In conversation with Nick Tate

November 28, 2023
Nick Tate, Specialist Consultant Mapper of Geology, Alteration and Mineralization Systems
Nick Tate, Specialist Consultant Mapper of Geology, Alteration and Mineralization Systems

Nick Tate graduated with a BSc in Geology from James Cook University. In the 40 years since, he has worked on dozens of contracts worldwide, becoming a specialist consultant mapper of geology, alteration, and mineralization systems.

His expertise has led to multiple notable discoveries in Laos, Mongolia, and Argentina, as well as an excellent reputation in the industry.

Nowadays, Nick runs his successful YouTube channel GeologyUpSkill and a series of courses providing young geologists with the necessary skills for fieldwork.

Brett Davis: Firstly, thanks for giving Coring the opportunity to interview you, Nick. Very few people have a geological profile as well-respected, or as well-known, as you. So, it’s a real pleasure to sit down and chat with you. Can we start off by telling us what interested you in a career in geology?

Nick Tate: My father was an organic chemist at the Waite Institute (now part of the University of Adelaide) for most of his career. We went to a barbeque with one of his students at the house of her boyfriend, who was a paleontologist. I was about 5 years old at the time. The story goes that I spent the entire evening looking at shelves full of fossils that he had collected. Apparently, I was determined to be a paleontologist when I grew up until I was informed that there was no money in that career, but there was money in geology! Shortly after that, someone taught me how to pan gold and I would regularly borrow Mum’s cooking utensils to prospect for gold in the backyard.

Mum loved being outdoors. She designed and built her own sailing boat and rode dirt bikes so that fostered my love of being outside. Dad was only interested in the outdoors if it involved fishing. He used to say that it was the only time that he didn’t think about chemistry, but I think he was lying. It was really the time when his mind was undisturbed by the clutter of the chemistry lab, and he would sometimes scribble furiously some new formula that had come to mind when we got home. I find I do the same thing now on long traverses between outcrops.

Mum also loved photography and she taught me how to shoot film, process it and make prints in a home darkroom. That skill set would have a fundamental influence on my career many decades later.

At high school, I had a friend who lived on a farm next door to an old alluvial goldfield, so we used to go there on weekends to dig dirt out of the shafts and pan real gold. I still have that gold! From then on, there was no question about my future career.

I remember being quite shocked when I arrived at university and most of my compatriots were still trying to decide what career they would like!

I was a serial underperformer at primary school because I was hopeless at rote learning and numbers didn’t excite me. I went to an ‘alternative’ school for grades 4 and 5 where I had lots of fun digging in the garden and making model airplanes, but I didn’t learn much of the 3Rs. Grades 6 and 7 back at ‘normal’ school were a real struggle to catch up, but thanks to my parents and two very helpful teachers, I recovered lost ground. I found high school much easier, but I couldn’t study geology even though it was an available subject because it conflicted with the prerequisite science and mathematics subjects required for university entry.

I was kind of a nerd at high school, and I was too short to play any of the team sports with kids the same age so, along with a couple of similar friends, we set up a darkroom and made an unofficial photography club. I entered a print of my girlfriend at the time in a competition run by the local paper. It won first prize and that created a problem for us because the prize involved a camera for the winner and some equipment for the club, so we had to hastily make the club ‘official’ to accept the prize. That camera became a fundamental tool for my future geology work because I understood that a picture was worth a thousand words, and I hated writing!

When I went to Flinders University in South Australia, I found studying easy because I could learn the underlying theory for a process and apply it to whatever problem was posed. That just suited the way I learn, and I also had a few geology subjects in my first year that made learning fun for me.

During my undergraduate studies, I took a few short holiday jobs to get some experience. All of those jobs involved some geological mapping, and I just loved it. There is something addictive about the instant gratification that comes when you add a little more to the picture each day. It’s like working on a difficult jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing, so when you find a piece that fits, it is very satisfying. On top of that, there is always the carrot of potential discovery dangling in front of you if you are in the mineral exploration business. Because I loved what I was doing, I never had a problem going the extra mile to collect more data and make it into maps. I also had a bit of a talent for drawing, so I enjoyed the artistic side of making the data into maps. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the connections I made during those jobs sowed the seeds for almost all of my future jobs.

Then I went to James Cook University to study for an Honors degree with Prof. Roger Taylor because he had a project mapping a tin system in the jungle south of Cooktown in North Queensland. His enthusiasm for geology and irreverent way of deconstructing complex topics into the simple stuff that matters was a perfect fit for my way of doing things. He also had a lot of industry contacts and was very good at getting them involved in student projects which laid even more seeds for my future clients.

My honors year was extremely hard work, but I loved every minute of it because I am a learning junkie, and I was in my element. My problem was that I couldn’t stop collecting data and sit down to write the thesis. All that came in the last two weeks before the deadline and my hours of sleep shrank to zero as the ‘D’ day approached. Part of the problem was that I had shot hundreds of photographs to illustrate my work and I had to print and put together four copies of the thesis which ran to two volumes because of all the pictures. It was quite a change from the usual dry black-and-white diagrams in theses, but it must have made an impression because, after some harrowing defense, I was awarded First-class Honors.

After I graduated, those connections I had made on holiday jobs started calling me up and offering me short mapping contracts and I just kept accepting them because I loved the work and I got to look at new things every few weeks. It just snowballed from there as I developed a reputation as a ‘professional mapper’. As a result, I’ve never actually had a real ‘job’ and my CV looks like a log sheet from a drill hole to the MOHO.

Being ‘respected and well-known’ is really a very recent thing for me. I have only ever published a couple of descriptive papers, so I have no academic profile. I very rarely attend conferences or present in person so very few people outside my client network even knew what I looked like. I had a LinkedIn profile for about 10 years, but I never used it. All that changed when I started making videos and sharing them on YouTube.

I think YouTube and other online platforms have had a great democratizing effect. The scientific journals and major media houses had evolved into very narrow channels that were the only path to mass audiences. Any system with that kind of concentrated control makes it extremely difficult for new or unorthodox talent to get recognized. It also inevitably leads to abuse of the power generated by the narrow funnels of information. The digital platforms have disrupted all of that. Now, you don’t have to publish in Nature to become a famous scientist. Anyone who does good work and knows how to present it can reach a global audience. Of course, the unfiltered access to publishing for everyone has resulted in a kind of anarchy where it is difficult to rise above the sea of chaos, but it can be done. The platforms are still evolving rapidly, and monopolistic power is concentrating in different ways with platform owners, algorithms and AI police influencing what gets viewed, so the future may be not quite so democratic. Right now however, we are in a golden age where you can blow your own trumpet and if it’s good, people will listen.

Nick Tate ‘exploring’ the sunset
Nick Tate ‘exploring’ the sunset

BD: Coring is a drilling magazine, and we like to keep to our roots. So, I’ll ask you a drilling-related question. I know you are predominantly a field geologist, but do you do much work with diamond core? Do you have any drilling horror stories?

NT: Even though I’m a mapping geologist, I often look at available core on a project early in the job if possible. It gives me a great introduction to the rock types and alteration facies in their pristine state. That makes it much easier to unravel outcrops that are masked by the ravages of oxidation and other weathering processes. Critical relationships between rock types and mineralization paragenetic sequences are also much easier to sort out in clean cut core than broken oxidized rock which helps enormously when you are trying to understand what you are seeing on surface.

Probably my worst drilling story would be a run of 0.8 m (2.6 ft) to demolish a new diamond bit after drilling a long interval of alunite alteration in a high sulphidation system at Frieda River (Papua New Guinea) and then encountering a zone with corundum as the main alteration mineral.

BD: You’ve worked in a lot of countries and on a lot of continents. Are there any skills or mindsets that have helped you in your roles in these places?

NT: Working overseas is invaluable experience. There are so many boundaries to the way you think, and you don’t even know that they exist until you see people from other cultures do things differently because the tools are different, the risk tolerance is different, the laws are different, and the culture is different, but the needs are the same. You also learn what it’s like to be a minority group with different colored skin who struggles with the local language. That gives you a real appreciation for the challenges faced by others at home. Perhaps most importantly, you will learn that the outlook you had on the rest of the world was extremely narrow before you left!

BD: One topic we commonly talk about but rarely put into print is of the health hazards of working in different countries and environments. Has your health ever been particularly challenged and, if so, what happened?

NT: I have been extremely lucky, despite working in some pretty hazardous places. By far, the biggest risk in most countries is vehicle accidents. I had an extremely narrow escape riding a scooter in Laos.

While waiting at an intersection, a drunk guy on another scooter with two children on board ran into the back of my scooter at high speed. There are a few seconds of missing time from my life on that day during which my scooter was catapulted from under me, and the other scooter miraculously went over or around me. The next thing I knew was that I was standing in the middle of the intersection minus a scooter but with only a small bruise on my right leg. The other rider, the children and the scooters were in a pile 20 m (65.6 ft) down the road. Fortunately, none of them had serious injuries, but it was a stark reminder that getting to and from the office is the riskiest part of the job.

The worst disease that I acquired was Dengue fever (also in Laos). It has similar symptoms to a bout of Malaria, but it lasts for up to six weeks and there are no preventatives or curative drugs. Definitely not a recommended experience!

BD: Would you believe that one of the earliest pieces of geological literature that I read and can remember was your Honours thesis, which had a focus on tourmaline? Has there been any formative piece of geological work from a colleague that influenced you, and who have been some of the positive influences in your career?

NT: I always recommend the book ‘The Tin Scratchers’ by Ion Idriess. It is part-adventure story and part-instruction manual for prospectors. It inspired me to follow in the footsteps of those people with dreams and determination to make discoveries.

BD: Given the high profile of energy metal companies, are you doing a lot of work outside of the commodities and deposit styles you have traditionally worked on?

NT: Generally, no. I am still getting more work than I can handle in the systems that I know best (gold and copper). It would be interesting to try mapping some of the lithium and rare earth systems. The process is basically the same. Understand what controls ore and figure out what parts of those controls can be mapped in a sensible way. There is a little bit of crossover for me in tin, since that’s what I studied for my honors project and it’s now becoming a critical metal.

BD: As a widely traveled geologist, what part of the world do you think is highly prospective for finding new world-class orebodies?

NT: You just can’t escape the Ring of Fire (from the southern tip of South America, up along the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, down through Japan, and into New Zealand) and the other fossil subduction zones, but I have learned the hard way that above ground risk is more important than geological risk. That puts places with stable jurisdictions up near the front of the pack. I include Australia in that pack, even though it has been intensively explored: Rule #20!

BD: Is there a particular mineralization style or deposit type that interests you, and why?

NT: I just love porphyry systems (and related IRG systems) because they have huge zoned alteration systems that can be mapped. The alteration is commonly unrecognized or unmapped, so my work can make a big contribution in those systems.

BD: Leading on from the previous question, everyone has a handful of deposits that have left a mark on them, be it because of the amazing geology, the hideous conditions, the people they worked with, etc. Which deposits do you hold dear, and which ones really were difficult to work on?

NT: Both of those categories are filled by the Frieda River system in Papua New Guinea. It has a cluster of giant porphyry Cu-Au systems and the classic high-sulphidation Nena Cu Au deposit all in mountainous, jungle-covered terrain where it pelts down rain every afternoon. Amazing geology and some of the best local people I have ever worked with.

BD: You wrote a fantastic article on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for a previous issue of Coring. So, where do you see the most exciting technological developments being made in mineral exploration going forward?

NT: I think there must be great potential in applying the kind of computer tomography that is used in medical imaging to geophysics, particularly seismic data. It’s a challenge because it’s hard to get sensors all around the target, but in mature projects where there are deep drill holes or extensive mine workings, I think there is great potential to define brownfields targets.

BD: Do you think that there are any mineral exploration strategies or technologies that are under-employed, but could make a big difference to an exploration campaign if people used them more?

NT: Ha-ha! Mapping of course! It seems to be a dying art, but it is even more valuable as a tool today because we have such amazing remote data sets that can speed up the process and put boots on the ground where they make a difference.

BD: We hear all about the advances and benefits of technologies, such as 3D modeling, geochemical analysis, and utilization of drones. Have you noted any negative impacts to effective exploration and mining as a result of these, e.g. less people out kicking rocks?

NT: None of those technologies are a problem in themselves. As per my answer to the previous question, they can all make exploration fieldwork faster and more effective. The problem comes when they are viewed as a replacement for fieldwork. The most valuable skill for people in the future will be critical thinking. As AI generates models for almost every aspect of our lives, the ability to assess what is real and what is just an attractive model will separate the explorers from the discoverers.

BD: There would be very few geologists who have not watched your Fieldcraft videos. This is an amazing resource, with content varying from academic to truly quirky, but always overwhelmingly pragmatic. With this in mind, what is your opinion of the geological skillsets, experience, and knowledge of geologists today, especially those who are newly graduated?

NT: I started out making videos to share the knowledge that I had accumulated in the field, so I wasn’t thinking about the basic technical stuff that students learn at university. From the responses to my videos and working with young geologists, I can see that the quality of university geology courses is falling seriously and the number of students is following a similar curve. That is an absolute tragedy for Australia because we spent 200 years building that pool of people with the best exploration and mining skills in the world and we will lose it in a generation if we don’t get serious about rebuilding the geological education system.

BD: What are your software programs of choice? And what are your opinions on pricing and their usefulness?

NT: I am still using Mapinfo 2012 on a Windows 7 laptop with Discover Mobile running on Windows Mobile 6 because they were the last versions that you could buy outright. The current trend to move everything to annual subscriptions is part of the process of ‘enshittification’ that afflicts almost all tech companies these days. Look up that term on YouTube for a detailed definition, but it’s basically the process of squeezing financial returns out of software or platforms that have become popular because they were useful to users. The results are inevitably increased cost and reduced usefulness for end users. It usually leads to a demise when a new startup comes in to fill the usefulness gap, but when users pile in because the startup gives better service, it has to expand rapidly, and they usually do that with venture capital. Sooner or later, the venture capitalists want their pound of flesh and the process of enshittification starts again. QGIS is the new guy on the block now and that will probably be my next package when my old laptop finally dies, but you just have to get used to moving on when the rot sets in.

BD: Has there been any single satisfying geology-oriented moment in your career that rates above all the others?

NT: The discovery of the copper orebody at Phu Kham in Laos has to rate highly there. The previous explorers had drilled over 100 holes and still missed the orebody. We (Pan Australian Resources) found it after I re-logged all the old holes and redrew the sections (by hand). The system sits above a thrust fault and there was just one drill hole that went below where the thrust should be but was still in ore. The only way I could make that work was to put in a vertical fault that cut the thrust between previous holes (which were mostly vertical). We tested the idea with a big-angled hole and discovered a large down-thrown block of ore that was twice the grade of the previous resource because it also contained lots of skarn. That made the mine and the company.

BD: I’ll ask a question on the flipside of the previous one. Many of us have interfaced with less than savory individuals or experienced toxic workplaces. Has there been any incident or incidents that really disappointed you?

NT: My virgin discovery story of a huge platinum system in Laos led to a JV with Australian Dominion Mining. They were great people to deal with and we spent a lot of time drafting a watertight agreement that would materialize the JV if Dominion managed to get an exploration license granted. Unfortunately, during the application process, Dominion was taken over by Kingsgate Consolidated (an Australian-listed company that owned the Chatree Mine in Thailand). When the license was granted, they simply refused to honor the agreement to sign the JV, knowing full well that they could out-spend me in a court battle. In the end, I waited them out, but the experience was a hard lesson about dealing with valuable discoveries.

BD: You are one of the rare breeds of geologists who work in the industry but manage to maintain a high professional profile. I’d hate to think about the amount of time you have devoted to your videos. Monetary gain aside, what inspires you to keep producing them and how do you overcome the challenges, such as finding the time?

NT: ‘High professional profile’ might be a bit of an overstatement. I don’t belong to any professional organizations anymore and I don’t write papers for journals or make presentations at conferences. I’m really just a field geologist who learned to make videos. I have streamlined that process quite a lot now, although the longer videos take a bit more time on research and editing. The direct monetary side is still far behind the effort employed. YouTube earns me about a coffee a day. The paid course versions have now paid for the camera gear and computers for editing and for that I am eternally grateful to all of my paid subscribers. Each one of them has contributed to making the videos to help educate future generations of geologists. That alone is motivation to continue, but shooting and editing the videos is also a creative outlet for those camera skills acquired from my mother half a century ago. If people enjoy them and learn something, I am happy. The real financial return comes from the increase in people who know what I do and the work that flows from that. Those jobs take me to new and places with different geology, so I have a constant supply of new subjects for videos and the bills get paid.

Nick Tate showing off a rock in the field
Nick Tate showing off a rock in the field

BD: What does Nick Tate do in his downtime (assuming he takes some)?

NT: What is this ‘downtime’ you speak of?! I used to have downtime, but now I have a son instead. We do the same stuff I used to do but now I’m teaching it all over again!

BD: What have you learned from field practice and your job experience that is not taught at university?

NT: See my YouTube channel!

I have learned that geology is fractal. The closer you look, the more detail you see, ad infinitum! The most valuable skill is to be able to step back and answer the question: ‘What really matters here?’. When you can answer that, you will know what data to collect and how to assess the prospects you are looking at.

BD: If you had abundant financial funding, is there a fundamentally annoying geology question you’d like to solve or a topic you’d like to work on?

NT: ‘Where is the next Mt Isa Copper orebody?’. I think the works of Bill Perkins and more recently Dr Richard Lilly and students at the University of Adelaide (read more about the program) have shown that there are probably lots more of them out there and the zinc deposits are the key to finding them. With an unlimited drilling budget, I would like to find one!

BD: Finally, any concluding comments or words of wisdom from an industry veteran?

NT: I learned to ride a unicycle because it seemed impossible, so I knew that if I mastered it, the sense of achievement would be amazing. Challenging yourself occasionally to do something difficult, but not impossible, keeps your spirit alive.

For more information subscribe to Nick Tate’s YouTube channel: GeologyUpSkill