Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Underground Mining - PART 2

(Return to - PART 1.)

My boss only asked me if I’d been underground before when we were packed into a small cage ready to drop down the shaft the next morning. I made the casual comment that I hadn’t. I felt very small as he exchanged meaningful glances with the other miners. As a young bloke, a new employee and a driller, (reduced status according to ‘real miners’ like airleggers and jumbo operators), I could only have taken one step further down in their eyes. Admitting to being a green-hand had successfully done that. Moron.

The rattling cage rushed down the shaft at high speed. The miners had stirred up the winder operator about going too slow on the previous shift and he was retaliating with a free fall ride. I felt them watch me, hoping that I would lose it. (It happens. I’ve seen blokes freak out as they go down the hole over the years since then. Embarrassing for them and any witnesses.)

Disappointingly, (for them), I made it to the plat, (the opening to an underground level), without crying. A Mahindra 4X4 ute waited for us. A Mahindra is a cheap, Indian made, Suzuki Sierra and this poor little rusty overloaded ute had spent its entire life underground. It had the thousand dents and scratches to prove it. I’d only ever seen this many men stuff themselves into a micro car when I’d been at the circus. FOURTEEN of us climbed in or on it. No one wanted to walk several kilometres to their drives. We were hanging off the sides and back, and a couple rode on the bonnet. The little workhorse was a happy sight at the end of the shifts as well. Walking up the 7 in 1 decline when you’re knackered had zero novelty value.

We were drilling in a deserted part of the mine and had to walk another kilometre or so deeper into the maze. I didn’t think I’d find my way out if the driller broke his leg and mentioned this. He pointed out the services, (air, water, electrical cables), hanging from the backs, (roof), and told me the valves all faced the direction of travel. If I followed them in reverse I should get back to the plat.

Dewatering was only considered important in active mining areas. Exploration was not active mining so these drives were mostly semi-submerged. If you slipped off the higher rocks you’d end up with a boot full of hyper-saline water. Nothing like starting a shift with wet feet. The treacherous floors of loose boulders had to be carefully managed. Tripping resulted in spending the next 7 hours soaked and freezing.

Huge vent doors closed off certain areas and redirected air around the mine. They were a hazard my brief induction had not made clear enough. At least my driller took them seriously. As we struggled to open one massively reinforced barn door a howling gale started up and tried to slam it closed. Even with a counterweight it was bloody hard work. He held it open while I went through and stood back, but not too far. He let go and ran past me down the drive, giggling like a school girl. The air screaming through smashed the door shut. It sounded like the Gates of Hell had closed. I instantly gained great respect for the potential damage a vent doors could do to legs and arms by that display. Aside from attempted murder, the door also brought a tidal wave of filthy water. Before I could run the wave flowed halfway up my crotch. At least the driller had a laugh.

The rig I would get to know well was a Kempe U39 compressed air rig. They were basic and required manual labour at every stage. An offsider had to work damn hard to keep up with it. The motor, its largest piece, weighed over 100 kilograms and I couldn’t lift my side. Withering looks from the driller gave me the incentive to help drag the lump of metal into position and ineffectually help him lift it onto the rig. I knew I’d have to go hard to impress this man and keep my job, so I threw myself into the tasks enthusiastically if not very effectively. I had the muscle mass of a flea and the stamina of a 90 year old.

I was absolutely frigging rooted by the end of the 7 hour shift. I’d made heaps of mistakes and the extreme noise of the rig hadn’t allowed much conversation. The driller screaming requests to get this or that and spending valuable rest minutes desperately fixing my fuck ups occupied me fully.

I was sure he’d sack me. Back topside we stripped off our soaking wet, grease covered clothes and washed ourselves with caustic truck wash solution to get the grease off. (You had to be careful not to get truck wash on the more sensitive parts of you.)

He said. “You did alright, I s’pose. It’s quick shift tonight so make sure you have a sleep. We’ve gotta be back in 8 hours.”

Still tired after 4 hours sleep, and in pain from torn muscles, cuts and bruises, I got ready to go back down the hole. I kind of wished he had given me the arse.

(Like it? See - PART 3)

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