Nearly 50 years of learning on the job, mostly with drillers

February 19, 2024

by John Anderson, Formerly: Regional Exploration Manager at Aberfoyle Resources; General Manager Exploration Australia and Africa – MIM Exploration; Inaugural Managing Director – Investigator Resources

Often the drill is the ‘Truth Machine’ in mineral exploration

Angas drilling on the outskirts of Strathalbyn in 1992
Angas drilling on the outskirts of Strathalbyn in 1992

I was 19 when I first engaged with drillers on a vacation job near Cobar, Australia. I was hired to stand in for the sole geologist running two diamond rigs and an RAB rig along a stretch between Canbelego and Nymagee. Unfortunately, the drillers were away during the one-day handover, so I had to introduce myself.

The first words I heard from a diamond driller were ‘I don’t like Jimmy’, or something to that effect. On asking who Jimmy was, I was advised he was our field assistant in similarly unrepeatable words. I then tried my luck with the RAB driller. He immediately pounced on me complaining about the line clearing. Things were going fantastic. Back in Cobar, I found the preferred earth mover was unavailable due to a family tragedy. I realized university was only a stepping stone to a real-life education.

It was the summer of 1974. Darwin had Cyclone Tracy while Cobar had the fires. Probably related to climate change before we were made aware of it. The diamond drillers dropped their rods and headed off for two weeks fighting the fires with the Army along the Wilcannia Road. I stayed in Canbelego with the RAB rig, although managing to spend 12 hours on the back of a Toyota hosing down a local lightning strike.

Finishing Honors, I ended up at Broken Hill as an underground sampler, barring down-backs and collecting core trays. Becoming a dab hand at knapping half-core samples with a hammer, I was to become a probationary junior mine geologist after a six-month trial. Cominco offered me a job as a straight up junior exploration geologist for AUD 500 a year less than my sampler wage. So off I went in 1976 to drill for nickel near Kalgoorlie. I was the lone geologist reporting to the Adelaide base. There were about a dozen exploration geos remaining in Kalgoorlie after the nickel boom and they took me under their wings.

Boart Longyear were the diamond drillers and Northbridge did the percussion drilling. Ken Phillips offered to trial a new drill technology called Reverse Circulation. After struggling for a day, I said it would never work. Not the first or last time I ate humble pie as I learned that patience and persistence are virtues. One thing I particularly remember with the core drilling was using HF to etch test tubes to measure hole inclinations with tables to compensate for the meniscus. We also used single-shot downhole orientation cameras.

Once that drill program was over, I was able to enjoy the Kalgoorlie community more with touch rugby on Saturdays before I went out Sunday camping and mapping 30 mi (48.3 km) north of Kalgoorlie over another six-day working week. Things got busy again later in 1976. Mapping laterites north of Leonora and staying in the White House Hotel, one evening I was watching ABBA’s Mamma Mia being played over and over on the first video machine I had seen. A driller walked in and knowing I was a geologist, pulled out a pocketful of chalcopyrite asking what I thought. I may have been the first geologist to see Teutonic Bore mineralization. I neglected to mention this to my Adelaide boss until two days later, then all hell broke loose. I suddenly had a resident boss in Kalgoorlie, and I was on pegging and gossan search duties competing with crews from many companies. Kalgoorlie came alive again.

That story continued with my early arrival at the Palace Hotel one Friday afternoon to find Anaconda geologist Ilmars (Bill) Gemuts lounging alone at the back bar with the grin of a Cheshire Cat. Not forthcoming about his grin, we were being gradually joined by the regulars such as George Compton. Suddenly Peter Allchurch of Seltrust burst into abusing Bill. It turned out Bill had hired a helicopter that day and hopped along the Teutonic line of gossans sampling his rightful 12 lb (4.5 kg) or so of rock per Mineral Claim. With Peter in hot vehicular pursuit eventually catching up with Bill in Kalgoorlie. Dare I say it, those were the days.

I subsequently got a better roster and joined Wally Unger and Keith Biggs in their squash team and met my future wife in the back bar of the Palace Hotel. We attended the last annual rocket firing of the WA School of Mines students. A rocket backfire ignited all the propellent supply and burnt about five people. The eternal image is all the nurses in the crowd including my partner leaping over picnicking people to treat the injured and evacuate them to Kalgoorlie Hospital.

I missed the gold boom in Kalgoorlie, being transferred in late 1978 to NSW to explore for tin around the Ardlethan mine. Drilling early-stage targets with an Investigator Mark 3, I remember the driller ordering a new differential from Dubbo. This duly turned up in the back of his wife’s Jaguar. In that campaign, we only found tungsten that went down the gurgler along with tin in the early eighties. But wait, that’s now a Critical Mineral!

Drilling for copper on Yorke Peninsula with a minimal footprint in 2008. Photo courtesy of Richard Hill.
Drilling for copper on Yorke Peninsula with a minimal footprint in 2008. Photo courtesy of Richard Hill.

In 1980, I had an interlude restarting exploration at the Drake silver gold prospects in northern NSW with Northbridge again doing the drilling. Being wary of bias through sample loss, we decided to make an annular steel tray to capture all material spilling out around the collar. The contraption was ordered from an engineering firm in Lismore. It was delivered with the driver asking if we had a crane to load it off the truck. The measurement in feet had become meters (to clarify, this is nearly 3.281 times longer). And we thought the Y2K changeover was a problem!

I really got amongst the core in 1984 with a study of the Zeehan tin prospect in Tasmania. Most of the core was burnt by the 1981 bushfires, however enough survived for the study. The burnt core trays had collapsed into archeological layers for which the sequence of hole numbers and tray depths were separately recorded, but the core and blocks were largely white oxidized mush.

In 1988, I resumed my relationship with Boart Longyear on the Menninnie Dam and Angas lead zinc discoveries in South Australia. Angas was particularly interesting with drilling in a limestone quarry on the edge of a historic town. Having local John Nitschke as the percussion driller greatly assisted our engagement with the Strathalbyn community. Aberfoyle also had a strong relationship with Budd Drilling initially exploring for mineral sands in the Murray Basin with Investigator Mk4s then moving to diamond core rigs on the Eyre Peninsula.

Joining MIM in 1994, I was exposed to precision drilling of 2 km (1.2 mi) long holes under George Fisher and for remnants of the small high-grade Tick Hill deposit. My most serious work accident was a Ravenswood driller dropping the head drive onto his boot with the steel cap severing a toe. Being Site Senior Executive for all MIM’s EPMs, I flew up to Townville to join the investigation with the local Mines Inspector. The replacement driller proudly showed us the cage he had just welded around the mast. He and I got a rollicking for interference with the scene of an accident. We were still learning.

Persisting with four companies in the northern Eyre Peninsula, Investigator Resources eventually made the Paris silver discovery. The quality of modern drilling in difficult conditions was exemplified there by Titeline and Bullion. Safety is now paramount and technologies like directional drilling and mud doctoring are routine these days. The South Australia Chamber of Mines and Energy requested ideas to put to the State government. I submitted a proposal to use the Brukunga mine site in the Adelaide Hills as a national drill testing and training site preferably with Boart Longyear’s involvement. A year later, the Deep Exploration Technologies CRC commenced with that objective. Great minds think alike.

Now the industry is aspiring to rapid coiled drilling, bit-face recording, and lab-at-rig assaying. We have come a long way since acid etching and hammer knapping.

Happy drilling!

Get in touch with John Anderson via LinkedIn