Dr Harris' Kalgoorlie Adventure

5 Jun 2019

Most people realise the obvious perks of teaching (rising early to spend time with keen and enthusiastic students, marking exam papers, etc) but there are sometimes hidden perks that arise by chance.  Last weekend I had the opportunity along with science teachers from three other schools to fly to Kalgoorlie courtesy of Curtin University, to attend the WA School of Mines graduation ceremony and dinner and spend an afternoon at a real gold mine – and who could resist an offer like that?
The day started with talks in a meeting room – an environmental advisor told us of her career journey in the industry and we heard from other staff members involved in occupational health and safety, job hazard analysis and environmental management.  There were geologists and physicists and mining engineers and chemists who spoke about mitigating environmental risk and standard operating procedures and social responsibility & community investment.  I was stunned at the sheer range of jobs available, from trainers to health experts to environmental biologists, and that’s not even counting the myriad of service industry jobs in catering and all the other areas associated with a big business.
We got to meet various dignitaries and important people, we had a tour of the School of Mines’ fabulous new student accommodation and the graduation evening was brilliant, celebrating the students’ academic achievements.  I was very pleased to have the chance to chat to Old Guildfordians Matt Finlayson (Sc, 11-15 and brother of Zac in Year 12) and William Nisbet (Wb 01-09 and son of Caroline Nisbet, who you will probably have met in our GGS clothing shop).  One of the key speakers for the evening was another Old Guildfordian, Raleigh Finlayson (uncle of Matt and Zac and a proud member of School House from 1989 to 1995) who now runs a gold mine himself.

But the most amazing part of the trip for me was spending several hours underground in Northern Star’s Kanowna Bell gold mine.  Known fondly as ‘KB’, the mine extracts 2 million tonnes of ore from the earth per annum and has been operating for 25 years.  Having been brought up in Wales in the time of coal mines and pit ponies (well worth Googling that one if you haven’t come across pit ponies before), I had a fair idea of what the mine would be like underground and pictured even someone of my limited stature having to duck my head on occasion.  In retrospect, this was laughable.  It was nothing like that. 
There were lots of safety forms to fill in and sign and equipment to wear.  I quite liked the steel-capped safety wellington boots but wasn’t so keen on the hard hat which was wobbly and didn’t feel as though it would be particularly protective even if it did stay on my evidently strangely-shaped head.  We also had a training session on the self-rescuer which we would be required to carry on our person at all times – a sort of iron lung which would allegedly provide 30 odd minutes of oxygen should the need arise.  This did not inspire confidence.
We drove into a tunnel and continued for over seven kilometres on a winding road that went deeper and deeper into the earth.  It was mind-blowing – wire mesh kept the roof in place and prevented rockfalls; the ground underneath our feet was potholed and riddled with murky looking puddles.  It was incredibly dark and smelled strange and was very, very noisy, with massive vehicles doing their thing.  I kept thinking about how the self-rescuer was alleged to provide approximately 30 minutes of clean air and how I couldn’t really imagine myself casually walking 7km back to the surface in that time.  If disaster struck, I resolved to sit quietly and await rescue from above, thereby breathing more slowly and presumably giving me a slightly longer period of time before I asphyxiated.  I hoped my students would miss me a bit.
Miserable thoughts aside, we met up with various people working underground and managed brief, shouted conversations above the loud machinery and through our ear plugs.  Everything was on a vast scale, measured in tonnes and millions of dollars and it was genuinely impressive.  The highlight for me was being allowed to climb way up into the cab of an enormous vehicle that didn’t really seem to need a cab, as it was remotely controlled by a worker sitting underground in an air-conditioned sort of hut all day, happily playing what looked like a computer game but which turned out to be driving one of the massive vehicles into tunnels too dangerous to venture into himself.
We spent a good few hours underground and I have to say that I was relieved to emerge into the sunshine afterwards.  I now know that I couldn’t work underground every day and was interested to hear some of the staff talking about how in the future, technology will allow them to work at the surface, remotely controlling the vehicles doing the actual mining underground.  The whole trip was a fabulous experience and really opened my eyes to the opportunities available in mining.  Later in the year, Curtin will be sending out information about some camps they are thinking of running for students, and I shall be sure to forward these to anybody who might be interested.

Dr Julie Harris
Director of Teaching and Learning