Post by Shy Ted
The national colours are green and gold. Ask anyone. But if you’re trying to do business the colours are red, green and black, and they are tape. When I wasn’t nursing I was mining, I’d guess 3 full years out of 15. Western Queensland where sometimes it feels like you can put a shovel in the ground and dig up something of value.
Such were the tales of my best mate, long before I met him, growing up in a tent along the highway which was being built between Townsville and Mt Isa where a massive copper ore body had been found. Backbreaking slog all day, every day for 7 years. Slips of lads grew into enormously strong, tough men. Diets of kangaroo and wild pig sustained them while the road, rail, phone and power lines were constructed together.
When they got there the men were offered jobs constructing the mine and the women and children began to develop a town. At the end of the working day each man was given 2 buckets of concrete which, over many months, would be poured on their block and fashioned into houses still standing to this day. Years later, mine, lake and township established, weekends off would see families head out bush and stake claims hoping to strike it rich. There’s many a tale of a huge gold nugget and the owner or guardian skipping town and leaving his mates or business partner holding only paper. I came to believe it. It was true prospecting, recognising quartz outcrops or copper ores by colour or locating that underground with divining rods.
We were just chatting. “Why did you stop?” “They changed all the rules to benefit the big miners. You just run out of money and have to give the lease back”. Not long after we took a trip to an old lease, one he hadn’t visited in more than a decade, navigating long lost bush tracks I couldn’t make out and recognising old, faded beer cans on the branch of a tree as signposts. It was scary for a newbie but we found the old lease and camped for the night. Quick wander round with the divining rods the next day and within a few hours we had flakes of gold in our own little jars. What they say about gold fever is absolutely true. “Let’s do it”.
We popped into the station on the way back and asked if we could dig a big hole. Remembering my mate from decades earlier the owner said it was fine if we carved out an acceptable track which we did with a bulldozer. Proper desert country where spinifex struggle. A few more visits and the purchase of the lease and our ute and trailer were struggling to make it back into town with all the copper on board, all dug up with only the smallest of excavators. It had been a shaft but we went for open cut and the loads, sold to MIM, saw us upgrade to an exxy with a 4 ton bucket. And then a dump truck and then a tipper. Buying and selling equipment, after about 5 years we had a functioning, very small scale mine. Dirt in one end, dirt sorted by SG at the other. Lots of copper, not much gold but copper was what sold. It had taken several years of as much part time slog as we could put in but we loved it. Big boys toys.
A letter arrived from the mines department. Word had got around that we were just a bit more than occasional weekenders and they wanted to inspect. Which they did. We failed. Not enough signs, fences, safety equipment, policy and procedure manuals and much more. Any money we made went on these, receipts sent to the bureaucracy to show our progress. Photos as proof, please. We’d almost stopped mining as there was no time left. But they more or less left us alone after that if we submitted enough paperwork. Red tape.
Until another letter arrived. Environmental assay, please. Multiple questions about flora and fauna which we answered honestly – “red dirt in all directions, bare spinifex, no animal life observed”. Not quite true. Morning would reveal the tracks of snakes and scorpions and we might see a camel in the distance. I think they thought we were being facetious and a young graduate was sent out to do an inspection. She got lost and it had to be rescheduled until we could escort her. About 4 hours of bush track driving, deeper and deeper into red dirt country, no signposts, just knowledge. City kid who had never seen anything like it and didn’t like it. The heat the flies, the relentless sun all to confirm what we had told her. Back to her database she goes. It tells her the local fauna is such and such which she hadn’t seen. “It’s too dry at the moment. Visit us again after some rain”. In due course another letter arrived detailing observed fauna in the region and the flora that supports them. “Please documents sightings and report”. It seems to be beyond bureaucrats to understand the outback comes alive at night. When it’s cool. And we’re asleep. So we didn’t see anything, maybe just a few tracks in the morning. Paperwork is as precious as the ring in LOTR! Green tape.
We’d been plugging away on a part time basis for almost a decade but without firm offtake contracts bigger firms didn’t always want what we had. One day we struck lucky. Looking to buy/swap/trade some machinery, always carrying some copper samples showing good grades, a little known but established miner offered us a 1000 ton of 2% copper, $28 per ton, per week deal. 2% or better copper, 98% red dirt with possible other minerals in. Deal. 250 x 4 ton buckets from the exxy, into the dump truck and into a big pile which we rummaged through, guessing grades by the blues, greens and whites. Great chunks of native copper, too heavy to pick up, we somehow separated and saved. “Yeah, that’s 2%”. Loaded into the tipper which could just manage 25 tons and driven 4 hours to the highway, there and back 4 times. It took a week. Exhausting but probably a big break. We had no testing equipment so 2% was visual guesswork but we knew it was way above that grade. So did they and within a few weeks they wanted to double the order. We looked at each other wondering how we could do it. The costs are never-ending, fuel, greases and oils, parts, a punctured tyre might cost $3000. Long-suffering families to consider and we weren’t getting any younger. “We’ll do it for one week and see if it can be done with the gear we’ve got”. “OK”.
Somehow we did it but we were knackered and working the machines so hard caused more hydraulic failures, time lost. Essentially we were transporting plain old outback dirt for 4 hours but that’s what they wanted for leaching. There had to be a better way – bigger machinery. Make or break time. We managed the second week as well, perhaps a bit more efficiently, driving into Cloncurry with each 250 ton drop, making calls, ordering more fuel and parts and treating ourselves to a steak and a beer. It’s vein gold country but we kept our eyes peeled and each had a few small nuggets in shirt pockets to remind ourselves why we were doing what we were doing. Lots of old time prospectors have a beer there and it’s a topic of conversation and our generally filthy condition told them we were doing it old time. They just shook their heads at the red and green tape tales. Then back to work.
An advert that caught our eye was a cry for copper cement, copper in very fine powder form and commanding a premium price. We should do that. We had all the crushing and separating gear and the current contract was just a distraction from what we had intended and now we had a few dollars in the bank the upgraded machines and easy sale of the old ones saw us doing a normal working week again, even able to get home for overnighters and clean clothes. It was looking very positive.
Another letter – “Cease all operations”. From the Aboriginal Land Council who probably overheard out pub talk and decided it was a site of cultural significance. My mate dealt with this side of things but I heard the exasperated phone call, “there’s nothing out there, just red dirt. Why? How much will that cost? 3 months! Then what? We’re out there all week next week, come any time and have a look for yourselves. There’s only satellite phones work out there”. A land claim. Stop work for a cultural inspection. Had to place an advert in the Courier Mail stating operations which we did and then carried on as normal. We knew they’d never find the spot, it’s tiny and even with GPS the track is so obscure and circuitous you often seem to be going astray. Our wives had approved us doing 3 week stints out there for efficiency and this allowed us a few days at home. Mining the 12 daylight hours, sleeping the rest and the piles of dirt stacked up. Maybe 3 weeks later there was a phone call – why hadn’t we put an advert in the Koori Mail? There, in the Native Title legislation, is the requirement to advertise operations in the local Indigenous newspaper so people can claim their land connection. Courier? Koori? Plain old extortion. Black tape.
Every time we went home there’d be a pile of letters, many incomprehensible, containing questionnaires, lists of requirements, due dates and such and with the usual “failure to comply may result in” final paragraph. Out of the blue we lost the big contract, “shipment less than 2% copper”. It was both a huge setback and a relief but not a surprise. We couldn’t prove it was over 2%, they couldn’t prove it was under. About par for the course for small operations. One starlit night, overlooking a big pile of dirt, wood fire cooking up more bacon, eggs and beans, sitting in an uncomfortable threadbare chair, listening to the sounds of the outback and watching the universe in all it’ glory, more stars than you can imagine, my mate said, “well, Ted, what do you reckon?” After more than a decade we had a lease, a pile of dirt, clapped out machines, slept in swags (by choice), a small plant, no contracts, a few dollars in the bank, we were covered in dust and hadn’t shaved for a fortnight and we loved it. “Too hard”.
That night it rained, very rare out there. Water fell on tin roofs and flowed into several rainwater tanks, thousands of litres. “There’s enough there to do copper cement”. We already had much of the equipment, a series of tanks, pumps and pipes and so we spent the next week extracting copper from dirt and loading it into the first tank. The sound of the frogs was deafening. They had appeared out of nowhere, probably from subterranean lairs and it was time to breed. One tank was 20’ off the ground and that was their favourite. “Envirogirl will be out, you can bet your life on that” and so she was, with a colleague. Scooping up the frogs in nets, taking photos, documenting numbers. Desert flowers sprung up among a general greening. Snap, snap, snap. We worked on and left at the end of the week when batch 1 was in the big dehydration tank.
The next week was spent selling various machines and trucks and preparing for the last hurrah. Wives were relieved it would soon be over. One last week of shovelling dampish powder into a dryer, into huge bags and onto the truck. It looked the goods, test samples said it was 99%+, off to South Australia, a happy recipient and a big, fat cheque. Should we pick up a load of metal, steel car parts for the next process? We did. Long drive back. Week off. Phone call from SA, “impurities in the batch, spinifex, small bones, not much but interrupting their processes. No more unless you can guarantee purity”. We couldn’t. Letter from the Mines environmental section – species identified, suggested plan for preservation of flora and fauna. It was over. The great adventure.
We processed all the sheet metal with the remaining water and buried the bags of copper in the pit which we covered with dirt, leaving near pristine desert and the remains of a mine. It didn’t take long, filing in is way easier than extracting. The bags would be easy to retrieve if we found a buyer. One day we left and never went back. The end of an era. It’s a tough old business and you need millions to do it well but we were defeated by bureaucracies. Gina, Clive and Twiggy have never-ending battles with the bureaucracies. Ours were just smaller.
Shy Ted considers himself a bit of (not a lot of) a veteran of rural and remote life, mostly, but not always, nursing. Most of what you might read about in the media, other than the superficial headline such as doctor shortages, is nonsense. It’s interesting, challenging and rewarding and not for the faint-hearted or ideologues.