Odds ‘n’ Sods: Isolation

The author in Pakistan. Credit: Ralph Rushton




  1. the process or fact of isolating or being isolated.

“the isolation of older people”

Every geologist has experienced extreme isolation at some point. That crystalline moment when they realized that if anything happened to them right then and there, they may as well be on Mars because no help was coming. For most geos, isolation is a regular Saturday night thing when our one “friend” — the one who’ll still listen to our oh-no-please-not-again hilarious field stories — is unexpectedly busy. Soccer fans — like my mate Neil — experience regular isolation at away games when they stray into a bar full of the local team’s Ultras and end up face to face with 65 black-clad drunken lunatics itching for a fight; but I digress, that’s not where I’m going with this story.

I was curious about the concept of loneliness and separation so I polled a few industry friends for their recollections of those peculiar flashes of intense isolation.

Trudging around the Beaver Creek mining conference last month heading for my 20th meeting, I ran into my friend Andrew who I’ve known since the mid-80s. Andy’s career took a different path to mine — he was fairly successful — and was eventually appointed mine manager for a medium-sized gold mine in northern Canada. His loneliest moment was stepping off the plane to the mine for the first time in his new capacity as El Jefe. There was nowhere for him to hide if he screwed up as manager. No boss to cover for him or colleague to blame, it was his neck on the chopping block.

My friend Mark had a different experience. He and I both worked on the same South African gold mine in the 1980s and we knew some of the same people and had many similar experiences during our time underground. Mark’s a well travelled man; a globe-trotting man-of-the-world geologist with multiple projects under his management – a true James Bond of mineral exploration but not as debonair or well dressed. He flagged a moment in his mine geology career when he was mapping an unventilated tunnel face 6,000 feet down at Vaal Reefs 8 shaft. At those depths unventilated faces can get very hot and you don’t stay there long because heat stroke can hit hard and fast.

He remembers he was wearing an ice jacket; a jacket lined with pockets that hold blocks of dry ice which is supposed to allow the wearer to weather the heat for longer. But despite it he was starting to suffer from heat-induced confusion and switched off his head lamp. He was immediately plunged into complete and profound darkness. He told me it was like being on the bottom of a deep ocean. He could hear the rock face cracking and popping as the ambient rock pressure unloaded into the newly created tunnel space, and the distant sound of drilling in another tunnel sounded like the engine of a passing boat. I did the same once in a dead silent tunnel — no drilling or rock cracking to intrude on the stillness — and it’s a very bizarre experience which is hard to replicate at surface.

Another friend’s experience was more geographic in nature. Rory was working on Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories, as close to the middle of nowhere as you could hope to find, exploring for nickel, copper and PGE metals for a South African client. He had limited Arctic field experience which wasn’t ideal as he stepped out of the chopper in early April some 150 km from the nearest settlement. It took three attempts for the pilot to get the crew of 15 into the camp at Minto Inlet; a cluster of frame tents next to a small lake that doubled as a year-round runway.

For six long weeks he was — as he describes it — trapped in a camp full of nutters, visited from time to time by assorted itinerant wildlife, some of which was dangerous (wolves, bears) and some edible (caribou). The camp cook was a Bible-thumping Lutheran creationist who would ask grand and elaborate questions about big geology; topics like plate tectonics or radiometric age-dating. Rory would explain each big idea to him, and then the cook would blandly state that it was all nonsense because it was all created by God, before serving soup made from leftovers. It was extreme social and geographic isolation, and the barren landscape only served to remind him that he was a million miles from his base in Toronto. The single thread of sanity left to cling on to five weeks in was that their work was moderately successful. They found semi-massive pyrrhotite with neat little wisps of pentlandite that assayed up to 6% nickel and the project was eventually sold to a Russian group.  

Steve, a fellow Brit with an identical earth science education to me (Portsmouth in the U.K., then the University of Alberta for an MSc) had his dose of extreme isolation prospecting in northwestern Greenland for Rio Tinto in the early 90s. He and another geo were helicopter prospecting north of the American airbase at Thule; an area so isolated and lacking in tasty game that even the Inuit avoided it. It was Arctic desert. This was well before the coming of GPS when geologists still knew how to read topo maps, although in this case the maps turned out to be incorrect; in many places there was land where the maps said there was ice and vice versa.

He was dropped off each day by chopper, accompanied by enough supplies and camping gear to survive for a week if they had to. His boss would accompany him on each outing dressed in a nice pair of brogues, carrying a small game fishing bag over his shoulder. They were packing a shotgun and solid lead slugs to shoot any overly curious Polar bears, but luckily never had to test the theory that the pop gun would protect them from becoming lunch.

My own I’m screwed moment came during a prospecting trip to western Pakistan. After hunting porphyries around the giant Reko Diq project, me and my small crew headed west to Taftan — out where Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet — and then up to the copper mine at Fort Saindak for a night. The next day we drove further northwest up to the pointy bit of western Pakistan where it says Maki on the map. Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing there, just small rocks and bigger rocks and a few nomads tending wiry goats. We did our job and found some vague evidence of alteration, possibly some VMS style mineralization, but aside from that nothing.

That evening, our choice was to sleep in the trucks or drive through the night, which was risky because the area was infested with drug smugglers hauling opiates through from Afghanistan. So, I was very relieved when we came across a small group of people busily preparing their evening meal of goat and roti by an orange campfire ringed by traditional black, peaked tents. We did what we always did and bought a goat for dinner. We’d get the choice cuts of meat, and they’d get the rest of the carcass plus $15 for the goat to boot. They kindly cleared out a tent for us to sleep in; an open sided one which allowed through a breeze, and as the sun slid down over the rocky wasteland of southern Afghanistan, we bedded down on coarse wool carpets large scratchy pillows, our bellies full of goat curry (which ended up giving me a nasty parasite.)

The next morning, I woke up completely disoriented. Opening my eyes, I couldn’t remember where the hell I was. I could see a black tent over me with seven or eight young goats clambering on the roof. Two of them, braver than the others, had come into the tent and were eyeing me warily from across the scabby carpet floor. Then it hit me. I was three days east of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan along a wretchedly bad road. If I went west, I’d have to travel through to Tehran; a three-day drive even if I could get across the border without a visa. My third option was Afghanistan (ha ha ha etc.). I had no way of contacting my family or the office in London and the nearest telephone was 50 miles away in a grubby post office. I was totally reliant on Naseem, my Baluchi guide. It was a worrying moment of clarity.

Thankfully, I was at the end of my trip. That day we turned around and headed back along the anarchic N40 highway to the Quetta Serena hotel, a small oasis of local sanity a few days away. When I checked in, I got the welcome news that my apartment in Budapest had been broken into and a bunch of stuff stolen but there was nothing I could do about it.

— Ralph Rushton is a geologist and has worked at mines and exploration projects around the world including stints in South Africa, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan. He is currently the president of Aftermath Silver, a silver development company with projects in Chile and Peru. In his spare time, he writes about mining and exploration for his popular blog, urbancrows.com.

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