29 August 2002
On our second day in Broken Hill, we had breakfast in the cabin and then headed into town. Our first stop was the visitor information centre. We then set off to the Delprats mine site where we booked ourselves in for a tour of the original BHP mine. The site was just opposite the main street of town, on a vast slag-heap that towered over the town itself. The layout was not unlike Mount Isa.
Tours of the mine were assembled in an old corrugated iron building with a headframe outside. After we’d paid for the tour, we were shown into a change room where we given hardhats, belts, and an overcoat and, after a little instruction, a battery operated light for our hardhat. The tour was well attended even though it was a weekday: there were at least 30 other people. All were Australians except for one Swiss tourist. Our tour guide was a man in his late 60s called Ron. In many ways, the highlight of the tour was simply meeting him.
We were crammed into the cage that was lowered with the headframe. We descended to Level 3 of the mine, about 150m below the surface. It was a lead, silver and zinc mine mainly, and the part we were visiting was no longer operational.
It took three descents of the cage to get the entire tour group down into the mine. Ron then started his guided tour of the tunnel below. There were only three stops on the tour: the place where the cage landed, a small open area with seating for demonstrations, and a dead end almost 300 m into the tunnel. The tour lasted about two hours, and was characterised by a rapid, humorous and unrelenting monologue from Ron, who was himself an old miner.
During the tour he demonstrated the use of a miner’s drill and a sort of shovel machine that runs on rails (I think it was called a bogger). Both were operated pneumatically and were dreadfully loud. Before I had a chance to ask how his hearing was, Ron described his dreadful tinnitus. Unlike the tour at Mount Isa, which was a kind of public relations exercise for the mining company, Ron’s tour was openly scathing about the company’s safety record. Later we learned that he had lost his brother in an appalling workplace accident, so his attitude was understandable. Ron knew exactly how many times he had taken tourists on his tour. I think the number was well over 2,000. The tour was not cheap, but it was well worth it. It was a great tour, and what made it great was Ron’s hilarious, irreverent, and sometimes outrageous banter.
After the tour we went up into the very top of the slag heap to the miner’s memorial. It seemed odd to charge a $5.00 per adult entry fee to see a memorial, but it was also worth the price of admission. It was an interesting steel structure with a long approach to it along a steel walkway. Signs along the walkway familiarised us with mining terms that we would need to understand in order to make sense of the display beyond.
The memorial consisted of columns of glass rectangles on which were etched names of all the miners killed in accidents – something over 700. Also inscribed was the date and cause of death. Many were due to rock falls, others were unthinkably violent encounters with machines: “dragged from the cage”, “fell into the crusher”, “entangled in belts”, or “fell onto circular saw”. Others were less dramatic: “septicaemia from a cut lip”, “fell off a bicycle”, and so on. The body count was sobering, and the frequent deaths due to dust on the lungs and lead poisoning were a grim reminder of the company’s intransigence when it came to introducing safety precautions such as wet drilling.
After our visit to the memorial, we did the usual tour of op shops and second-hand shops, and had lunch in a health food shop that was full of mumbo-jumbo and expensive potions, but which served a fine chicken burger. (Ruby opted for a meat pie from next door.)
In the afternoon Susan and Ruby visited the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Broken Hill to get some more information for a school project that Ruby is doing about the Service. I stayed with Clare at the cabin and helped her with her schoolwork. In the evening I cooked red kidney beans with salami, and Susan watched TV till late.