Exploration on the frontline of one of West Africa’s forgotten gems: Liberia

June 8, 2021


by Rowan Thorne, Project Geologist at Origin Exploration Ltd.

‘Boss, which line am I on today?…’, ‘Do we have any spare batteries?’, ‘Are there any biscuits left to take to the bush?’ are some of the questions that hit you every morning whilst trying to get the field crews ready for the daily jaunt into the wild.

View of the Liberian Jungle
View of the Liberian jungle

No amount of planning and preparation the night before can prepare you for the variety and minutiae of questions and challenges that await you in the morning before heading out to explore one of the most challenging environments one could encounter as a geologist. However, this is what we signed up to when we chose to go into this profession, the unknown, the unpredictable and the persistent optimism that today could be ‘the day’ you find the mineralized outcrop that could turn out to be the next big discovery; this is what it means to be an exploration geologist.

After getting all the field crews mobilized, organized and confident in their day’s objectives, it’s time to grab the Thurya satellite phone and wander up to the highest point in the immediate proximity to the camp and undertake the usual 8:00 check-in to the office back in Monrovia. The ‘sat phone’, a device that resembles some form of early mobile phone from the 90s, is typically the only lifeline and form of communication connecting anyone working in the bush to the outside world, and this is certainly the case in the Liberian jungle. Once the morning chores are completed, it’s time to mobilize myself, checking that all the geological essentials (compass/clinometer, hand lens, hammer, safety glasses, notebook, etc.) are packed into my rucksack and numerous pockets, making sure to leave plenty of space to carry the voluminous liters of water required to survive the unforgiving heat and humidity of the Liberian bush, which easily reaches 30°C (86°F) on a daily basis.

From this point, my challenges turn from logistical to geological, if I and my crew of a field assistant and local guide are lucky, our route into the wild could be a straightforward trek along a bush track between many of the numerous villages in the region until we have to cut through the vegetation to reach the topographic high that correlates closely with a magnetic anomaly, identified in the historical aerial geophysical survey. From this point, anticipation and concentration override the feelings of discomfort from the searing heat and conversations surrounding the culture and history of Liberia between myself and my crew, turn to statements of geological observations; the change in color of the saprolite or the occurrence of a 2 m (6.56 ft) diameter felsic boulder. After cutting our way through dense bush for what feels like 5 km (3.1 mi) but is actually only 1.5 km (0.93 mi), such is the physical effect the jungle has on you, the relief begins to steepen, the vegetation starts to thin and the statements of geological observation become more frequent. We approach the top of the hill, the occurrence of mafic dark grey/black boulders at our feet now becoming more common than not, my field guide tapping each one he walks past with the end of his cutlass to draw my attention.

John Benson and Samson
Field Assistant John Benson and Local Guide Samson

Eventually, we finally reach the crest of the hill where, after finally relinquishing on its stubbornness, the Liberian jungle reveals that ever-elusive outcrop. We scramble over the outcrop, dropping our rucksacks knowing that we will be camped here for a while; as outcrop in these geological environments is sparse due to the fact that these 2.3 Ga old rocks have undergone millennia of tropical weathering, leaving limited outcrop to be discovered. I pull out my hammer and put on my safety glasses and proceed to remove chips off the outcrop to be inspected with my hand lens and observations recorded in my notebook, with my field assistant already pulling sample bags out of his rucksack and proceeding to write sample numbers knowing, like me, that this could be ‘the one’ that we are looking for and could be the first indication of a potential discovery.

Nothing quite prepares you for working in such a challenging environment like that of West Africa. Having been lucky enough to work in many different countries throughout the world on numerous different projects from monitoring diamond drilling projects in -20°C (-4°F) in Finnish Lapland to undertaking soil sampling and mapping programs 2500 m (8 022 ft) above sea level in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains of Armenia, Liberia certainly poses new challenges both logistically and geologically. However, these challenges are exactly what every exploration geologist lives for, being the first to chip away at an outcrop that nobody has mapped before, applying new and novel forms of geochemical and geophysical exploration to generate datasets that greatly enhance the geological knowledge of a region and finding that first bit of mineralization that could lead to a new discovery.

Rowan Thorne
Rowan Thorne making notes of outcrop

Liberia, as referred to in the title of this article, is certainly one of the forgotten gems of West Africa, often dwarfed by more familiar and developed countries in the region, such as Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana among others. Liberia has already given Africa its first female president and was the first independent nation on the continent, but it still has much more to offer. Geologically, it is still very underexplored and provides geology comparable to some of the most prospective regions in the world, coupled with a highly educated and trained workforce that can effectively support any exploration program, this was all certainly evident throughout my experience in the country.

It is well documented that these regions are logistically and personally difficult, but Liberia is a country that is able and prepared to meet these challenges and reward anybody who is willing and has the vision to work there. Furthermore, working in Liberia not only provides a great professional experience, but its natural beauty, the friendliness and hospitality of the people and its unique culture have left a lifelong impression on me. And one day soon I hope it will get the attention it deserves and provide one of the future’s next great geological discoveries.

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

Read more articles from Issue #16 of Coring Magazine: