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BOUNDLESS

A wayward entrepreneur’s search for peace

TWO

 

Gold mining peaked twice in this country, in 1870 and 1906. It now appears the country is heading into another resurgence of gold exploration thanks to the use of modern technology, which has helped locate previously undiscovered deposits as well as deposits that would have been uneconomical to mine.

Marketing Matters,  Issue No. 5, November 1988

 

It’s a few months later and I’m employed as the operations manager of an alluvial gold dredge situated near the Grey River on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. An alluvial gold dredge is an earthmoving machine the size of a warehouse, mounted on a pontoon floating in a flooded quarry. Winches pull the dredge across the pond, allowing it to excavate the flooded face during the traverse. Water jets and gravity separate out the glittery stuff from the alluvial gravel. The washed gravels are then conveyed to the tailings at the rear of the dredge. The dredge’s metal surfaces are constantly being abraded, eroded, knocked, torn, scratched, ripped, hammered and fractured. The noise is brutal.

As the operations manager my responsibilities involve the maintenance and operation of one of biggest earth-moving machines on the planet. The problem is that the dredge hasn’t been fully commissioned yet. It  incorporates a bunch of unproven technologies that the manufacturer is scrambling to sort out while we attempt to recover gold. I’ve been called out to some major cock-ups. Whenever anything goes wrong, it’s big.

In fact it was something big going wrong that got me into this game in the first place. I’m here because I lost all of our money (and more) in the share market crash of October 1987. I’d done well keeping out of the nonsense leading up to the crash, despite most of my mates making a small fortune. But one week before the crash greed got the better of me. I punted 100 grand on three cowboy companies. They all went belly up on Black Tuesday. But being the market sage that I was, I proclaimed to my mates that it was just a technical correction, so I went back in and bought more. The problem was fourfold: the market didn’t know shit, I knew even less, the companies were driven by crooks, and I didn’t tell Monica until it was too late. The companies went south even further than the market’s drop of 60 per cent, and Monica and I went down with them. We had to sell the new car and mortgage the previously debt-free holiday house.

A week after the share market convulsion, while driving to work in the station wagon I’d bought for a grand, I came to a stop at a set of traffic lights. In a new BMW in front of me sat an old flatmate of mine. In his mirror he could see me behind him, and he was jiggling up and down, laughing and pointing at me. His jeering persisted long after the lights turned green, and for the first time in a long while I felt the intense discomfort of ridicule. More important, I saw the vindictiveness of humanity. Some people just have no compassion. In the last conversation I’d had with that prick he’d said his long-term ambition was politics.

A mate of Jonty’s was another one who just couldn’t stop cackling like a hyena at my despair and financial ruin. The icing on the cake was when the $1000 station wagon was stolen. The cops found it on the south coast. Jonty’s mate was the one who gave me a lift, and by the time I got there all that was left was a hub cap and half a dozen wheel nuts. The car hadn’t been insured. I’ve never seen anyone so gleeful about someone else’s demise as Jonty’s mate. He was even more scornful than the future politician.

So. Monica and I are now living in the recently mortgaged holiday  house. It’s been a couple of years since we got married. We were together for three years before I slipped the gold band on her finger. But I’m not sure the marriage has lived up to either of our expectations. I’d hoped the intimacy between us would grow, but it hasn’t. Not for me anyway. I’ve never asked Monica how it is for her. I don’t seem to be able to open up. I just keep things to myself. I wish I wasn’t so reticent. It makes me feel like I’m not completely honest with her.

Don’t get me wrong – I love so many things about her. There’s an almost Latin quality to her. It’s not just her olive skin and full dark hair. It’s her adventurous style that sets her apart.

But the thing I like most about her is that she’s solid. She’s down-to-earth and she cares about people. She’s always there when you need her. Others appreciate that about her too. She’s a charge nurse in the surgical ward at the local hospital. Her colleagues love working with her, not just because she’s so likeable but because she’s capable and efficient, and she can manage dicey situations under pressure.

She’s got a group of friends she’s had since school and they’re close. They get together a lot. We both enjoy the space that socialising with our own friends provides. But I can be a bit judgemental about her from time to time. To be honest, I’m probably more judgemental of her than I realize. She loses her confidence when I have trouble accepting her as she is. I wish I wasn’t so critical, but I just can’t seem to help myself sometimes.

I often describe myself as tormented, but the reality is my life is abundant. Take our house, for example. It was built by my father, my brothers and my mates – all as a gift. I was in awe of them. I still can’t figure out why they were so generous. I love the house. Monica and I flow easily here. And the money side of things is sorting itself out. But despite things looking pretty good on the outside, the torment is never far away. One day I’m upbeat, the next I’m down. The thing that puzzles me is I don’t seem to have any control over when I’m happy and when I’m not. Sometimes my frustration over an unexpected incident, or someone’s behaviour, can be really intense. And then it disappears and I’m happily cruising along for a week or two, until the torment takes over again. It’s hard to put a finger on  it, but I often have a yearning for something I haven’t got, and that creates a sense of unease in me and in those around me.

That’s where drinking heavily or smoking marijuana helps. It allows me to relax and have some fun. I feel so much more articulate and unrestrained when I’ve got a few beers on board, especially when I’m with my mates. Having a group of good boys gives me a sense of belonging.

I grew up on the West Coast with about 25,000 others. The rainforest, the rivers and the black sand beaches are often pounded by big weather systems ranging in from the Antarctic. But in between those low pressure fronts it’s absolutely magical. It’s where I’m living now. Despite half a dozen generations separating us from the genes of the people who came from all over the world in search of gold in the 1860s, we still don’t have much time for authority.

At school I always had a runny nose and an unrivalled inability to catch a ball of any shape. I was also the smallest boy in every year. These weren’t necessarily the greatest physical attributes you can have when you’re surrounded by wayward boys. So I compensated by being mischievous. As incongruous as it sounds, I was drawn to the rough diamonds at school – and there were plenty of them. We derived much pleasure from pushing the envelope of acceptable behaviour. I loved my mates and I loved being at school.

I lost my virginity at 14 to a girl who knew what she was doing. All I knew was I had to do it, otherwise I’d become a social leper. At 15 I was drinking heavily every weekend in country pubs. I left the West Coast to be educated as a mechanical engineer at Canterbury University, a career choice that confuses me to this day.

Despite my bemusement at the marginal vocational guidance I received, I enjoy the heavy engineering game. The energy of big rotating gear and the robustness of the blokes appeal to me. A spade is a spade and the boys get on with the job and do what needs to be done.

As an engineer I can quickly understand the mechanics of a process system, but I’m technically limited. I struggle to persevere with the necessary discipline to complete detailed mathematical calculations, mainly  because I have insufficient focus. However, I appear to be good at project management. I can readily visualise results and I inspire people from all walks of life to achieve some big outcomes under onerous circumstances. I love the challenge – it doesn’t matter how big the project or what the industry, I’m keen to give it a go. And so far, I have been able to guide every project to completion on time and on budget.

But sometimes I feel scared, usually just before I drive in the gates to work. There’s always some issue to resolve and it invariably involves conflict. There’s always someone pissing me off, someone pushing my buttons.

I haven’t been sleeping well. That’s why I was awake when the phone rang half an hour earlier. Picking up the phone beside my bed I saw it was 4.20 am.

“Arnie, we’re sinking,” an alarmed voice informed me. “The dredge is sinking!”

“What’s happened?”

“The stacker conveyor has been dragging across the tailings. It’s picked up gravel and carried it back on to the dredge. The aft is nearly under. She’s going down.”

“If you’ve stopped bringing more gravel onto the dredge why is the waterline still rising?”

“We think there’s a hatch open below the waterline.”

“Is everyone alright?”

“Yeah, we’re all OK.”

“OK, I’ll be there in 30 minutes.”

They say one thing all miners have in common is that we’re optimists. Some say we’re dreamers, but for me right now this is nothing less than a fucking nightmare. As I drive into the mine site I see the conveyor is positioned low and the rear of the dredge is listing. The deck of the pontoon is normally chest height above the water level, but now water is lapping the aft deck. I fire up the tender and motor across the pond to the dredge, which looms over me. The rain drives hard from the south. The absence of the growling and squealing of the buckets, gravel surging  in the rotating screen and the clatter of stones falling onto the tailings is eerie. It feels forlorn.

I make my way to the back to get an update. The electric lights form harsh shadows on the deck and highlight the rain. As I stride along in my steel-capped boots I make eye contact with one of the dredge operators. He flinches.

I raise my left hand to acknowledge him then ask, “Do you know where Colin is?”

Before he can respond I see Colin, the maintenance supervisor, at the rear.

Because construction of the dredge is still incomplete the 20-odd compartments comprising the pontoon remain connected by a series of unsealed conduits the diameter of a soccer ball. Colin and I begin checking the hatches on the deck of the pontoon. When we open the first hatch adjacent to the flooded compartment we see it’s flooded too. Moving forward we open more hatches and each compartment is flooded. Not until we get near the bow of the dredge do we find a dry compartment.

I say, “OK, so the priority is to stop the flow into the rear hatch. While we try to solve that problem, we need to pump water out of these compartments at a faster rate than it’s coming in.” Colin nods, and we get to work.

By nine o’clock the water flow is under control. The bulkhead hatch is covered and the sump pumps are running. The dredge should be operational sometime today, before dark. I’ve got enough time to get home, have a shower, put on a suit and drive back to town for the board meeting at one.

In the shower the dread kicks in. Oh, Jesus. How are we going to get on top of this operation? It’s so precarious. We must be getting close to going broke. My gut feels tight. Come on mate, focus on the positives. We’ve just saved the dredge from a watery grave. But I’m buggered if I know how we’re ever going to get on top of that cutter-wheel system. Maybe we should remove it. Yeah, like Dave Alexander is going to give up on his cutter-wheel innovation. Although the shareholding structure of the operation is a 50:50 joint venture between the publicly listed Aussie goldmining outfit and Dave, he approaches the operation as if he owns it all.

So here we are in the board meeting. Dave’s son is here. He has the dual role of mine manager and project manager for the dredge construction. He and I get on well. He’s an inspirational, can-do sort of a bloke. It’s never if we do something; it’s when we do something. Doubt never creeps in.

Well, if it does, he never shows it.

As he says, “It’s infinitely more powerful to focus on what you want, rather than focusing on what you don’t want. If you’re a proponent of world peace, join a peace movement rather than joining an anti-war movement. If you want happiness, then focus on what makes you happy rather than what makes you unhappy.”

It’s such a refreshing approach. Anything seems possible and we achieve so much. He appreciates what I do and that gives me a lot of confidence. For now, he’s my mentor and I’m enjoying learning from him.

The chairman asks me to kick off with my presentation. I try to make it sound positive. I support my description of the dredge’s performance with a summary of the production logs. “We’ve been hit by a succession of major events that have hammered production, but the unreliability of the cutter-wheel system has been the primary maintenance issue. It accounts for 50 per cent of downtime.”

A heated discussion erupts, but in the end the chairman concludes, “At some stage we may need to closely assess the viability of the cutter wheel in the greywacke gravels.”

Dave gets angry. “The dredge won’t be viable without the cutter wheel, especially with gold prices the way they are.”

The chairman nods resignedly, then turns to me and asks with a frown, “What was the cause of today’s event?”

Oh dear, here we go. I attempt to cobble together a plausible synopsis of the morning’s debacle. The chairman puffs his cheeks as he blows air across the table. “Do you have any feel for when operations will settle down to a more stable mode of production?”

I’d love to be able to say when, mate, but I can’t. My mantra used to be “Give me the unshakeable fact”, but it’s impossible to have a hunch let alone a fact in this game. “It’s difficult to say. At the moment the operation  is so variable it’s impossible to predict anything.”

The chairman nods his head but seems bewildered. “Oh well, you’ll just have to keep pressing on.”

Next the mineralogist is invited to give his presentation. “Recent drill results suggest the ground we’re moving into is leaner than expected. This indicates that the original gold assays were salted.”

Salted. Great. It’s common knowledge around these parts that prior to the Great Depression entrepreneurs had a habit of overstating or “salting” drill results, a strategy that increased the success of raising capital back in London. On this property the Depression arrived before the capital and the mining licence lapsed. Dave picked it up five years ago.

Then out of the blue the mineralogist pulls a spectacular stunt. He produces a gold ingot out of his briefcase. It’s the first gold we’ve recovered from the mine and the bar is the size of half a pound of butter. With his mouth agape Dave lunges for it. He is absolutely beside himself. He appears mesmerised as he fondles and caresses the metal in his hand. Then after what seems like a lifetime he uses the back of his hand to wipe the dribble from his distorted mouth. It’s definitely gold fever. I thought he was driven by the challenge of developing new dredging technology, plus owning half of the mine would’ve provided a handy income for him. But no, it’s gold fever. He can hardly sit still as his body jiggles about.

Taken aback by Dave’s response I look on, feeling increasingly uncomfortable as he continues to make love to the ingot. He’s quite oblivious to the fact that we are all staring at him. I think, ‘That’ll keep him going for another month or two’.

A few weeks later I’m in my office. It’s Wednesday, a day dedicated every week to preventive maintenance. I ponder how we seem to be doing a lot of pushing and shoving in this game: we don’t seem to be going with the flow. Then the door opens and Colin bursts in.

“John’s dead. The pump wear ring collapsed on him.”

I’m stunned. I can’t comprehend what I’ve just been told. “How did that happen?” I ask as I stand up from my seat.

“The wear ring was being manoeuvred by the overhead crane and the  lifting eye failed. The ring fell onto John. The ambulance and local doctor have been called.”

I pick up my helmet and place it on my head. As I follow Colin to his utility truck I have an image of the two-tonne steel doughnut, the diameter of my ceiling at home, teetering at the point where it rested on the riverbed and then falling onto John. In between our edgy exchanges as we drive along the road leading to the dredge I think about John. He was such a lively, likeable character. He was forever excited. His joy and enthusiasm were almost frightening. How could this happen? He was only 19 and he loved his job on the site more than anyone else.

Our vehicle comes to a halt about 20 metres from the accident. I make my way to where John is lying. Two coats have been placed over his lifeless body. There’s nothing to do, I’m told, but wait until the ambulance gets here.

Five of us stand looking nowhere in particular and feeling utterly helpless.

It’s surreal. How could this happen?

Four days later. It seems as if the mining industry is full of sayings and one of them is: “A good mine makes a good mine manager”. In other words, gold in the ground compensates for the odd cock-up and poor management. Who knows, there may well have been enough gold in our ground, but unfortunately we didn’t uncover it quickly enough to offset the fundamental flaws in the operation. The ongoing repair work consumed too much money and too much of our attention. Plus we were skinny on relevant dredging experience.

So, we’ve gone broke. It’s my job to get everyone together and tell them they no longer have a job. There are no surprises: everyone knows that failure is imminent when a mine isn’t producing mineral. After the meetingI talk to a couple of the supervisors about the events of the last four days.

One confesses to me, “The mine closing will be a double blow for John’s parents. It’s like your son has been killed in war and then four days later the war is over.”

I’m taken aback by this analogy. Before I can respond the other bloke  says, “Look, when your number’s up, your number’s up.”

I’m even more disturbed by what he has just said. What does that mean? The conversation comes to an awkward finish. I’m left feeling numb and unsettled.

The strange thing is that John is dead, but his personality and essence remain alive for me. I can describe him perfectly, yet I’d have difficulty describing his physical features. I wonder if he’s having the same experience that I had in the avalanche.

That night at home I demolish the best part of a bottle of whisky. I’m 30 but I know what 60 feels like. When there are about three fingers of Laphroaig left in the bottle, tears begin to pour down my cheeks. I start sobbing uncontrollably. The tears sting my eyes. I wipe the moisture from my face with the palm of my right hand. I’ll be fine, but what about some of the others? There have been hard yards put in by some of the guys and there has been too much grief along the way. There aren’t many jobs around and some of them might have to leave town. I start thinking about John and his family again.

Maybe it’s time for us to leave too. Monica comes into the room and tells me to stop drinking and go to bed.

I find out at work the next day that we can pay wages and holiday pay after all, because sufficient cash has been held in reserve by our corporate lawyers. I’ve got no idea why they’ve had it, but all that matters is that there’s enough to look after the boys.

In a taxi on the way to pick up the money the driver turns to me suddenly and confides, “Driving a taxi pays the bills, but my passion is reading palms. There’s no money in it, but I love it.”

“That right?” I say dully. “How long have you been reading palms?”

“Nearly 20 years.”

“Huh.”

“I can read yours if you like.”

What, so he’ll tell me I’m going to make lots of money, live happily with my beautiful wife and have lots of gorgeous children? Unexpectedly I find myself saying, “That’s very generous. I’ve never been interested in having  my palm read, but yeah, that would be great. Thank you.”

I don’t know why I say that, but here we go.

After pulling up outside the building that houses our lawyer’s offices, the driver turns around and takes my hands and observes each one in turn. He appears stunned.

“I have never seen anything like this before. Honestly, this is incredible. The lines strongly indicate you are about to have a major change in your life and travel a completely different path. It’s as if you have a specific task to complete.”

“Is that right?”

“Your life is going to be one of great adventure. You will achieve what few others have.”

“That sounds interesting. I’ve got no idea how that might happen, but there you go. Thanks for that.” I pay the fare and offer him a gratuity for the knowledge. He declines. After seeing the lawyers I return home with the money in my briefcase, pleased I’ve made it back without being accosted and robbed by some baddie. I’m especially pleased we’ll be able to send the guys on their way with a few shekels in their pockets.

The next day I go to a hairdresser and tell her I want my collar-length hair cut all over with a number one blade. She says, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I respond.

As she turns to get support from one of her colleagues, she says, “I don’t feel comfortable cutting it that short.”

“I definitely want a number one cut on the sides and top. Don’t worry, it’s OK,” I say. As the clipper starts effortlessly cutting a swathe through my thick hair I feel the stigma of this episode of my life being cleansed. Although my image in the mirror looks harsh, internally I feel a huge revival.

I have to say that after a couple of years in the alluvial gold mining game, it appears to be a bit like life – totally unpredictable and continually changing. All you can do is roll with the punches. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve been retained by the receiver at the mine. They think I might have knowledge that could prove useful to a potential buyer of the  assets. I’m not so sure. But in the interim they’ve got me doing security work, just keeping an eye on things at night and making sure no one gets in to vandalise the place.

The down time is giving me a chance to recover. I’d been close to burn-out. Ever since the avalanche I’ve kept thinking about how to live a happier, less stressful life. I’ve begun to think the best way to do it is to make a shit load of money and retire early. Maybe that’s what the palm reader meant. Bugger this working for someone else. The trouble is, I’ve got no idea how I’m going to do it.

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Published by Mountford Media & Publishing

PO Box 3987, Christchurch 8140 New Zealand

This edition published 2014

The right of Greg Hopkinson to be identified as the authors of this work in terms of section 96 of the Copyright Act 1994 is hereby asserted.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

ISBN 978-0-473-26073-6