The Bowels of the Earth

Written By: The Lowdown - Apr• 30•13

logo MITHEmerging from time to time from the murk of the pollution and the fumes from the Smelter could be seen the headframes of the two shafts that have served the old Nkana orebody for almost 90 years. Central Shaft and B Shaft are old and show it. The cages in Central Shaft are small, triple deckers, each, not much bigger than a telephone box, that, combined, can take a total of 60 men, crammed in like sardines to go down below. The upper levels of the mine have long been worked out but now a revival of sorts is being experimented with, to leach the remaining bits and pieces of pillars etc and pump the resultant copper rich liquor up to the surface for treatment. But no, the bulk of the work is much further down and that is where the cage takes us, clanging and clattering down the shaft steel guides to the 2120 level. Emerging from the cage you are faced by a long dusty tunnel, the floor concreted, tracks embedded in them for the little train that transports materials to the sub vertical shaft a kilometre away that will take us further down underground. Air pushes past us on its way to ventilate and attempt to cool the workings further down. A whiff of smelter fumes is evidence that the wind on the surface is coming straight from there. Flourescent tubes provide the lighting of this large tunnel but because of the dust and the infrequent lights all is a trifle gloomy. The noise of a train, unseen, grows into a loud racket, it is a train carrying ore from the sub vertical shaft head bin to the main shaft tips, roaring along in a parallel tunnel. One of my tasks is to inspect those tracks and instigate repairs there but not today.


I am destined for deeper things. Other smells intrude. The smell of the dust, of the broken rock and of the explosives that broke them is all there. The mens’ overalls emit a damp laundry, cum change house smell. The unmistakable odour emanating from the mobile Gester (the latrine, a large wheeled tank, a ladder up the side, four holes, screened off from one another, fed by compressed air and water, all designed to reduce the fecal waste into neutral matter that can then be discharged into the drain. When the tank eventually fills up, much like a domestic septic tank on surface, it can be towed away, hoisted to surface and cleaned out, ready for further service) mixes with the definitive odour of the men (I am told that Muzungus smell like pigs), often quite overpowering if they have had Chibuku or Nshima for breakfast. Men coming the other way after night shift, one or two clean, bright eyed and cheerful like the sick bay attendant who has not had his sleep disturbed at all, thank goodness; the rest, tired, dirty, and often soaked from their own sweat, but chattering away for they are bound for the sunshine.


The sub vertical shaft takes us down again to the working levels. Most of us are disgorged on the 3360 level. From there is a haulage which stretches away to the south off which spurs turn to the west to reach the orebody. The haulage eventually arrives at the South Orebody Shaft 4 kilometres away. The tracks must be repaired all the way there as well as in the spurs extending west. The orebody here is complicated; in cross section it writhes like a tortured snake that has come up against a barrier. It all plunges down to the north so that the crosscuts to the west pass underneath some of the folds, go through others and serve as top entrances elsewhere. Further down is my destination, the 3760 level. To get there one must use the ramp. This starts close to the shaft station and goes down at an angle of over 10 degrees. It winds its way down, giving entrance to the 3560 level before plunging further down, in all a walk of close to a mile. If one does not do it on a regular basis the walk down alone is enough to make all sorts of muscles twinge. The thought of doing a day’s work with the climb back up again after is enough to dishearten the keenest soul. Worse to come are the conditions on the level. It is very hot, very humid and wet. The footwall of the haulage is covered in sludge, the tracks are buried in places, the sleepers supporting them are rotten and all needs to be turned into a clean dry haulage with good track. Dream on!  For a start to do this the drains along the side must be rid of the mud within them, the ground being lashed into cars that can then be tipped into the pass that feeds the conveyor belt that will take the ground up to the sub vertical shaft loading box. A fight ensues with the shift boss who wants the cars to produce ore from the boxes fed from blasted ground in the stopes above. It is not until the train derails that he relents, needing our help to put the train back on the tracks and effect a temporary repair there. A search is made for the source of the water; possibly it can be piped from there, leaving the haulage drier so that dried mud can be cleaned out rather than sloppy sludge. It emanates from a crosscut, going into it one is hit by the intense increase of temperature, it is over 50 degrees centigrade, there is no ventilation and the humidity is awful. At the end is a borehole with hot water coming out of it. A low barricade is made at the entrance, pipes are found and the water diverted into them so that work may be improved.


By now, after four hours down on this level, you are soaked to the skin and feeling quite lethargic. The contractor who you are supervising is told to get on with it and you address yourself to the climb back up the ramp. The particulars of the climb are etched into my memory. The water rushing down one side is captured imperfectly just above the 3760 level and diverted to a sump from which submersible pumps send the water up in a series of little pump stations to the main pump station on the 3400. This in turn pumps the water up to another one on the 2200 level. If anything has a hiccup the first place to get flooded is the 3760, not an unusual event. The trudge up commences, an uneven incline so that your footsteps cannot be regular. Your soaking overalls chafe the inside of your thighs, your breath is labored, your feet hurt, then the first bend comes into sight but then, round it comes a snorting monster of a front end loader, an ancient, battered Wagner ST2 B, being used as a glorified wheelbarrow. You curse as you have to retreat those few hard earned steps back to a cubby in the sidewall to let the loader pass you. As it does so a wave of noise and heat assails you. The air is consumed by the loader and replaced by a wave of exhaust fumes that leaves you giddy for a bit. You wish that you could turn the loader round, climb into the bucket and get taken up the ramp, but that is a firing offence! So you then recommence your climb, first round to the right and then back round to the left until you reach the small flat piece at the entrance to the 3560. You stop to allow your heart to stop pounding and your breath to normalize. You then continue up a long endless incline, all the muscles in your legs complaining, you, cursing yourself for having such a God awful way of earning a living, knowing that you will have to visit this particular work place again this week, and, once again glancing up the ramp, seeing no end to it, looking down again at your poor aching feet as they slowly plod their way on up. Worse is to follow. The incline of the ramp sharply increases for a further 300 metres. It is gut wrenching, heart breaking, leg muscle screaming pain and this is just travelling to and from your place of work. The top of the ramp arrives; you stagger on to the station. A water tap is there and you drink the tepid stuff as if it were an elixir from heaven. You slump down onto an empty oil drum (on its way to surface where it will be nicked, opened up and flattened to repair the roof of someone’s house) and slowly recover your composure. Round the corner, at the tips, a whistle goes and shortly thereafter a blast shakes the whole area. Secondary blasting of big rocks is being carried out on the grizzly bars set there to prevent oversize rock jamming up the loading box. This blasting should have been carried out on grizzly bars set above the stope boxes in the section but the chaps have found that by removing the bars they can get the rocks into the cars quicker, thereby achieving their tally but just passing the problem on. The answer to the problem actually lies in the correct charging of the fans of holes that break the in situ ground in the stopes in the first place but the level of supervision at this rather lowly but essential task is poor to nonexistent. You cannot really blame the supervisor, the working conditions are such that no one would want to spend any more than the minimum amount of time in the sections.


After an hour on the station the little auxiliary cage, known as a Mary Ann, comes down to pick me up. The main cage is on hoist examination whereby the winding engine and its controls are checked every week. Six men can get into the little Mary Ann, twelve try; most of whom have no right to be leaving the working area early. The return to surface is slow and labored, the Mary Ann creeps up slowly to the 2120 level; the walk to the main shaft is slow and labored; the main shaft is also on examination so B shaft is used. The queue to get on the cage is long but after another 30 minutes you are given a place and up to surface, glorious surface, you go. A shower and then you must attend a progress meeting on the rehabilitation works on the 3760. In it some silly, jumped up, official has the temerity to say that, despite all the assistance rendered by the mine, the contractor is not attaining the targets set. You suggest that the multifarious problems that beset the contractor had best be examined on site rather than in an air conditioned office on surface. The suggestion is met with disapproval and you are requested to intensify your efforts to achieve target. The thought of actually facing reality would be far too much for these poor chaps! Such is modern day mining. The meeting drags on until 5 pm. All you want to do is go home, get a beer and go to bed, for in the morning yet another visit to yet another awful place, in the bowels of the earth, is scheduled.

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