Monday, 2 June 2008

Tanami Desert Diary - PART 1

(Skip to - Politics)

There are several mine sites and mining towns in the NT and WA that I’ve called home. The only one with any claim to fame would be the Tanami Gold Mine. It is, or was, the most remote mine site in Australia, slap bang in the middle of the Tanami Desert. This dubious honour does not make it any more desirable to visit but I guess it helps with bragging rights. I also met my wife after the place was recommissioned which gives it a certain amount of sentimental value.

The roster at one time had me living there for 6 insane weeks at a time with 2 weeks off to spend the money piling up in the bank. Legally it was my primary place of residence. This worked out well a tax time as we could claim a heap in zone rebates. Working with the same people for 6 weeks at close quarters didn’t always work out that well.

I’ve already mentioned some of the hell flights experienced while flying to and from this place so I’ll go from there. Landing on the dirt strip involved a very low approach over the end of a deep pit. The strip had a hump in it too so the landings could be rough, depending on the winds and the pilot. We had to refuel the plane with 44’s of Avgas using a hand pump. You always cracked the seal of a new drum if you were flying out.

The mining had stopped as the pits reached the edge of the leases and the company abandoned the place to five blokes who filled the Care and Maintenance duties. Another fifteen or so Exploration blokes used the mine as a base when they weren’t scrounging the desert looking for more gold.

The camp was a ghost town. I had hundreds of empty rooms to choose from when I moved in. They were all very poorly maintained 3m by 3m dog boxes. The mine owners had held off repairing or upgrading anything as the available gold ran out so everything had deteriorated to a condition today’s miners wouldn’t accept.

I picked a donga and deemed it habitable. The way it rocked on the besser blocks that held it up as I walked across the room was only a minor irritation. The room felt a bit small so I kicked out the partition between my room and the next with my steel caps to make a double room. I had a squeaky single bed with a thrashed out mattress, an old bar fridge and an air-conditioner that had seven different squealing or grinding settings.

The desert can be frosty in the morning and scorch you skin off at over 55 degrees during the day so you left your A/C on all day. The camp electricity came from a smallish generator so every now and then the cleaner would turn off the power to our rooms in order to use the oven without tripping the circuits. She could have cooked a chicken faster in our rooms after it heated up without the A/C on.

Most of the lads in the field were young Geologists straight out of Uni and Fieldies (also known as JAFFA’s. Just Another Fucking Field Assistant). The exploration team lived in tents away from the mod cons my poxy room afforded me. I slept 5 star every night in comparison. Technically I belonged to exploration but since I drove the truck that delivered fuel, food and water to the camp sites I usually returned to the mine every night.

Finding the exploration teams in the middle of a desert wasn’t that easy. They moved around a lot. I had to do a bit of GPS work and got some very basic instructions third hand from my boss who manned the satellite phone.

The morning instructions might go like this. “Go down the road to the big anthill, turn left and drive 30 kilometres in a straight line until you see a water tank, follow the left hand creek bed until you see the drill rig mast somewhere out that way.” The two-way radio sometimes worked well enough to use to fine tune their location.

My truck was an old MAN cab/chassis with VW motor. I ripped the VW symbol off. (Hey, I was only young and it embarrassed me to be driving a VW. I gradually built up a lot of respect for that motor later on.) It could carry about 7 tonne and was 4 X 4 capable with a diff lock that I wasn’t allowed to touch. No air conditioner. It wasn’t a bad truck but we severely overloaded it at times and took it places better suited to a proper all-terrain vehicle, like a tank. I managed to keep it in fairly good nick by taking it steady.

I did bend it once while using the rear mounted HIAB to pull out star pickets. Climbing in and out of the truck to move it, and then lower the leg, and then pull out the picket got tedious. I tried to get a picket that was too far out and didn’t put the leg down. That laziness bent the chassis. I was not popular with the mechanic.

Sometimes I’d push my own track through the desert. Every now and then I’d hit a grid line and use that. Either way the going was so rough I’d be crawling along at 20 kph. Sometimes for eight hours at a time. A day might consist of 16 hours driving and one hour of loading and unloading. I learned to pack pillows around my legs. The rough country tried to smash me to pieces against the door, dash, roof and gear lever.

Ultra-fine Tanami desert dust is famous for destroying electronics. After my 'dust-proof, O-ringed' walkman died after only a few weeks these slow trips became incredibly monotonous. The mine sparky hooked up a couple of speakers and a stereo for me. I asked him to put the speakers just behind my head so I could blast heavy metal into my head properly.

Happy again! It didn’t take much in those days.

(Like it? See - Tanami Desert diary - Part 2)

No comments: