Goin’ Underground, blog 5

After a few days I went back to work in the underground, somewhere I was more comfortable and happy. After all, as a VIP I could go up and down the shaft in the explosives cage; an exclusive, although somewhat cramped mode of conveyance. I had long since mastered the system of bidding that controlled where this cage was sent. Everybody knew that I had the cash to trump anybody. After a while I was asked not to enter the auction, the ‘Cage Commander’ agreed that when I got on the ‘phone the explosives cage would be sent to my level first.

This arrangement gave me the certainty I needed to plan my day. I knew I could spend three or four hours underground and be at my desk within an hour of picking up the shaft telephone. There were times when I was asked to step out, such as when sacks of explosives, my sofas, were offloaded. But generally they were very happy to get me out of the way.

On one memorable occasion the explosives cage stopped so I could watch the transfer of a massive locomotive between levels.  As I arrived, the locomotive was facing down the shaft with a spout of diesel emanating from the tank, soaking a hundred-strong crowd of miners. It took a minute or more for the winchman to compensate for the extra weight by winding up the cable. I looked to my right and found I was next to the mine Health and Safety officer (yes there was such a one) massive arms folded around a golf club.

Golf Club, as he was un-affectionately called, enforced safety rules with the aid of nine iron. Before his arrival there had been deaths virtually every day because after blasting men would run into the stopes to grab specimens with specular gold and would be hit by falling rock. It was Golf Club’s task to prevent unauthorised entry into the stopes and then encourage the clearers to lever off dangerous, loose-hanging rock.  He was successful at his job and the death rate had reduced to less than one a week when I arrived, although this may have been because of the introduction of metal detectors.

Jumping back onto the sacks of explosives, covered in a thin, vapourising film of diesel I asked the Cage Commander to continue my journey downward and prayed there was no sparks from the grinding metal of the cable and the pulley wheels.

Beyond a couple of kilometres depth the walls of mine tunnels come under tremendous crushing force from the weight of overlying rock. They bow out into the passageways and can, on occasion, explode, particularly where the rock layering is unfavourably orientated.

Ventilation in the deep levels was so bad that I always feared carbon monoxide. There had never been a reported death from carbon monoxide poisoning. But with the extreme heat, stillness of the air, diesel fumes and ubiquitous carbonaceous rock, there must have been some near misses.

Once, after two hours stumbling around in the oxygen-deprived atmosphere, with temperatures well over 50 degrees, I bumped into a drilling crew. Their bright miners’ torches shone through gallon-containers filled with iced water. The sparkle of that water in the darkness as it poured from the container onto my head will be one of the last memories to leave my mind.