Friday, August 25, 2006

Back to the Mines

Back at work now, and it's getting warmer by the day. We oscillate between an over-conditioned office and low-30s field work. At the moment we all prefer working outdoors, but that might change in a month or two. Oh, and the snakes have woken up. Turns out they're attracted to the vibrations of drill rigs, and the high-pitched squealing of drillers.

Photos from the trip to Rocky:

A long exposure inside the Capricorn Caves. They use coloured lights to add to the atmosphere. Tasteful.

Mt Archer at sunset.

Monument at Emu Sands to Captain Cook.

Wild Emus. The strange angle is because I was lying on my back with my legs in the air.
It really works!

Friday, August 18, 2006


Break time again, after 23 days work in a row (not all for Oaky Creek, though). The nearest regional centre to Tieri is Rockhampton, better known locally as Rocky. It's not quite coastal, about half an hour from the seaside town of Yeppoon. But it's a third the size of Christchurch, with a large river, heaps of old buildings and lots of nearby attractions.

I'm staying in the Criterion, a nicely restored 1880's riverside hotel, for $50/night. Remarkable for a room with TV (yay), toilet, shower and double bed (no more short, narrow company beds for a few days). And the bar downstairs has Guiness. Yesterday I visited the Capricorn limestone caves, Yeppoon and the other coastal towns, and had my first proper curry in months - a restaurant called Sitara. Happiness!

Tomorrow it's north to Mackay to meet one of my colleagues, drop off the trusty Ford Courier, and ride back to Tieri. But Rocky and Yeppoon are very scenic, and I haven't made it to Great Keppel Island yet, so I'll be baaaack.

To The Mines

The company I work for has contracts with a lot of the maor mining companies in Australia, meaning their employees can move from one position to another with a minimum of fuss. Since the last post, I've been moved an hour or so south to Oaky Creek Mine.

Oaky is largely underground (although I haven't seen the underground workings yet). It produces about 10MT/y by longwall extraction. My jobs are to monitor drilling on the surface down to the seam ahead of the mining, to determine the coal's exact position, thickness, quality and gas content. Whereas we used to spend about two weeks on one site for the exploration drilling near Moranbah, here we punch down in a day or so. Geology at high speed.

The other part of the job is office work, mainly data entry and paper shuffling. There's a form for everything! It's strange working in a large office, with procedures, managers, meetings - although I know it's how most of the world works. Still, there's plenty of time out in the field logging chips, monitoring drill rigs, checking out future drillsites (GPS is essential here) and just breathing fresh, unconditioned air.

Everyone working at Oaky Creek lives in Tieri, a town about 10km away and owned by the mine. My first hitch was in a small house without TV or phone, with a nice modern kitchen but not as much as a spoon. We all eat at a canteen, which has great food, if perhaps a tad on the healthy side. I've managed to get into a house with one of my co-workers from the start of the next hitch, useful as we'll be sharing the ride to work and back every day.

I'm not sure how long I'll be at Oaky Creek, but it's good experience. People keep saying that the boom can't last forever, although it shows no sign of slowing, and the coal market is more stable than, say, metals. The world needs energy! Still, if it does slow down, production geology is a better prospect than exploration (if not as much fun). So, back to the mines!

Saturday, August 05, 2006


On the way to work

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Day in the Life

5.30am - get up. Usually I'm awake before the alarm clock. Check email and download stuff - news, magazine articles, blogs - to read later in the day. Most important is the cup of real plunger coffee. Rural Australia is still drinking instant, and knows no better.

6.15 - off to Mac Camp for breakfast. There's everything from porridge to full English, with sausages, eggs, bacon... and instant coffee. 'nuff said already. Pack a lunch and it's time for work.

On the road by 7.00. About this time a large nuclear explosion leaps above the horizon to my left, casting long shadows and turning the ground mist silver. Heading south, there's a low range of hills stretching into the distance, with what looks like a crane often looming above. The hills are actually tailings dumps from the Peak Downs Mine, and the crane's a bucket line. It's only 16km away.

Turn onto the Peak Downs Highway at the Shell 'servo' (petrol station to you and me). The only Shell station with a camel named Brian around the back. Not sure if he's owned by the transport or catering arms...

The drill site is in a beef farm. Good roads - you could drive at 100km/h for the first part, except for the Brahman cattle, which run into the road when a car comes. And then panic. Buy leather upholstery, reduce traffic hazards.

The last part of the track is through eucalypt/melaleuca forest. There are cattle here too, but you're more likely to see grey kangaroos. There are also dingos and emus in the bush, both of which have visited our drill sites from time to time. The forest doesn't have a lot of undergrowth, so you can see maybe 150m. Of course all you'll see is more trees. They do provide a lot of shade, very welcome when the temperature's nudging 30. And this is winter.

The drillrig's usually drilling core, rather than just blasting down and sending up little chips of rock. Whole core's much nicer to work with, you can see all the structure, and even the occasional leaf fossil. We core between 24 and 30 metres most days. When the drillers put their core on the table, it's my job to measure it (there are sometimes slight differences between what the driller drills and the amount of rock retrieved), log its sedimentary structure and any defects that might make mining unsafe, and pack it in steel core boxes. We also take samples of rock for strength testing, and any coal from a seam more than about 50cm thick gets bagged and sent to Mackay for testing.

When there's a lot of coal, it often takes as long to log and pack as it takes to drill the next run. In those cases I often loose track of time, and find three or four hours have just disappeared! On the other hand, when it's a simple core, say 6 metres of sandstone, I might have an hour to kill between runs. Those are the times to read emails and web articles downloaded earlier, write (like this), read a book (currently The Gormenghast Triolgy, by Mervyn Peake) or go fossil hunting. There's a lot of petrified wood in the rocks around here, and it gradually works its way up through the soil to the surface. We've got a pile of logs beside the fireplace at home, completely realistic but made of stone. Some specimens contain opal in the wood veins.

Once every few days, if we're sitting down, we feel the earth tremble. This disturbs Australians, for whom 'moving ground' is an oxymoron (or is that someone forgetting to breathe?). After a few seconds we hear a low, rolling rumble, the sort that suggests that someone, somewhere has just had a very bad day. These enormous, ponderous shakings of the earth are actually blasting in the Peak Downs Mine, several kilometres away.

The drillers stop around 4pm, and I try to finish before 5.00, as the light's fading fast. The drive home's into the setting sun, which puts a nice full stop on the day. Once home, there's the daily dilemma of shower or cold drink (hydration or hygiene), sometimes solved by combining the two. Off to Mac Camp for a generally tasty and healthy tea (except the jelly, which probably isn't healthy), and then there's usually an hour or so's data entry, putting the day's data into a spreadsheet. Maybe a bit of telly, then to bed by 9.30.

Repeat 19 times and that's one 'hitch'. And it goes fast!