Q&A for the experts: In conversation with Beau Nicholls

April 17, 2022
Beau Nicholls
Director & Principal
Consultant at Sahara
Natural Resources

Beau is a geologist with over 28 years of experience. Beau started from a remote farm in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia and completed a Geology degree at Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) in Kalgoorlie in 1994. 

He then spent over five years at the Telfer gold mine, before starting an expatriate career working in over 20 countries across Australia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and North and South America. 

He is a founder of West Africa-focused exploration contracting group, Sahara Natural Resources (Sahara) which has pioneered the hugely successful technique of Auger Geochemistry into Africa and sits on a number of boards in Australia and South America. 

Dr Brett Davis: Firstly, thanks for giving Coring the opportunity to interview you. You’ve had a long and diverse career in the mining and exploration industry. Can you tell us where the story began? 

Beau Nicholls: My interest in mining started back when I was about seven years old and I visited my uncle and grandfather, who were working on a small-scale gold mine in Dunnsville, Western Australia. Dunnsville (now a ghost town) was about 50 km (31 mi) away from Coolgardie and was discovered in 1894. The town thrived for more than 30 years before the prospectors moved on and the gold ran out. As a 7-year-old, almost 100 years later, I had a great time, running around the bush, entering old mines and digging up old bottles from the old, abandoned town, and searching for gold. It made an impression that is with me till today 

Ten years later, as a farm boy with an older brother, who had started on the family farm, I decided to study geology and attended WASM in Kalgoorlie. 

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? 

BN: Being from a relatively remote farming community, we had no TV and no mains electricity as I was growing up. I had learned to drive a tractor, fix a tire and kill a sheep before going to boarding school from age 11. Leaving home at such an early age, I became independent with a practical set of skills for living. They come essential when you go overseas for work. 

BD: I’ll ask you a few drilling-related questions first because you’ve managed lots of drilling programs utilizing many different techniques. Which technique(s) do you enjoy most and why? 

BN: I enjoy all methods of drilling for their specific benefits and use throughout the exploration and mining cycle, but the most exciting drilling method I find is Auger geochemistry. The discovery of a grass roots project is far more interesting than repetitive RC Grade Control (I did the first-ever RC Grade Control program in Telfer Gold Mine in 1996) or deep directional diamond drilling. I introduced Auger Geochemistry into West Africa in 2006 and we have since drilled over 4 million m (13 123 360 ft) there. It is the most effective technique for new discoveries through cover. 

The most interesting ‘drilling’ technique I have ever been involved in was in Rosia Montana, Romania. Our initial drilling program that defined the first 8 million oz (out of more than 18 million oz) was by hand and chisel, channel sampling over 200 km (124.3 mi) of Roman and communist underground workings. There is great professional satisfaction in being part of a new discovery. 

BD: Have there been any particularly challenging drilling programs, and what did you do to overcome these? 

BN: Every drilling program has its challenges, and I could talk for days about some of them. Ninety percent of the time they are not drilling 

technical challenges, the three that come to mind are: 

  • Telfer Open Pit (1996) – Manage the change from Blast hole sampling to a new technique ‘RC Grade Control’ which included ‘barcode sampling’. ‘WHAT!’, no numbers on bags? 
  • Underground drilling in Rosia Montana, Romania (2000) – We had to excavate the drill cuddy with dynamite (Yes, it was dynamite), hand shovels and wheelbarrows, move the rigs by manpower, and when one old lady would not let us drill in her back yard, I designed an up hole and drilled it for 120 m (393.7 ft) stopping just 10 m (32.8 ft) below her kitchen! 
  • Bongou, Burkina Faso (2019) – With the deteriorating situation with terrorists in Burkina Faso, we were drilling on-site when the first improvised explosive device (IED) went off 5 km (3.1 mi) from camp. We at Sahara Natural Resources had already completed a comprehensive site security review and after the client declined to pay for our additional security costs, we demobilized from the site to ensure the safety of our personnel. Tragically, two months later 19 people were killed and many wounded in a violent attack on the mine workers’ bus. 

BD: Core orientation is a fundamental aspect of exploration and drilling. Which method do you prefer and why? Do you have any horror stories with regard to core orientation? 

BN: While I was with RSG Global in West Africa, we used to undertake training in the exciting new core orientation techniques in the industry and would enlist specialist structural geologists like you, Brett, and Dr Julian Stephens. There was the spear, which was simply a spear, then the Ezy Mark, which was far more sophisticated with pencils and nails, and then came the Reflex ACT tool which used NASA technology that told you which was down. The Reflex ACT orientation tool during its time was far better, as it was not as susceptible to operator error. 

The best unit on the market currently I think is the ‘Champ Ori Tool’ by Axis Mining Technology, mainly because it doesn’t require extra tooling for the driller. The Champ screws in the backend and takes no additional time or tooling for diamond drilling. If you want a core orientation done accurately then it needs to be a simple process. 

I’ve seen my fair share of horror stories that happened when trying to join core from a spear. 

BD: I’ve known you for a long time and have enjoyed watching the evolution and success of Sahara Natural Resources. Can you tell us where has that begun and what path has the company taken? 

BN: Sahara began with RSG Global in 2005 in West Africa. RSG was a great exploration and mining consulting company that started with geology legends Rick Yeates and Julian Barnes in Kalgoorlie in the 1990s. They opened an office in Ghana towards the end of the decade. I became the Regional Manager, West Africa in 2005 and spent some great years there with an amazing team of West African professionals. Our team was directly responsible for the development of many deposits, of which Sabodala Gold Mine (first gold mine in Senegal), the Inata and Batie Gold deposits in Burkina Faso, Nyinahin and Kibi Bauxite in Ghana, Kourroussa Gold in Guinea, and Tonkolili Iron ore in Sierra Leone during my first three years in West Africa. 

RSG Global was then purchased by Coffey International, and I moved to Brazil as Geology Manager. Unfortunately, once the two-year handcuffs came off the RSG managers, most of them moved on. I did the same at the time and we formed a team to start Sahara with a great friend and geological colleague of mine from Ghana/Burkina, Mohammed Munkailah. Sahara evolved from where RSG Global had left off. We focused on the region of West Africa and Coffey Mining ceased to exist a few years later, so Sahara ended up purchasing Coffey’s remaining assets in West Africa and rehired the original A-team from RSG. 

Beau in 2005
Standing on edge Loulo ‘starter Pit’ in 2005 (10Moz)

BD: You were based in West Africa for a long time. Increasingly, we are seeing unrest in the form of coups and fundamentalist violence. Given your increasing global presence, how have you dealt with the nuances of the various countries in terms of security? 

BN: The death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 unleashed instability to the north of West Africa, and the terrorism we see today is a result of this. Much like killing Saddam Hussein unleashed it on the rest of the world. 

We have had to become a sophisticated explorer, and have formed strategic partnerships with specialist security group MS Risk, which has served us well till today. 

Coups are a part of life in Africa, sometimes they are good, and sometimes they are bad. The way Sahara has dealt with Sovereign risk in West Africa is by spread. We operate in six countries across West Africa at any one time, and we allow for one of them to have some ‘troubles’. 

BD: Which countries have you enjoyed working in the most? 

BN: Of the 20 odd I have worked in, all of them have their good and bad moments and all have great people and lifelong friends. Currently, I am enjoying working back in Australia and not getting on airplanes. 

BD: I’ve worked in a lot of countries but my language skills besides English are rudimentary. Do you have a method for learning new languages and avoiding cultural faux pas, given you are dealing with people from drillers through to community groups and management? 

BN: The best method to learn a new language is immersion. I spent one year in Romania at Rosia Montana and had lessons twice a week. After twelve months of working with a number of expats and translators, my Romanian was rubbish. 

The next year I went to Zlatna Gold Project, a small ‘remote’ village in the Transylvanian mountains, and I was the only one who spoke English in the entire village. I quickly learned to ask for toilet paper and was speaking more in the first month at Zlatna, than the prior 12 months at Rosia Montana, where I had the help of fellow expats and translators. 

BD: Given the current multi-commodity mineral boom, how is Sahara Natural Resources managing labor requirements? I imagine it is hard to both find and retain quality staff? 

BN: Sahara in West Africa are big trainers and recruiters of young geologists. In any given year, we would employ and train over 50 young geologists on how to log and sample on a rig. We have also been fortunate to retain some of our original employees and although we cannot meet the big player salaries that often destroy a labor market, we offer diversity and a variety of experiences. Keep in mind that the geologist that sees the most rocks is far more valuable than the one that gets paid the most money. 

We have managed well during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite enormous challenges, but even across West Africa, we have had to ensure we recruited local. 

BD: Does Sahara Natural Resources provide training and/or professional development for its employees? 

BN: Sahara is a training ground for young geologists in West Africa. This work is typically on-the-job training, but we attempted to provide a three-year graduate program where possible. We provided external training for clients and undertook hundreds of Mapinfo/Discover sessions across West Africa. One of the best-known training courses we have established is the Structural Geology Course undertaken at Busua Beach Resort in Ghana. This has been running every few years since 2005. 

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

BN: Touch wood, I have never had a serious health issue when working and living overseas, aside from the odd stitches here and there. 

One of my first health issues as an expat was in Rosia Montana, Romania, where I ended up with Scabies from sleeping in a bed that was previously owned by a dog. After two months of severe scratching and no sleep, I finally drove four hours to Cluj-Napoca in snow and ice to a doctor that knew what it was in one second and fixed me with some cream there and then. 

The other common high risk is Malaria. I have had Malaria three times while working in West Africa. If left untreated, it will likely kill you. I could stay in Accra for 12 months without issue, but as soon as I was in the field away from air-conditioning – and sleeping in a tent – within 10 days, the terrible Malaria would hit. It is an odd symptom, but when my eye sockets would begin to hurt when I looked sideways, this was my sign I needed to spend the next three days in bed with Malaria. 

Over the next ten years, I never traveled anywhere without a packet of Coartem tablets in my bag (extremely effective in killing the parasite that is Malaria). 

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

BN: I personally do not think we have scratched the surface yet. The world is covered in recent transported material called ‘Cover’. It can be 30 cm (≈ 12 in) of soil, or it can be 300 m (984 ft) of sediments, but if the deposit has cover, there is a fair chance, you will miss it if you only sample the cover material. I have five regions that I have worked in that I rate highly: 

Nubian Shield – One of the most unexplored regions of Earth is the Nubian Shield, which encompasses Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and a few other countries. There are challenges in these regions, but once systematic exploration is undertaken, then the orebodies will reveal themselves 

West Africa – It will continue to define world-class orebodies. In 2005, there was ‘no gold in granites’ until Ahafo came along. There was one gold project in Burkina Faso in 2005, now there are over 15 gold mines in the country. Cote d’Ivoire was a cocoa farming country in 2008, and Guinea is starting to reveal itself with some big deposits to come. Sahara has been a key part of unlocking this wealth. 

South America – Brazilians still use a diamond rig to explore for gold. You need many drill holes to find gold. But once they start using RC and Auger Geochemistry and pattern drilling, Brazilian states like Para and Tocantins will get better and better 

Australia – We thought we were well-explored, then Chalice found one the biggest Ni-Cu-PGE deposits in the world, a mere 60 km (37 mi) from Perth, the home to mining around the world. Now the rush is on again. 

And finally, my favorite is the Sahara Desert – Sand cover starting from Mauritania – Tasiast outcrops – across Africa to Saudi Arabia. 

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

BN: As an open pit and underground mine geologist with five years of experience, the Telfer copper/gold mine in Western Australia was the first deposit I mined in close detail, blast by blast, cut by cut, bench by bench. Fascinated with the domes and the reefs that go to all depths we drilled (at that time was I30 discovery 1 km down) 

Rosia Montana epithermal gold in Romania with over 18 million oz – with Rosia Poieni porphyry copper deposit being 2 km (1.24 mi) away – was a beautiful deposit I got to explore from over 200 km (124.3 mi) of underground working. 

Araxa Carbonatite in Brazil, full of Niobium, REEs and down deeper it is a phosphate mine, is a fascinating and extremely valuable deposit. 

Arara Tin and coltan project in Brazil which I was able to take from discovery to Preliminary Economic Assessment (PEA). It is boring to look at and you could walk over it for years without even stopping, but it is a 3 km (1.86 mi) wide massive granite greisen mineralization, a box of treasures with all sorts of elements forming by heat and pressure. 

I prefer not to class a mineral deposit by age/style/type, as there are far cleverer geologists to do this. I tend to think of them as what structures control the fluids that have formed them, and how big and rich it is. All deposits have some form of structural control and pumping station behind them. 

BD: Where do you see the most exciting technological developments being made in mineral exploration going forward? 

BN: The black art of geophysics will always present new and exciting technology, and when we start to drill deeper, it will become our first port of call. It is important for a geologist to stay close to geophysics developments. 

I see the most exciting developments in geologists applying unmanned vehicles both aerial and ground to a geology day to day tools, with real-time assays just like it is happening with drill rigs today. 

I hope that one day we will develop hundreds of solar-powered batteries attached to drill rigs on tracks, which will pattern drill across the remote Sahara Desert, taking the geochemical samples and providing a first pass 53 element analysis in real-time to a geologist in Australia. Maybe we will also see a UAV quad that can drill to 1 m (3.3 ft) and can fly over remote unexplored regions, once again controlled from a central exploration headquarter. 

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? 

BN: Yes, Auger Geochemistry is completely underutilized across the world. The simplest and most effective geochemistry tool that gives an in-situ uncontaminated sample below cover. It is the cheapest, fastest and most effective first pass exploration tool on the market. 

Companies are often baffled into trialing alternate ‘Ultrafine’ and ‘MMI’ magical techniques that can see through cover. But no one can explain how they see through cover. Ten geologists will give ten different theories. So, companies then have to spend excessive amounts of money using aircore drilling to define false soil anomalies. 

Ninety-five percent of West Africa has on average 5 m (16.4 ft) of laterite cover. It can be Residual, Erosional or Depositional (RED), but 95% of geologists (including myself) cannot tell the difference, so the KISS principle (‘Keep it simple stupid’) is best to adopt in the early stage. 

BD: We hear all about the advances and benefits of technologies such as 3D modelling, 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? 

BN: Yes, the virtual geologist is always an issue. As a geologist, you need a good mix of field and office. Do the generative work on the computer, but then go out and kick the rocks to prove your GIS info. It is impossible to tell which way it dips from a GIS. 

BD: What is your opinion of the geological skillsets, experience, and knowledge of geologists today, especially those who are newly graduated? 

BN: Young geologists I meet today are far more tech-savvy than geologists 25 years ago. For one, they can actually afford a computer at a young age, and smartphones are also becoming a daily geology tool. 

If a young geologist can combine their tech skill with the rocks in the field and measuring structures, dip and azimuth, then they can become very good. 

BD: Given your increasing management roles, are there any qualities that you think have helped you thrive in the industry? 

BN: The more you see, the more you know. As a contractor and then a consultant, it is important to continue to learn. The concept of continuing professional development (CPD) is one of the key programs of the Australian Institute of Geoscientists (AIG). 

One thing I know is that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know about our complex Earth. As a doctor, you can learn the nervous system and veins that pump the blood around. They are normally in the same place, but as a geologist, you will never completely know the veins that feed a deposit. 

BD: 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? 

BN: Many, far too many to mention, and normally comes down to individuals. 

It is unfortunate that we are often forced to deal with high self-worth individuals that have been successful by pure luck in the form of a timely investment. There is normally a certain amount of luck in a discovery, but why some absolute idiots are blessed with this luck is hard to understand and it is even harder to work for them, as they end up trying to run a company with absolutely no skills. 

BD: I have to ask the obvious question – how has COVID-19 impacted you, your work and your business interests? 

BN: Apart from the hardships and pain, for West Africa, Sahara have seen an improvement to our business that may not be apparent to most. Rather than a mining company sending a ‘consultant’ to West Africa to undertake a professional program, such as geotechnical logging of core, or an independent Geologist report, they have used us at Sahara and have come to understand that there is exceptional talent in our region. Sahara stopped using expats in West Africa five years ago. 

West Africa has exceptional talent and I believe companies need to start putting more time into developing their national workforce rather than sending expats with less skills to do consulting work. 

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

BN: Always treat your young employees with respect and always help and support them to grow professionally, as one day they may well be your boss.  

For more information visit: www.saharanr.com

Read Issue 19 here: 

Issue 19/ 2022