THE MINES AND ME (5): REVENGE

I can clearly remember the time I was roped in to help re-open De Beers Mine, which had been left to moulder for many years. Everyone has seen a picture of Kimberley Mine, also known as the “Big Hole” which was closed down in 1914 and became a tourist attraction. But it was only one of the five volcanic pipes which all became “big holes” after they had been mined for many years. Three of them, Dutoitspan, Bultfontein and Wesselton, were still being actively mined in the 1960s. And round about 1962 De Beers Company decided that there were many diamonds left in the old De Beers Mine, and I found myself following Mine Captain DT, along a low, partially flooded, tunnel while thousands of bats flew towards us and hampered our progress.

Most nature lovers think bats are like cute mice that hang upside down. All I know is that the ones we encountered were crawling with fleas, and the rock-floor beneath them was crawling with cockroaches eating their droppings and the odd deceased one. The smell was impressive.

And most people think that bats have got such good radar that they will never fly into a human being. This may be true above ground. But when thousands of panic-stricken flying mice come at you like a dense swarm of locusts you have to duck and hope that only your helmet gets grazed as they fly past. One large Afrikaans miner did not duck far enough, and was far from amused when a flea-ridden mammal thumped into him, and got stuck in his chest hair. The mammal did not survive the encounter.

The bats were there because their home led along a tunnel to the huge hole that had been dug by hand many years before, and they used this as their evening exit to feast on Kimberley’s insects. I occasionally used it to enjoy a bit of sunshine and a view of the blue sky, with pepper trees growing in the upper reaches of the big hole. This was a rare pleasure that was not available in any of the other mines as their workings were far below the floors of their big holes.

After a few weeks shoring up old tunnels with timber, and drilling and blasting new ones, our shift boss told us that we were to be visited later that day by the Inspector of Mines. He told us that he would run ahead of the “grootkoppe” and signal to us to get the “machine boys” to stop drilling. (I guess he feared that the cloud of smoke and water vapour pouring out of the tunnel entrances might contain some dangerous silica dust that the inspector’s testing device might detect.)

He didn’t wait to get my agreement to his plan: he just assumed that nobody would have the nerve to disobey him. I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious nature, and figured that by obeying the shift boss I was interfering with inspections that were intended to help prevent us getting silicosis in our lungs. So, when the shift boss came running down the tunnel the next day I just ignored him and allowed my men to carry on drilling. As he passed me he said, “You little shit”, and quickly got the machines to stop.

The mild-mannered inspector didn’t query why the men had stopped drilling, but just calmly walked on with the rest of the officials. As soon as they’d gone past I went into each tunnel and shouted “Vula”

Within seconds the drilling resumed, and the inspector turned round and started frantically started clicking his little machine in the midst of the smoke pouring out of the tunnels while the shift boss looked daggers at me.

Why was I not surprised that my next job was about a month of night shift, doing something difficult and dangerous? In brief we were expected to drill and blast two rope raises from a newly blasted underground cavern that was to house winding machinery leading to an old shaft that was being renovated. The wire ropes were to travel in the small tunnels that we blasted going up towards the shaft at an angle of about 40 degrees. Despite the inadequate equipment and ventilation we managed it on time with only one case of a worker being overcome by gas or lack of oxygen in the upper reaches of a rope raise.

My next job was widening or “sliping” a tunnel leading to the renovated shaft. The idea was that as it approached the shaft it was to gradually be made wider and higher, so that it would be easier to get long pipes and machinery from the cages into the tunnel. I can always remember that one of the machine men succeeded in drilling a record amount of footage in the easy working conditions. I told him that he would earn a lot of money for that shift. But he was doubtful that the bosses would pay him his full due.

It turned out that he was correct. When I submitted the paperwork mine captain DT said, “He’ll earn more than I will!” Despite my protests he simply reduced the figures to a level more acceptable to him.

The next day I noticed that the broad tunnel or station had broken through to the shaft in the bottom left hand corner. When the shift boss and mine captain appeared on the scene I said that the best and safest way to proceed would be to drill one row of holes around the opening so that the blast would be towards the hole, and not towards the shaft with its new, expensive equipment.

But the mine captain thought this gradual approach would take too long. He said we could break through in one go by drilling the face full of holes at an angle so that the rock would break into the tunnel away from the shaft. (Imagine this as a doorway leading from your kitchen to your living room; you could knock down the wall separating the two by chipping away at the door edges; or you could drill holes at an angle into the kitchen wall, and use dynamite to blast the wall away, hoping that the rubble would fly into the kitchen and not the living room).

I knew that a blast took the line of least resistance. And normally what DT proposed would work – the rock would break back to the free face. But what he forgot was that there were now two free faces, and there was a 50 percent chance that the rock could break into the shaft.

But, he overruled my protest. At the end of the shift, before we charged the holes with dynamite I took the precaution of calling the shift boss and showed him the holes and the sequence that they would be timed to go off.

I made sure to put an extra long fuse on the set-up that would give everybody enough time to get out of the mine before the first shots went off.

As I drove home at about 11 that night the lights of town went out. I wondered whether my blast had anything to do with it.

The following day I went down to see devastation. A huge slab of rock lay across the underground shaft; I was told that a thick electricity cable had been severed and that this had probably caused the temporary loss of the town’s power; hundreds of feet of ventilation pipes were destroyed, and the expensive new Sumo Pumps never worked again.

I felt not a moment’s regret; and there wasn’t a thing they could do to me. But I correctly guessed that I was not likely to be quickly elevated into the ranks of mine officialdom. Not to worry, much as I had enjoyed the adventure of working underground, I had already more or less decided that this wasn’t the career I wished to follow for the rest of my life.

I was transferred to another mine (we learner officials were given new jobs to do every month or two, to build up experience; so my swift move wasn’t necessarily as a result of the drama in my last job). Whatever. I reflected with some satisfaction that big-mouth DT would have had to do a whole lot of explaining to the very irascible general manager. I would have given anything to have been a fly on the wall.

Fate is a funny thing. And it ensured that DT and I had one more dramatic encounter.

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