck went down with us at least once.. We found some amazing cavities - huge runs of loose ground which was full of brecciated rock coated with pyromorphite. Specimens used to fall out in bucket loads. Ike WIlson and Dick Braithwaite went in there one day and found an enormous pipe-like cavity which Ike still talks about on a regular basis...! We must still have well over 1000 specimens from these days - some only little thumbnails, and some cabinet specimens. As with most places, its a sad place these days - overgrown, entrances infilled, and the only open entrance I can find has a grille on it. Silly people in these mine preservation groups seem to think its best to let them collapse and leave the specimens to rot - why..? Jealousy probably - they dont know what to do with them, but why should we have fun? Sad morons, the lot of them.
In the evenings, and weekends we dug, many holes - all over the place. It was a great life - Derbyshire Caving Club did a lot of work there, and I joined up with their band of merry diggers - Steve Mills and Nigel Dibben and others. Wile I was living there, I found an old shaft in the village of Mottram. I collected some black gungy material from the shaft, and it wasnt until months later that Dick saw it and had it X-Rayed. It was mottramite - the rest, they say, is history..
Mottram was a first. There arent many folks who have had a discovery of a mine, and mineral, that really wasnt in existence at the time - if you get my drift - the type locality was Mottram, but the material that made the discovery wasnt from there. To go back later and find the material - not quite type locality stuff, but quite good, nevertheless. I still havent written the definitive paper on this - several other people, including academics from museums in Manchester, have claimed to have been there and 'Done' the locality - funny how they always try to claim the limelight, even when they weren't there, and know bugger all about the place, the discovery, or its history.
We found all sorts of stuff at Alderley. The photo shows Steve Mills on the windlass at Stump Shaft - a dig near Wood mine that led into the Hough level. We built a brick shaft and dug out the bottom. Engine Vein was a great spot - I had a JCB there on the farm. Richard, the National Trust Warden asked me to do some work on the footpaths on the Edge. I just looked at him for a while - he grinned, and said - if you happen to stray off the path onto a mine - well, you weren't to know! So I ended up digging all sorts of nice things off the top of Engine Vein and Stormy Point with a JCB. We had a lot of fun there - found some superb wulfenite crystals which I still have, together with native mercury - and over the hill, the West Mine - was a constant source of amusement - Paul Sorensen, the owner, was fantastic. I went down one day and came back clutching the best Tyrolite specimen found in the British Isles. Presently languishing in the Natural History Museum along with the rest of the stuff I found at Alderley, while they find time to work on it. Whatever happened to Dick Barstow!! Help Dick...!
While I was in Alderley, Ike got really interested in Greece, and we used to take off to Greece for a while - Laurium - great spot - Warm sun, nice girls, nice mines, nice holes to go down, and nice specimens. We took off for Athens one day - Laurium, Kamareza - Serpieri Shaft... Met a lovely girl in the hotel, Ozzie - but mum was watching us.. so we couldn't get up to much. The mines were great - found loads of specimens - a vein of Cabrerite - lovely pieces, and went underground with one of the miners to collect bits and bobs. Bought pieces too. It was a fun time - very relaxing - wine, lovely Greek food, ouzo, and a few ruins thrown in for good measure..
The north of England was an amazing place then... The Alston moor mines were huge - everyone was digging in them and finding things. There was seemingly no end to the place - mines just connected to other mines - which connected to others. They said that the postman used to walk up Allendale until he got to Coalclough and Barneycraig workings. He'd go underground there, and eventually emerge about two miles futher on, having gone past the county boundary in Rampgill (where there is actually a Boundary Gate) and he'd emerge from Rampgill entrance in Nenthead. You could go into Capelclough, up to Middleclough, through Smallclough, down into Rampgill, down again to Brownley Hill, and from there to Nentsberry Haggs. Its about 9 miles all up - I know -cos we've just done it in 2009 - the trip took 10 hours, and we all got very wet, tired, and cold - but finally emerged triumphant at Haggs horse level entrance. What a trip! Smallclough, was of course, home of Hydraulic Shaft. Just about every one of those shiny black sphalerites that you see with a hydraulic label on it, came from a series of cavities that were dug by Grant Waller, myself, Dick Barstow and a few others - back in the 1970's. There's still a scribbled note on the wall in Hydraulic that reads 'Sphalerite all Gone! Grant...' The cavities still keep appearing though - and some of the nicest pieces I've seen from there came out in 2008 from a new area where they were covered in calcite and had to be leached out. Geoff Smith used to spend weeks up there with me - we explored and dug - taking dozens of photographs - this one is of an air door in the main flats at Smallclough - typical of the sort of thing you see down there - the stone arching is amazing - I wonder if anyone knows how to do this sort of work these days? I doubt it. The photo on the left is of Grant Waller, Geoff Smith, Noel Waller - Grants girlfriend Linda, and his little brother Scottie. I think Scotts torch had gone out, and he'd already taken the lid off his jar of sunshine that he'd carefully taken in with him, so he was a bit upset at not having any light! Noel later went on to work with Grant at Carrock mine in the Caldbecks - theres loads of photos and stories about the two of them in Ian Tylers book about Carrock.
Dick arrived the next day - beanie hat pulled over his eyes. He was quieter than usual - he just pointed to the landrover and said 'lets go - head for Scotland'. Conversation was short on the way - he wanted to visit some strange places I'd never heard of - we went everywhere - places I knew, places I thought were worked out and closed years ago - he just opened a hole and shoved his nose in, and out came specimens. Scotland, the North, Caldbecks, Weardale - that last trip was a whirl. We ended up at Gwynfynnyd gold mine in north Wales too - some of the guys who were working it - John Daniels and his crew, were friends of Dicks from Cornish mining. I took some good photos of them working there - and a couple of Dick in the stopes - about the only ones we ever got of him underground.
I remember sitting in a hotel one night and looking at him - still with the beanie pulled over his eyes - I just said 'Why, Dick - what's the rush' His eyes clouded over a bit - his face seemed to set - an intake of breath. He never said anything - but then I knew something was wrong. We stared into our pints.. time just ticked away.. I could almost see Dick's mind clicking the years over, thinking back on successes, failures, triumphs. We talked about where I was going - what I wanted from life - about Jeremy, his son, and Yvonne - how the collection was for Jeremy's insurance - to fund his schooling and his life. They were strange days - we collected - drove miles - went up mountains, uncovered amazing things - the Vanadinite at Leadhills is phenomenal - I've not been back there yet - but Dick just knew where it was. The landrover filled, native bismuth, stibnite, vanadinite, uraninite, prehnite, gem tourmaline, gold, and then the usual Caldbecks bounty, more Campylites, some Weardale stuff, back through Cheshire to see Harry Grange at the mottramite shaft (Harry had almost filled it with lawnmowing clippings by then) and on home. A couple of days in Wolverhampton, cleaning and sorting, then the famous flip of a coin as we divided two equal piles of specimens, and Dick made the usual offer to buy my half as well, after I'd taken a few bits for my collection. Then the whole lot wrapped up and in the back of his car, and off to Cornwall. I remember the look on his face that morning - he didnt take his eyes off me for a long time - unusual - Dick didn't look anyone in the face that long - but even then I never twigged to the fact that it was terminal cancer. Over the next few weeks I began to realise that he'd been showing me all his secret localities - I just didnt know why.
I went to Perth - on my goldmining odessey - and wrote to Dick every week. Yvonne wrote to me and told me he'd died. Ralph Sutcliffe was with him. We still cry when we remember Dick..
Dick came back to me recently. Sitting on my desk as I write in 2009, is his Estwing hammer. He dropped it on a field trip in the late 1970's, from all accounts cursing and swearing about it as usual, and its been lost ever since. A friend of his reminded me he'd dropped it and I went looking - sure enough, there it was. So I have Dick Barstow's hammer to keep me company.
I was sitting in the farmhouse in Alderley one night, and saw a film on TV - Hammond Innes - Gold Mine. All about a Cornish mine owner who went broke, and went to ozzie to make his fortune. I'd sold my farm contracting business within a week and was on a plane to Perth within a few days. That started the next phase of my life - I went so quickly that I even forgot to get hold of my best mates - Ike WIlson in particular - who hunted me for years after that, till I got back in 2000 and he gave me the biggest bollocking of my life for not keeping in touch.
I arrived in Perth with £500 in my pocket, on a one way ticket. It was early 1982. I'd handed back my inheritance, which would have kept me going for the rest of my life without ever having to work. The smell of the air when I got off that plane was almost intoxicating - the warm desert air, the colours - the bright, deep piercing blue of the sky, and the vivid orange red of the ground - that tang of eucalyptus that I came to know so well, the musty smell of the red dirt - so evocative that every time I think of the bush, those smells are so real I can feel them in my head. I have a little jar of that red dirt on my desk - if you splash a few drops of water on it, the old smells come back..
I remember that long bus ride into Perth - the student hostel I stayed in - Top Deck it was called. I slept for a few hours, and the next day, they kicked Malcolm Fraser out of Parliament House and Bob Hawke took over - I remember Fraser crying as he left. It was the beginning of a long downhill slide for Ozzie, under a labour government.
That night I went into North Perth for a beer. I stood at the bar, and ordered a pint - the guy looked strangely at me and shoved a little glass over the bar with fizzy beer in it. I slammed it down and ordered another, and after that a few more. I had the equivalent of a couple of pints and then the world started to spin.. They dont tell you that Oz beer is about 9% until you've been there a while. That afternoon I walked down The Terrace, in Perth. Its a bright, modern city, tiny - the size of an average English village. The Swan river flows along the edge of the city - everywhere you look is water, blue sky, fresh, clean and invigorating sea air.. Every other office block was full of mining companies - I was looking for Carr Boyd - the Chief Exec knew my dad apparently. I saw John Daniels that afternoon - he had no jobs, but knew someone that did, so I knocked on the door, and a beautiful ginger haired girl with piercing blue eyes and a stunning body led me to his office. 'Have you ever run a gold mine?' he asked. 'What qualifications?' I told him I'd done Geology at Hull, and I'd been in gold mines - I had - Gwynfynnyd in North Wales for a quick trip underground with the manager one day.
I got the job on the spot, and on the way out, Sandy gave me her huge smile, and my heart melted at the sight of those blue eyes. She told me to keep in touch. I spent my money on a little landcruiser, equipped with a proper fridge, and little boxes in the back for equipment. I bought a swag (its a roll of material and canvas you sleep on in the bush) a camp oven, and retreated to Top Deck for a last night. Next morning I fuelled up, and started driving. They just said 'head down the Great Eastern - you can't miss it - Kalgoorlie is 600k's'. I headed up into the hills behind Perth - the air got warmer, the sun seemed brigher, and the heat began to climb. Soon the houses dropped away and gave way to rolling fields of parched brown earth, with little trees sticking out of them like those artificial things they put on kids railway sets. The road stretched in front of me - a shimmering black ribbon that vanished into a haze in the distance. After an hour or so, a collection of corrugated shacks rolled by on either side of the road, a water tower leaning drunkenly in a patch of scrub to the side of one of the houses. Some people live in those little towns all their life - some never even see Perth. Alongside the road is a shining silver pipe - nearly 3 feet in diameter, it joins the road just after the Perth Hills, and stays there, all the way. Its the Pipeline - water that's pumped 600 kilometers to the Goldfields - one of the most incredible achievements of early Australian settlement. The engineer that designed it committed suicide a week before the water reached Kalgoorlie. They told him it would never work.
The fuel guage dropped lower and lower - and the miles crept by. The hot sun was searing - the panels of the little landcruiser drummed in the wind, the bonnet flapped, and dust crept into every crack. The straight, shimmering black ribbon stretched endlessly into the distance. I drove for 5 hours, until I started to get scared - I'd seen no other vehicle - was I on the right road? I decided to stop, and got out the swag, and billy can, and made a pot of tea over a fire - I just parked up in the bush to the side of the road and soon fell asleep under the stars to the shrilling of crickets. I was awoken next morning with a roar, and the ground shook as a huge road train carrying massive dump trucks heading for the mines rushed past. Heartened, I started the engine of the little landcuiser and drove on. After half an hour we arrived at Coolgardie - fhe first of the big gold mining areas. I managed to get fuel, more water, and some food from the dusty, grimy counter of the little petrol station. 'How far is Kalgoorlie' I asked. 'Just down the road' came the answer. I drove on, excited now, my heart pounding. All along the skyline were rickety headframes - lifeless wheels devoid of cables pointing at the relentless blue sky. Greyish heaps of stone, mullock dumps, were everywhere. The bush was strewn with rusty bits of metal - old tins, cans - 100 years of rubbish that hardly rusts in the desert environment. Here and there, an abandoned Model T Ford, sat on its chassis with a rudimentary winch turning it into a winding engine for some long forgotten prospector. I drove into the bush, and wandered amongst the dumps, peering down timbered shafts that twisted their way into the red dirt in the search for yellow metal. There were bigger shafts too - three compartment things, with yawning great holes plunging deep into the ground - no fence, nothing to cover it - just a gaping, dark hole below the stark, lifeless skeleton of a headframe. I was tempted to climb the ladderway but the rungs fell out when I touched them, the timber eaten to dust by termites. I sat with my legs dangling over the edge of the abyss - I could almost hear the rattle of the cage, the rush of quartz rock spilling into the hoppers - the pounding of the huge stamp batteries as the ground around them shook in a steady monotony. The sun started to dip to the horizon - I had spent most of the day wandering amongst the rock piles, so I headed for the road, and Kalgoorlie.
As the sun set behind me, the horizon flooded with crimson, the bush turned blood red, sharp silhouettes of gum trees outlined against the dark ultramarine of the sky - I couldn't help a sharp intake of breath - it's the most beautiful thing you could imagine. You get used to it after a while, but the first sight of a bush sunset is something never to forget. I drove on - up a shallow slope, and there, ahead of me, lay an incredible sight. I stopped. I sat there with my chin resting on the top of the steering wheel - watching the horizon. There were lights - everywhere - christmas trees, decorated, little groups of red lights at the very top above the wheels, and white lights picking out the form of the headframes. The light shimmered, flickered in the dust that rose all around. The dust, the lights - filled the horizon, stretching for miles in each direction. Heading towards me, arrow straight, aimed from the very heart of the headframes, was a twin row of street lights. I slowly drove down the road towards the lights as the headframes loomed ever larger, and the smell of Kalgoorlie started to waft through the open windows. Over the musky smell of the bush came a tang, a slight smell of sulphur, acid, and the unmistakable scent of fertiliser. I drove down Hannan Street, passing pub after pub until I reached the intersection at the top where it meets Boulder Road - the huge headframe of Mount Charlotte towers above the end of the road and I parked in the glow of the lights from the headframe, still shaking my head in disbelief that I was actually there - in Kalgoorlie - Western Australia, and not sitting in a cold, damp cottage in Cheshire thinking about mending someone's fence the next day. I parked, and wandered down Hannan Street to The Exchange - a big clapboard hotel, with timber sidewalks around two walls, and walked in. It was crowded full of beefy Aussie bush types - dusty brown hats, dirty jeans, and gnarled, weatherbeaten faces. Jugs of beer stood on tables and the bar, next piles of money in untidy mounds of notes and coin, spread down the polished wooden top of the bar. Behind it, working furiously to pull beer, and leaning precariously forward over the bar as they did, were about half a dozen nearly naked girls - tiny G string panties, and no bra tops at all. A miner would pull a note from the pile to pay for his beer, push a pile of extra coins over the bar, and the object of his desire would lean closer to him so he could fondle her nipples. The more money, the longer the fondle. Sometimes the tip wasnt big enough, and she'd stand jauntily behind the bar, out of reach, and play with her nipples till they stood erect - the crowd would oblige with more tips, and so the game would go on. Sometimes a gold nugget would roll across the countertop, and phone numbers were exchanged.
There was never any food - miners and geologists stood side by side with dusty drilling crews, and gnarled prospectors - occasionally a well dressed executive would walk in and the crowd would part to let him to the bar - one of the new style of stock market entrepreneurs who floated mining companies on the Perth exchange at a rate of three or four a year, making millions every time, and never finding gold - but paying the old prospectors and geologists handsomely for glowing reports on 'goat pasture' they'd pegged 'near' the latest hot strike, and sold into the float for huge vendor stock considerations. In later years, I became one -pegging ground, floating companies, and living the high life for a while until the boom became a bust. I drank my beer with them, buying jugs, and sharing the banter around the bar - never taking my eyes off the stunning, shapely, slim and athletic girls behind the bar. I slept one more night under the stars, my head spinning with a thousand dreams and visions of this hot, dusty Eldorado.
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...
Smiles are exchanged and silence falls upon the little knot of men. The familiar smell of blasting fumes drifts upthe 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...
Peck was not the sort to take something lying down. He was pretty sure who had doctored the bottle, and a couple of days later, I saw him turn up at the headframe with a big drum of oil. He winked, and disappeared into the cage with his drum. The platman said he'd got off two levels above where he should have - said he needed a walk to stretch his legs after a few too many beers the night before. Later that day, I went to see the miners working above Peck, on a new drive that we were putting in. I walked along the drive, following the air lines - curious to see what was causing the little flecks of foam that were drifting out with the water between the rails... As I got to the face, my lamp beam disappeared into a swirling mass of foam - figures swayed around in the gloopy mass of bubbles, lamps flashed, the beams of light picking out great globs of white and grey foam.. I leant against the wall, shaking with laughter - miners flailing their arms around as they tried to swish the foam away from the drills at the face... The water lines blurped and crackled with foam - the drills jamming as foam mixed with drill cuttings and formed a gooey paste.. Peck had tipped 25 litres of concentrated fairy liquid into the header tank on the level above, which fed water to the drills... They got their own back a few days later - and life went on as normal - bouts of madness interspersed with hard work, a lot of beer, and the relentless hot sun of the aussie bush at the weekends. The photo is the Australian Rockdrilling Championships - they ran it every year at the Kalgoorlie mining expo.. You have to drill a hole through a cylinder of concrete. First one through the cylinder wins - and its hard.... very hard...
One accident was horrible. I was in the rescue team. I was often the only person that saw some of the miners during the day - the shift bosses didnt always make it to all of the working faces. One afternoon, I went to see a miner putting a rise up between two levels - I wanted to check the rise was still following the ore. It connected the 1200 with the 1100 levels. I waited until they'd bored and fired the morning shot - usually they fired at lunchtime and went out to the plat for lunch - in this case, there were two miners working - one would feed air and water lines down the borehole they were following from the 1100, and the other set up the rockdrill in the rise above the 1200. I popped in to see Steve on the way through the 1100. When I got to the top of the rise, it was strangely quiet. Things werent right - air lines snaked all over the place - water lines were bubbling water over the floor of the stope. A smashed, pulverised mining hat lay on the floor in front of me, streaked with red. My eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom - dust caked everything, but I began to pick out fragments of boots, shards of overalls, damp, dust covered lumps of something that my mind could not quite comprehend.. The wall of the stope above the rise looked as though someone had coated it with a flocked wallpaper. I leaned heavily against the wall as the realisation began to sink in - Steve had been feeding the air and water lines down the borehole when his offsider had fired the shot - it must have been like staring down the barrel of a 6" naval gun when it was fired. There was nothing left of him - he had been vapourised. We managed to scrape up enough to fill a small box, which his newly married bride, Annette, buried a week later. The investigators soon worked out what had happened. Steve had pulled the air hoses out of the borehole, and gone out to the 1100 plat for lunch, whilst his offsider fired the shot from the 1200 plat. The shot didnt go off, so the offsider had gone back in, reconnected the firing line, and fired the shot very late - outside the regulation time, and just as Steve was starting to feed the lines back down the borehole. The other miner was lynched and run out of town. He left Western Australia after that and never worked in the mines again. Annette became a very rich young lady - Steve had taken out a massive life insurance policy just before they married, and together with the compensation payout, became a millionaire. she married again about a year later.
... He stands on top of a pile of broken ore in a stope. His face is dripping with black drilling sludge which runs and sprays all over his clothes. He is black from head to foot. He turns and grins at me - teeth and eyes momentarily flashing in the gloom. He pulls the air lever and the machine bucks in his hand once more - the long steel twisting and whipping as he starts a new hole. The bit claws its way into the rock, as the airleg slowly extends. Compressed air exhausts with a snarling and spitting. It forms a heavy, oily mist which hangs in the opressive, hot, and humid air. I must go - I put a hand on his shoulder and he half tuns and nods. At the bottom of the stope I stop and look back. Almost obscured by cloying vapour is a figure , surrounded by a pale, sepia glow from his lamp - his body hunched over an airleg. He stands alone all day, on top of his pile of rock, beset by the screaming of his machine, the noise amplified as it bounces off the rock walls of his subterranean workplace. At the days end he will charge the holes with high explosive and fire the face - the next day he returns - another pile of rock, more holes to drill. Black mud, fumes, screaming noise - this year and the next. Perhaps he will be lucky and survive, perhaps the earth will take her revenge. He cares not, it is his life.
What a change the weather can take - all summer we become accustomed to seeking cool spots - the shaft was a welcome change. To descend into its shady depths was an envied relief. Now the weather is cool, breezy and sunny. A hot wind blows from the shaft, and it is a relief to step into fresh, cool air at surface again. The days are shorter now - time seems to move so quickly. The sunset tonight was no exception to the beautiful flow of colour to which we become accustomed here - the sun slowly fades below the horizon. The sky darkens, and pinks and purples begin to fringe the even blue hue of the unrelenting skies. a vast flood of orange spreads its clammy hand over the landscape, before slowly paling into a rich ermine which reaches towards the almost black air overhead. Slowly the colours darken, become delicate washes of colour on a palette which darkens by the minute, The trees stand, black outlines reaching up to catch the dying day. The bush slowly becomes silent. The trees fade into the gloom. A stillnes wraps itself around us, making anyone fortunate enough to appreciate its hugeness feel so small and alone - dwarfed by this vast, incredible place. The stars are rising - cold pinpricks which remind us of that even vaster, empty enigma with which we are surrounded. Nature shows her true form here - one could never be misled into trying to defeat her - you go through every day with the feeling that we are privileged to be alive, to be able to witness such an incredible place. The feeling must communicate freely here - Kalgoorlie has produced many more than its fair share of strong and famous people. The Gwalia gold mine, a few miles into the bush from Kalgoorlie was managed by a young mining engineer before he left to live in England. He translated De Re Metallica with his wife in London, producing his famous facsimile copies, vellum bound, of which I have one. Then he moved again, to become President Herbert Hoover of the USA.
Living in the bush is to go back in time - it's like the wild west. Even Kalgoorlie has boardwalks, streets wide enough to turn a camel train around in - and a pub on every corner. At the weekends, we'd all go out pegging leases - most mining folks had a lease or two - if you were lucky, you'd find gold - for some, it was a neat spot to go out at the weekend and drink beer, shoot a few cans, get away from life. For some of us, it was a serious business - we'd research the leases - check out the geology, make sure there was gold present. We'd peg the ground - putting our corner pegs in with the claim papers, and wait for the Wardens Court to approve the applications. Then we'd see who was the highest bidder for the ground - you'd put together a glowing report on its prospects, and take it to one of the entrepreneurs who floated around the bars and pubs - they were looking for ground to put into public floats - usually on the Perth exchange. We'd get vendor stock in the new company - usually worth very little - but once in a while the company would take off, and you'd make a packet. We'd even find gold - we'd take metal detectors out on the ground, and dig up nuggets buried just below the surface - I knew guys who did it for a living - and had house-brick sized nuggets buried in the dirt under their beds. It was big money once upon a time - by the time I left in the late 1990's, most of the nugget fields had been worked over, and there wasnt a lot left, but those early detecting days were incredible.
Western Australia had its fair share of minerals too - the giant Agnew nickel mine, Teutonic Bore copper / silver, Whim Creek copper mine, the Cadjebut lead / zinc mines, Boddington copper / gold, the Dravite mine at Yinnietharra - I was lucky enough to know the geologists and managers who ran them, and had open access much of the time.
I moved to Perth and lived in the Hills, where I built a rambling weatherboard house. I had loads of contacts, and worked in all sorts of mining related jobs for a while - my secretary was Kevin Bloody Wilson's daughter. One day, a friend brought some aquamarine around to the house - and asked my opinion. I thought it was Russian - he said it wasnt, but close by. During the next 12 months, a relationship developed with some gem dealers in Hong Kong, and I was invited to Beijing to meet the Minister for Minerals and Energy. The aquamarine WAS Russian, but from the Chinese side of the border - in the Altai Mountains. A fter the first visit to Beijing, we agreed a Joint Venture heads of agreement, and I was taken up to Urumchi, the capital city of Xinjiang. We flew from Beijing, along the Great wall - following it for thousands of miles along the southern border of Mongolia, over the Taklimakan Desert.
Chinese airlines are some of the most antiquated in the world. The national airline, CAAC, is notorious. China Airlines Always Cancelled. I boarded with two of my fellow Directors in Beijing, and we settled into our seats rather apprehensively. The stewardesses on these planes are Very Important People - they smile and gesture.... but they don't actually do anything - as a westerner accustomed to flying, you get used to expecting a drink - to see your seatbelt checked - to having someone check that the luggage rack is shut... We are waved on board by the stewardesses, who smile, and then sit down - carefully arranging their harnesses after shutting the doors. We peer down the aisle - bags hang from overhead lockers, bundles and boxes are blocking the aisles, and it is unbearably hot. The engines are started - the plane begins to move - and after taxiing a short distance, stops. the engines roar - the plane strains agains the brakes, and... we stay grounded. The engines roar again - flaps move, more engines, we lurch forward... and stop. The stewardesses stay strapped to their little seats, blissfully unaware that anything might be amiss.. More lurching - the engines roar, and die to a murmur - and finally with a scream, after more than half an hour of lurching and whining of flaps, we take off. In the air, the heat increases - the air conditioning is not working - and within minutes burly cossacks are pulling off tunics, mopping sweaty faces and reaching for the overhead lockers. the plane lurches - more lurches - turbulence over the mountains behind Beijing... I hear a rattle from the lockers, and before long, the unmistakable stench of firewater. It begins to leak from the joints in the lockers as the cossacks search for the remaining unbroken bottles, and finding them, carefully uncork them to drink. The stewardesses finally uncoil their tiny, slim bodies, and begin to make their way down the cabin, handing out little packages. I take mine, curious to open it. Paper wrapping falls away to reveal a delicate paper fan, made with little pieces of split bamboo. I cannot begin to describe the sight of dozens of huge cossacks and mongols lining the aisles of an old Russian turbo prop aircraft, delicately fanning themselves in a completely ludicrous attempt to cool themselves down. We fly on - the Great Wall stretches away beneath us - endless swathes of waterless desert to the south, while to the north, distant mountain ranges of Mongolia. One of my western friends decides to make the precarious journey to the toilets at the rear. Chinese food never agreed with him, and he always fought a battle with his guts - this was his worst nightmare... After an eternity, there was a shriek from behind me, and Brian emerged from the rear, trousers wrapped around his ankles and clutching his bum. When he'd resumed his composure, and the cossacks had settled into their seats, rocking with helpless laughter, I gradually got the story... simple really - don't flush the bog when you're sitting on the seat - it opens a flap in the side and dumps the contents. Aircreaft tend to be pressurised, and your bum squishes nicely into the hole...poor Brian...
We finally landed in Urumchi. As we came in to land, there were crumpled remains of aircraft aligned at strategic spots on the approach... some didnt look all that old - just left where they hit. At the sides of the runway were bunkers, and in each one, were two biplanes - each with a machine gun mounted between the propellor. I looked around, half expecting to see a film crew - Raiders of the Lost Ark - Harrison Ford to suddenly appear, running across the runway pursued by hapless warriors... but no.. just more biplanes, and a grey, drab concrete building that was the terminal.. The head of Geology and mineral resources for the Region met us at the airport - a rotund, jolly fellow, whom I now knew quite well from our meetings in Beijing.. I hesitated and asked him about the biplanes... He drew himself upright, and explained seriously that it is the Xinjiang Air Force - they still fly regularly, they practise manoevres, and they are ready to repel the Western invader. At times, its hard to keep a straight face - but he was deadly serious.. Before long, we were making friends with Chinese geologists and engineers based in town. Urumchi is the capital city of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region - an area covering almost a third of China, and bordered by Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Kazakhstan. The region answers to Beijing, but governs itself. The name Xinjiang, literally translated, means 'Great Treasure Chest' - it was the stronghold of Genghis Khan, who mined gold and gems to fund his warriors, and contains some of the richest un-mined deposits of diamonds, gold, base metals, coal, oil and gems in the world. The Chinese aren't daft - they are well aware that the world's resources are fast running out, and they are in no hurry to extract deposits that will give them economic superiority in years to come.
My first introductiion to the minerals of the region was Geology headquarters - the museum there is capable of reducing even the most experienced mineral collector into stunned disbelief. Aquamarines which rival or better anything from Afghanistan and Brazil, Stibnites - 6 foot high and crystals thick as a mans leg, Tourmalines - blue cap - similar to the Himalaya mine - Topaz, Alexandrite, Gem garnets which are world class, Gold - crystals, leaves, ropes, dust dredged from rivers, tellurides - gold is everywhere up there, Orpiment and Realgar - slabs several feet across - crystals fist sized, perfect, undamaged. The cases are old, dusty, cracked. Specimens are dusty and look uncared for - labels are roughly written in beautiful sculptured Chinese characters - but the specimens themselves are beyond comprehension - I've seen the Natural History Museum, the Smithsonian, The Sorbonne - but nothing prepares you for this dusty little backwater. After a day of standing awestruck with my Chinese counterparts in the mining venture, it was time to pack up and leave Urumchi for the long drive across the desert to Altai. The road is long, flat, dusty - and skirts the Tarim Basin, which contains massive reserves of coal and oil - our little convoy of Chinese four wheel drives rattled up the road, headed towards the distant mountains. We stopped many times for photos, camped overnight, drank lots of the local fire water - a revolting concoction made from potatoes and melons, and I started to gain a huge amount of respect for these tough Cossack and Uygur guys who had been cut off from Western science and technology all of their lives - and yet, had developed their own technology in isolation - built drill rigs, laboratories, mining equipment factories - mostly just from looking at photos of western equipment. After two days of hard driving we arrived in Altai - a mountain city, home to an eclectic collection of Han, Uygur, Mongols, Cossacks and other minor tribal groups. They all live happily together - simple lives, with a huge emphasis on family, and looking after the treasured old folks. Our headquarters building was to be a solid, granite built monolith on the outskirts of town, near to our quarters - a little hotel built over the stream which flowed from the mountains. The first night I was there, I panned gold from the stream. Home to around 4 ,000 people, Altai had one telephone - in the Regional Governors office. I was to become good friends with this rebel - thoughtful, a deep thinker, businessman, family man - hard drinking, a man whom I later discovered had one of the most difficult tasks imaginable - bringing this remote, unspoiled way of life, into the 21st century and western civilisation. It was a job which tasked him dearly, and we were to have long philosphical discussions on the issue, mostly sitting in the crowded main street at night, watching the children play.
After a couple of days in Altai, organising men, equipment, and clothing (in winter the mountains can be -40 degrees!) our convoy of little 4 wheel drives set off for the high Altai mountain base of the new gem company. The drive was a rough road, which wound up the mountainous gorges, and across rich plains and grasslands - devoid of animals, huge forests, towering mountains, and rushing rivers fed by glacial meltwaters. The river Altai is huge - a roaring torrent of dark, glacial green water which pours from the mountains in cascades. Deep gorges are terrifying - the water thunders through narrow ravines in which mist hangs high in the air - wider stretches allow the flow to slow a little, and alluvial gold deposits are formed everywhere - thousands of locals make a good living from digging in these alluvials for gold, using primitive rockers and sluices. They dig deep into the alluvial gravels, sometimes holding back the raging waters with rough dams of logs cut from the forests - the pits behind the dams are over 100 feet deep in places - there was no way I was going to brave the rough ladders which reached into the watery depths - the thought of the dam breaching, and the freezing green, oily waters of the river pouring into the pit was too much. I would stand on the edge, watching hundreds of artisan miners digging away - and sometimes accompany them on panning trips to shallower deposits. The gold is quite fine, and I'm sure they lose well over half as it floats easily and can escape over the top of the rockers before it gets a chance to sink behind the riffles.
A village, clinging to a mountainside, is the halfway point for the trip - we stop to eat rice, These people are very simple - but there is an overbearing element of happiness - they always smile - laugh - joke - there's a non-stop flow of humour amongst the crew. the restaurant is wallpapered with newspapers. In the village, every house has a tiny veg plot which stretches dodwn to the river - they are all carefully tended -little wooden posts holding a variety of vines, fruits and veg. More bowlsful of rice, and yet more steamed buns - followed by char - streaming glasses of the inevitable green tea - a tiny pinch of leaves infused in a flask of hot water, and poured after a long while into glasses. Its very weak, but surprisingly refreshing, and everyone drinks gallons of it. Replenished, we head for the vehicles - curious locals crowd the street to see the foreign gweilo with his entourage - I was one of the first westerners to be allowed into what was still a closed military zone - it had taken over a year of negotiations with various government departments and regional chiefs, for me to be allowed into the area. They were still very suspicious of anyone from the outside - why did I want to be there? We travelled on.. The road now became a track - much travelled, but little more than a packhorse trail - the mountains are full of such roads - barely maintained, frequently flooded and washed out, yet somehow, they stay open and barely passable. We bumped up steeper and steeper inclines - the river beginning to disappear into a rocky gorge - one side of the track always cut into a rock face - fantastic formations in the gneisses revealing the tortuous metamorphic birth of this incrdible scenery. We would stop frequently to move boulders, sometimes building across ravines washed out of the track - the crew running franatically like startled ants, levering, shouting, shrieking with laughter, and quickly jumping back into the vehicles as they started to move.. Trees start to line the mountainsides - tall pines, massive trunks, many venerable years old - these are not forests that are farmed. We climb higher, and the road tops a rise that gives way to an incredible vista - a plateau, rolling mountains stretching into the distance around its edges - the plateau itself formed of rolling, gently undulating hills, as green as I have ever seen grass. There is not a sign of life for mile after mile - millions of acres of some of the best pasture I have ever seen in the world - and not a single animal to be seen. We drive for hour after hour, past rolling hills, huge granite bosses, through a huge thrust zone - shattered rocks climbing over the gneissic pavement - huge boulders rolling down the slopes from the thrust which is visible for mile after mile. Towards the evening, the scenery begins to change again - and the crew stop by a river, near a crossing point where battered old chinese trucks loaded with iron ore have bogged hopelessly - dragged into the muddy slopes approaching the river. Local Mongols are shovelling the iron ore out of the trucks in vain attempts to extricate them - the rear ends have disappeared into the mire, leaving only the cab and front wheels pointing to the sky. We set up camp half a mile away, and settle down for the evening while the camp cook coaxes a fire out of a folorn pile of firewood. A big cast iron pot is soon full of simmering rice - topped up with a sackful of prawn shells for flavour and protein... More steamed buns appear, and we settle down around a camp fire to share stories of mines - big diggers, bulldozers.. I'm amazed at their thirst for knowledge - they know we have big machines - they've never seen them, but they know all about them.. we sit around the fire, and I tell stories of the big opencuts, 200 ton haulpacs, D12 bulldozers with blades higher than a mans head. They are enthralled... a young geologist moves closer to me, and introduces himself. He smiles, and mutters his name - shogun. He watches every word I speak, listens intently, mouthing some of the words as I talk. I smile, and we begin to exchange more words - pointing, swapping language.. Shogun rapidly became my shadow - always at my side, carrying my bag, compass, camera - helping with explosives, machinery - and learning intently as I described geology and mineralogy to him. Darkness fell, and conversation slowed - cossacks drifted to their bed rolls, and soon we retired to our tents - exhausted after a long day on the road, and intense concentration of the verbal exchanges. Sometimes there can be a 4 way translation - Han chinese to cossack, to uygur, and possibly Kazakh, before turning around and coming back to us.
A new day dawned - the sun rises early in summer in these northern climes - and by 4.30am we were up and eating - more rice, more buns - cups of fresh green leaf tea... excited chatter from the crew, tents being bundled into the back of the vehicles... We were soon on the road again - we would be reaching the mines before nightfall - hopefully earlier if the road allowed. The track wound ever higher - the mountains beginning to flatten - long, winding ridges starting to appear. In the distance, the occasional cossack family group - a scattering of goats, yurts gaily painted on the pastel green landscape, a thin wisp of smoke trailing into the still skies.. We stopped occasionally, water and tea was handed out, more steamed buns, and an outcrop of rock was inspected on the roadside - fantastic crystals, biotite micas large as your hand, creamy feldspars, smoky coloured quartrz... pegmatite country. We wound on, into a shallow valley with sparsely wooded sides, crystal clear waters cascading over flattened rocks in the stream bed. The little convoy started to slow - on a mountainside to our left was a scree slope, sparkling in the afternoon sunshine. We stopped, looks were exchanged, and I took out my Estwing hammer and slipped it into my holster. I walked across to the bottom of the slope - my eyes slowly adjusting to the rubbish scattered across the slope. Broken glass lay everywhere - splintered shards - it looked like there had been a competition - throw the bottle and see how small it will shatter. I scrunched across the scree, and my eyes slowly started to register that this was no glass - mica was strewn amongst lumps of smoky quartz, little pieces of whiter quartz holding pale blue crystals. I picked up some of the glass - it had fracture, little lines of impurities - shades of pale blue - aquamarine blue. As I walked, I collected a handful of rocky lumps - little pale blue crystals sticking out of quartz, the occasional piece of darker green and almost lime green. I reached the outcrop - a long line of pegmatite snaked into the distance, skirts of scree falling away on either side, shards of quartz and aquamarine glittering everywhere. At the outcrop, aquamarine crystals criss-crossed the rock, some only tiny - glass clear, deep blue where they were protected from the intense light of the cloudless skies devoid of pollution. I stood, speechless - the core of the pegmatite was exposed along the ridge, gems spilling into the scree... I walked slowly along, tapping the rocks, levering little pieces free - collecting handfuls of gems with ease.. Shogun walked alongside me - taking my specimens and stuffing them into his sample bag.. He never took his eyes off what I was doing - watching, recording - I smiled and handed him my estwing and gestured to a large aquamarine that poked out of a lump of silvery, metallic material in the core. He took the estwing, his eyes shining - almost reverence as he held the shiny new hammer. Two of the other young geological assistants walked closely behind, and we sat down to remove the aquamarine. As Shogun gently worked away around the base, using my little chisels and the hammer, I looked at the silvery material with interest. It was a pinkish tinge - I picked up a lump and examined it more closely - Bismuth. The whole core of the pegmatite was shot through with bismuth metal - the aquamarine embedded in it. After an hour, we had extracted a 7 inch aqua, about 4 inches across - a big crystal - cloudy, but with clear, facetable areas scattered throughout its length. This was my introduction to the Altai - it was commonplace to walk up to a pegmatite and see gem crystals sticking out of it - cavities abounded, and it soon became apparent that for the venture to succeed, we would need considerable organisation, restraint (the Chinese miners only had rudimentary explosives which shattered everything to a fine powder) and a refined system of cataloguing and ranking the pegmatites for production capability. It was immediately clear that this was a gem region - we had negotiated a license which covered 400 square miles of the Altai Mountains, with complete control over the production of all gem and mineral specimens, and with first right of option over production of gold and base metals.
Now, only now, did I begin to understand the legend of Gengis Khan...
Base camp was soon established at the foot of one of the huge pegmatite exposures. It was sheltered - in the lee of a massive rib of pegmatite, huge granite boulders providing cover from the driving wind and rain that sometimes swept across the valleys and mountains of the Altai. Below the camp ran a sparkling stream which served a multitude of purposes - the ablution block was a group of trees downstream - you hid behind a trunk and pulled your trousers down, only to find another cossack hiding behind a tree three yards further down the stream - sheepish grins, shaken heads - and you got on with it. The water was clear, icy cold all year round, but tasted of heaven - the cleanest water I have ever drunk. You went down in the early morning and jumped in - it was icy - but washing soon woke you up... We even panned gems from the gravels - lovely clear, rolled beryl, topaz, chrysoberyl. After a few days, the 4 wheel drives disappeared, to be replaced with ponies. Only one vehicle remained - mine. I was gweilo - westerner - not to ride horses - we dont know how. So I had a driver, and was driven everywhere we could - but most of the mines were way, way beyond the range of any vehicle - hours of trekking up steep mountain slopes and wandering valleys, in wonderful hidden bowls amongst the ribbons of pegmatite. One morning, the head man's son was having problems saddling and riding his pony. He put the heavily decorated wooden saddle onto the pony and leapt on board. The pony promptly bolted and threw him off. Again, he tried, leaping on and riding off to the accompaniment of bucking and rearing until he fell sprawled in the wet grass by the stream. The pony wandered off unconcerned. A knot of cossacks had formed, watching the proceedings with amused interest. The boy tried again, and landed in the wet grass a third time, before the pony trotted across to me, unconcerned, but clearly fed up with the whole proceedings. I caught him, and took the saddle off - gently running a hand down his back - a slight flinch told me there was something rubbing his back, and feeling the lining of the saddle, I quickly found the cause - a loose nail, holding the lining in place, had slipped out and was sticking into the pony's back. I quietly removed it, and replaced the saddle - I couldnt resist the urge to mount, and slinging my leg over, rode off across the meadow and back to the now silent knot of cossacks. The boys father grinned broadly and pointed - 'hey - gweilo can ride... NOW we can have fun....!' - His son was red with embarrassment, but I relented and showed him the nail.. Head man took me across the paddock and said 'take your pick, gweilo - whichever you want - is your horse.' I saw one, sturdy, stocky little chap who was beautiful - strong back, lovely soft head, and a gorgeous long, silky mane.. I pointed, and said 'That one please' The old man sighed - 'My best horse... he's yours...!' So from then on I rode the mountains, and took part in races with these wonderful guys - so happy, such humour - so wise in many ways - they started to teach me about the local wildlife - about tracking, about animals, and about the legends of Gengis Khan... In the late evenings, we would sit and talk, after the days labours were over - watching the sun slowly dip below the mountain peaks. We sat on the grass, gaily coloured cossack rugs casually thrown on the ground. Around us were little holes in the ground - and after a few days the local inhabitants began to realise we would not hurt them, and we were soon treated to the sight of families of marmots emerging from their burrows and standing, yards from us, their big rounded eyes bright and watchful, whilst the young ones played and frolicked in the warm grass. Snow hares appeared - pure white, with long, floppy ears, and would wander into the camp - completely unconcerned at the invasion of humans - they would slowly hop onto the rugs, and we would feed them lettuce and stroke them, until they wandered away, quietly nibbling as they went. One evening, there was a commotion in the camp - one of the young miners came tearing down the mountainside, breathless, and ran up to our tent. He babbled to Shogun and pointed to the skyline, tugging at my arm as he did so. Shogun grabbed a pair of binoculars and said 'cat - big cat... of the snow...' We ran up the first slope, to where there was a view along the long ridge of pegmatites that ran across the top of the valley - and I caught a fleeting glimpse of an animal slowly and deliberately walking the ridge. We stalked along it, following the footsteps, until we reached a huge outcrop of granite at the summit. Our hearts were pounding as we slowly peered around the outcrop, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever it was - and no more than 20 or 30 yards away, standing looking directly at us, was a snow leopard. I've never seen such a magnificent animal - the sheer power, grace, the intelligent face - the absolute freedom of that creature was a joy to behold. We were spellbound - we could not move a muscle - we just lay frozen to the spot whilst he slowly moved away down the slope - his movement almost fluid, until he melted amongst the rocks, almost invisible, and was gone.
One morning, I went down to the stream for a wash as usual, and as I was splashing away, slowly became aware of a presence. I looked around me, and standing just upstream in the middle of the water, was a large brown bear. I froze to the spot - our eyes met and I looked him up and down. Shaggy, long brown hair - thick, quite fine and silky - the long nose constantly scenting, dark brown eyes set deep into the fur on his face. He stood erect, and I wondered what those huge claws would do if they got hold of me. I had no time to be frightened - I just dropped my head a little in the way I always do when I'm training horses and want to show that I'm giving ground to them. He snuffled, seemed to hesitate a little, and then ambled off into the woods - scarcely making a sound - his huge bulk just melting into the trees like a ghost. One of the miners had seen him retreating, and a little knot of them ran into the woods shouting and beating sticks - but I doubt he was worried - I think he'd faced greater adversaries in his time. I found a little knot of brown hair caught on the end of a twig where he'd walked off - I kept it in case people didnt believe my story. I think this bear would have been quite annoyed with us, because a few days later, one of the miners found a bees nest in a tree, and brought a cloth wrapped bundle of honey into the camp. We still lived on a staple diet of steamed buns and rice, sometimes interspersed with dried vegetables from sacks - but it had to be said that food was terrible. To this day, I've avoided rice. Seizing the honey, I smeared some on a steamed bun, and gulped it hungrily. Then an idea formed - cut it in half and toast it - so I went over to where the cook was preparing the day's treat, and begged some buns. They toasted beautifully, and I smeared honey over them and gave some to the miners. They loved them, and promptly started toasting buns and smearing honey - then wrapping them and putting them into their bags to take up the mountain to the mine. After that, everyone toasted their buns. So if you meet a cossack who eats toast, it was I who introduced them to this Western vice... You can probably thank a brown bear...
There were pegmatites everywhere. At night, we would sort through aquamarine - piles and piles of it, mostly splintered pieces and small crystals which the miners were bringing down the mountain in increasing quantities. One day, I'd had enough of this wanton destruction. I called the Director over, and we discussed technology for the thousandth time - and finally, I started to get through to them. The next day, the miners were kept out of the mines - and I went up with them to one locality. There, we sat, whilst I sketched out my plan - and soon they were watching whilst I carefully slotted chisels into drillholes that would have been charged with explosives. Great blocks of pegmatite broke free, and I started them breaking them up, not with the big sledgehammers they were used to using, but with small hammers and chisels - carefully prepping the rocks until they could expose entire crystals. Soon, a stream of lumps of rock started to appear at my side, and I sat with Shogun, carefully trimming them down until the aquamarine crystals jumped free. At last, we were starting to extract bigger crystals, without stress fracturing from explosives. I spent day, after day sitting in the opencuts with the miners, teaching them to trim the rocks down, to stop the indescriminate use of explosives, and at night, the piles grew bigger, the fragments turned into crystals, and our production values grew exponentially. All the material was sent down to Altai in the remaining 4 wheel drive, where two of the other Australian directors were running the cutting workshops, and laboratory. The aqua from these mountains is extraordinarily varied. Colours range from pale, almost colourless, pale blue, deep aqua blue, pale yellow, deeper yellow, pale green through to intense deep green, pinkinsh hues. The greens always turn into blue with heat treatment. One of our team was a nuclear physicist, born and bred in China, and he developed technology for assessing the aqua before treating it - he would do fluid inclusion studies, work out the ambient temperature and pressure at which the aqua was formed, and only then, would he start processing the gem rough, creating similar conditions in the heating chamber. The success rate was much higher than normal, and we produced some magnificent gems - beasts of over 50 carats regularly appeared from the cutting workshops. We didnt just introduce treatment technology. Over a period of two years, I was able to introduce quarrying technology, drilling holes a little larger, and then using water activated splitting compounds to avoid any blast shattering. We tried to use hydraulic saws, but in such a remote place, with minimal technology, anything that needed spares and maintenance just didnt hack it, so eventually we went back to good old drillholes and splitters - cobbing the remaining rocks to get the crystals out. It worked, it was labour intensive, it was simple. The miners were a happy bunch - mostly young, untrained in anything - but totally dedicated to their jobs, and willing to do anything - to work any hours, to achieve our aims. They were gentle, funny, loveable really - I never had a cross word with any of them, never saw the sorts of things you see in western workplaces - abject stupidity, laziness, unwillingness - such attitudes just dont seem to exist up there. Maybe its the mountain air - maybe its the way they are brought up - I can't put a finger on it, but these are some of the most desirable people you'd ever want to employ. The simple things in life always amused them - I remember the fist time they saw the video camera - the whole camp turned out to see me hoist this enormous great lump of archaic technology onto my shoulder and point it in their direction. You'd have thought they were 6 year olds - running around in front of it, pulling faces, running up to look in the lens... They didnt see the video for a while - eventually we organised a generator and took a little TV screen up to the camp. The first night, I decided to run some of the videos - we set the TV up on a rock, near the camp fire, and cranked the generator into life. After a bit of fiddling with leads and wires, I managed to get it to playback from the camera, and the guys crowded round the screen in a tight half-circle. The first images flickered across the screen and squeals of delight began to erupt from the watchers - smiles, giggles, lots of back slapping - rib poking and pointing in abundance. They loved it.
I'd spend time in Altai - down from the mountains - in the headquarters building. There wasn't a huge social life up there - you had tea - and went for a walk in the village. Its only really a couple of streets - a road runs alongside the river, and another one parallels it further back - and this is lines with shops and commercial buildings. The houses are a bit further back, and in alleyways off the main street. I'd walk over the bridge from the hotel, into town - usually with a camera over my shoulder, and by the time I got to the main street, a throng of curious youngsters would surround me. The main street at night was impassable - it would be full of pool tables that appeared from nowhere. Old men and women would sit on the streets in armchairs, carried outside by their children. Some of these old folks must have been over 100, and still fit and healthy - drinking gallons of green tea - sagely surveying the goings on, and usually with a little knot of small, adoring children at their feet. Parents had their own chairs - sturdy little kitchen chairs for the most part - and would sit with the oldies. The youngsters played pool and ran in the streets, playing with wooden hoops pushed with sticks. I would sometimes stop and have a game of pool - they were good - I didnt often get a chance to win. One evening I happened upon the Regional Governor - Wang - sitting with some of his family. He beckoned me over to join them, and we sat in silence for a while, watching the goings on. He poured me a glass of green tea, and we sipped - relaxed - lost in our thoughts. After a while we began to talk - slowly, his English wasn't good, and my Mandarin even worse. We talked of the world - of what was happening, about culture, about the money that westerners had to spend on our aquamarine, about refrigerators, televisions.... I hesitated for a bit, and told him about my fears for the region - how the joint venture would bring millions to the area - pay the miners more than they ever dreamed of earning - give them western delights like tv's and videos. I gestured at the families sitting on the street - could this peaceful scene carry on? What would happen when the locals got hold of money? What would happen when they went to Germany for training in gem cutting, or Hong Kong to sell parcels of gems, or attend conferences? Could this peace, this tranquil way of life survive? I rambled on for a bit - talking slowly, haltingly - trying to explain the indecision that had taken hold of me since I'd been there. I'd arrived full of western desire to make millions - to be the biggest coloured gem miner in the world - to be rich and famous. Now, I was happy just sitting in the street with a glass of green tea - happy never to see the west again. I turned to Wang - his face was half hidden by the shadow of an awning, but I could see the unmistakable glint of tears on his face. He sat in silence for a while, before turning and looking squarely at me. 'I didnt think a gweilo would ever understand my dilemma' ... his shoulders hunched... 'I have to bring these people into the 21st Century - but how? Should I? They want all the things you westerners have - but do they want what goes with them... are they ready for that.. I think not. I have to be the architect of their unhappiness.' He touched me on the arm, and nodded his head a little. Then he poured us another glass of green tea, and we sat in companiable silence for a while more, while the sun slowly set, and the children gradually fell asleep.
Those warm, balmy evenings - high in the Altai Mountains - it truly was the last frontier. I hope it still is. I can't begin to describe the feelings - the sheer intensity of living - the total freedom, the closeness you feel with nature, with the mountains themselves and the animals that live around you - its an unforgettable experience. I have questioned the meaning of our western existence ever since. When I think of my days in England - the corrupt government, taxes, politicians, the sheer duplicity of every government official - rules, regulations, taxes, fines, laws made by idiots, legal system gone mad, health and safety gone mad, pressure, stress... We call this Civilisation. We see ourselves as a 'Developed Nation'... I beg to differ. I think my friends in the Altai have got it sorted - simple, uncomplicated, few rules, and a moral system built on a rock solid family foundation, where the family unit is the core of everything. I was never so happy as when I was there - I've never met so many happy, fit, healthy people who are so obviously deeply content with their lives. I'm sure they have problems - I know they do - but in three years living and working with them, I never once heard a groan or a moan, never once met anyone who was curt, or arrogant, or just plain uninterested. Every person you met had an effect on you - and it was always positive. They want to learn - they are like mobile sponges - they soak up every little bit of information you can give them - they feast on your words and advice - they chew on it and come up with more questions - and some of their solutions are amazing. They don't just think - they go away and do things, and then ask your opinion. I'll give you an example:... They wanted to core drill some of the pegmatites. Now these guys had heard about core drilling - but had only managed to make some pretty rudimentary rigs that produced a lot of chippings, not always even in order. So I sat down and drew up a pretty good sketch of a Longyear 44. I went through all the bits and bobs with them - told them about the core barrel, and how it worked, how the little components, like the rings worked. Showed them how we designed the core bits, and how they could be stepped or impregnated. We talked about masts, steel wire, drilling mud - all those things you need to know to shove a diamond hole in the ground. A few months afterwards, I was in Altai, and one of the engineers asked if I could go out with him to look at a prospect they were working on. From about 5 miles out, you could see what looked like an old Russian oilwell - big derrick, covered in tarpaulins. When we got to the site, he proudly took me inside the structure, to where a newly built Longyear 44 was thudding away. The geologists excitedly showed me their first core recovery - not brilliant - but hey - better than a handful of chippings. We looked at the bits - terrible - but nothing a bit of modification couldnt fix. These guys had done it from my sketches - and it worked. How could any westerner be arrogant enough to think these guys aren't one day going to rule the world. With an attitude like that, there's nothing you cant do.
It wasn't always good. One one occasion we sent a parcel of gems to Hong Kong with one of the gem company employees. He was quite an intelligent guy - had often come to my hotel room in Altai with crystals which he said the local cossacks wanted to sell. I always sent him to the company office and told him to sell them to the company - and not me personally (despite the fact that some specimens were staggering - I didnt want to wind up in a local gaol) He went to Hong Kong with probably about £25,000 worth of aqua, cut and grade into cut stones, calibrated. I managed to get through to the dealer in Hong Kong who dealt with our stones, and found out roughly what they'd fetched. When our guy returned a week or so later, his story didnt tally. He gave a lesser per carat figure, and it was quite obviouos that he was trying to 'skim' himself a profit on the deal. I was at the company office at the time, and mentioned the whole affair to one of the Chinese Joint Venture officials. He frowned, and sent for the man. Another employee was dispatched at the same time, a furious exchange of words sending the man in a flurry out of the door. The miscreant finally turned up, and was asked for his version of the story - just as two armed People's Army soldiers walked into the room behind him. I took no notice of them - they were everywhere - part of the scenery. Another furious exchange took place, before the soldiers roughly bundled him out of the door. I followed, still not sure what I was going to do with this guy - he'd worked for us since the company started. They walked around the corner into the yard at the back of the building - a sort of courtyard, with buildings and store rooms which ran off it. One of the soldiers pulled a gun out of his holster, put it against the mans head and pulled the trigger. The body slumped to the ground - his head a mess of blood and bits. I guess that's why they dont have overcrowded prisons in China. Two days later the mans son came to my room - he wanted to sell me some big aquamarine crystals he'd found in the mountains....
After nearly three years of travelling up and down to China - the Altai, and meetings with bankers and lawyers in Hong Kong and London, we were given the green light by Central Government in Beijing. We had passed the test. They trusted us. My time in the mountains had established a trust with not only the locals, but central government officials - who officially still only met in big rooms with attendants at their sides, but unofficially would ring and come for a drink at the hotel, or invite us for a meal at a restaurant in Beijing at their expense. They even organised 'showings' of mineral specimens for me, and the Minister for Geology and Mineral Resources presented me with a stibnite, stibiconite, and wonderful cinnabar specimens which I still have to this day - world class, each and every one of them. We needed the banks to put in the final $2 million US Dollars to complete the investment in the project, and we then had a first term of 15 years. I travelled down to Beijing one day to meet at the gology dept of the Bureau of mineral resources. There was something going on. When I got into Beijing, traffic was snarled, there were troops everywhere.... this was not the place I knew and loved. At the ministry, the story unrolled, and we went to look at what was going on. The Ministry buildings weren't far from Tiananmen. Some of our geologists went with me - we walked down to the square and mingled with the crowds to see what was going on. News photographers lined the street nearest the Forbidden City, near the entrance. We stood in a little row of cameramen and reporters, under the shade of a row of trees, when the first shooting started. I dont think anyone realised what was happening for a bit - there was just a lot of movement - tanks and armoured vehicles driving around - and then people started to fall down. It was only when the cameraman next to me hit the ground in a pool of blood, most of the back of his head was missing, that I realised that this was no show of force. Chinese troops were butchering their own people - unarmed, mostly young students - including our geologists. Bullets flew completely randomly. The shooting was erratic, in all directions - they didnt care who they hit, they were just under orders to fire indiscriminately and disperse the crowd. We hit the ground - and took cover behind trees - running from tree to tree until we were able to hop over a wall and watch from the relative shelter behind the wall. Dozens of young chinese were just lying in the road in pools of blood - I never counted - you don't. Your head takes over - you go into a sort of suspended state of calmness that either sees you killed or survive - most of our little crowd got out. Two didnt - they were shot. Just happy young geologists, gone to Tiananmen to see what was happening. You try to help - but there's nothing you can do - with wounds like these, you're either dead, or you survive - you can't believe how much blood there is in a human body until you see someone lying in the street, with a gaping hole in their stomach, and blood pumping out by the pint. I spoke to the Xinjiang Governor afterwards. He'd been asked to supply troops - and refused. Apparently the unit that was sent in the end, after numerous semi autonomous regions and provinces had refused, was the Tibetan regiment. They are brainwashed - the most feared of all Chinese troops. They'll kill their own friends and family if told to do so - and are the only ones in the country who were prepared to kill their own people.
Most westerners left Beijing over the next days - it wan't a very pleasant place to be. Everywhere was the debris of carnage. It took some time for them to clean up. There was a feeling of disbelief amongst the people. In Xinjiang and the far provinces, nobody knew it had happened. The only Chinese who DID really know were those who were there. In Hong Kong, they just shrugged their shoulders - it couldnt happen, they said. I had a meeting with the banks shortly after. Our $US 2 million evaporated overnight - sorry chaps - too unstable - can't make the investment. 3 years of hard work, planning, a lot of personal money - all up the spout. I did go back to Australia with a lot of fine mineral specimens - stibnites a foot high, cinnabar, the first of the really good scheelites, and a collection of aquamarine that would make your mouth water. It wasn't the same as running a gem venture in the mountains though. We did go back - but they'd lost that trust - it just wasn't the same. The price of investment had gone up - they weren't really that bothered any more - Tiananmen had changed a lot of attitudes. It's funny - I heard recently that now - in 2009/10 - there is a project running in the Altai, involving several mining companies, and a major museum, to study the granites of the Altai. Funny - we did it in 1987, and its taken the rest of the western world till 2009 to get a foot in the door over there.
Returning to Ozzie was hard - I had put heart and soul into China - and now I had to do something else. I soon got involved in the mining game in Oz again - this time, helping to market mining equipment - I still knew a lot of people, so it wasnt hard. After a while, I got bored, but had some good fun. We were selling mining machinery - drilling equipment mainly - and I had rigs and drill bits operating in most of the big mines. It was always a good excuse to go underground - so that started a phase of my life when I was very actively collecting. I was supplying the Lennard Shelf lead / zinc mines, even developing special drillbits that could claw their way back out of the hole when they hit cavities. I spent weeks on site, testing drilling equipment, and amassing container loads of specimens - calcite, sphalerite, galena, marcasite - superb specimens which could rival anything from northern England or the USA. They never really got to the mineral market internationally - I still have a lot of them - but at shows there is never any interest, so I dont bother taking them any more. They'll go back to Oz one day.