Deeply Un-Green - Adventures Down A Mine
Leinster Travel Blog› entry 2 of 9 › view all entries
My friends laughed at me when I said I wanted to come to WA and work in the mines.
The plan was, (suspending my eco-friendly principles for a year), to come and get a 6-figure cleaning job, work my ass off for a year and go home with a deposit for a house. Early attempts weren't successful. I was about to jump on an 8 hour train and present my bad self to the rural areas (whereupon I would endear myself to the poor mine receptionist and find myself employed), and so earning the nickname "The Kalgoorlie Girl" with Perth friends, when I had a lucky break. With my bags packed, the universe took one look at me and thought "She's serious, she'll put her money where her mouth is after all" and decided to throw me a bone: a 3-day stand-in role for Strategy & Acquisitions (arguably a more sinister group of people than real miners can boast) at the biggest mine company in Perth.
Those 3 days were lovely. I worked in on the 32nd floor of the tallest glass box in Perth, with 360 degree views out over the world. Immediately behind my desk, a wide expanse of window beheld the shining city and the awe-inspiring skies of WA that had so captured my heart and drawn me back to Australia. The office itself was dynamic in design, with all meeting rooms and facilities around the central column of the building, allowing all desks to be decoratively placed in hexagons near the windows allowing even the most menial of skivvys a beautiful view. Managers of all levels sat amongst their teams, and more evidence of this inclusive contented workforce were the smiling, happy people who all introduced themselves to the new face regardless of their high stature and my lowliness as a temp staff. I was first surprised, then delighted. They in turn seemed confused by my bafflement. "But we're Australian," they exclaimed, "we always say hello to new people!" "Ah," I commented sagely, "not in England. You can work your whole life opposite the same person and barely say two words to them." They nodded sympathetically, welcomed me again and trotted off with their free fruit, juice, biscuits and real coffee.
Real coffee is pretty seductive. The promise of endless cups of it and a window to stare out of it was enough for me. I begged my agency to find me more work there, and so, soon afterwards I began a month's work for the Project Development team assisting with their online e-room. Let me reduce that work experience to a mere footnote, but suffice to say, they hadn't filed anything for a year… so you can imagine how mind-blowing that was. So while I implemented endless new file structures for their "Above 5 million Capital Investments" I continued to scheme on how to infiltrate BHP.
Some carefully-placed suggestions, some bribery with muffins, and some wide-eyed flattery later, and I had landed myself a 6-month role as Project Secretary and Executive Assistant to the Perserverance Deeps mine and was greeted again by old friends on Level 32. The first week was hectic – I was between both two flats and two jobs, working one job Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and the other Wednesday, Thursday while I packed and moved house in the evenings. The following week didn't let up either - I was working 10 hour days, in addition to waitressing on the weekend for a Jewish catering company (Tannith now loves Jews by the way – all Jewish festivals involve food). In the first week alone I padded out my CV considerably; learning SAP, chartering planes, organising events for 160 people; just a few of the exciting responsibilities I now undertake.
But the real excitement came when in the second week, I caught our weekly 18-seater charter plane (henceforth known as "The Back-Breaker", as accessing it can only be achieved by bending double and shuffling up the aisle) to our mine. Yes, the Kalgoorlie Girl was really going underground…..
At 7am we boarded The Back-Breaker and took off into the sunrise above the morning cloud. 2 hours later we descended into a grey morning at the red dirt mine site. I amused team-mates as I span around, wildly snapping photos like a tourist. Didn't we have mine sites at home? "Sure we have some old mines," I replied, "But it's a collapsing industry. And they certainly don't let random chicks like me into them!"
AJ was kind enough to explain the surface works to me as we passed, and fortunately my work with Project Development had introduced me to technical terms like 'Concentrator' and 'Crusher'. Not exactly rocket science I know, but I agreed with everything he said knowledgeably, and dropped other phrases like 'Headframe' and 'Separate Flotation' in, to seem clever. I think I got away with it…
After some Meet-and-Greet with the admin office we were off to the nostalgically-named "Lamp Room" to be kitted out with the latest in Mine Fashion. I looked HOT in my orange overalls, gum-boots, hard hat, gloves, emergency-breathing apparatus (cripes!), and wouldn't you know? A head-lamp. I guess it gets dark down there.
Then we signed off, hung our passes along with our escorts on the board (safety procedure) and swapped them for electronic tags emitting our name and location.
My predecessor had warned me about "The Cage": the experience of descending into the bowels of the Earth in a tiny elevator, watching the surface light dwindle smaller and smaller into a tiny speck. The associated claustrophobia, the feeling of the walls closing in, the breathlessness and suffocating terror. For this reason, I cheerfully opted for the car, and so without further ado we hopped (in as much as it's possible to hop anywhere in a weighty belt with breathing apparatus) into a "Ute" (Aus-speak for Utility Truck) and set off across the mine-site.
The landscape was of whirring, churning metal works and ramps surrounded by piles of rock and rubble. We turned between 2 escarpments and surveyed the downwards surface descent towards a distant hole in the cliff into which we would be swallowed. I looked at the black opening and considered my level of apprehension. I felt good. Better than I expected I would actually, but a measured exhalation of breath belied to me that perhaps I felt more nervous than I was outwardly showing, even to myself.
At the mouth, we stopped and radioed our position. "Charlie Alpha Deadwood, this is Lima Foxtrot Anchor with four going in." and with that we pulled in to the tunnel, leaving daylight behind.
Inside the tunnel, the car gradually descended the dark shaft in a slow spiral. Reduced to shades only of brown, red and yellow, the rock-face flashed in my peripheral vision as our mounted yellow-roof lamp rotated like a slow-motion reconstruction of an emergency scene. Down we circled, rocking and bumping through the darkness – the rattling of the car over the rubble only punctuated by the occasional heavy-load truck, menacing in its sheer size and looming in the darkness with its red-glare lamps, or the scream of some unknown machinery emanating from a branching shaft, increasing as we approached to an almost piercing intensity as we passed, and then slowly receding into the blackness.
It took almost 25 minutes to get down: at each tracking point an LED display flashed our names reassuringly as we passed, and the graffiti-markers on the rock indicated with a sketchy coarseness our depth below the surface. Pedro engaged me by pointing out that the early tunnels we passed through didn't have supports. I blinked at him and asked him if he was trying to make me feel better? Because if he was, it wasn't. He laughed, embarrassed at his mistake, and hastily explained that mine methods had been updated and that later tunnels would be concrete-reinforced. I narrowed my eyes, and took another deep breath. At least with the electronic tags they would know where to dig for us I supposed. 1km, 1.1km, 1.2km, 1.3km, and finally, at 1.4km, the deepest of any Australian mine to date, we stopped at the end of the shaft and surveyed the scene.
Well, it wasn't much of a scene I can tell you. 4 blokes and a machine, 3 of which were standing around with their arms crossed looking suitably gruff. I tiptoed out (inasmuch as it's possible to tiptoe in gum-boots also) and hesitantly asked some dumb-ass questions of my patient colleagues.
To summarise; the bloke with the machine (and his small team of merry men) had spent the morning laying a wire mesh over the end-facing rock wall to stop "Rock Bursts" (technical term there, don't miss it), and, having painted a large Naughts and Crosses board on it, was now proceeding, with the aid of his "Jimbo" (large, red, poking machine) to poke 3 metre long holes into the rock-face ready for the Charge Crew to lay charges (I told you it wasn't rocket science). At quarter to 7 every evening, everybody goes for a spot of nosh, they clear the mine, and let off the explosions. And then the night crew come in and clear up the mess – ship the rock up to the surface, through the crusher, and the concentrator and the separate flotation etc.
More than anything else, the thing that struck me most was "There's a hell of a lot of people getting stupidly rich off the backs of these 4 men here"….
Now that's not to say there aren't more, in fact Leinster's day-crew numbers roughly 40 people. But I assumed all the project codes for sites I had been endlessly filing for were also mines, but on closer inspection they are merely supporting industries - refineries, smelters and wotnot, so the awe still stands. Good on yer bloke. Thanks for me pay cheque.
So now, we headed off to the Decline, the explanation for which still escapes me, but physically-speaking, it's another long tunnel with not a lot down it. In fact, it was a dark, deserted tunnel with a red-and-white tape tied across it prohibiting access because of ground stresses; a lot of puddles, and the sound of trickling water gushing down a rock-wall somewhere nearby. Deep joy. What was down there was a rather spacey-looking pod emitting a loud shushing noise and welcoming artificial light penetrating the gloom. We climbed inside. It is a "Refuge Chamber", a life—saving pod equipped with oxygen and water to sustain 15-20 people for 72 hours. Apparently the man who invented this is the only global distributor, and all refuge chambers are much the same world-wide: obviously another man who got fabulously wealthy from the mining industry. Pedro explained that in his country (Chile), they have less oxygen and more bottles of Coca-Cola and snacks. The downside to this being the frequency with which they are raided by hungry miners, and so leading to the inevitable need to padlock the refuge chamber. Mercy me. I know who I'd be hanging out with on my work-shifts underground. The bloke with the key……
After this we climbed back into the ute and set off in search of more people, to assuage my now-concrete belief that the whole of BHP Billiton's multi-multi-billion dollar industry is based solely on the efforts of a few grunty, sweaty men who prefer their own company. So we set off for the workshops of Level 6, the hub of activity, the place where all the machines are repaired, where all the traffic passes through. You don't get tumbleweed a kilometre underground, but if you did, it would have rolled past us. Wouldn't you just know it? Everybody's on a tea-break. So we passed the lifeless machines in the deserted cavern, and started to trundle our way up the endless spiral back to the light.
Now I'm well-known for falling asleep on public transport. Anything that rocks me gently and hums is bound to send me right into dreamy oblivion, and this was no exception. Despite the bouncing around, the sheer warmth of being cooped up in a car in thick overalls and wellies, closer to the fiery centre of the Earth than I'll probably ever be again just knocked me out, and I spent 25 minutes fighting the need to drop off for a quick snooze to avoid the inevitable jibes of my work-mates for snoring and dribbling on my gear. However, as the surface grew closer, the silence among us lapsed, and suddenly the quiet oppression of the deep seemed to lift with our elevation. Until soon, we could see the end of the tunnel, and then suddenly we were bathed in an intense light, my vision was reduced to the sheer white and hazy outlines of a car seat, a person's leg, the hand-break – the blinding light intensified, like being re-birthed. I resisted the urge to scream "Waaaaaaaahh" and suck my thumb, and instead blinked madly and shielded my eyes, amazed at the ability of the driver to avert a collision.
Back at the surface works I reluctantly handed back my sexy underground gear (thinking better of joking that I used to have a similar boiler suit for clubbing – know your audience) and spent a more relaxing afternoon having tea and cake with the flight desk girls (who organise all the FIFO -Fly In Fly Out and accommodation) and surveying the unusual town of Leinster, population 2000, gold mine on one side, nickel mine on the other. (The trick, I'm told, is to get yourself a hubby on the other site, both of you live rent and bill free, earn a fortune and retire for life after a few years.) And soon, it was time again to climb into The Back-Breaker, and return, happy and tired, to Perth at night.
On the whole, it was an amazing experience to have had. Maybe for friends from South-America, or South Africa, it might not be so unusual to be allowed into a mine, but for an English dolly-bird like me it was pretty cool. And ultimately, it's a big TICK to my goal to come to WA and work in the mines.
I came, I saw, I conquered. The Kalgoorlie Girl lives to ride another day.