Lockdown, rocks and two rotating barrels

October 4, 2021

Another Day in Paradise

by Gemma Lawson, Exploration Geologist at Origin Exploration Ltd.

Any geologist that has worked in Africa, is familiar with the harsh conditions and an ever-changing barrage of unique challenges. In March 2020, Côte d’Ivoire, along with multiple other African nations, closed its international borders amid the rising COVID-19 pandemic. A plethora of expat workers were suddenly locked in, with no idea of how events would unfold. Sanitation quality in the next town across was on par with the inside of a nightclub’s toilet, so our hopes were not quintessentially high. It was turning into a bad day in West Africa.

Every fly-in, fly-out worker in the mining industry understands how drastically our work circumstances have changed in the last year and a half. Here’s the reality – demand for metals does not cease to exist amidst a pandemic, and a producing gold mine cannot feasibly halt production for an unknown period of time. As gold prices surged, some ventures set on running full steam ahead. But what was it like working on-site through the lockdown?

I was a junior exploration geologist working in Côte d’Ivoire, fresh-eyed and exuberant my rotation had recently started when the lockdown began. The Hiré Mine, a shear-hosted intrusion-related gold deposit, was undergoing a series of exploration drilling campaigns to enable pit extension and the definition of new waste dumps. Abundances of intensely altered drill core were passing through the core shed, adding new data to the geological jigsaw. Ribbons of dust from the RC rig drifted off on gentle wind currents, heading in typical fashion straight for the rugged huts that kept appearing adjacent to the mine borders. We were busy… another day in paradise.

For the most part, daily life remained much the same: we drilled, roasted in the sun, blasted, sent material for processing and ate copious amounts of anorexic chicken and rice served from the camp kitchen. Exploration and production continued at a steady pace, with the somewhat understaffed team surpassing targets. From the perspective of an early-career geologist, working throughout this period was key to an unprecedented rate of career development.

Charcoal clouds loomed overhead as the arrival of the rainy season announced itself through a menacing rumble of thunder. The main issue now was that fresh teams could not come in to relieve those that were already due out. As the months crawled by, we experienced a slow-building fatigue. You can recreate this sensation at home by rubbing sand in your eyes, and repeatedly overdoing leg-day, all whilst on a whiskey hangover.

Despite that, spirits remained initially high, spurred on by late evening phone calls with family, regular Braiis (a grill or a barbecue that has turned into a social custom in much of Southern Africa), and the realization that some of us had more freedom than those back home. We were still working and earning, somewhat unfamiliar with the frustrations of expats stuck off-site. New arrivals in the form of owls took up residence in the camp, seeking refuge from sticky rains in building eaves. Life got muddy.

In line with government guidelines the camp bar shut. People migrated to evening beers on the outside porches, and malaria cases spiked. If you’ve had the misfortune to meet Mother Malaria and her wild fever dreams, you’ll be aware that your chances of contraction increase immensely with every person that becomes infected on the camp.

The expat hairstyle of choice suddenly switched from rugged and overgrown to bald, a shock for anyone, who sat bleary-eyed in the mess at 04:30 a.m. Not to say that these events were related, but morale was waning with time and barbers lacking. This was likely exacerbated by whispers of increasingly strained conversations with family as time slid by. The pandemic was taking its toll on long-distance relationships and divorce was not an uncommon undertone.

Chipping away and dusting off RC logs
Chipping away and dusting off RC logs

Barrels kept rotating, core in, results out. Production was soaring higher than our surveyors’ drone, which became an exciting target for the eagles. Aromas of amber nectar wafted from the re-opened bar – Boc tastes as good as you make it – and we relaxed in evening downtime.

Camp was somewhat quieter in the final weeks, except for the persistent screeching of the resident owls, likely contributing somewhat to a couple of unlucky souls’ fatigue. Departure was a sudden event, in the form of a chartered flight, only available to those from countries with open borders and manned by a swarm of hazmat suits. I recall not believing I was truly leaving until we landed on the soil at Heathrow airport, UK. However, for many, longer months away stretched ahead.

The pandemic has changed multiple aspects of the mining industry and we adapted to these new challenges at a rapid pace. Naturally, a large degree of uncertainty remains as we venture into unchartered waters, with changes in rotations and perceptions of work-life balance prominent. But, as life continues, it seems the future may indeed be golden…

For more information visit: www.originexploration.co.uk