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Into the Deep: My day as a copper miner

November 05, 2018

Simon Goldie is a global program director in the Energy, Resources and Marine sector at CWT. Experiencing life as a miner has always been one of his goals. When the opportunity came to explore a copper mine in the Australian Outback, Simon was more than ready to go. Below is his first-hand account.

My journey deep inside a mine began in my home base of Perth. The destination: Mount Isa, one of the deepest mines in Australia, 5,187 kilometers (3,223 miles) away. The trip involved a four-hour hop across the continent to Brisbane, an overnight stay, followed by a two-and-a-half hour flight deep in the Australian Outback.

Gearing up

Upon arriving in the Outback town of the same name, we headed to the mine office for a pre-safety check, sign-in process, and to get suited up in full mining gear. Our kit—all 10 kilograms (22 lbs.) of it—included a bright red jumpsuit, respirator, helmet with headlight, emergency oxygen supply, and a communication unit with a GPS tracker.

After going through a final safety check and confirming we understood the unique signals we can make with our headlamps in case of an emergency, we were set. A rush of excitement filled me as I had never experienced anything like this before.

Into the mine

Inside Mount Isa’s copper mine are 950 kms. (590 miles) of mining tunnels. Instead of taking the shaft, our hosts drove us in two utes (car-trucks popular in Australia) down the mine so we could explore the plethora of tunnels.

The utes were customized with a three-seater bench on the back, facing backwards and open to the elements, with only a wire-like cage protecting us from above and to the sides. There was room for only one passenger in the air-conditioned cab. I opted to go al fresco on the way in to get a true experience.

We drove for 10 minutes down a disused open-pit zinc mine to the entrance of the underground mine, kicking up a thick cloud of dust as we descended 300 meters (984 ft.) into the shadows.

At the tunnel entrance, the adrenaline went up another notch—this felt like the point of no return. Within seconds, we were engulfed in darkness, except for the yellow glow of the flashing ute light that illuminated the tunnel walls as we drove through.

Assault on the senses

Almost immediately, my senses began to go into overdrive. It was like being on a slow-moving roller coaster, going backwards, with a persistent strobe light flashing from behind.

Then there was the sound. Every few minutes, the low rumble of huge fans in the distance grew louder as we drove nearer, ending in a deafening roar as we drove past.

The deeper we went, the higher the temperature. Outside the mountain, it was a comfortable 30 C (86 F). Twenty minutes in, we could feel the heat rise up to meet us, and the air from the fan was like a stifling desert wind.

At 1,000 meters (3,280 ft.) below the surface, we stopped at one of five ‘cribs’ (air-conditioned breakout rooms complete with fridge, microwave, toilets, etc.) for miners on their break. We explored a service area for equipment and trucks that was bathed in floodlights, while overhead, small blasts could be heard—the boom, boom, boom rumbling through my chest in an eerie way.

One mile, 100 degrees

As we headed deeper into the mine, the temperature became downright intense. It felt like being in a dry sauna, with the only moisture coming from our own sweat, dripping. Soon, we hit a milestone. Literally. We were one mile (1.6 km) underground. This was the deepest we were going to go, although the tunnel continues for another 300 meters (984 ft.) beneath us.

After the obligatory photo op, we drove to a vast area, 30 meters high (100 ft.), where they crushed freshly blasted rocks to be taken up to the surface. The noise was deafening. The heat from the machinery and the hot air from the fans easily brought the temperature up to 40 C (104 F). The miners working the machines were covered in sweat and guzzled water down by the liter.

The final stop was to the rock face itself, almost like a small siding, with a giant drilling machine that looked like it was from a sci-fi movie. This, I thought, was what mining is all about. Digging rocks out of the ground.

Into the sunshine

We then started our 40-minute drive back out of the mountain, only this time, I had the pleasure of experiencing it in the air-conditioned cab, facing forwards! When we finally got to the tunnel entrance and was hit by sunshine, there was a real sense of accomplishment as well as exhaustion.

The four hours we spent underground was an experience I will never forget. I came out of Mount Isa with a renewed appreciation for miners and the excruciating work that they do. Toiling in mines four days straight in 12-hour shifts, I feel, even more deeply, our strong commitment to ease their journey in any way we can. 


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