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!


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