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By Dave McCracken

“These gold prospectors were sending pay-dirt
to the surface from 30+ feet deep in liquid muck!”

Dave Mack

This was somewhat of an informal preliminary evaluation into several areas of the Philippines to see if we could find any promising commercial dredgingopportunities there. A longtime close friend of mine and fellow gold dredger, John Koczan, had been spending a lot of time in the Philippines with his job, so he knew his way around pretty well. John and his wife Madel made the necessary arrangements to move us around the country for a few weeks.

Diver

I personally spent quite a lot of time in the Philippines when I was in the navy. So I already knew the country to be very friendly towards Americans. Most of the people in the Philippines speak some amount of English. The country is rich in natural resources. The infrastructure is quite good; especially the roads and communication systems. Supplies and services there are readily available at relative low cost. And the mining laws seem to encourage mining exploration by American companies.

Since I had other business in Asia to take care of first, John, Madel and I agreed to meet in Manila, which is the Philippine Capital. Manila is a busy place. The entire modern infrastructure that we are used to in the West is present there, although traffic can be a problem if you are not careful with your timing.

JeepneyTrike

“Jeepneys and trikes are the primary modes of public transportation in the Philippines.”

Public transportation in the Philippines is very effective. Regularly-scheduled buses are destined to just about everywhere. Jeepneys and trikes are the primary mode of moving people around the townships and cities. Jeepneys are like vans with a jeep-like look to them. You see them in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors. Up to a dozen or more people can ride in the back. A standard fee of about 10 cents (6 Pesos) is charged for a ride in almost any single direction. Trikes are basically a side-cart motorcycle. There are zillions of them. For about a Dollar (50 Pesos), you can hire a trike to take you one way to nearly anywhere in town.

I captured the following video segment on a bright morning in Manila while John and Madel were arranging to rent a car for us to drive north to Angeles City:

Angeles City is about an hour drive to the north of Manila. It is the home of Clark Air Base, which was once America’s largest military base. The base (huge) has since been turned back over to the Philippines. They have converted it into a free economic zone. A very large shopping mall has recently been put up there. The Angeles City area is where John had been doing quite a bit of business. So this seemed like a good place to launch our own sampling expeditions to elsewhere in the Philippines.

John and I began by researching all the historical information we could gather about the proven gold bearing locations in the Philippines. Our research indicated that the best gold potential is in Mindanao, one of the most southern islands of the Philippines. The problem with going there on any kind of extended commercial venture is that Mindanao is the place within the Philippines where Muslim extremists maintain a stronghold. The Philippine military is down there with American assistance unsuccessfully trying to put them out of existence. Because of potential danger to outsiders, John and I ruled out Mindanao right from the beginning. We figured there is no good reason to lose your head over gold!

As we allowed ourselves only two weeks for this expedition, we decided to do a preliminary evaluation into two separate locations. The first was a gold-bearing area in the north of Luzon near the city of Baguio. This area is well known for historic gold mining activity. It took us the better part of a day to drive up there from Angeles City on a very good highway. Baguio is a very nice place, way up in the mountains. With pine trees and cool air, it kind of reminded me of the mountains in California.

“We were very encouraged when we first saw this clear-running river with so much bedrock exposed along the banks!”

One of our first stops in Baguio was at the Department of Mining & Geology. We were looking for information and maps concerning the historical gold mining areas. Our hope was to find a sizable gold bearing river where local technology has not allowed deeper river high-grade gold deposits to be mined by previous activity. To our surprise, the Mining & Geology officials there welcomed us in with open arms, provided us with all of the available information that we desired and offered to escort us out to a gold-bearing river which they believed was most likely to provide the type of mining opportunities that we were looking for.

Interestingly, none of the mining officials we spoke with in the Philippines had any idea what a suction dredge is or how it works. We did our best to explain it. But our final realization was that it is vital to bring along several DVD’s of my basic dredging video on these types of expeditions.

We devoted the next full day to an expedition to a sizable river located in the mountains some distance to the east of Baguio City. The following video sequences were captured soon after we saw the river from a heightened position in the mountains:

We soon met up with several local miners (woman) who were panning and sluicing along the river. They were kind enough to show us the gold that they were recovering. Their gold consisted of just a little bit of fine colors in every pan; not much different than what we would expect to recover along New 49’er properties along the Klamath River near Happy Camp in Northern California.

SluiceLocal miners

“Local village miners were panning and sluicing small amounts of gold from the river.”

John and I took a few pan-samples of streambed material and also turned up some color. The big question in our minds was how rich the high-grade pay-streaks were going to be at the bottom of the river. The main problem, though, was that the average depth of streambed material looked like it was going to be more than we could manage with suction dredges. While there was some bedrock visible along the sides of the river, it was mostly slanting into the river at a steep angle, and most of the streambed deposits appeared to be very deep.

The challenge in prospecting for high-grade gold deposits with a suction dredge is to find them in shallow enough streambed material that you can gain access to the gold without being overwhelmed by too much material to move out of the way. This area generally looked to have too much streambed material along the river-bottom for us to gain access to pay-streaks in most areas. So, John and I quickly ruled out the likelihood of a commercial opportunity for our type of mining.

The officials with us told us that they did not know of any other (larger-sized) river in the area that would fit our needs. Later that afternoon in Baguio, the mining officials suggested that we go have a look at the gold potential near Legaspi. This is a gold-bearing area located on the island of Bicol further to the south. The Mining Director in Baguio made a phone call on our behalf to his counterpart in Bicol. Sure enough; there was some active “gold dredging” going on down there, and we were invited to have a look. This sure felt like a lucky break!

Rather than drive all the way down to Bicol, John, Madel and I decided to fly down there from Manila and hire local transportation to get us around. In the parking lot of the airport upon our arrival in Bicol, John was able to negotiate a reasonable rate for a van and driver to accompany us for several days.

One of our first stops in Bicol was at the Department of Mining & Geology to meet with the Director there. He was expecting us. In short order, he assigned one of his people to assist us with whatever we needed. That person supplied us with maps and information, and some instructions to our driver where to take us. While the official was willing to accompany us to Legaspi, he suggested that our reconnaissance might be more productive without him, since the type of “dredging” we were going to see was against the law. Apparently, because it is so dangerous, laws have been passed to prevent people from pursuing the particular kind of mining that we were going to see. The official suggested that the people doing this type of illegal mining might be more open to us if mining authorities were not present. We took his advice and just went along with our driver.

Upon our arrival in Legaspi, our first stop was at the local Mayor’s office. From long experience at doing these types of reconnaissance missions, we have discovered that it is usually best to check in with the local authorities before going out in the field on a prospecting expedition. This is the respectful thing to do. As is often the case, the local Mayor was happy that we checked in with him, and he assigned one of his personal staff to accompany us on our expedition. This was good, because the staff person (who became our guide) knew right where to take us. He was also able to introduce us to local miners in such a way that they were more open to giving us information about what was going on.

Local Miners

“Local miners were recovering some gold from the beach sands, but the amount
of gold did not appear to create any commercial opportunity for the type of dredge mining that we do.”

In Legaspi, our guide first took us to the beach, where local miners were recovering small amounts of gold from the beach sands using sluicing devices which were built on stilts to position them above the small waves washing up on the beach. Here follows a video segment that I captured which demonstrates the beach mining activity:

While the beach miners were recovering some gold there, John and I could not envision any kind of commercial dredging opportunity, so we moved on.

Next, our guide took us to a river estuary-area where apparently some bucket line dredges had operated during the past. We could see some of the tailings that were left behind. There, we found several active family mining operations that were recovering gold from river-bottom gravels using more sluices standing on stilts. Here follows a video segment that I captured while we spent some time with one family of river miners:

Again, while there was some gold being recovered from the river, without doing some preliminary dredge sampling of our own, we could not identify any commercial opportunity for ourselves.

Our main interest in Legaspi was to have a look at the ongoing dredging program that we had been hearing about. We kept reminding our guide about this, but he believed that type of mining would not fit into the type of opportunity we were looking for. Still, we wanted to see what it was all about, so our guide finally agreed to take us there. That involved a considerable ride in the van over some pretty rough roads.

Rice

“As we got closer, I could see that there was some kind of
mining operation going on from beneath the submerged rice paddy!”

Washing MaterialPulling Buckets Up

“Right image: Miner pulls canvas bag to surface from about thirty feet deep, where a diver filled the bag with ore.”

When we finally arrived at the “dredging” site, all I could see was a very large rice paddy. There was no river or other open water to be seen anywhere! As our guide led us on a trail across the rice paddy, I could see that there was some kind of digging activity going on at the far end. When we got closer, I recognized that it was an active mining operation!

These miners were recovering gold from bottom gravels that were located about 10 meters beneath the surface of the rice paddies! Because the paddy was flooded for an ongoing growing season, it meant that the miners were excavating a tunnel straight down through 30+ feet of mucky water, and then drifting (tunneling) along the bedrock at the bottom to fill canvas bags with pay-dirt. The canvas bags were then raised to the surface by others using a rope, where the material was broken up (a lot of clay in the material) and directed through a sluice box to recover the gold.

Each rice paddy diver received his air for breathing underwater through an airline that was connected to a makeshift air compressor which was taken from an automotive air conditioner, powered by a small Honda motor. No hookah regulator was being used by the diver. Hookah regulators do not work very well when you try to use them in muck! I know, because I have attempted it! These rice paddy divers were getting their air down 30+feet in the muck by just placing the end of the airline in their mouth and holding onto it with their teeth! Holy Mackerel!

Here follows a video segment that I captured which demonstrates the mining activity these rice paddy divers were doing. Please take note how far the man at the surface pulls up the rope to finally bring the canvas bag of ore to the surface. That’s how deep underground the diver was actively filling canvas bags! Is that amazing, or what?

While these rice paddy miners were recovering enough gold to help support their villages, John and I still could not see any reasonable way that we could implement suction dredge technology to their situation that would create an improved commercial opportunity.

I have to say that these were perhaps the most qualified underwater prospectors I have ever met to work on a commercial dredging program if and when we ever put one together in the Philippines or any other nearby country. Anyone who is able to mine gold with nothing more than an airline stuck in his teeth, while extracting pay-dirt from submerged shafts 30+ feet under liquid muck, is certainly alright with me! Imagine how well guys like this could perform on a suction dredge in clear, shallow water?

On our way out, our guide brought us by another active mining operation where hard-rock ore was being brought to the surface by rope from an underground hand-mining program. The ore was being loaded into wooden sleds, and then dragged to water by a water buffalo. There, the ore was being crushed by hand methods and panned down to extract the gold. And while they were recovering goodly amounts of gold for their effort, John and I still could not identify any commercial opportunity for the type of mining that we do.

“John & Madel”

All in all, our expeditions were productive in that we discovered that the people of the Philippines are very friendly, hard-working, and definitely have their doors open to allow modern exploration companies to look for commercial opportunities there. It just turned out that the two preliminary places we decided to look at were not suited for the type of mining that we do.

 

 

 

By Dave McCracken

“Pushsay, Pushay for your lives!”

Dave Mack

 

Our driver yelled, “Pushsay,Pushsay, push for your lives!” My friend of many years, Sam Speerstra, was managing this project. Sam is an “Indiana Jones” character from way back. Go with Sam, and you are sure to fine some adventure. He was the one who got me into diving for diamonds in Venezuela during the rainy season a few years ago. What a nightmare that was! Sam also introduced me to Madagascar, which is where this adventure took place. We were prospecting for high-grade gold.

“Hurry, give it everything you’ve got. I hear trucks coming!” Sam was driving us in an old Toyota pickup truck that probably already had a couple of hundred thousand miles on it. It was a wreck! The engine kept cutting out as we were working our way up the steep grade of a remote mountain, somewhere in darkest, undeveloped Madagascar. Sam’s swearing got progressively more descriptive and deafening as the engine problems got worse. We were pretty close to the top when the engine finally quit. It was in the middle of the night on a blind corner of a pretty busy highway. Most of the trucks traveling the highway did not have headlights; they travel by moonlight a lot in Madagascar!

Sam Speerstra, modern “Indiana Jones”

They speak French in this particular country. My French is lousy, but I understood the message. As soon as the engine quit, three other guys and I were out of the truck and pushing uphill. We already knew there was not a single pull-off behind us for several miles. We had been watching for pull-offs! There were also no guard rails. The embankment was very steep. Visibility was non-existent; the moon was not out this night. We were in near total darkness. We could hear the trucks coming from both directions on the highway. Sam was steering the vehicle as we pushed, yelling “Pushsay, Pushsay!”

We barely got the Toyota off the side of the road just up from the blind turn, when big delivery trucks passed by from both directions. The one coming downhill only had one dim headlight. It was moving in low gear. It probably didn’t have any brakes.

Once off the road, Sam stepped out of the vehicle, slipped, fell down the hill and ended up face down in a muddy ditch. The cussing started all over again. No one could find a flashlight to fix the engine. The guys figured it was a problem with the fuel injectors being too loose. They tightened them up in the dark, by feel.

E-r-r-r-r-er, E-r-r-r-r-er, E-r-r-r-r-er…Next we found the battery was too low to start the engine.

Sam decided the best thing to do was push-start the Toyota backwards downhill, around the blind curve in the darkness. What else could we do? We pushed, he steered. We tried three times. The engine would not start. That was when Sam admitted that the Toyota never push-started in reverse! We ended up in the same place on the blind curve where the Toyota originally conked out. “Pushsay, Pushsay for your lives.” Back up the hill we pushed the Toyota once again. I started looking for a place to sleep. There was only one sleeping bag in the truck, so I started quietly planning how I was going to find it first—while the others discussed the problem in French.

Pretty soon, a big delivery truck coming up the hill was stopped by one of the Frenchmen involved with our operation. I did not understand everything that was being said, but it became clear that no one had a working flashlight and no one had anything to tow with. The truck did have a long piece of wood in the back. It looked to be about 20 feet long. It was a rough-cut 2X6. They decided to use it as a push rod from bumper to bumper. Sam was going to attempt a jump-start going forward up the hill.

My biggest concern was getting over the top of the mountain. From there it was downhill to the village where we would put up until morning in a hotel—with real beds. We also had not eaten dinner yet. The main concern of Sam and everyone else was not destroying the license plate on the Toyota. What’s the big deal about a license plate for a broken down old vehicle? Without the license plate being nearly perfect, there were serious problems with “Les Polisia” at the many security checkpoints throughout the country! Damaged license plates were cause for harassment. Destroyed or missing license plates were cause for seizure! The severity of the offense would rule how much money it would cost to buy ourselves out of trouble at each checkpoint.

I was mainly hoping to get over the hill and down to the village where we could find a place to sleep that was off the open ground.

Pretty soon, the push rod was placed between the vehicles. Not being able to stand back any longer with dinner and a real bed predominant in my mind, I over-rode everyone’s objections by placing the push rod on top of the Toyota bumper, under the license plate, through the hole and up against the spare tire. This way, they only had to hold and balance the push rod against the front bumper of the big truck. Sam gave the signal and off they went—uphill. I watched. It looked like the Keystone Cops in the dark. Five big guys (two were passengers from the big truck) holding the push rod against the big truck’s bumper, running along in front of the big truck as they went faster and faster. Sam popped the clutch in second gear and the Toyota roared away in front of the truck, in the dark with five men being dragged behind, holding onto the push rod. They had to let go, because Sam took off like a shot, not wanting to take any chance of the truck quitting again.

When the men let go of the push rod, it dropped to the ground, pushed up against the license plate, and pop, off went the license plate, sailing into the darkness, over the steep embankment. The men were so upset, I thought they were going to cry. No use in crying over tomorrow’s problems. I urged everyone back into the truck so we could get going before it quit again.

Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves checked in to a reasonably comfortable hotel, by fourth-world standards, and eating dinner—and sharing a warm beer. The next day we found the license plate. It was only slightly damaged. Yes, life is good!

 

By Dave McCracken

“Dredging for Diamonds and Gold During the Rainy Season…”

Dave Mack

 

Author’s note: This story is dedicated to Alan Norton (“Alley”), the lead underwater mining specialist who participated in this project. Under near-impossible conditions, Alan made half of the key dives which enabled us to make this a very successful venture.
There are very few people I know, if any, with more courage, dedication and enthusiasm to successfully complete a difficult mission, than Alan.

If I can make it go right, I try and go overseas at least once or twice a year, usually during our winter months in California, to participate in some kind of a gold mining or treasure hunting adventure. Sometimes I am paid as a consultant to do preliminary evaluations for other companies. Sometimes I just go on my own. Doing these projects in remote and exotic locations is kind of like going back into time, or like going into a different universe. It is always a great adventure! Sometimes, on these different projects, everything goes smooth and easy. Sometimes we uncover fantastic riches. Sometimes we find nothing at all of great value. And, once in awhile, conditions are extraordinarily terrible and put all of our capability and courage to the final test. Such was the case on our recent testing project into the deep, dangerous jungles of southern Venezuela.

Venezuela lies on the north coast of South America along the Caribbean Sea. It is a South American country that ranks as one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of petroleum. Before its petroleum industry began to boom during the 1920’s, Venezuela was one of the poorer countries in South America. The economy was based on agricultural products, such as cocoa and coffee. Since the 1920’s, however, Venezuela has become one of the wealthiest and most rapidly changing countries on the continent. Income from petroleum exports has enabled Venezuela to carry out huge industrial development and modernization programs.

Columbus was the first European explorer to reach Venezuela. In 1498, Columbus landed on the Paria Peninsula. In 1498 and 1499, the Spanish explored most of the Caribbean coast of South America, and Spanish settlers were soon to follow the explorers.*

Almost all Venezuelans speak Spanish, the country’s official language. Indians in remote areas speak various tribal languages.*

I personally was contacted by an American investment group that was in partnership with a Venezuelan mining company. They hired me to spend around thirty days doing a preliminary testing evaluation on a concession (mining property) the company owns in the deep jungles of southern Venezuela. The property was reported to contain volume-amounts of gold and gem-quality diamonds. A river flows across the concession for approximately twenty-five miles.

The company had purchased a 6-inch dredge along with the support equipment. They wanted me to complete a dredge sampling program to see what kind of recovery we could obtain from the river. I brought one other experienced dredger along by the name of Alan Norton. Alan and I had spent several seasons dredging together on the Klamath River in northern California, and I had learned years ago to always bring at least one very capable teammate along when doing diving operations in the jungle environment. This proved to be a really wise decision!

We flew into Caracas, which is the capital of Venezuela, a very nice, modern city with big office buildings and hotels creating a beautiful skyline. Caracas enjoys the reputation of having one of the best night-lives in the world. Poverty is also visible along the outskirts of the city where thousands of people live in small shacks called Ranchos.

The company put us up in the Caracas Hilton where we spent a comfortable night, only to fly out the following morning to Ciudad Bolivar–which is a fairly large city, and the diamond capital of Venezuela.

Upon arriving in Ciudad Bolivar, we were promptly met by representatives of the company, along with the company’s bush boss, an American adventurer by the name of Sam Speerstra. Sam would make a good match for Indiana Jones. It was quickly apparent that he loved danger by the way he drove us through traffic to the small landing strip that we were to shortly depart from on our way to the concession. Sam had us unpack our bags while he arranged to have the aircraft pushed out onto the runway by a half dozen or so airport workers.

The dual engine aircraft was not in the best state of repair. The engine shrouds were held on with bailing wire, some of the cargo doors were held together with duct tape, and the instrument panel was held in place with safety pins, some which were not holding very well.

Sam enjoyed my apprehensive observations of the plane while our baggage was being loaded. Proudly, he told me the aircraft company we were using had the best record of non-accidents in the whole country. However, he also said the landing strip on the concession was quite small and hard to get into because of a large hill that had to be dropped over quickly in order to touch down at the beginning of the runway. In fact, he informed me the company had lost one of its planes trying to land on the concession during the week before. I asked if anyone was hurt. “All dead,” Sam responded, with a smile on his face. And he was serious! .

While, for proprietary reasons, I am not able to divulge the exact location where we were operating, I can say that we were at least several hundred miles into the jungle south of Ciudad Bolivar, towards the Brazilian border.

In this instance, we were asked to do this preliminary evaluation just as the rainy season was getting started. Shortly after taking off in the dual engine plane, we began seeing large rolling clouds. The further south we flew; the larger and more dense the clouds became.

About halfway to our destination, the pilot put down on a small landing strip in a relatively small village to pick up a full load of mining equipment which he had to leave there the day before. He had not been able to get out to the concession because of the almost zero visibility caused by the heavy rains and clouds. As we landed on this strip, the first thing we noticed was a completely wrecked plane that had crashed there. This added to our apprehension and to Sam’s sense of adventure.

It took about an hour to pack the airplane completely full of mining equipment. Since we had to remove the seats to make room for gear, Alley and I were directed to lay up on top of the gear that was stacked up in the belly of the plane. No seat belts! And the plane was loaded so heavily, even the pilot was not sure whether or not we were going to make it off the runway when we took off. We barely made it, and the plane was very sluggish to fly for the remainder of that trip.

We were in and out of clouds for the remainder of the flight, much of the time with zero visibility outside of the airplane. Occasionally, we would break through the clouds and see nothing but dense jungle below us as far as the eye could see in any direction. This was the Amazon! Sam took the time to educate us on the many different types of animals and insects which would certainly devour us if we were to have the bad fortune of crashing. Tigers and jaguars, driven out of some areas by villagers, only to be more hungry and ferocious in other areas. Six-foot long electric eels, called Trembladores by the natives, capable of electrocuting a man with 440 volts, and man-eating piranha were all through the rivers and streams, according to Sam. He told us of bushmaster snakes, the most dreaded vipers in all of South America. Sam said he personally had seen them up to twelve feet in length with a head about the size of a football. “Very aggressive–they have been known to chase a man down.” Sam said you could see the venom squirting out of the fangs even as the snake started to make a strike– one of the most horrifying experiences he had ever seen. “But, not to worry, I brought along a shotgun just in case we get in trouble,” Sam told us as hundreds of miles of jungle passed beneath us.

After quite some time, at a point when the clouds cleared away just long enough to see, Sam pointed down to a short runway cut out of the jungle. At first, we could not believe we truly were going to try and land there. Sure enough, it was the base camp for the concession. We made one low pass over it. The base camp looked large and well equipped. There was also a small local village right near the base camp. The landing strip was filled with puddles and looked to be mostly mud. Alley and I were a little nervous after Sam’s big buildup, and we had very good reason to be nervous.

In order to land on the strip properly, the pilot had to fly just over the treetops, around a ridge, to drop quickly over a hill almost into a dive to get low enough, fast enough, to meet the beginning of the runway. The pilot’s skill was very good, although it is the only time in my life I have ever been in a plane that actually tapped the tops of trees as it was going in for a landing. The thump, thump of the trees hitting the wheels of the plane put me in somewhat of a panic. But it was all for nothing, because within seconds we were safely down on the runway. The pilot and Sam seemed to think nothing of the hair-raising landing experience. Alley and I felt like cheering that we were still alive. This was the mental state we were in when we arrived in the jungle. And it was just the beginning!

Local villagers came out to help us unload the plane. They all seemed like very nice people. After having a chance to load our gear into the bungalow, Sam gave us a short tour of the base camp. The whole area was fenced in. There were numerous screened-in bungalows for the various crew member sleeping quarters, a large kitchen, an office, and a large screened-in workshop area. The company had spent a lot of money getting it all set up. There was a jeep and two off-road motorcycles—all in a poor state of repair. They operated, but without any brakes.

After we had a chance to relax a bit, Sam insisted we go meet the “Capitan,” who was the chief of the local village. We had to arrange for several boats and a small group of local Indians to support our operation along the river. Sam explained to us that public relations were very important and that we must go over and have a friendly drink with the Capitan. We assumed Sam was bringing the Capitan a bottle of Scotch or Brandy or something as a gift. But that’s not the way it happened. Sam preferred to drink the local mild alcoholic beverage called Cochili. This drink is made by the local Indians from squeezing the juice out of a special plant that they grow. The juice is allowed to ferment in the open air for several days or weeks, depending upon the weather. It is a milky white-like substance with clumps of bread-like soggy goo (kind of like pollywog eggs), along with some greenish-brown mold mixed in–it was great to behold! It smelled almost as bad as it looked.

We met the chief, who looked totally wasted on something–probably the Cochili drink. And immediately upon our arrival, the chief ordered some children to bring glasses and drink for everyone. Promptly, our glasses were filled to the rims. Sam quickly downed his first glass, licked his lips, smiled and said, “This is all in the name of good local public relations!” To be polite, I downed half my glass and did my best to choke back my gag. The stuff tasted terrible! I realized my mistake right away when one of the kids immediately took my glass and refilled it to the brim. Alley was paying close attention and slowly sipped his drink, and I followed suit. There was no place to spit if out without being seen, so we had to drink it down. Sam put down three or four more glasses and shortly was slurring his Spanish in final negotiations with the chief. I’m not really sure they understood each other concerning any of the details, but everyone seemed happy with the negotiation.

It was a good thing that the rainy season prevented the remainder of our mining equipment to arrive in the jungle for the next two days. Because I spent the next few days with a severe case of the jungle blues. I was popping Lomotil tablets left and right to try and dry up my system and finally started making progress on the third day in the jungle. Man was I sick!

Alan boasted that he never had a case of diarrhea in his life and that he never would. Sam spent several hours every evening drinking Cochili with the local Indians who would accompany us into the jungle. He was getting to know them better.

The weather was hot and muggy, although the heavy rains had not started yet in earnest. The jungle was alive, especially at night when the jungle noises were almost deafening. It was certainly not a nice place to go for a friendly, evening hike. We were glad for the fence that surrounded the compound.

On the third day, still weak from the fever, but feeling like I should be productive at something, I decided to take a motorcycle ride on the new jeep trail which had recently been hand-cut several miles to the river. Why is it that I always know when I am going to come upon a nasty snake just an instant before I see it? As I rounded the first corner on the trail, a large viper took off ahead of me up the trail faster than a man could run. No brakes! Finally, I stopped the bike, turned around, and returned to camp to rest up some more.

“Once the rains started, the water was so muddy we had zero visibility underwater and had to find our way through the broken branches of submerged trees by feel”

The remainder of our gear finally arrived on the following day. We assembled everything to make sure it was all there. It wasn’t. We were missing the assembly bolts for the six-inch dredge; we had only one weight belt; and we had no air reserve tank for the hookah system! This was not good!

We finally ended up using bailing wire to hold the dredge together, and had to settle for hooking the airline directly to the dredge’s air compressor. One weight belt was all we were going to get—not much margin for error! The entire operation would depend upon us not losing that single weight belt.

On the following day, all the equipment was packed to the river by the local villagers. This was not an easy two-mile pack, because the trail was very muddy and was quite steep up and down the whole distance. Alan and I were using one of the motorcycles to get up and down the trail, which was a real adventure with no brakes.

One very interesting thing about this jungle is that huge trees, for no apparent reason at all, come crashing down. At least several times a day, we would hear huge trees crashing down in a deafening roar. On one occasion, Alan and I were returning to base camp on the jeep trail. We had just come up that trail fifteen minutes before. As we were going down a muddy hill and rounding a bend, we ran smack right into a huge tree which had just fallen across the trail. Good thing I was driving! We smashed into the tree with both of us flying off the bike. Luckily, neither of us were hurt more than just a few bumps and bruises, although the front-end of the motorcycle was damaged. Chalk up one more for the jungle.

During the time while equipment was being transferred to the river and set up, we took several airplane rides to survey the section of river which we were planning to sample, and to make arrangements at a small village (with a landing strip) about twenty-five miles downstream to obtain fuel and some basic supplies as needed during our sampling trip. Once we started, we would not be in contact with the base camp until our sampling project was complete–which was to be about twenty-five to thirty days later. In flying around the area and landing on the two strips, it soon became apparent that the pilot was very skilled. While he definitely was flying by the seat of his pants, the conditions were normal and it was no big thing (to him). Sam just had the advantage of prior experiences at the concession and was psyching us out–all in fun. It only took a little while to catch onto his game.

One of the things we quickly learned in the South American jungle, is that you never stand still for more than just a few seconds. Otherwise, a steady line of ants, mites, and other meat-eating critters will crawl up your legs, inside or outside your pants, and go to work on you. We had plenty of mite bites–which hurt, itch, and generally drive you crazy for about five or six days before they start healing. And, we learned to never brush up against bushes as long as we could help it, for fear of getting fire ants all over us. They sting like crazy!

We never allowed our bare skin (especially bare feet) to come in contact with the bare ground in or around the camps. This is because of chiggers. Ants were everywhere. Whole armies of big ants could be seen to follow a single file line up and down the trail for a mile or more, carrying torn up leaves from a tree which was actively being stripped clean by other ants. The whole jungle was crawling with life. Every square inch had some creature that was starving to take a good bite out of us. Perhaps it was the muggy weather, or maybe weakness from the jungle fever, but my first impression of the South American jungle was that it was doing everything it could to suck the life energy out of my body.

On more than one occasion, some huge animal would go crashing through the jungle just a short distance from where we were standing. We never saw the animals, but had the continuous feeling that some huge cat or wild boar was ready to come smashing in on us. And, of course, the shotgun was never in my own hands when this occurred, which was probably a good thing for everyone else in the vicinity.

“We allowed the natives to swim in the river first to make sure there were not going to be problems with piranha and Trembladores”

While we were packing gear, one of the village-helpers came running in to show off a bird spider he had caught and skewered on the end of his machete. This spider was bigger than my hand; it looked like a huge tarantula. According to the natives, these fearsome spiders catch birds to feed on, not flies, in their webs.

Our first few days on the river were absolutely, breathtakingly, exotically beautiful. The sun came out. The river was low and semi-clear. The water was warm, but just cool enough to give us satisfaction from the muggy air temperatures. We did not need wetsuits other than to protect our bodies from scrapes and bruises. We dredged a half dozen or so easy sample holes. Gravel was shallow to bedrock. The first camp was quite comfortable. The Indians were using their bows and extra long arrows to catch great-tasting fish. Everything was perfect. I remember wondering why I had such a problem adapting to the jungle in the first place. It was like paradise on the river, and we were even getting paid to be there!

We allowed the natives to swim in the river first, to make sure there were not going to be problems with piranha and Trembladores. This is not a bad thing to do. We did not make them swim first. They simply dove in. We always watch for this in a jungle environment. The local Indians know what it is safe to do. After watching the Indians swim for quite some time, we decided it was safe.

The natives live under grass roof shelters–often with no sides. They hang hammocks from the supporting roof beams and sleep at least several feet off the ground. Since Ally and I don’t sleep very well in hammocks, we brought along cots, instead. On our first night in the jungle, Sam insisted the cots would be just fine on the ground. They had short legs which put the cots about six inches off the ground. Alan and I both had sleeping bags which could be zipped up. Sam simply had one dirty white sheet. About midway through the night, Sam’s cot collapsed on him. Shortly thereafter, he was dancing around the camp yelling, “Fleas!” He was barefooted, and the natives spent the next two weeks picking chigger eggs out of the bottom of his feet with sharp pointed sticks.

Let me explain chigger eggs: These critters somehow lay eggs inside the pores of your skin. The eggs grow larger and larger, causing an open sore. It keeps getting worse until you realize it is not just a mite bite. The egg has to be removed with a sharp piece of wood, kind of like a toothpick. The eggs I saw were about the size of a soft, white BB when removed. It was explained that this was really a sack full of eggs. The trick was to get rid of them before the sack broke. Otherwise, the problem was severely compounded. Apparently, the dogs carried these chiggers all over themselves. We were instructed to not pat the dogs for this reason. It was a good lesson for us, and we learned it quickly from Sam’s experience.

We had a three hundred-foot roll of half-inch nylon rope with us for the mining operation. The following day, Alley and I allocated one hundred and fifty feet of that rope to be used to tie our cots up into the shelter beams to keep us well away from the ground. Our Indian guides were quite amused by this. The rest of the rope was used in the dredging operation.

On about the fourth day on the river, Sam returned to the base camp to supervise the other surface digging testing operations. Our cook became extremely angry soon after Sam left. I later found out that he was contracted by Sam to spend only five days in the jungle. Sam left without taking him along. He was stuck with us in the jungle for the next twenty days or so, and we all paid for his anger in the food he prepared for us. We would get fresh-made pan-fried bread every morning that was so saturated with oil that you could squeeze the oil out of it in your hand. This, along with a can of sardines for breakfast. We got leftover bread from breakfast for lunch, along with more sardines. We also got sardines with stale bread for dinner. The cook was basically on strike. Luckily, there were plenty of banana and mango trees along the river to supplement our diet.

“It was easy to follow the tributary because it was running straight black mud”

But we had our attention on other matters. The heavy rains began on the day Sam departed. In one night, the river rose up at least fifteen feet. And it roared! Entire trees were washing downriver. It was a torrent. The water was the color of brown mud. The river rose up and spread out into the jungle, making the whole area into a huge, forested lake. There were no riverbanks to be found in most areas. Our own camp was within four feet of being washed away. We knew where the river was only because of the swift moving water. Some of the river was difficult to travel upon, because it was flowing through the treetop canopy, which was occupied here and there by huge nests of African killer bees and other hornets and varmints. It was a nightmare!

On top of that, the natives caught a hundred-pound Cayman (alligator) with a net out of one of our dredge holes where they had been fishing. It was certainly big enough to take a man’s arm off. At that point, the natives told us these animals came much larger on the river.

That was the day Alley decided to come down with his own bout of jungle fever.

Since Alley was incapacitated, I chose that day to hike back to the base camp and have a talk with Sam about the adverse diving conditions. Although we had recovered some diamonds and gold already, I was not comfortable with the recovery system for diamond recovery. I also was not excited about diving in the swollen, muddy river. I would like to get a look at what is going to eat me before I die! Even the natives, who were standing in line to dive in the clear water, absolutely refused to dive in the river once the rains started. This was definitely a very bad sign. Sam managed to get the big boss on the radio and I explained the problems to him. In turn, he told me that his entire company was depending upon the results of my sampling project to justify further investment in the project once the rainy season tapered off. “It all depends on you, Dave.” I told him we would do the best that we could.

The next day, Alan was so weak from diarrhea, that he was barely able to get out of his cot to do his duty outside of camp. I felt my own duty was to go do some sampling with the help of two natives as my tenders. Rather than dredge on the main river (which was raging), I decided to test one of the main tributaries which had the reputation of having lots of diamonds. The natives left me to keep an eye on the dredge, which was tied to the canopy of some trees at the mouth of this tributary, while they hacked a trail through the tree branches several hundred yards up this creek–which was now an endless lake out into the jungle. It took several hours for them to make the trail with their machetes. It was easy to follow the tributary because it was flowing straight, black mud, compared to the brown color of the river water.

While I was standing on the dredge waiting for the natives to finish the trail, a huge bee buzzed by my head. Within a couple minutes, there were about a dozen of these bees buzzing me. They were really mean! I had my hat off and was flailing around wildly trying to keep them away. There was no place I could go off to, to get away from them. Finally, I had to jump into the water and hide underneath the sluice box. This is where the natives found me when they returned. They were quite amused.

It took quite some time for us to drag the dredge up this tributary, because the branches were just hacked off at water level. I was looking for a place we could work off of a streambank, but eventually gave up on that idea. The water was simply too deep. I ended up throwing the suction hose over the side of the dredge, primed and started the pump, put on my seventy-pound lead weight belt and other diving gear, crawled over the side and shimmied carefully down the thirty-foot suction hose. The problem was feeling my way down through the submerged tree limbs to find bottom. There were logs and branches everywhere. I was in total darkness–complete zero visibility. Everything was done by feel, sensation and yes, fear. I finally found the bottom and estimated it to be about twenty-five feet deep by the amount of suction hose I had remaining with me on the bottom. It was scary down there!

After seeing the Cayman on the day before, I had visions of being grabbed by a huge alligator, and other visions of being grabbed by a huge python. A strong voice from inside my heart was telling me to end the dive. It was too darn dangerous! Any emergency would have me and my airline all tangled in the branches. Having to dump the weight belt would put an end to the entire program, because we only had one weight belt.

I decided that I should complete the sample after all we had gone through to get me on the bottom. This is what I was being paid to do.

As I dredged into the gravels on the bottom, by feel, I discovered more buried branches and logs. These, I simply tossed behind me just like I do with oversized rocks. I got into a pretty steady routine down there and was making good progress. But the strong picture of huge alligators and pythons was right there with me all the time. Do you know the feeling you have when watching a scary movie when you know something terrible is just about to happen? And when it happens suddenly it scares the heck out of you? This was the state I was in when something heavy jumped onto my back. I let go of the hose, turned on my back, and kicked this thing off of me like a crazy man–like I was fighting off an alligator. Then I realized it was just one of the water-logged heavy pieces of wood I had thrown behind me.

This was a terrible feeling of terror and embarrassment. I’m serious; I was so scared, I wanted to crawl right back up into my mother’s womb. I was left wondering what the heck I was doing there. Why was I doing this? It was nuts!

It is impossibly-difficult times like this, and how you manage them, that contribute to the definition of your personal character and integrity. And I freely admit that staying down there to finish the sample was one of the most difficult challenges I have ever overcome. This was a total mission-impossible situation! After a moment to get myself refocused, I turned around and finished the sample hole to bedrock. I carefully shimmied back up the suction hose, coiling my airline as I went, to make sure it was not tangled in branches. When we cleaned up the sluice boxes, we were rewarded with several gem-quality diamonds, one which was quite large and handsome.

“I let go of the hose, turned on my back, and kicked this thing off of me like a crazy man!”

When I got back to camp that night, Alan was still sick in his cot. I did not hesitate to tell him of my experience. I also told him he was doing half the diving from then on, starting the next day, with or without jungle fever!

And that’s the way it went for the next twenty days or so. We completed four samples per day, with Alan doing half of the diving. Some days, the river was so high we had to tie off on branches of trees out in the middle of the river. We would take turns watching for trees being washed down the river, and would pull each other out by the airline every time this occurred, to keep from getting snagged by the trees and dragged down river.

The diving was extremely dangerous. Each time one of us went down, we did so knowing there was a definite possibility that we would not live through it. The only other option was to give up. But, we had originally agreed to do our best to overcome the difficult conditions. That’s how we got the job in the first place. We didn’t really have any other choice. I look back on it now and can enjoy the adventure. At the time, however, it was not any fun at all. It was crazy!

The biggest problem was the lack of an air reserve tank on the dredge. Sometimes it would take as much as ten minutes to feel a way down through the submerged branches in the total darkness. We had to find a path. There was no easy, fast way to get back to the surface. Cutting the weight belt loose would probably be sure death. Not only that, but we would probably never recover the body! No reserve air tank meant almost no margin should the engine quit for any reason–which, luckily, it never did.

However, the heat from the compressor did melt the airline, causing it to blow off altogether when I was down on one dive. We run the airline around our neck and through our belt for safety. With no air reserve tank, we were able to hear the compressor working underwater by the vibrational sounds coming from the airline. I had just spent quite some time finding a path to the river bottom and started dredging gravel, when my air supply was abruptly cut off and I no longer heard the compressor noise from the airline. But the nozzle was still sucking. I stayed there for a few seconds trying to understand the problem and what to do, when suddenly my air supply returned and I heard the compressor noise again. I almost just kept on dredging, but decided after all to go up and see what had happened. When I got to the surface, Alan was holding the airline onto the compressor output with his bare hand. He got a pretty good burn out of it. An inexperienced underwater miner never would have known what to do. Alley saved my life. This is one of the reasons I seldom do these projects alone.

“He made his bow out of the core of a hardwood tree, using a machete to carve it exactly the way he wanted”

As we progressed with our sampling further down the river, the natives would move all the gear to new camps every three or four days. Some camps would be reconstructed out of already-existing structures. Other camps had to be built from scratch, using plastic sheeting for the roofing material.

Our main native guide was named Emilio. He was a real jungle man in every sense of the word. He walked with a limp because of an earlier airplane crash in which he was the sole survivor. His family hut had been hit by lightning several years before, and everyone in the hut was killed except Emilio. He was a real survivor! One night, he went hunting with our shotgun–which was only loaded with a single round of light bird shot. In the darkness of the jungle at three o’clock in the morning, Emilio snuck right up on a five-hundred pound female wild boar and shot it dead–right in the head. We had good meat for several days, and even the disgruntled cook cooperated with some excellent meals.

Emilio taught us how to hunt with bow and arrows–mainly for fish. But, he was able to bring in a few chicken-like birds on several occasions. The meat was tough and stringy, but that was probably because of the cook. He made his bow out of the core of a hardwood tree, using a machete to carve it exactly the way he wanted. The arrows were made from the same hard material, using poison from snake venom on the tips for big game hunting. The natives did not have any modem weapons whatsoever, other than the shotgun we let them use while we were there.

Even Emilio refused to dive during the rains. And, our doing so considerably raised the natives’ evaluation of our physical abilities and bravery, even if we were greenhorns in the way of the jungle.

Each Indian we met was very skilled and uncanny in jungle survival. They could tell a boat was coming up the river three hours before it arrived by hearing the change in bird sounds. You will never find a harder bunch of workers anywhere.

The canoes we used were also carved
out of the trunks of hardwood trees. A skilled native takes about six months to make a good dugout canoe, which sells for about sixty dollars. Mostly, the canoes are paddled. But the more affluent natives do have outboard motors, which make the canoes go along at a pretty good clip. The natives are very skilled at driving the

canoes over top of submerged logs and through rapids. A lot of the time the boats were loaded so heavily that there was only about a half-inch of freeboard on each side. Yet, we never swamped a boat.

The gold pans they used, called Beteas, are also carved out of huge logs. Several classifications of screens are used on top of the Beteas to classify material and screen for diamonds. The natives have a special way to quickly rotate the screens, which causes diamonds to move to the center of the screen where they are easily picked out. It is quite something to watch.

Many native miners only go after the diamonds. They know they only need to find about one or two diamonds a year to make it worth their while for the extra things they want. Otherwise, the jungle provides for all of the basic survival needs of the natives. They are quite self sufficient.

“I was running down the trail at full speed like a mad man out of control, swinging my hat about

The natives received about two dollars a day in wages and were happy to get it up until the end of our project. We wanted to extend one more week to really finish the job right. However, the natives made it clear that no amount of money could sway them from going back to harvest their gardens on time.

While we were hauling our gear along the mile and a half-long trail to the landing strip, I was swarmed by African killer bees. It was terrifying! I heard them coming from quite some distance away. It sounded like a bus coming through the jungle. First, there were only a few bees around me, then a whole bunch. In panic, I was running down the trail at full speed like a mad man out of control, swinging my hat about. Then they were gone. I put my hat back on only to get stung right on top of the head. I felt completely spent. It was time to go home.

When we returned to the base camp, we found out Sam had plenty of problems of his own. At least half his sampling crew had to be evacuated from the jungle due to an outbreak of malaria and yellow fever. When we arrived, he immediately needed our help to Griphoist the jeep out of a creek that it had crashed into. Apparently, the jeep had a problem jumping out of first gear while being driven down a hill. The lower gears needed to be used to keep the jeep from going too fast, because of the no-brakes situation. Sam was driving the jeep down a steep hill with four natives in the back. It popped out of gear and they made one mad roller-coaster ride to the bottom, only to smash right through their man-made bridge into the creek. Miraculously, no one was hurt and the jeep wasn’t wrecked. We managed to get the jeep back onto the trail and hightail it back to the base camp just as total darkness descended on the jungle. Sam looked at it as just another great adventure; just another day in the life of a jungle-man!

Our trip back from the jungle to Caracas was relatively uneventful, except that I was able to buy a nicely-cut diamond in Cuidad Bolivar for pennies on the dollar at U.S. prices. I presented this to my (ex) wife when I returned home and she was quite pleased to have it mounted on a ring.

Over all, our project was successful. We found diamonds, and we found some gold. We did exceptionally well considering the impossible conditions. The largest diamond located on the concession while we were there was over eight carats. But that came out of one of the test pits on Sam’s digging operation. We never found gravels deeper than three feet to bedrock, and there was very little oversized material to move by hand–other than submerged logs. The area would be a breeze to work in clear, slower water–like during the dry season. Everyone involved was impressed with our test results. We submitted a proposal to do a more extensive test/production project with more men and larger equipment, but internal politics within the company ultimately killed the program altogether.

I’ll say this: If we ever do go back, I guarantee it will not be during the rainy season. And we will have a cook who can find no better pleasure in life than to feed us well.

* The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987 Edition.

 

 

 
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This story first appeared in Gold & Treasure Hunter Magazine Nov/Dec, 1998 on Page 24. This issue is still available! Click here.

By Dave McCracken

You never really know what might lurk deep down in the depths of a muddy, tropical river…

 

This story is dedicated to my long-time loyal friend and fellow adventurer, Ernie Pierce. Ernie and I did three prospecting trips to Madagascar together, of which this is just one of the stories. He played a very important part on this project in working out how to increase fine gold recovery when processing heavy sands through standard riffles within the sluice box of a suction dredge. Ernie has an enthusiastic, magic disposition for being able to work out solutions to challenging problems in the field. He also overcame the primordial fear that every human being has of going down into deep, black underwater holes (where dangerous monsters lurk, if only in your imagination). I don’t know very many people who are willing to do that! It has been one of my greatest pleasures, and it has been a personal honor, to participate in adventures alongside of Ernie in California, and in multiple other interesting places all around the world.

It was difficult to see into the deep canyon, because it dropped off so steeply, and because the driver was veering around the bends in the road so fast, racing the Toyota Land Cruiser down the mountain road. This road had no guard rails to prevent us from plunging a thousand feet into the abyss. So, while I would like to have taken a better look at the breath-taking scenery, and I should have captured this part of the adventure with my video camera, all of my personal attention was riveted on the bumpy, narrow, winding road in front of us. I was scared that we were going to fly out over the edge to a certain and violent end! Once in a while, though, I did get a glimpse of a large river cascading down a steady series of natural falls. What an wonderfully-spectacular place! And I did manage to capture the incredible, wild river in the following video segment at one place where we stopped for a moment so I could relieve myself:

The traffic obstacles that posed the most serious threat to our safety were the pain-stakingly slow, and what appeared to be an endless procession, of supply trucks that were inching their way up and down this very steep grade, taking advantage of the lowest gear they had, to save their brakes, those that even had breaks! Our driver, as did all the other drivers of the smaller vehicles moving in both directions, had the hair-raising
challenge of passing the slower vehicles without running into something coming from the other direction. One blind curve after the next placed us almost entirely in the hands of fate. Our driver had no way of knowing whether a vehicle was or was not coming from the other direction, as he committed our vehicle to many of the “go-for-it” passes that we made.


I was holding on for dear life!

Madagascar was colonized by the French, so driving is done on the right side of the road. Being on the right side of the road put us dangerously-close to the precipice! At the high speed we were traveling, I was certain my time had finally come this late afternoon! On several occasions, by my calculations, there was no possible way that we were going to make it around the next curve! There just wasn’t enough room on the road to get past oncoming traffic without our wheels slipping over the edge of a very deep canyon. I couldn’t even see the canyon’s bottom! Each “go-for-it-pass” succeeded, either by divine intervention, or by the incredible driving ability of the young Malgasy man at the wheel.

I have lived a pretty gifted life, and I find myself counting my blessings pretty often. It’s not that very much was given to me; I have pretty-much had to climb the painful ladder of success several times. The end-result is all the more sweet when you have to work hard and sacrifice greatly to get there. I have lived on the cutting edge of danger a good part of the time; this is really true! There are not that many more things I feel I need to do before I meet my end of this life. So I find myself saying every once in a while that when the time comes, I am ready to move on to whatever is next. A lot of people say they/we are not scared to die. And you really feel that way when you are saying it! But we only feel that way when we are not looking death right in the eye! When sudden death lurks near, I feel the terror just like anyone else!

As quickly as the hair-raising ride began, we suddenly found ourselves safe at the bottom of the mountain. The immediate danger was over. We were graciously treated to a hot meal and a comfortable bed in the best (and only) hotel in the small village located at the base of the mountain. It was great to still be alive!

This was my fourth expedition to Madagascar in search of gold. Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island. It is located about 400 miles off the south-east coast of mainland Africa. The country is approximately 1,200 miles long by 400 miles wide (at its longest and widest points). So it is no small country. The country is extremely poor, one of the poorest nations on earth. It is also extremely rich in mineral wealth. Especially in precious stones! Madagascar is an incredibly beautiful and scenic country! For the most part, the country is nearly undeveloped. Although, there are some larger towns that are quite developed. I captured the following video segment in the capital city of Antananarivo, a place where I have spent quite a lot of time:

This preliminary dredge sampling program was on behalf of clients who own some gold mineral concessions in Madagascar. Ernie Pierce was along to assist with the sampling. We were there to get a preliminary idea of how much gold we could recover using suction dredges on two large rivers. We already knew gold was there because of an earlier expedition that we made into both locations to do a preliminary evaluation. Local gold miners were mining gold all over the place. They were mostly panning river gravel alongside the active river. Some were shoveling gravel from the active waterway in the shallow areas. Others were shoveling deeper-water areas out of dug-out boats, using the longest-handled shovels I have ever seen. The native miners were getting gold from everywhere!

As this area was accessible by road, the logistics for setting up a dredging project were not too bad. We arrived with a substantial contingent of people and equipment. We had enough support to move us around, set up our camps, cook for us, do laundry and take care of all our basic needs.

The company we were working for had quite a substantial base camp located where the end of the road met this river. There was a mess hall, some hot showers, individual bungalows; all the comforts of home! Unfortunately, the river near to and downstream of the base camp appeared to have deep sand deposits everywhere. There was no bedrock showing anywhere along that part of the river. Our initial impression was that the sand deposits in that lower section of river were going to be too deep to penetrate using our 5-inch sampling dredge. So we made a plan to pack all of our sampling gear and a fly camp (only basic needs) several kilometers upstream where the streambed deposits were shallow to bedrock. Our intention was to float down river, dredging sample holes through the entire distance back to the base camp.

After initially settling into our fly camp, the primary task at hand was for Ernie and I to determine whether or not the gold here was present in sufficient quantities (over a large enough area) to justify a production dredging program on this river. Ernie captured the following video sequence showing myself, Sam Speerstra (project manager) and Jack (Malagasy manager of our local support team) finalizing a sample plan after our camp was set up alongside the first river:

We spent the better part of a rather uneventful week dredging sample holes on this first river. Interestingly, while local miners were supporting their villages panning gold from placer deposits alongside the river, we could not find any high-grade gold deposits inside the active waterway. Ernie and I devoted long hours to making sizable excavations through hard-packed streambed material to bedrock. And while there was some amount of gold present everywhere, we could find no places where gold concentrated enough to justify any type of production dredging program. While we could speculate about the reasons why, the important thing was that we ruled out the possibility of a commercial dredging program in this area. This was what we went there to do. End of story!

As we did not bring anything extra with us when we packed our gear into the upper area of this river, I was not able to capture video until we arrived back down near the base camp. The video link just above includes a sequence that I took while we were dredging the final sample in front of the base camp. See how deep the light sand and gravel deposits appear to be? We did not expect to find the bottom of this loose streambed material, and we didn’t. But our sampling plan required that we at least try in several areas.

After spending a week on the first river, we were eager to relocate ourselves and our sampling infrastructure over to the second river that we intended to sample, which was several hundred miles away. That process took several days to accomplish. Prospects for commercial dredging opportunity on the second river looked much better to us during the earlier preliminary evaluation. We decided to save this area for last so we could devote most of our time there.

Normally, the first thing we do before making a sampling plan on a new section of river is walk, boat and/or swim the entire length if we can, to see what is there. This allows us to look everything over to see where the best opportunities appear to be. If lucky, we will come upon local mining operations. Those will communicate a lot to us about the prospects. This is because local miners, having spent generations prospecting for gold in the area, will already have a good idea where the best potential opportunities are for the type of mining that we do.

The following video segment found us making a plan on the first morning after we arrived at this second river. The person talking is Sam Speerstra:

Note the active shoveling operations in the river behind where we were pulling the dredge upriver.

How clear is the water?

The first and most important fact of note about the second river was that it was flowing with muddy water. Too bad! Water clarity is the first thing I look for when evaluating a river for dredging. Will I be able to see anything when I get on the bottom of the river? The answer in this case was an emphatic “NO!” This was pretty disappointing to me, because I had been assured by Sam months before, when we proposed the sampling program, that I could depend upon having clear water in this river. As it turns out, this particular waterway drains many thousand acres of upstream rice paddies. It never runs clear!

This was not Sam’s fault. It is nearly certain that you are going to get wrong information from locals in these types of places. With the help of even the best interpreters, communication and understanding tends to break down on technical things. What is clear water to me, and what is clear water to a rice farmer in remote Madagascar, are sure to be widely-different perceptions of reality. Especially when he has never even seen a face mask or a diver before! Over time, on the important things, I have learned to keep asking the same question over and over again in different ways. In doing so, it never ceases to amaze me how many different answers we come up with! Sometimes, no matter how many different ways you pose the questions, you can still never arrive at an answer that you have much faith in. This is not because the locals are lying. It is usually because their perception of the world is so vastly different than ours.

You have to be pretty flexible when conditions turn out not to be the way you expected them to be…

Sam Speerstra is the modern incarnation of “Indiana Jones.”

Sam Speerstra is the true-life incarnation of “Indiana Jones.” Sam has gotten me into and out of more (mis)adventures than anyone should experience in a single lifetime. The last dirty river Sam had me diving in was full of crocodiles and electric eels. That river was a nightmarish diamond project in Venezuela.

Without visibility, there was no way of knowing for certain what was on the bottom of this deep river! I’m not talking about the gold; we can figure that out through careful sampling. I’m talking about the critters!

When I initially evaluate a tropical river for a potential dredging project, the second condition that I evaluate after water clarity is whether or not there are life forms present that are potentially dangerous to me or my helpers. I do this mainly by visual observation. First, I look to see if the local people are working, washing, bathing and swimming in the water. If they are, and they appear healthy; I generally assume that the river is alright to dive in. Although, locals always have a stronger resistance to higher levels of bacteria in their local rivers. So our standard medicine kit on these projects always contains a supply of the best antibiotics to prevent serious types of internal or external infections.

I also ask the locals about sickness and dangerous critters. However, the problem with asking about critters in the water lies with the interpretation. You cannot depend upon only one inquiry or interpretation. For instance, I will never forget the size of the alligator I saw along a river in Borneo several years ago. This was after assurances from our local jungle-guides that alligators did not even exist there. We had been dredging the river several weeks when I suddenly encountered an alligator which must have been 18 feet long! It turned out that these man-eaters were being called “dragons” (not alligators) by the local village people! So I have learned to frame the most important questions in numerous different ways, and I keep asking them over and over again to different locals as I am trying to find things out about a new area.

A lot of local natives were in the river where Ernie and I wanted to sample, so it was probably safe — at least in the shallow portion. You never really know what might lurk deep down in the depths of a muddy, tropical river…

Ernie and his team capturing a little video…

I have accomplished quite a few dredge sampling projects in dirty water. It is a very scary and difficult business. The work involves going down into deep, pitch-dark, frightening places “in the blind,” with no visual assistance. I know that there are live creatures down there that do not appreciate my intrusion into their territory (unless they intend to eat me). To move around cautiously, I have to feel my way by sticking my hand or foot out into complete darkness, feeling around for what is there. Most of the time, before going down, I don’t even know how deep the water is. Sometimes I have to find out by shimmying down the suction hose, reaching out tentatively with one leg at a time to see if I can touch bottom. I am in a state of heightened awareness, desperately hoping that I am not going to touch something that is big and alive. All the while, I am wondering, “How far am I going to have to go this time?”

It is one thing to read about this in the comfort of your computer within a safe environment and feel like you can do it. But you are not exactly the same person when you are dangling dangerously in the dark. You might be the same basic identity; but other parts of you (like terror) get switched on at full volume. I suppose you would really have to go through the experience to fully-appreciate it. Until you do; take it from someone who is used to living on the edge: Diving down in deep, muddy, tropical rivers is not easy!

Muddy water creates total darkness about three feet beneath the water’s surface, sometimes less. So, all you can see down there is what is in your imagination. Do you remember those terrifying nightmares that you had when you were a kid? They still lurk in your subconscious. When going down into deep, dark, terrifying physical places, memories of nightmarish dreams are brought immediately back to life. If you are someone who doesn’t think you are afraid of anything, you ought to try diving in deep, muddy, tropical rivers! You will find there that your deepest fears are just below the surface of your normal, everyday life.

Let me try this a different way: Do you know that feeling when someone startles you at just the right (wrong) time and frightens the heck out of you? Just for that split second, you feel a deeply-seated fear; right on the edge of a panic attack? That is exactly what you experience when you go down into the deep darkness of a tropical river; especially on the first dive.

Nevertheless, over time, I have learned to deal with dirty water. This does not mean that I am not still afraid. I am! It means that I have worked out a way to proceed. Dredging in dirty water is a much slower process. Everything must be done by blind feel, and therefore with care. The process is all about taking control over a single space in the darkness. You get to know every rock in the hole and every obstruction which defines the space. Sometimes, there are submerged trees or other obstacles that you must be very careful around to prevent your airline from becoming snagged. You must dredge alone in dirty water. Otherwise, you cannot toss rocks or roll boulders out of the excavation without a good chance of hurting someone else down there that you cannot even see.

Base camp

Several years ago, my lead diver on a dirty-water sampling operation in Cambodia had a portion of his ear bitten off by a fish. One quick bite and it was gone! That created lots of blood and drama to slow the job down! After that, none of the other guys that I had brought with me wanted to dive. Who could blame them? But we still needed to complete the job; that’s what we do! Surprisingly, it was the lead diver who had to continue the diving on that particular job. I did a little, too; but, that was mainly to show the other guys that I would not ask them to do something which I personally was not willing to do. We wore full dive hoods and dive helmets to protect ourselves from the biting fish, whatever it was. We never saw the creature that took the bite! And as it went, just a few more dives to finish the job proved-out one of the richest gold locations I have ever discovered. But underwater, we couldn’t see a thing!

The primary consideration in assessing a dirty river is how much more time we need to allow ourselves to get the job done in an underwater environment where the divers cannot see anything.

This is one main factor which nearly always undermines the commercial viability of a sizable dredging operation. Who is going to go down and run a 10-inch dredge in zero visibility, 6 hours a day, for a living? The gold deposits will have to be very rich to support this kind of program. I have found several underwater gold deposits that are moderately rich, but they are protected by dirty water conditions. The deposit that we found in Cambodia, for example, would make a dredging operation a lot of money if the diver-visibility problem could be overcome.

People often ask why we need to send divers down in the first place to conduct a gold dredging program. They want to know why the excavation cannot be managed from the surface using mechanical arms. The reason is that sizable rocks along the river-bottom must be moved out of the way of the suction nozzle. Otherwise, one oversized rock (too big to go up the nozzle) after another gets in front of the suction nozzle, blocking further progress until it is moved out of the way. Because of this, with few exceptions, there is no other effective way to proceed without putting divers down into the depths.

These two articles explain the underwater process in detail:

When Ernie and I first started watching the local gold miners on this particular river in Madagascar, we relaxed our fears; because even their small children were bathing and playing inside the river. This was a good break for us!

Now it was just a matter of deciding where to do our sample holes. Ernie and I used a two-pronged strategy that we have developed over the years for these situations. First, we dredge sample holes near and in line with where the local miners are actively achieving positive results. Most high-grade gold deposits follow a common line down along a waterway. For example, see how the following important video segment shows how the many local digging operations inside the river are following a common path. If you look closely, you can see tailings remaining from previous digging activity right on the same path. To get our own sampling operations off to a good start, we usually begin along the same path in the river where most of the local miners are working:

Secondly, Ernie and I offered financial rewards to the local miners for each place they showed us to dredge where we could find lots of gold. Such places are usually in the deeper areas where locals cannot gain access using the gear at their disposal. A “grande” reward goes to the person who shows us the place where we find the most gold. Wow, this incentive sure got Malagasy miners talking; and we started to find a lot of gold!

We moved our sample dredge in direct line with where local miners were doing well working out of dug-out canoes using long-handled shovels. This got us into rich gold right away!

Since we could not see how deep the water was in this dirty river, and because we had already established that there were some deep deposits of sand and loose gravel along the bottom that we wanted to avoid with our 5-inch dredge, before doing dredge samples, we used a long steel probe to find areas along the established gold path where the water was not too deep for us to reach bottom, and where we could reach hard-packed streambed without having to go through a deep layer of sand first. The following video segment shows how we performed this important pre-sampling process:

In one location, I decided to sample directly underneath a native “boat-mining” operation. I did this because I noticed the natives were working the location very aggressively. This is always a good sign! They were using long-handled shovels, about 20 feet long, from anchored boats well out into the river. The water was at least 12 feet deep! These shovels were especially designed to bring gravel up from deep water. The natives were very good at it. Have you ever tried shoveling material from underwater? Nearly all the material washes off the shovel before you can get it to the surface. Not with the Malagasy boat miners, however. They were bringing up full shovels every time. The material was being panned at the surface.

The following video segment provides a firsthand look and explanation of the boat-mining which we saw when we first arrived at this river. Seeing this type of active mining along the river by local miners was very encouraging, and immediately helped shape the sampling plan which Ernie and I would follow:

As it turned out, local miners from the boat-mining operations had plenty of gold to sell! They were anchoring their boats out in the river by driving hardwood poles deeply down into the streambed material, and then tying their boats off firmly to the poles at the water’s surface. The boats needed to remain stationary to allow the miners a firm platform from which to work the hard-packed streambed material along the bottom of the river. Consequently, we could look along the river and see many stakes remaining from earlier mining activity. Unsurprisingly, most of the stakes followed a common line down the river as far as we could see. We still needed to confirm it by sampling, but Ernie and I had a pretty good idea where the high-grade gold line was located in this river even before we unloaded our sample dredge from the truck. This was good!

The following video segment shows how we went about our sampling program. Notice the wooden poles out in the river? Because there was zero visibility underwater, you will see that Ernie had to keep jumping up to peak his head above water to steer himself and the dredge out in line with the poles. Where the water was too deep for that, we had to shimmy up the suction hose to have a look. Sometimes, it was so difficult to find our way in the dark, that we first positioned the dredge out on the river using ropes, and then shimmied down the suction hose in the dark to take a sample:

Ernie and I felt it was important to get one sample directly under one of the active boat-mining operations. This was so that our clients could estimate the value of gold deposits that local miners were developing in the river, and to see if they were excavating all the way to the bedrock. I was the one to dredge that particular sample. To accomplish this safely, we paid those particular boat-miners to stop digging for a few hours while I was under their boat.

As we had to drive our dredge out past the middle of the river to reach their hole on the bottom of the river, it was quite a challenge to find their hole in the pitch dark. When I finally found it, I was amazed to discover that they were actually penetrating deep into the hard-packed streambed material with their long-handled shovels. This must have presented them with a substantial challenge, because the cobbles were tightly interlocked together. At the bottom of their excavation, I found that their shovels were touching on bedrock, but that there was no way for them to take up the highest-grade material which was resting directly on bottom. They also were not able to clean the natural gold traps inside of the bedrock where most of the gold should have been. Too bad!

Being mindful that I was dredging in a high-grade deposit that had been previously located by other miners, I did not stay under the boat-miner platform any longer than it took to dredge up about a cubic meter of the hard-packed pay-dirt off the bottom. The material was only around four feet to bedrock; an easy place to dredge even in the dark water. We recovered a lot of gold proportionately to the volume of streambed that I processed. My estimation is that the river could produce 5 ounces of gold per day in dirty water using a 5-inch dredge.

The following video segment shows the gold we recovered from this sample, and captures my summation of what we needed to do to complete our preliminary sampling program on this part of the river:

 

 

The gravel being brought up from the river bottom by local miners was panning out very well!

As it turned out, the local miners were greatly impressed and worried by our dredging machine. They watched the volume of gravel wash across our sluice box, while they were bringing it up one small shovelful at a time. Prior to our arrival on the scene, they were the biggest and the best miners around! They could put two and two together, however. After our test under their boat, they began 24-hour boat-mining operations in that location. You could see their campfires down by the river (for light) burning all night long. Within a few days, there were a dozen boat-mining operations going full blast, 24 hours a day. They were worried we were going to return and dredge up all their gold. As good as their discovery was, we were not going to do that. Our sampling thrust thereafter was to determine if the high-grade streambed material extended downstream; and if so, how far?

There was certainly high-grade gold at the bottom of the river!

I’ll never forget Ernie’s first deep, dirty-water dredging dive. I could see that he was pretty nervous about taking the dive, so I offered to walk (crawl) him out into the river for the first time. He agreed to this. After everything was up and running, I took Ernie by the hand and crawled alongside of him in total darkness out to the middle of the river. It was a long way out to where Ernie was going to help finish the sample that I had already started. We grabbed onto the suction hose and dragged the dredge out into the middle of the river, instructing the dredge-tenders to allow the dredge to follow our bubbles. The water was about 12 feet deep in the middle of the river. I could tell that Ernie was having a difficult experience by the way he was gripping my hand. He was holding on for dear life! Finally, Ernie had enough and he began giving me the signal that he wanted to go back to the shore. I got the message immediately from the way he was grabbing me with both hands and jerking me toward the dredge. After we returned to the surface, Ernie told me that he was just “not up to it.” He had that look of panic in his eyes, a feeling I personally know very well! There is no use in trying to push anyone into doing something while they’re in a state of fear and panic. As I have said, it is not easy diving in dirty water! We all have a limit, beyond which we are not willing to go!

Instead, I urged Ernie to do some initial sampling in shallow water so he could get a feel for it. He could work standing up, with his head out of water, if he needed to. Ernie was up for this and immediately went to work closer to the shore. We needed to get some samples over there, anyway. A few minutes later, on his own determination, Ernie went bravely out into the middle of the river and was taking samples from the particular area where we really needed them; in line with where the locals were getting the most gold for their effort. Dirty water dredging is an experience you really have to ease into at your own pace. Ernie adapted quickly, and was soon working efficiently. I could tell this by the continuous gravel which was washing across the dredge’s sluice box.

Locals observing Ernie do a final clean-up

 

Each of us has our own personal limits. Would you walk a tight rope suspended a thousand feet in the air between two tall buildings? Most of us wouldn’t! What would it take to get you to do it?

It takes a lot of personal courage to go well beyond our normal comfort zone into the realm of personal terror. The type of work I do often allows me the opportunity to watch others confront their own personal limitations. In defining this particular character trait of an individual, it is unfair to make your judgment based upon where the initial limits are. True courage is tested when a person is confronted with the need to go beyond personal limits, no-matter where the limits are! I was very honored that day to be present when Ernie overcame very personal and serious fears, and went out into the middle of the river to help accomplish what we were there to do.

On one occasion, Ernie came up the suction hose in a real hurry! I saw the dredge bob up and down as he pulled himself up the suction hose. As it turns out, Ernie was walking around on the bottom of the river (total darkness), and he stepped off into a “bottomless hole”. When he got to the surface, Ernie said that it all had happened within a split second. He suddenly found himself dangling like fish bait from the end of the 20-foot suction hose directly over the “depths of hell.” Luckily, the weight of his body did not pull the suction hose free from the power-jet. I have had the same experience happen to me in dark water. So now, I am careful to take only small steps, feeling my way along the bottom slowly to avoid frightening surprises!

One of the most important things to do in any sampling program is test the efficiency of the recovery system that is being used. To do a proper job of it, you must establish how much of the target mineral (gold, gemstones or whatever) that your recovery system is not catching when processing the raw material from each sample. You cannot just assume the recovery system being used is providing 100% recovery. You have to make regular tests of your tailings using other recovery equipment that can provide the most accurate results possible. During a preliminary sampling program, this usually means careful panning of random tailing samples.

On this program, since we had plenty of very experienced local panners giving us support, whenever possible, we directed our dredge tailings over near the riverbank where our helpers could pan everything that passed over the dredge. They would then show us what we were losing from the dredge.

Since our most important samples were dredged out in deep water, Ernie and I ended up building a wooden box that we were able to suspend from its own floats and catch all the tailings from our dredge. After each sample was complete, while we processed the dredge concentrates through our special concentrator, local miners would carefully pan all our tailings for us.

As it turned out, our losses from the dredge initially were quite substantial. This river had a lot of fine-sized gold that was just passing through our recovery system into tailings with sand. Within the limitations of the tools we had available to us in the field, Ernie and I tried different ideas to improve the dredge’s recovery system. Ultimately, Ernie came to the conclusion that the classification screen needed to be raised further away from the riffles in our sluice box. This allowed more water flow to help the riffles to concentrate. Working this out in the field gave us important insight into what would be needed in the recovery system on a commercial dredge in that area.

The following video segment shows the process we were following to work out how to recover the substantial amount of fine gold we were finding in the river-bottom deposits on this river:

 

 

 

 

 

By Dave McCracken

“My first breath was so shallow, it seemed almost insignificant in satisfying my need for oxygen.”

Dave Mack

 

I was doing all right with dinner. This was my first occasion to eat Thai food in Bangkok, but I have sat through a lot of similar dinner meetings in other Asian countries. I knew the routine from past experience. Eat a little bit first. Then, taste-test before taking a big bite!

This time, however, we had more than just a few drinks before dinner. This was a first-time meeting with new clients who had asked me to evaluate some potential gold dredging properties in Madagascar. Initial meetings are always a little tense for me. First impressions mean a lot all around. I always want to get an idea who I am working for. The clients want to know who they are paying, how good a job I am likely to do for them and how much they can depend upon me. So these first meetings are pretty important. I want to do my “best” to get through the initial discomfort of unfamiliarity, while not extending into the relationship too quickly. This process is a “touchy-feely” sort of thing. I definitely want to impress the clients and instill confidence.

In this case, we started with drinks, jokes, stories and discussions of the latest movies. I had to listen to the discussions about the movies. By the way, it never ceases to amaze me that my acquaintances in other countries have always seen the latest movies before I have. They know every American actor, and every movie each actor participated in. They also know every American sports star. No doubt about it, America’s biggest influence upon the rest of the world is the medium of entertainment! Our entertainment, for better or worse, is seriously affecting the rest of the world. By the way, you might also be interested to know that in every single other country that I have visited during the past few years, Americans are held in the highest regard. Contrary to what our own news media would have us believe, we are very well liked and respected in many foreign countries.

This initial meeting was going pretty well. Clearly, the clients were extending very warm, informal hospitality toward me. I was feeling quite comfortable. There were seven Thais and one American in this meeting with me. The American helped balance things for me, as the Thais kept shifting back and forth between English and their native language. This is very common in these types of meetings. The clients speak together in their own language, and then address questions or comments to me in English. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to be the only one in the meeting not knowing what the others are discussing, especially when it becomes clear that at least parts of the discussion are about me. Over the years, I have evolved a method of dealing with this that centers on an emotional faith that “the clients trust and respect me.” Otherwise, I would not be asked to meet with them in the first place. I generally just try to “go with the flow.” If there is a joke or a comment that involves laughter (sometimes directed at me), I take it in good humor, and go along with it. I know that if they are comfortable enough to joke around at my expense, I have already made it a step closer in establishing a trusting relationship with the clients. Most of the time, I don’t know what is being said in the other language or what the laughter is about.

So it was, on this evening in Bangkok. We did not discuss business at all that night. It was clear that this was just a “social meeting,” a time set aside for all of us to get acquainted. I was feeling very good by the time we sat down to dinner. The food was “so-o-o” good! I was enjoying it so much that I guess I stopped paying attention to what I was eating. All I remember now is that the chili on my plate looked like a green bean. So, into my mouth it went, along with a spoonful of other things off my plate. By the way, the Thais eat with both a fork and a big spoon together, using the spoon as the primary implement. The spoon is used to shovel food into your mouth. It is much more effective than just using a fork as we traditionally do in the west. It’s quite easy. I picked up a knack for it right away! “Hey, I can shovel down food with the best of them!”

As soon as I took the first bite of that spoonful, I knew I had made a serious mistake. It was like biting into red-hot boiling oil. The question was what to do about it? I vividly remember the calculated solutions. There were only three possibilities: First of all, however, I did not know where the bathroom was in this restaurant, nor was I going to try asking directions with a burning mouthful of food. Secondly, I could spit the food out on my plate at the dinner table of my clients, but this would have been unforgivable behavior, a real social faux pas. Finally, I could chew the food up, swallow it, and then quickly ask where the bathroom was located, or, I could just swallow the food without chewing it up any further.

Since chewing was clearly making matters worse with every bite, I chose the final option. I swallowed, simultaneously drinking the full glass of water in front of me. Then I swallowed several ice cubes, and placed one ice cube in my mouth in an attempt to cool my mouth off a bit. This was not working. My mouth was truly on fire! I could not even feel the coolness of the ice cubes in my mouth!

“I remember seriously wondering if I would ever get another breath”

Shortly after swallowing, the severe burning sensation extended down my throat and into my stomach. It felt like I had swallowed boiling acid! What to do? I sat there trying to appear normal. The Thais were discussing something in their language, not paying much attention to me. I decided that there was no other course of action at the moment except to wait it out and see if things would improve. However; the situation quickly grew worse. My eyes started watering out of control, while simultaneously the extreme burning in my throat and gut worsened. Sweat started pouring down my face. Then my throat began constricting in such a manner that it was becoming difficult to breathe.

I quietly wiped the tears from my eyes with my napkin, trying to appear normal. That was when one of the Thais first took notice that there was something wrong with me. “Is everything all right, Dave?” he asked. I could see the growing concern on his face. I tried to answer that I had eaten something very “hot,” but the words would not come out. My voice had completely shut down. I was having great difficulty breathing. My entire throat and upper chest were out of control. Convulsions were beginning to erupt throughout my throat, as if my throat, completely on its own, was trying to expel the source of the heat. This was making it almost impossible to get a breath of air. I was strangling!

The man who had addressed me quickly broke into the group discussion. Suddenly all the attention was now on me. It was too late to do any further “damage control” to avoid embarrassment. I could not even swallow the spit in my mouth, which was flowing like water, probably a reaction to the intense heat. I was choking on my own saliva! This situation had become critical!

The man who had first addressed me jumped to his feet, quickly came around the table, and escorted me to the bathroom. We spared no time. All of the others followed. Clearly, everyone was extremely alarmed. We went right to the toilet. The man told me it was crucial to “toss it up as quickly as possible, and to make sure I got all of it out. This was not difficult. By this time, the convulsions had extended all the way down into my stomach. The chili was even hotter the second time it passed through my already burning throat!

I remember seriously wondering if I would ever get another breath. My first breath was so shallow, it seemed almost insignificant in satisfying my need for oxygen. I had been in this situation several times before, almost drowning once. Another time, when I was a kid, I sucked in a full breath of gasoline while trying to siphon gas from my mother’s car for use in my boat. It takes enormous self-control to gradually recover and regain one’s breath after an experience like this. First, you must take the smallest breath possible, just to get the respiratory system functioning again. Then, a little more each time, as the spasms will allow. All the Thais stood behind me while I recovered. One person stood with his hand on my back, speaking words of encouragement during the course of only a few minutes. I remember, all the while, wondering how I was ever going to recover from this embarrassment.

Afterwards, back at the dinner table, my hosts wanted an explanation as to what had occurred. First, I needed to recover myself a bit and regain a steady voice. Next, I drank lots of ice water. Eventually, I was ready to eat again. I guess I mainly wanted to show my hosts that I was all right, and that I could accept their hospitality — without it killing me!

After a while, I told them the whole truth of it: My not wanting to spit food out at their table; and trying to act normal, while almost strangling to death. I went through all the motions several times. I acted out the burning and gagging sensations (while trying to act normal) — kind of like a scene from “I Love Lucy.” They howled with laughter, which was probably an emotional reaction to the stressful experience for all of us. This made us very good friends. Now I could spit out anything I want on their table, if I wanted to. In fact, I ought to do it sometime just to see their reaction! Every time we get together we laugh about the experience — once again! They probably laugh about it a lot even when I am not around. Indeed, this experience created a bond between us.

There are a few valuable lessons to be learned in every bad experience. From this situation, I learned that it is better to be human than perfect. People are quicker to accept you when you are not afraid to show some vulnerability. When you freely allow others to laugh at your expense — without taking offense, you also make it easer for them to trust you and show kindness. I learned that you have to let your guard down to allow others to get inside of you. It is from that “inside ” inner core-of-being that meaningful relationships are formed.

 
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This story first appeared in Gold & Treasure Hunter Magazine
Sep/Oct, 1998 on Page 4. This issue is still available! Click here.

By Dave McCracken

“Discovering a King’s Ransom of incredibly rich blue stones in Madagascar!”

Dave Mack

sapphireI am writing this on my laptop computer from a comfortable and well-equipped base camp in the remote reaches of northern Madagascar, where the natural resources are very plentiful but almost completely undeveloped. The country was under control of a dictator until just a few years ago. Now, like many other mineral rich countries free from the iron grip of communism, and eager to catch up with the western world, this country is allowing mining exploration companies to locate and help develop its very rich resources.This country is verypoor; especially in the rural areas, where much of commerce, and even people, are still being transported around on wooden carts being pushed or pulled by barefooted men:

The weather here is very, very hot. Blistering! I am sure to lose the skin off the back of my neck from several hours of exposure today, even with my safari hat on. The natives work directly in the hot sun all day, every day. It does not seem to bother them.

This country has never been explored for mineral resources with the use of modem technology. Most of the natives are not even using shovels! Most often, they use small metal salad bowls to excavate the sapphire-rich gravels from their digging holes. The gravels are loaded into burlap bags and carried long distances to the nearest water for processing. Sometimes water is miles away. Some miners process less than a cubic foot of gravel per day. Yet, they have bags of rich blue sapphires to show for their effort.

This morning, our guide took us out to a small digging area close to this camp. There has been a substantial rush of Malagasy miners into this area because of a very recent sapphire discovery of huge proportions. As the discovery continues to be defined and developed over the coming months and years, it will likely evolve into one of the largest sapphire finds in history.

We are fortunate to be here right at the beginning. No other western mining companies are here, yet. There are presently an estimated 10,000 (and growing) Malagasy hand-miners working in the field. But, the deposit is so large, they have not even scratched the surface. And because the truly-rich stones come from deep diggings, these hand-miners will need to settle for the surface deposits, which by themselves, are enormously rich.

Here follows an explanation of the commercial potential by my longtime personal friend and mentor, Sam Speerstra:

The small area we went to this morning was being dug by hand-miners less than a meter below the surface. They were turning up lots of nice blue stones, some of them large in size. The excitement was felt everywhere. Even young children were digging and pulling blue stones. It was explained to me that it only takes one good stone to support a local family for a year or longer. Such stones are being found every day by hand-miners. A truly good stone can set a family for life. These turn up often. But the best stones are found deep, where only heavy equipment can go. The largest sapphire found so far was discovered near here only several months ago! The native who found it, and all his heirs, are set for life!

Check out this video sequence that I captured during one expedition we made into the sapphire area. It shows how these simple and friendly people are pulling so much wealth from the earth:

While they also do the mining activity right alongside the men, it is usually the woman that are selling gemstones to local buyers (who are also mostly women). Clearly, the women in these remote reaches of Madagascar have the most business savvy. I captured the following video sequence of a short buying transaction. Watch how firmly this woman holds to her (high) price of $4 for a beautiful blue stone, despite the fact that she probably had to sell it at any price to feed her children that evening:

My client is the person who owns the commercial rights on a lot of this property. The local hand-miners are providing a very valuable service, even though they are removing millions of dollars worth of stones from his properties. Where local miners are finding great value at the surface, mechanized equipment will turn up a treasure trove of the highest-quality material upon bedrock, several meters below. One small mechanized operation has been recovering as much as 50,000 carats of sapphires per day along the bottom in just one area.

My clients expect to recover 370,000 carats of gem-quality sapphires out of just one small dig over the period of about a year. That is a conservative wholesale value of 15 million dollars for one small dig. Yet this is only a drop in the bucket. They are planning to launch several simultaneous operations; but they admit that they will never be able to effectively cover the vast rich deposits located on their concessions. The deposit is estimated to cover at least 100 square miles!

This afternoon we visited a boom town that has recently sprung up in this area. I would estimate this one town contains at least 5,000 people. The entire community has developed during the last several months solely around the sapphire mining. Hustle and bustle and excitement are everywhere. Big trucks and small vehicles of every kind and shape are flowing into the town from other locations to bring necessary supplies to support this activity. A lot of people are getting rich here, and are displaying their wealth. Gold jewelry is almost unheard of by the working class in Madagascar, where the prevailing minimum wage is less than ten cents per hour. But there is a lot of gold jewelry in this boom town; it is around people’s necks, on their arms, at shops along the very crowded marketplace, which is nothing more than bamboo and rattan huts by the thousands. Fortunately, I had my video camera with me and was able to capture the following sequence:

 

I saw one man tied to a tree with his arms fastened to his sides in the central part of the boom town. I assume he was caught stealing or jumping someone else’s claim. Justice is dealt out harshly and swiftly here. It is a good place to stay out of trouble!

Sapphires were being shown and traded everywhere in this boom town and elsewhere. In fact, I have not gone anywhere during the last week where people have not flocked to me, asking if I want to buy sapphires. Because we are white, and presumably rich, people are literally attacking us with their sapphires; handful upon handful of rich blue and green stones. I saw some the size of cherries, and am told they are being found much larger. Today, I could have bought buckets full! At one point this afternoon, I thought there was going to be a riot, or that we would be crushed by the sheer force of people trying to sell us these beautiful stones for pennies on the dollar of their actual worth. I was told to not take any money out of my pocket, for fear of a stampede. Sapphire buying under these conditions could be dangerous!

Some of the sapphires shown to me were absolutely breathtaking. They are like nuggets of blue, radiant, transparent beauty. Mesmerizing or hypnotizing, these stones are really getting to me. I have felt gold fever in my previous exploits. I was struck with treasure fever a few years ago on a dig in Central America when we uncovered a hoard of pre-Columbian gold treasure. But sapphire fever is something else altogether. Maybe it was a combination of a number of factors — perhaps the high excitement level of all those people pushing these incredible stones at me. But the way the sapphires radiate a sea-blue color when held in the light creates a captivating lure which is very hard for me to overcome. Every uncut stone is different, each with its own radiant life-light and individual character. Short of actually being there to experience it directly, this following video sequence is the best I can do to demonstrate how beautiful these stones are:

Since I am here at the bequest of clients, I have behaved myself and focused on capturing some of the experience with my camera. I have to close now because we are getting ready to plan tomorrow’s events, which, I am certain, will be every bit as exciting as today. Tomorrow we will visit a place where several thousand hand-miners are digging their fortunes with nothing more than salad bowls!

****** Following day:

Tonight, despite my exhaustion, I cannot shake the excitement from what we witnessed today in the sapphire diggings.

I thought the last few days were blistering! Today, to get to this new discovery, it was necessary to hike several miles up a rather steep incline to the top of a mountain plateau, where literally thousands of hand miners are working a newly-discovered shallow sapphire deposit of enormous proportions. It must have been 120o F in the shade! Unfortunately, there was little shade to cover our ascent of this mountain.

We were traveling light, though, compared to the hundreds of local supply couriers who were hauling materials up the mountainside to support the extensive mining activity happening at the top. I saw people carrying huge loads, mostly of food and basic supplies. Even the younger, stronger couriers were sweating today.

At the top, we found yet another sizable boom town of at least a thousand people. There were restaurants and shops of all sorts. Three weeks ago, there was almost no habitation here. This shanty-town has been erected along both sides of the trail, just on the down mountain-side of a big strike. Excavation pits are everywhere, all throughout the town, and even along the narrow trail. My first thought was to make certain to be off the mountain before dark. Some of the excavation pits had no bottom in sight. What a shock to fall in one of those pits at night while looking for the bathroom! What bathroom?

I captured the following video sequence, which was taken at a water (mud) hole where women and children are processing the sapphire-rich gravels that are being packed in from miles away on the backs of miners:

We did not nearly reach the top before local miners started approaching us with their stones. Local stone buyers were around everywhere, as this is where stones can be purchased at the lowest price. The miners came to us in hopes of receiving more money for their labor. So we were slowed down a great deal by the scores of miners who wanted us to have a look at what they had found. This did not conflict with our mission, though, because we went there for the exact purpose of seeing what the local miners are finding. There is no doubt the local miners are finding impressive volumes of rich blue sapphires!

I captured the following video sequence of even children wanting to sell us handfuls of beautiful stones:

The diggings were so extensive that we could have easily devoted an entire week up on that single plateau and not see it all. We picked only one erosive canyon to explore on this day, and it kept splitting off over and over again, with mining going on up every split that we saw. So we only touched upon a small portion of the diggings.

Most of the excavations were small in size, with a bottom in sight. I think the reason for this is that the dirt and gravel must be packed out of the holes. At the point where the hole becomes deeper than three meters, the material needs to be taken out in buckets on ropes. This takes additional helpers. I am assuming the miners must have decided that it is more efficient to dig out of shallower holes. And digging they were, everywhere we went!

This arrangement makes my clients very happy, since the pothole method assures less than a third of the surface deposits are being worked, and almost none of the deep deposits, where the truly rich stones lie waiting. I say only a third of the surface deposits; because in their haste, the local miners shovel their tailings and waste material over about two thirds of the ground while digging their pits. Then, rather than dig through their own tailings again, they move on to a new location once an excavation pit becomes too deep to work efficiently. There is no shortage of new places to work. People were digging everywhere, with everyone we saw having sapphires for sale.

Here follows just one of many buying sequences that I captured on video today. It shows world-class gemstone specialist, Tom Banker, pay a local miner the price he was asking for a rich, blue stone:

The upside for my clients is that they can follow up in the abandoned diggings of the hand-miners with near certainty of making an easy fortune using mechanized earth-moving equipment. Here, Sam Speerstra explains how the geology of the area has caused the sapphires to form rich concentrations:

We did, however, see several deep digging operations today. One had miners down in a very deep hole, using buckets and ropes to get the dirt and gravel to the surface. We were told the excavation was over 30 meters deep. This group had the biggest and highest-quality stones we saw all day.

Here follows a video sequence showing Tom checking out one of the largest sapphires we bought today. I paid the full asking price of $100 for this stone. Tom says it will weigh 7 or 8 carats after it is cut and polished in Bangkok:

I saw one miner going into a deep, narrow hole with a lighted candle in his hand to illuminate his work area. He was smiling. Going down into that small, unsupported crawl-hole, I would not have been smiling no matter how rich the sapphires! My clients asked if I wanted to capture the underground diggings. But fortunately, the batteries for the light to my video camera were not charged. Too bad!

Another larger group of hand-miners had apparently tapped into some kind of natural cave system, saying that they were excavating several kilometers into the earth. They also had very rich stones to show for their effort.

Man, did we see sapphires today! Handfuls! Bucketfuls! And some big ones! Beautiful, radiant sea-blue. I love sapphires! I never paid much attention to them before. Now I want to have some for myself. Big blue ones that radiate that special magic feeling…Check out this following video sequence, and I think you will understand what I mean:

I am told this new area we visited today has sprung up over the past three weeks. My clients surveyed this area a month ago, and say there were only just a few miners, and no town existed there before. Now the place is crawling with people. I am told this very same thing is happening all across a very large geographical area.

This adventure is just beginning, and I look forward to future visits to follow the development of this magnificent find.

 

 

By Dave McCracken

Being first into northwestern Cambodia to have a look at the gold, ruby and sapphire deposits!

Dave Mack

 

We were really in Cambodia for another purpose. Our earlier gold prospecting efforts in north-eastern Cambodia warranted a follow-up expedition with an 8-inch production dredge. While we were waiting in Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital) for the dredge to clear Customs, there was a big shake-up in the Khmer Rouge rebel regime. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, was captured and placed under arrest by his own generals. The 30-year civil war was finally over!

 

Several of the key Cambodian players involved with our dredging operation were originally from the Pailin area of northwestern Cambodia. Pailin is well known as one of the richest gem areas in Asia. It has also been the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime since the early 1970’s, protected and defended by six million land mines. While we were waiting for customs to clear our equipment, old acquaintances from Pailin reestablished friendly relations with the Cambodian officials associated with our program. Pretty soon, we were involved in serious negotiations, and we were being encouraged to make an expedition up into northwestern Cambodia to take a firsthand look at the gold, ruby and sapphire deposits.

 

Our invitation was extended from the top officials controlling the area. We were provided with substantial security and invited to stay in the home of one of the area’s leaders. Vehicles were provided to us, along with guides. It was clear from the beginning that our expedition was well organized and planned.

  

 A small family operation, where a gravel pump was being lowered off a tripod
to excavate gravels onto a classification screen for gem recovery.

The first thing I noticed while traveling into the area was that they love Americans. During our entire stay, I did not see anyone who did not greet me with a heartwarming smile. Many people cheered when they saw us, as we were the first Americans into this region of Cambodia in about the last 30 years. Several generations of people there have never even seen an American before.

We were stopped at the final security stop for a passport check. I gather that is something they seldom do when you are being escorted by colonels and generals who are carrying documents signed and stamped by the highest level of government. I think the guards were so surprised to see us, they wanted to check what planet we were from! After looking at our passports, we were waved through with big smiles and cheers from all the border guards.

A Vietnamese tank which did not survive the mine fields alongside the road to Pailin.

On the road to Pailin, the United Nations was already busy removing land mines. It appeared as though there were hundreds of specialists removing the mines. We were told that because the mines cannot be located with metal detectors (because there is no metal in the mines), the mines were being pinpointed by using some type of sophisticated electronics from airplanes above.

Once we arrived at our destination, we were warmly received by the top officials (and their many soldiers and bodyguards) with a celebration that lasted far into the night. During the following days, we were given a substantial tour of the ruby and sapphire fields. Most active mining was very small-scale and primitive.

But the product being recovered was clearly rich and abundant. We saw some small hydraulic mining operations in the ruby fields, where the miners were recovering a lot of stones, while processing just a little bit of gravel. We saw simple panning and screening hand operations, where the excavation was being done underwater with buckets. They were recovering handfuls of rubies.

As gemstones have a much lower specific gravity than gold, we were mindful that suction dredging for them was going to require a special recovery system.

  

Cambodians give a new meaning to the term “hand mining!”

In one area, local officials were demonstrating for us how rich the area was using a gold pan. Then, one of the soldiers reached down and grabbed a single handful of gravel off the surface of the river-bottom. He came up with three rubies. Pretty soon, all of the soldiers were doing it. They gave the rubies to me. It didn’t take long to fill up a whole bag. It was pretty convincing to me! The rubies were small. My understanding is the deeper you go into the gravel, the more plentiful they become and the bigger they get.

The problem for the local miners is that they cannot excavate more than about a meter deep, because they are using buckets in moving water. We were told most of the bottom stratum of gravel in the rivers have not yet been mined.

    

Fine material is screened out and then gems are hand-picked from the screen.

All the same, I saw some fantastic gems-one ruby about the size of a baseball! They offered to sell it to me at a wholesale cost of one million dollars. Unfortunately, I was not carrying that kind of cash with me.

The annual rains were just beginning as we finished up with our expedition. Besides establishing that valuable deposits do indeed exist there, we were able to make friends with the people who control the area, along with many others. Naturally, we are invited to return with dredging equipment.

This preliminary evaluation was very successful, even though it was done with almost no planning in advance. Based upon the information that we gathered, though, we would be able to do good logistical planning in advance of our next project into the area.

 
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By Dave McCracken

“A Preliminary Evaluation”

Dave Mack

Note: This is the non-proprietary portion of an initial report from a preliminary evaluation of a potential suction dredging project in Northern Sumatra (Indonesia). The opportunity to do something with this prospect still exists. The evaluation was done in April of 2005. The gold values have been modified to reflect gold prices in mid 2010.


This project is located on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, directly to the west of Singapore. I arrived there by flying to Singapore, and then by taking a 1-hour boat-ride to Batam Island (Indonesia). From there, I caught a flight to Padang. Padang is the capital of Western Sumatra. At the time, this was a better connection than trying to fly directly to Padang from Singapore.

A representative from the company that hired me was waiting at the airport in Padang. We then drove 2 hours north to a place called Bukittinggi where they have a home and office. The company manager was already up at the base camp. They had arranged for a driver to bring me up there on the following day.

Bukittinggi is a lot like the towns we have in the West. In fact, as shown in the following video segment, if it were not for the different language on the signs, this city could easily be mistaken for almost any town in America.

The roads and other infrastructure in western Sumatra are pretty darn good. The people seem nice. Things are relatively inexpensive. English is not spoken very much, but the people are forgiving and do their best to help figure things out.

The location of this project was situated about a third of the way north to Medan (from Padang). Medan is the capital of northern Sumatra. It is the second-largest city in Indonesia.

There is a good road that leads to the project-area and follows alongside the river. So accessibility to the river is generally very good.The following video sequence was taken as we were driving north to the project site. You will notice that they drive on the left side of the road in Sumatra:

The river is about the same size as the Klamath River in northern California, but will reduce in size as the dry season progresses. The river is flowing with clear water. Although, visibility can be lost during the afternoons if local miners are sluicing upstream (more on this follows).

During my visit, the river was ideal to sample using a 5-inch dredge. Productiondredging or volume sampling could easily be accomplished using 8-inch dredges or larger.

There are regular access-points to the river from the road along the river. And there are small villages along the road where local miners and other laborers or helpers and various services and supplies are available at relative low cost. Power and land-line telephone appear to be present along the entire road.

As the speedometer was not working on the vehicle that we were using, I did not get an exact mileage-count on the amount of river that is available to this project. But it is safe to say that there is at least a 20-mile stretch of readily-accessible gold-bearing river where local small-scale miners are actively recovering gold.

Our client has hired a local administrator from the main town along the river. The local administrator has arranged permission to temporarily set up a base camp in a vacant house which is owned by the government. The house and property are ideal for a base until other arrangements can be made. There is a small store and restaurant on the property. There is some storage. The house has several comfortable bedrooms, electric power, bathrooms and a dining room. The local cook does a good job. It is a comfortable setting. The base camp contains all of the basic structure needed to support a gold dredging project.

  

Local communities are generally Muslim. Friendly. I did not detect a single bad feeling from anyone during the entire time that I was on the river. There was actually a lot of friendly interest, because white folks are not often seen in these parts.Here is a video sequence I captured in a nearby, larger-sized community:

  

It will be important to be mindful of possible cultural differences, though. Any westerners brought in to assist with this project will need to be careful to not disrupt local tranquility. Hiring a good, local administrator will be important so that we can facilitate communication in a positive way. Interpreters will be important in key places where local labor is being directed or managed by outsiders.

Our client has done a great job putting the basic support structure in place.

My client is a mining engineer from Europe who settled in Sumatra and has devoted the past 20+ years locating and developing mineral opportunities there. We have worked together on several projects in the past, two which were located in Borneo (Indonesia), another in Cambodia.. He has been involved with numerous different types of projects which I will not go into here. He is very experienced at working in Sumatra. He understands the culture(s) and he speaks the languages.

One interesting thing at the moment is that my client has also recently located an important iron-ore discovery in the same area. He is in the process of quantifying the deposit with a company of consulting-geologists that are based out of Jakarta. I was fortunate to meet the Director of this consulting-group during my visit. They are doing exactly what we have in mind: They are mapping and certifying reserves of proven mineral deposits in a manner that the final documentation can be placed on a bankable balance sheet.

While pursuing the iron-ore program, my client observed that the locals along the river were actively sluicing for gold. So he asked me to come over for a look. This was my first trip to this particular area of Sumatra.

Local Mining Activity

I observed three different methods of active gold mining occurring along the river:

 
1. Panning gravels from the gravel bars alongside the river.

2. High-banking the river gravels from the gravel bars in and alongside the river (description follows).

3. Panning river gravels that are being extracted from the bottom of the active river by divers (referred to in this report as “dive-miners”).

I could also see the telltale signs of past high-banking activity in placer diggings alongside the river not far downstream of the main town. My client’s local administrator told me that he believes the richest area along the river is upstream of the main town. That portion of the river extends away from the main road. I did not get a look at it on this first visit. He says that gold nuggets as big as several kilograms in size have been found up there. But, because local miners have no means to deal with the larger boulders, they mostly do their mining further downriver where we saw them operating.

I observed a of dozen or so active panning operations along the edges of the river where locals are panning surface gravels.

  

I also observed around a dozen active high-banking projects. Most of these projects are being accomplished with the use of two motorized pumps. One pump is used to suck ground-water out of active excavations, lowering water levels so that workers can excavate bottom gravels. The other pump is used to create suction through a 4-inch PVC (plastic) suction pipe. Material is washed down to the intake-pipe at the bottom of the excavation, sucked up and directed through a primitive (very) sluice box that rests on stilts out of the water. These pumps allow gravel-material up to (approximately) 3-inches in size to be passed through the pump.

Local miners are building wing dams, which allow them access to gravel out in the active waterway.

Local miners are actively wing-damming (building a barrier to direct the water around an open excavation) around shallow places in the active river where they want to mine. They then pump the excess water out of open excavations, while processing gravels out of them. Whole teams of local miners (as many as 20+ people) are working together in these high-banking projects.

The downside is that tailings-water from some of the high-banking projects is allowed to flow back into the active waterway. This eliminates water visibility for some distance downstream. Depending upon where you go, underwater visibility can be lost by mid-afternoon. But even in those places, there remains an opportunity to do underwater work starting early in the morning – or possibly doing night operations with the use of flood lights from the surface. Or by dredging upstream from active high-banking operations.

Dive-miners on a floating platform

I also observed some mining activity where local divers are bringing up gravel from the bottom of the river and panning it at the surface. These divers do not have access to the right kind of air compressors for underwater breathing, so they are free-diving (holding their breath while diving down under the water) to excavate bottom-gravels from the active river. Because of this, their production-capability is severely limited. All of the dive-miners I observed were bringing gravels to the surface with the use of metal cooking pots.

As the purpose of my first visit to this river was to confirm the existence of potentially-viable gold deposits within the active river, these dive-miners are the ones we decided to spend some time with.

Local dive-miners carve their diving goggles out of hardwood or bone from some kind of big animal. Lenses are made from glass that is glued onto the goggles with epoxy. The goggles are attached to a diver’s face with a strap cut out of a piece of tire-inner tube rubber. There is no face-seal, and there is no way to equalize pressures inside the goggles. This creates a natural limit to how deep dive-miners can go beneath the water’s surface.

Nevertheless, local dive-miners are diving down to around three meters and bringing up gravel. And the gravel contains a lot of gold in proportion to the volume of gravel that is being processed. The local gold-buyer told us that around 5 kilograms of gold are being bought every day from local miners along this river. The going price is around $44 per gram. If the gold-buyer is telling the truth, that amounts to around $220,000 in gold.

To put this in perspective, a 10-inch dredge in experienced hands, with some underwater visibility, should be able to process about as much volume as all of the mining activity combined that I observed along the river.

All of the local miners we spoke with agreed that the richest gold is located in the deeper-water areas of the river where they are not able to reach using their methods. While divers can get underwater, they do not have the technology to excavate the deeper-gravel deposits that exist down there. A person can only get so much accomplished using a cooking pot on a breath of air!

So unless they are lucky enough to find rich deposits in the shallow spots along the edge of the river, existing technology available to local miners generally does not allow them access to the higher-grade areas located along the river-bottom. For the most part, local miners are working average gravels along the edges.

Confirmation

All of the images of the mining activity that were initially sent to me by my client showed high-banking activity that was taking place outside of the active river.

Sometimes, there can be high-grade deposits being mined alongside the river; but local conditions (deep gravel, dirty water, etc.) do not allow for a viable dredging opportunity within the active river. Therefore, the main purpose of my first visit to this area was to establish if there are high-grade gold deposits inside the active waterway, and to assesswhether or not we can perform a production dredging program there.

  

Approximately 5 miles downstream from the main town, we found a company of around ten local dive-miners who were swimming down to bring up gravel from an underwater excavation. We observed that they were recovering a substantial amount of gold in proportion to the small volume of gravel being processed. As this was an excavation project inside the active waterway, my client and I made a quick plan to complete our initial confirmation while working with this group of dive-miners.

After spending a little time getting to know these dive-miners, one of their leaders offered to take us on a short tour and show us some of the richer areas where they had done some dive-mining along the river. He showed us several places where he said their team-program had recovered as much as three ounces of gold per day at times. Each place he showed us was consistent with the types of areas where we find high-grade pay-streaks on the Klamath River in northern California.

According to our guide, the combinations of water-depth and/or gravel-depth usually prevent dive-miners from pursuing the richest deposits in the river.

  

This river is very similar to the rivers that we dredge in California. There are regular directional changes, a steady drop, and fast-water areas in the river, which create the natural diversity required to form high-grade pay-streaks. There is plenty of bedrock showing and deep water pools.

Our guide told us that the river gravels pay in gold-values starting from around a foot below the surface, all the way to the bedrock. He said the richest gold is often on the bedrock, and sometimes they can see gold inside the cracks when they are able to get down that far. He said that 1 and 2-gram gold nuggets are not uncommon. He said the biggest nugget he personally found was 10-grams (32.1 grams to the troy ounce).

In anticipation of the eventual need, several years ago, I shipped a T-80 air compressor, a dive-regulator and the required air-fittings over to this client in Sumatra from California. He arranged to mount the compressor with a small Honda motor. We brought that diving gear along with us on this trip.

So after getting to know our guide on the river, we volunteered to use the compressor to help his company of dive-miners excavate gravels from the deepest part of their ongoing excavation. I offered to allow them to keep all the gold we found, as long as we could buy it from them at the going price. They readily agreed. The purpose of this was to allow me the opportunity to get a direct look at the streambed conditions from which we would recover the gold, and to allow me to measure the amount of gravel that we would process so we could place a relative value on the raw material.

It did not take long to get me into the water, where with the use of a cooking pot as a digging tool, I started filling a wash-bucket with gravel from the bottom of their ongoing excavation. Filling up buckets with material underwater is a pretty slow process. It required three gold-panners to keep up with my progress.

The existing excavation from this company of dive-miners was pretty substantial, considering that progress was being accomplished using cooking pots while free-diving down to around three meters of water. They had worked down a face of bedrock along the edge of the river to around 6 or 7 feet into a semi-hard-packed streambed material. They had not yet reached where the bedrock bottomed-out (where the highest-grade material should be located). Even so, I did see some gold flakes in the bedrock along the face that they are following.

According to the dive-miners, they have been working that specific excavation for 2 months, and had so far recovered around 2 kilograms of gold ($80,000.00). To put the size in perspective, we could open an excavation that size in about half a day using a 10-inch dredge. Opening an excavation is much slower than continuing one that is already opened up. Conservatively, the local dive-miners had recovered 2 kilograms of gold in about 25% of a day’s ongoing production using a 10-inch suction dredge.

The local gold buyer weighed the gold recovered from our 20-bucket sample and offered to buy it for approximately $25.00 (US) in local currency based on the daily price of gold on April of 2005.

Since I was able to stay deep using the compressor, I extracted gravel from the bottom of the hole. I brought up 20 buckets of material, which were carefully panned by several helpers from the local mining team. In all, we recovered 1.1 grams (around $48.00) from my sample. This amounts to approximately $2.40 (US) per bucket at current gold prices. This was a typical medium-sized wash bucket. A single 5-inch dredge would excavate the volume of material contained in a wash-bucket in several seconds. A 10-inch dredge would scarf it up in the flash of an eye!

The thing that makes this so interesting is that the gravel I brought to the surface, for the most part, was material which had been sliding down into the bottom of the hole from the upper-side of the excavation. Although I did get some material that adjoined the bedrock on one side of the hole, I was forced mainly to extract gravel that was sliding down into the hole from further up in the excavation. The nature of scooping samples with a cooking pot underwater is that you take whatever you can get. Unlike dredging, you do not have an option to move top-material out of the way to get down to more productive stream layers located deeper in the river.

At the same time that I was taking samples from the deeper part of the excavation, the other dive-miners from the local company were bringing up samples from shallower streambed material. While I did not add it up, I did observe that their pans seemed to have just as much gold as we were getting from deeper in the hole. Most of the material I brought to the surface slid in from the shallower area where the other dive-miners were working.

While it still remains to be confirmed from a more organized sampling program using a suction dredge, this preliminary indication, along with the information given to us by these miners, indicates that the average gravels in this river almost certainly do contain commercial gold value.

More often, we are accustomed to finding that average river-bottom gravels carry non-commercial gold values, and that it is necessary to locate the high-grade gold deposits which usually form in the contact-zones between flood layers or on top of the bedrock. The existence of commercial gold-value in average gravels likely means that the pay-streaks will be even higher-grade.

We have confirmed that commercial gold deposits can potentially be dredged from this river. The next step is to follow up with a preliminary dredge sampling program.

Recommendations

First: I am suggesting to my client that he follow-up to see if exclusive commercial rights can be obtained for mining gold along this river. If so, I am advising him to arrange it as soon as possible. If the client is looking for a partner to develop the prospect, as long as the cost is reasonable, we can help arrange the financial resources to help pay for concession-rights.

Whether or not acquisition of exclusive rights (not excluding local mining activity) to develop the gold deposits along the river will affect the way we should proceed:

A. Quantification and marketing the proven reserves: If we can obtain the exclusive commercial rights, we should look hard at the concept of implementing a sampling program in concert with credible consulting-geologists to confirm and certify the existence of proven reserves. The purpose here would be to market the reserves to a larger public-traded mining company. In this event, we are prepared to help provide the funding and expertise to perform the sampling program. A good start would be to consider contracting with the same firm our client is using on the iron-ore project to perform the geological functions required to map and substantiate proven reserves.

B. Mining high-grade gold deposits: In the event that exclusive commercial rights on the river are not available, or a preliminary dredge-sampling survey convinces us that average reserves are not marketable, based upon what local miners are recovering from the river using primitive methods, it is a near certainty that money can be made using dredges to target high-grade gold deposits.

A preliminary dredge sampling program will be necessary whichever way we move forward with this project.

There would be several objectives in the preliminary dredge sampling program:
1. Determine if the average gold-values in the river will support a quantification program (outlined in A above) with the purpose of marketing proven reserves to a larger mining company.

2. Establish the value of high-grade deposits to get an idea how much money can be made from going right into commercial production.

3. Work out what recovery equipment will be needed to pursue either step A or B above.

4. Work out how we will harmonize a dredging program with local miners, general populations along the river, and others (government officials) who will take an interest in what we are doing.

It would be wise to allow no less than a month for the preliminary dredge sampling. To keep costs down until we confirm a commercial opportunity,if possible, I suggest we use the client’s existing structure as much as possible — meaning vehicles, local staff and the existing base camp.

To perform the preliminary sampling, we would need to hire several local dive-miners. I would like to choose them.

If possible, I would also like to hire an assistant/interpreter person who can stay with us throughout the project to help facilitate communication and coordination with locals. This might be someone that the existing geology-firm could provide. Having someone who is sincerely dedicated to projecting our intention and goodwill during the sampling project will go a long way to facilitate steady progress in the field.

Therefore, the next step is for us to find out:

A. Can we obtain exclusive commercial mining rights on the river? If so, at what cost?

B) Can we obtain permission to proceed with a suction dredge exploration program? If so, at what cost?

PumpsPumping systems used to support local high-banking operations.

If gaining permission to use a suction dredge is going to delay the project, we also have the option of proceeding with a system like what the locals are using in their high-banking operations. Just by adding an air compressor and an extended suction hose, we can adapt a sluicing operation (like what locals are using) to an underwater dredging program. In this case, we should allow a week to fabricate an improved recovery system. If we go this way, with just a little instruction, we can hire locals to do all or most of the work. So, for the most part, this would just be another local mining operation.

Having said that, using a floating dredge would be much more efficient for moving the gear around to each place that we want to sample. A 5-inch suction dredge in experienced hands will also out-produce one of those sluicing outfits about ten times over! Still, if necessary, we could get the preliminary sampling job accomplished using (for the most part) local equipment.

Dave McCracken
Underwater Mining Specialist

 
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This story first appeared in Gold & Treasure Hunter Magazine
Sep/Oct, 1996 on Page 14. This issue is still available! Click here.

By Dave McCracken

“Having the Gold Mining Adventure of a Lifetime!”

Dave & Alley
Author’s note: This story is dedicated to Alan Norton (Alley), the lead underwater mining specialist who participated in this project. Under very difficult conditions, Alan made most of the key dives which enabled us to make this a very successful venture.Alan lost part of his ear to a hungry fish one day; and the following day, Alan was making a key sampling dive again because we needed him to. There are very few people I know, if any, with more courage, dedication and enthusiasm to successfully complete a difficult mission than Alan.First came several Toyota Land Cruisers. Then, a couple of Isuzu Troopers, followed by a number of small pickup trucks. These were just in front of two large Russian troop carriers, all filled with armed troops. They came in on us fast, carrying along a big cloud of dust from the dirt road. Even before the vehicles came to a stop, soldiers were jumping out of trucks and running out to secure perimeter positions. They were carrying AK-47 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers and Chinese rockets. I had seen these guys before. I had fought with them, and I had fought against them. They had that unmistakable look in their eyes. They would kill with little or no provocation.

Once the perimeter was secured, three generals stepped out of their Land Cruisers and enthusiastically approached us, their personal bodyguards close behind. The generals looked friendly. Their bodyguards looked seriously unfriendly! The generals, whom we had not met until now, hurried right up to me and each of my men and gave us big hugs, hand shakes and slaps on the back, like we were long lost sons. The bodyguards stood there with machine guns pointed in our general direction, doing what they were supposed to do to ward off any potential menacing threat to their leaders–which, by the way, never crossed our minds. We did the natural thing; we acted like long lost sons!

We had not been in Cambodia even for one hour before we were packed into Land Cruisers of our own and driven to Kampong Saom on the coast–which was almost half way across Cambodia. The end of the dry season had caused the water levels in the Mekong River to drop so low that deep-water ships were no longer delivering cargo to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Therefore, it was necessary for us to go to Cambodia’s only other deep-water port in Kampong Saom to take delivery of five full ocean shipping containers of mining and additional equipment, supplies, boats and vehicles that had been shipped over there from America to support our project.

Since nothing happens immediately in Cambodia, we ended up spending about a week at a gorgeous beach while waiting for the shipping containers to be released by Cambodian Customs. Our hosts were taking good care of us. The hotel was comfortable, the beer was cold and the crab meat was freshly cooked on the beach–and it was all we could eat. In fact, we were just about getting bored. That’s when the generals showed up.

Isn’t it amazing how fast boredom can turn to fear? After hugs and handshakes, the generals agreed it was time for target practice. They had their bodyguards throwing beer cans out into the water so they could shoot at the cans. Pretty soon, lots of people were shooting at them. The few civilians that had been enjoying the beach scurried off quickly and respectfully. Everyone was laughing and having a good time except us. We were laughing, but not sure if we were going to be the next targets! It was all too much at once. We didn’t even know these people and they were all enthusiastically shooting their guns off. We were surrounded!

Pretty soon, one of the generals handed me some kind of machine gun I had never seen before and challenged me to shoot a fresh beer can. It was the only beer can remaining on the beach! This was a tough position for me to be in; those guys were not the best shots. I calculated whether I should try to out-shoot them, which might cause the generals a loss of face in front of their men, or to miss the can and perhaps lose their respect? On an impulse, I clicked the machine gun over to full automatic and fired a short burst to find a mark, adjusted slightly, and hit the can, knocking it up into the air on the second burst. No one had used automatic fire–probably to conserve bullets. All the generals burst out in a roar of laughter, followed by all their men. Deciding to quit while I was ahead, I handed the machine gun back to the general with the clip still half-full of bullets. That was the end of target practice and the beginning of my very warm friendship with that general. About a week later in Phnom Penh, this general and his very kind family, with great ceremony, adopted me as their number-one son.

The beach was just the beginning of 60 days of non-stop adventure which took me and three of my men from one end of Cambodia to the other in search of gold and valuable gems.

As it turned out, the generals were directly involved with this exploration project–which, by the way, was the first precious metal exploration project in Cambodia since the United Nations returned control of the country to a Cambodian coalition government in late 1991. During the course of the project, it became abundantly clear that our presence, and our successful venture, was very important to these generals and the Cambodian government. Cambodia is just getting back on its feet after decades of war and agony. The country is hungry for capital investment from the east and west. Successful ventures such as ours would help facilitate that.

Our project took place in northeastern Cambodia on one of the three main tributaries of the Mekong River. We were hired to help this operation put its suction dredging equipment into production and to help find high-grade mineral deposits.

The area is remote. In fact, it is the same area America bombed in the early 1970’s (with B-52’s) to prevent the Viet Cong from moving supplies on that portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. You just would not believe the number of bomb craters; I have never seen anything like it. In fact, up until the time of our project, I don’t believe a single bulldozer had visited that section of Cambodia since we bombed it! While these conditions probably never did slow down the Viet Cong very much, they certainly did slow us Americans down a lot! It took literally weeks for us to transport our equipment to the work-site. Trucks and trailers would disappear into craters and then come back out, one after the other, like a big roller coaster ride–only in slow motion–for hundreds of miles! It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen!

All the while, our security troops were worried about being ambushed by Khmer Rouge rebels–roving bands which were still occasionally shooting up taxis, burning bridges, robbing various business establishments and causing other acts of terror around the countryside. Our generals were very concerned to make sure there were no embarrassments on this operation. Therefore, they sent along a 300-man military force to provide security. Each of us was also assigned several personal body guards. They also issued each of my men and me our own machine guns–which we gladly took. You kind of feel naked without a weapon when everyone else is walking around with some kind of heavy fire power! Here follows some video segments that I captured of our interaction with our bodyguards and some of the troops that were assigned to our project:

By the way, the people of Cambodia are the kindest-natured people I have ever associated with. Everyone is very polite and friendly. Unless it is worth dying over, you never see an argument in Cambodia! During the entire 60 days of our project, there was not a single person I smiled at that I did not receive a heartfelt and sincere smile in return. They seem to genuinely like Americans. In fact, any product or item that says Made in America is in great demand in Cambodia–especially hats and insignia which carry American flags and symbols.

One night, we had to make an emergency dash through rebel-held territory so that we could meet a production deadline. We were driving like madmen through bomb craters, up and down, with grenade launchers and machine guns hanging out windows. Our security people were very concerned we would be ambushed. Better to be safe than sorry, I suppose. But, I never saw any direct sign of danger. Even so, the eminent concern–with guns and grenades pointed out windows, with everyone on moment-to-moment alert–created a charged atmosphere which we usually only experience on television in America.

We received incredible hospitality from native villagers in every community that we passed through or stopped to visit. Many villagers had never seen white men before. You have to remember that Cambodia, for the most part, lost an entire generation of people to the Khmer Rouge regime. Locals told us the ratio of women to men in Cambodia is five to one, because the men were either killed in war or murdered. That ratio is about how it appeared to me.

The equipment we sent there to use for sampling took a very heavy beating during the trip across Cambodia. The axles we mounted on the dredge platforms were badly bent from being dragged through hundreds of craters, and there was quite a lot of other damage, too. So we found ourselves staged for about a week in the last town before we would reach the river. This was a place where various supplies and services were still available. There, my men and I supervised final repairs and preparations for our sampling program. It is very challenging to do this sort of thing in an environment where most of your helpers do not think the same as you do, and do not speak any of your language:

Between the delays at Customs, the painstaking trip across war-torn Cambodia with the equipment, and the time we had to spend repairing gear at the final staging area, we only had about 2 weeks remaining to accomplish what we went to Cambodia for in the first place. A final distance to the river of 35 kilometers does not sound like very far; but in Cambodia, where anything and everything can go wrong; this last 22 miles still seemed like a long way to go. Even so, there was a lot of excitement when we had everything ready and began our final journey to the river from the last bit of civilization that we would see. The following video segments demonstrate the excitement that we were all feeling to finally get started on our dredge sampling program:

Along the way to the river, we started seeing lots of diggings alongside the road. We thought the holes were water wells at first, because they were perfectly round and uniformly about 2 ½ feet in diameter. Then we realized they must have been something else, because there were so many, and they were positioned so closely together. We stopped to take a look as soon as we saw some locals actively working inside one of the holes. These turned out to be sapphire miners! They were digging about 10 meters down to bedrock and recovering handfuls of pretty blue stones from the bottom gravels. These miners were selling their gemstones for mere pennies (Me and my guys were buying!). We found out these miners were from the Cambodian hill tribes; jungle dwellers that pretty-much are the same as they have been for hundreds or thousands of years. A number of humanitarian groups are now present in Cambodia attempting to prevent the modern world from impacting too dramatically upon these ancient tribal people. The following video segment captured some dialog that we had with a few of the sapphire miners. It presents a good example of how simple and kind the people are from the Cambodian hill tribes:

Immediately upon our arrival at the river, we realized that we had 2 serious problems to overcome. The first was that there was about a 10-meter drop from the bank down to the active river. There was no ramp or other simple way to launch the 10-inch dredge and special recovery platform that we brought with us for this job. Not wanting to use our security force for this, we immediately set out to hire around 30 men from the local hill tribe village to dig a ramp. That exercise took about 6 days to accomplish. So we were not going to have use of the big dredge until the final week of our project.

Our second serious problem was that the (sizable) river water was running mud-brown. We did not know it at the time, but there was some active dam construction happening upstream in Vietnam. The ongoing construction was turning the river to mud-water. That meant that we were not going to have any visibility underwater. There is a way to get the work done in dirty water; but besides the serious safety problems associated with dredging blind on the bottom of deep tropical rivers, you have to do everything by feel. This slows you down to just a fraction of what you can accomplish with some underwater visibility. This was going to be a difficult mission to accomplish!

All travel on the river from our base camp had to be accomplished by boat. The boat that we arranged broke down on our first trip downriver to survey the area. As it was just before dark on our return to camp, and the mechanical problem seemed pretty serious, we actually started making plans to sleep on a sand bar that was located out in the middle of the river, maybe 5 miles away from our camp. With no dinner and no shelter from the mosquitoes, it was a pretty bleak feeling out there. I captured the following video segment just as our guide was suggesting that we spend the night there on the sand bar. Fortunately, they got the boat motor operating just as darkness was almost complete. It sure felt good to finally arrive back at camp that night where there was a hot meal and perfectly good tent waiting for each of us:

While we were doing our initial survey downriver, we came upon a local river mining operation that was using a long-handled (about 15 feet long) shovel, suspended by a floating platform made of bamboo. This dredge was being used to excavate sand off the bottom of the river. The locals called this a “Vietnam dredge,” because the river mining technology had been imported by miners across the border in Vietnam. Almost the entire dredge was made out of materials from the jungle. Even the lines being used to tie off the dredge out in the river were made from jungle vines. The only part of the dredge we could see that was from our modern world was the head of the shovel. That looked to be fashioned from the car hood of a bombed-out jeep. This river location was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail. So there were plenty of bombed-out jeeps around, and some ruined Vietnamese tanks, too. In fact, there was a lot of painful history here!

Author and several team-members trying out a “Vietnam Dredge,” made from bamboo, which local miners use to bring gold off the bottom of the river.

Upon discovery of the local river mining program, we immediately took the opportunity to make friends with the local miners and the elders of their village. This is standard procedure anytime we are performing an preliminary evaluation in a new area. While their methods might sometimes be somewhat primitive compared to ours, I have found more often than not that hundreds (or thousands) of years of local mining experience has given the miners who occupy an area a strong perception of where the richest gold areas are located. We did not have much time remaining to make a rich discovery for our clients. Any head start the locals could give us would surely be a welcome development! Ultimately, the locals told us that their dredge was positioned along the strongest line of gold that they knew of in the river. That was a big help!

To get an idea of how much gold they were talking about, we accepted their invitation to go down and operate their Vietnamese dredge for a little while. The following video segment captured my guys running the local production equipment. It worked by pushing the shovel down into the sand, and then using a make-shift windless to raise the river-bottom material to the surface. There, local wooden gold pans were used to process the material:

While the local miners were recovering a fair amount of gold from the river-bottom sand deposits, their success did not appear to help us very much. This was because we wanted to sample for the high-grade gold deposits which are almost always located at the bottom of hard-packed streambed layers. In working their Vietnamese dredge for awhile, it did not take very long for us to realize that the long-handled shovel would not penetrate the hard-packed streambed material that was under the sand. Too bad!

5″ Pro-Mack Sampling Dredge

Still, knowing where local miners were supporting their villages with gold from the river gave us a starting point. The following day, we moved two 5-inch special sampling dredges onto the river some distance downstream from where the locals were mining, but directly in line with them so that we had a better chance of sampling on the strongest path of gold in the river

My guys were initially quite challenged by going down into the pitch blackness along the bottom of a muddy, tropical river. Because there is zero visibility down there, everything must be done by feel. This is not easy to do, because your imagination cranks up into overdrive about what might be lingering around down there to bite or eat you in the dark. Remember those horrific nightmares you had when you were a kid? That stuff doesn’t ever go away. The terror is still present; it is just buried. Going by yourself down to the bottom of a tropical river in total darkness, and having to feel your way around to figure out what is down there, energizes all you nightmarish fears right back to the surface. It is difficult to do what you are supposed to do down there with all this internal fear playing out inside of you! It takes courage and a lot of discipline.

So my guys challenged themselves with acquiring some preliminary sample results using the 5-inch dredges, while I was pulling the 10-inch dredge together and installing a special shaker table in the base camp that we would be needing to process large samples. The table needed to be anchored in concrete. All of this took several days. Time was running out!

On the second day of sampling, our lead diver, Alley Norton, touched down in some hard-pack and came up with a pretty good showing of gold. The following day, I encouraged Ally to go back down and open up the hole (get a bigger sample). We had to keep dredgers separated while sampling, to avoid someone getting smacked with a cobble being tossed in the dark. There simply is no way to tell where anyone else is when you are dredging in muddy water. Alley’s hard work and enthusiasm paid off. Considering how small his sample actually was because of the dirty water, he recovered a lot of gold! We had located high-grade!

I captured these following video segments towards the end of the third day of sampling:

As we had less than a week remaining to accomplish our mission, we all focused the next several days placing the 10-inch dredge and platform into the water. The local help had completed our launch ramp according to plan. Wow, was that a lot of work! Once the big dredge and recovery system were floating in the river, we still had to dial it all in to get it working right. This was particularly important with the sophisticated recovery system that we had brought along for this job.

Before opening up Alley’s discovery with a production sample, we needed to make sure the recovery system was working right. This all took another two days, because the large volume of sand from the bottom of the river was overwhelming the gravel pump that was supposed to transfer classified material to the recovery system. This problem required us to get very creative in the middle of the jungle. Through some trial and error, we constructed several water blasters to inject water into the feed of the gravel pump. This made sure that enough water was going into the feed to keep sand from packing up in there. While all of this took up valuable time, we had to get the big dredging system fully functioning before using it to perform the final production samples in Alley’s rich discovery

We only had 2 days remaining on the project when we finally floated the big dredge over Alley’s rich discovery. Talking about racing against the clock! So while Alley went down in 6 meters of underwater darkness to suck up the sample, I stayed up on deck to fine tune the dredge’s recovery system. You can only put one diver down on a big, powerful dredge in dark water. So our other guys helped where it was needed. Alley spent several hours opening up a large hole through about 2 meters of loose sand. Our plan was to first pump most of the sand off the hard-packed streambed material where Alley had found the gold. Then we were planning to flush the sand completely out of the recovery system before dredging up the pay-dirt. This was to minimize gold losses because of too much sand overwhelming the system at once.

We were making good progress on our plan. But about half way through the day, Alley climbed back onto the dredge with a lot of blood flowing down the right side of his head and face. A pretty sizable chunk of his right ear was missing and it was bleeding profusely! Blood was actually squirting out with the pulse of his heart! He said while operating the dredge’s suction nozzle on the bottom of the river, it felt like a submerged log with rough bark brushed by his head, scraping his ear. When he reached up to touch where the pain was coming from, he could feel that a part of his ear was gone. That’s when he came to the surface. Seeing all that blood and the bite out of Alley’s ear was very dramatic for everyone that was present.

Back at camp, we bandaged Alley up as best we could. We always bring a substantial medical kit with us on these projects. We applied antibiotics just to be safe. Alley said the pain was not too bad. He was mostly worried about how ugly it was all going to look later. I would have been worried about that, too! There wasn’t anything else we were going to do about that situation out in the jungle, though. So we decided to set aside that problem for another time. We were going to depart Cambodia in a few days, anyway.

Collectively, my guys and I decided it was wise to not do any more diving in the river until we found out what bit Alley. Whatever it was, there was a chance that we could still salvage the sampling project by wearing more protective gear while underwater. We still had one more day available to perform a final production sample!

As none of our bodyguards or the other military guys in camp seemed to have any idea what bit Alley, we decided to drive the motor boat up to the hill tribe village where the Vietnamese dredge was operating. We had already made friends with the villagers and elders there. Once there, we removed the bandage from Alley’s ear to show the elders, and they immediately knew what bit him. They told us that there is a fresh water blow fish that lives on clams at the bottom of the river. Apparently, this type of fish must have come alongside Alan’s head; and in the very poor visibility, thought his ear was a clam. One bite and there it went. The villagers assured us we would have no further problem with that fish if we started wearing hoods, gloves and full face helmets in the river while it was muddy.

Afterwards, we heard the story of one of our military men bathing naked in the river and losing his vital organ. Apparently, the man had just been married several weeks before. Luckily, we had been taking our showers up on the bank!

When we arrived at their village, the local people were busy preparing for a “grand celebration” that was to take place that evening. All of us were invited to attend, and it would have been impolite for us to decline their kind hospitality. The celebration turned out to be a funeral ceremony for one of their important elders who had died 3 years before. I have seen similar traditions in Madagascar, where the big celebration of someone’s life happens by the whole village several years after the person dies. These hill tribe people were busy decorating a whole shrine that would be dedicated to the person, carving all sorts of symbols relating to the important things the person lived through. Interestingly, the biggest symbols I recognized were American military helicopters and B-52 bombers. No doubt, the later part of the Vietnam war must have been a very traumatic time for these very simple hill tribe villages, with the Viet Cong using their river for a highway, and the Americans dropping thousands of tons of bombs all around.

These people seemed nothing but pleased to have us Americans present, so we accepted their invitation to participate in their party that evening. Indeed, the party turned out to be one of the most interesting events I have ever been part of. A center covered circle had been built for the people who wanted to express their grief over the loss of a loved one. Inside that area, there were around 20 people who were crying and almost howling in deep grief. Outside the circle, the rest of the village paraded round and round in a dance in joyous celebration of the person’s life.

My guys and I jumped in with the outer group. They were beating on different-sounding chimes to make their traditional music. The sound was so interesting that I captured it on tape. The occasion was something I am sure that none of us will ever forget. We were honored that they allowed us to participate in such an important tribal event. They were honored that we joined in with them. It was a wonderful bonding experience between us and remote villagers of the deep jungles of Cambodia. The following video segment and audio segment capture some of our hill tribe friends as they were preparing for the party, and then capture some of the music and feelings that we shared together that evening:

The following morning found our team back on the 10-inch dredge, preparing to perform one last production sample. This was our last day to accomplish what we went there to do. So much effort and money had been invested to transport this fantastic equipment halfway across the world, through some of the most difficult circumstances on the planet; only to finally arrive on our last day right over top of what appeared to be a very rich gold deposit.

It was so important that we get the best possible production sample, Alley insisted that he take the first dive. He had started the sample on the previous morning, so he knew the layout of the hole in the total darkness of the river bottom. Total darkness down there would have required either of my other two guys to spend valuable time figuring out what Ally had already done. As this gold deposit was really Ally’s personal discovery, we agreed that he would take the first dive of the day to open up his hole. I would spend that time dialing in the recovery system as well as I could. Then I would finish the sample during the afternoon with a second long dive. My other two guys were content to support us from the surface. I don’t think they were quite over the emotional shock of Alley’s blood and guts from the day before. Who could blame them?

As I knew this would be a memorable occasion that none of us would ever forget, I captured some video of Alley bravely overcoming his fears and going back down into the deep black hole that attacked him on the previous day, something very few people would do. You will see from the following video segments how good the production dredging equipment was that we managed to place on top of that rich gold deposit. I believe the recovery system was the most sophisticated that had ever been used with a suction dredge up until that time. It was truly a miracle that we ever got the equipment there, or that we found such a high-grade gold deposit under those difficult conditions. With all that we had been through, in my world, there was no other choice but to perform that final production sample:

After a few hours of diving, Alley came to the surface; because his ear was throbbing in so much pain, that he said he could no longer focus on what needed to be done on the bottom of the river. By then, the recovery system was dialed in as well as we were going to get it. So I suited-up and went down into Alley’s deep, black hole. This was actually my first dive on this entire project. During the week or so that we had been on the river, there were just too many other things that needed to be accomplished which only I could do to bring everything together in time for this final production sample. So there I was, taking the last and most important dive of the whole project!

I will never forget in military jump school, the first time I bailed out of an airplane. It was one of those situations where I really did not have much of a choice. But looking way down there at the ground made jumping feel totally wrong. My body did not want to do it. So it was necessary for me to flick some internal emotional switch, override my natural instincts, and just force the body to make the jump. Going down into deep muddy water is much the same; the body does not want to do it!

I have actually done quite a few dredging projects where it has been necessary to perform the underwater work in muddy water. It is never easy! Especially when the water is deep! It was around 6 meters just to the bottom of this dirty river. That is a long way to go down in the dark. I worked my way down there slowly by following the suction hose, which is where I knew that Alley had left off. When I reached the suction nozzle, I rotated my body around it in a circle, feeling around with my legs and feet to try and find Alley’s dredge hole. Letting go of the nozzle was something I was not prepared to do, because it was the only thing that gave me a reference point down there in the total darkness. Also, feeling around tentatively with steel-tipped work boots felt safer than reaching out in the dark with my hands!

I soon found that Alley’s hole was just off to one side of the nozzle. Experienced dredger that he is, Alley knew better than to leave an unattended suction nozzle down inside of a dredge hole in the sand. The walls never stop sliding in on sand-excavations or loose gravel. If you leave a suction nozzle down inside of one, within just a short time, the suction nozzle and hose will be overwhelmed and buried. That would have been the end of this project. There was not enough time remaining to dig a hose out of the sand in the dark!

Once I found Alley’s hole, I memorized where the suction nozzle was positioned several feet away, and then I followed the edge of the hole all the way around to get some idea how big it was. This was the hard part, because it meant that I had to reach out and feel everything with my hands. All that blood pouring down the side of Alley’s face the day before was vividly on my mind! There were creatures down there with serious teeth! Here is where I had to flick another fear-switch off and just do the work. These fear switches are not really turned off. They are just suspended. I speak from bad experience. Depending upon how many of your internal fear-switches are in suspension, it just takes one small event to turn them all back on into nightmarish panic and terror. I have been there. It is not fun!

Reaching out meant feeling out as far as I could outside the outer edge of Alley’s hole to make sure there were no boulders up there that would roll in on me in the dark. I did not find any. Slowly but surely, I explored all of Alley’s hole by feel. It was pretty big; maybe 30 feet in diameter at the surface, funneling down to a center point about 2 meters deep. Alley had pumped a lot of sand! Before I went down, he told me that he touched down on the hard-pack streambed at the bottom of his hole, but that the sand kept sliding in on him. So he had not been able to get a sample of the hard-pack, yet. This was for me to do!

I invested about 2 hours into taking a sizable cut off the front and one side of Alley’s hole, working the sand back step-by-step in the darkness. I wanted to uncover enough surface area of the hard-pack as possible. This was so that further sand-slides would not prevent me from getting a good sample of the hard-pack. With time, I started uncovering the hard-pack. This is where the loose sand met the cobbles, boulders and gravel that were tightly compacted together. Though I could not see it, it felt just like the hard-pack we dredge along our properties in California.

While the dredge was plenty powerful enough to pull apart the compacted streambed material, my progress was slow. This is because I could not see the oversized rocks that had to be moved out of the way, and I could not put my hands out in front of the nozzle in the dark without getting them hurtfully banged up. Mainly, I just poked around down there in the dark to suck up anything that would go up the nozzle. Each time a loose cobble would block the nozzle opening, I would wrestle it off and put it behind me. It was not long before I had more loose cobbles behind me than I could manage. It was too far to throw them out of the hole, and trying to pack them out would have caused more sand to slide in. So I just juggled everything around down there the best I could, determined to get as much of that hard-pack up the nozzle as possible. Ultimately, my progress became overwhelmed by loose cobbles in the hole and sand sliding in from the sides. I had not reached bedrock, but I did get a fair sample of the material that Alley had touched down upon with the 5-inch dredge several days before. By my measurements in the dark, I estimate that I sampled less than a cubic meter of hard-packed material. That was all we were going to get under those difficult circumstances. It was a good feeling to finish what we had traveled so far to do.

The guys turned the dredge down when I reached the surface. I had to wait at the ladder for the longest time to allow my eyes to adjust to the bright sunny day. As I was waiting, my guys were making a lot of enthusiastic noise about visible gold in the recovery system. When I finally was able to see again, I climbed up onto the dredge to see that the entire recovery system was inundated with a thick layer of small golden flakes. It was, by far, the most gold I have ever seen recovered out of such a small volume of gravel. This place was rich!

We had just enough time before dark to run our concentrates over the shaker table back at camp. Everyone there experienced an incredible feeling of pride. Under very difficult circumstances, against all odds, we stuck it out right until the last hour to make this project a success. Watching all that rich gold flow across the shaker table had all of us in awe about how rich this river is. Who would have ever guessed? Right there on the Ho Chi Minh trail! While I am sorry to have missed capturing the gold-laden recovery system on the dredge, I was able to recover myself enough to capture the following video segment of the final clean-up. To put it in perspective, our small sample caused that shaker table to flow gold like that for a full 15 minutes!

We returned to civilization the following morning, and departed Cambodia a few days later.

Follow ups:

A short time later, our clients met with some serious misfortune by aligning themselves with the losing side in a power struggle over who would control the government in Cambodia. While they survived the events, they have been banned from the country forever.

Shortly after my clients found themselves in big trouble, all of the equipment and supplies we sent over (that they paid for in advance) were taken away. The only thing remaining there today that shows we were ever even present is part of a steel frame from one of the large floatation platforms. Everything else is long gone.

The wars in Cambodia are now long over. The people there are very friendly. You do not see guns there anymore. People are focused on getting ahead in business. They want to be like America. The government is trying hard to attract foreign investment.

Nothing since our project has been done to develop the deposit that we located. Although the government of Cambodia has offered to make an exploration license available, I have yet to raise the high-risk capital necessary to go back over and do something about what we found

I made a special trip back to the site of our discovery 2 years ago. The bad roads have been replaced with a highway! Schools have been built in the village communities. The people out there were happy to see me. Most importantly, dam construction in Viet Nam was finished and the river was running clear!

While I was out there, I hired a local boat to take me downriver to see if anyone was doing anything with our deposit. Nobody was there. Even the Viet Nam dredges were gone! It appears that my guys and I were the only ones whoever really understood the significance of what we found there. Local miners cannot access the rich material using their technology. With clear water, we could process hundreds of times more hard-pack in a day than what I sampled down there in the dark.

The following video segment was taken in the very place where the earlier segment showed us operating the dredge:

Alley and his brother are now managing a successful concrete business in Phoenix, Arizona. He never did anything to fix the bite out of his ear. Now he says the tattered look gives him personality and character. Since nobody will believe he had his ear nearly bitten off by a clam-eating fish while prospecting for gold at the bottom of a muddy river in the jungles of Cambodia in the middle of a war along the ancient Ho Chi Minh trail, he now just tells people that his ear was bitten off by someone while fighting in a bar on the north side of Phoenix. That’s already more adventure than most people can handle!

Note: This story was pulled together from the non-proprietary portion of an initial report from a preliminary evaluation of a potential production dredging project in Northeastern Cambodia. The opportunity to do something with this prospect still exists.

 

 

By Dave McCracken

“Finding gold, and a little too much adventure, in the deep jungle…”

Dave Mack

 

This story is dedicated to one of the best and most loyal friends I have ever had, Eric Bosch. Eric and I started our dredging careers at about the same time. We formed a close, working partnership early on, which we pursued for many years together, from California, Canada and Alaska to the deep jungles of Borneo. Our fantastic adventures together were many and will always be cherished. I’m glad we survived them! Eric played an important roll in helping to start The New 49’ers, and he managed our commercial underwater mining projects and training programs for a number of years. He is the best and strongest gold dredger I have ever had the honor to work with. The best and richest pay-streaks I ever helped recover were always with Eric at my side, often while he was operating the suction nozzle when the gold was first discovered. Eric and his family are the most kind-hearted and dependable people I have ever known. There is no bottom to the amount of enthusiasm they will invest into any program they get involved with. It has truly been one of he greatest honors of my lifetime to share adventures with them.

I had a premonition that something was going to go wrong on this hunting trip. I had hunted wild boar with the Dyak natives before; but they had always killed the boar before I caught up. These Dyaks are extremely fast in the jungle with their bare feet. I could keep up with them for awhile. But when they started chasing their hunting dogs at a full run, almost straight up and down the sides of steep mountains, I was worried about having an accident and hurting myself. I did not want to take the risk of suffering the embarrassment of having the natives carry me four hours out of the jungle, rather than the meat that we came for. Now I was resting at the bottom of a narrow creek bed. All of the natives had run off.

The sound of the dogs was getting louder; they were herding the pack of wild boars directly down into my location!

It all started several years ago when a mining company hired one of my teammates and I to do a preliminary dredge sampling evaluation on some mining concessions they own in East Kalimantan (Borneo). We spent 30 days on that project and everything went perfect. During our time on the concessions, we found rich gold deposits and encouraged the company to follow up with another more extensive sampling project. The company which owns the concessions was more interested in lode mine development, so the dredging potential sat idle for several years. Finally, the company decided to allow a second party to come in as a partner to fund the dredging exploration and development. This was how we got back to Borneo.

  

Eric Bosch and the leader of a Dyak sampling team working on a sampling dredge.

The sampling project was going fine. However, since the Dyak natives have a standing policy to not work on Sundays, and there was nothing else productive to do with our project, I asked if they would take me with them on today’s hunting expedition. Of course, they agreed. The problem was in keeping up with them. They grew up in this hot, humid, thick jungle, steep-terrain environment. Keeping up took all my determination. I had expended a great deal of effort to create a mutually respectful relationship with these natives. I wasn’t going to lose it now by making them slow down or turn back.

We had hiked three and a half hours up a narrow creek bed without any sign of deer, bear or wild boar. The dogs work the side hills. If they locate a deer, they run it down and hamstring it. If they find a bear, they chase it down, surround it, and hold it there until the Dyaks catch up. The natives then assault the bear and kill it with spears. If the dogs get onto the scent of wild boar, they herd the pigs down to the creek bed and drive them at the hunters. As the pigs attack the hunters, the hunters dispatch the pigs either with spears or machetes.

“Never run away,” one of the hunters told me, “When the pigs come down on you, your only chance, your only chance, is to kill the pig. It is not difficult if you maintain a focused determinism. Never throw the spear; never even let it out of your hands. Never turn and run. Wait until the last moment when the pig is in range. Aim carefully for the vital spot just behind the front shoulder. You only have one chance. Otherwise, the pig will hurt you–sometimes very badly,”

I found myself remembering the hunter’s words as the frenzied sounds of the dogs grew progressively louder. They were coming my way fast. I could hear them running down the sides of the hills just above me. I had not planned on this. I held the spear a little more firmly in my hands, pointed in the direction in which they were coming. And I kept wondering, “What do I do if there is more than one pig coming at me?

What the heck was I doing here at this very moment? Was this stupid, or what? You know that feeling? It is complete regret of the present situation! That was the way I was feeling.

The abundant kindness and hospitality of our Dyak guides made it very easy for us to form lasting friendships.

Everything on the sampling project was going as planed. The company built huge, comfortable, fully-outfitted base camps in the jungle They even had satellite TV! Most preliminary jungle dredge evaluations I had done in the past were supported from fly camps. A fly camp usually consists of little more than a tarp suspended over a few branches constructed to keep most of the rain off us during the night–sometimes with a rough platform from freshly cut branches built off the ground. The natives don’t seem to mind the irregular sleeping surface of different sized branches. I prefer an air mattress–or the floorboards from a river boat. But this trip was luxury. We had cooks who created restaurant-quality meals. We had refrigerators and air conditioners. We had beds. There was not a mosquito alive inside that base camp! That was the problem; there wasn’t enough adventure.

Base camp had all the comforts of home!

I need a certain amount of adventure in my life to keep everything in balance. I have always been this way. While my life in California as a dredge miner for gold may hold more adventure than many people would be comfortable with, I have found that it is therapeutic for me to devote some time each winter doing mining projects outside of America. There is something all-encompassing about the jungle environment. A week or two in the jungle, and I find myself wondering if the other life in California is real–or something out of my imagination. Why is this? I think it is because the jungle environment requires all of your attention. The margin for error is very small. There is always some degree of danger. And even when there is little danger, the environment is completely different from the normal life-environment in California. This requires you (me) to focus all of your attention on the present. This releases you from all of the hundreds of other things and problems which normally occupy your attention. Most of your day-to-day normal worries are quickly forgotten in the jungle environment. This puts things back into their proper perspective. Later (as long as you survive the experience), you return home appreciative of the things that you have. For me, it is like a new lease on my normal life every time I return from one of these projects.

But there is such a thing as too much adventure. This is when dangerous conditions become so extreme that you are not sure if you are going to survive–or possibly crawl away with severe and lasting disabilities. Too much adventure brings out the feeling of terror and panic. I was feeling terror as I watched an 80-pound male pig round the bend in the creek bed just up in front of me. He was running for his life, the dogs just behind him. Just as he came into view he turned around and threw himself, snorting and squealing and biting at the dogs. Some dogs backed off, while others moved in on him from behind–as a team. The boar was no match for the pack of dogs. I found myself hoping, hoping, pleading with destiny, that the pig would be brought down by the dogs right there. But just as quickly as the boar turned on the dogs, he turned away and ran down towards me. Around 30 yards away, at a full run, he spotted me–an easy target–and he aimed himself directly at me, snarling, spitting and squealing in a killer rage.

My strongest inner voice was screaming at me to turn and run. I overrode that urge, held the spear tightly, pointed directly at the boar as he came at me…

He came fast and it was difficult to target the exact kill zone behind the shoulder. I felt like I might be better off just to make sure I hit him anywhere with the point. Then, at least, maybe I could hold him off me with the spear. As he came within range at a full run, I aimed the best I could and got him in the hindquarter. This caused him to scream bloody murder. I held him off me while he was goring at me with his tusks and snapping his jaws, trying to reach me, only inches away from my hands.

The dogs descended on the boar, biting him, snarling, in a frenzied attack; and I found myself more worried about being bitten by the dogs. Naturally, I backed off from the violence. In turn, the pig shook himself off the spear and hurled himself at me again. Only this time, in the confusion of backing off from the turmoil, I was in a retreat position and not able to hold the pig off. I was going to get it bad! I had never experienced such violent determination before. The pig was almost on me again as, backing up, I fell over a log onto my back and dropped the spear. I threw my arms over my head to keep from being bitten on the face or neck, expecting to get bit on the arm or the side. But it didn’t happen. Overcoming my fear, I looked up to see the pig only inches away, with the dogs having bitten into its hindquarters, holding the pig off of me.

Enough of this! My fear turned to anger and determined action. What was this lowly animal trying to take my life? I remember thinking, “Quit being a sissy, dude!” In an instant, I jumped to my feet, grabbed the spear, took aim to make sure I did not hurt any of the dogs; and with all my might, slammed the point of the spear down into the target kill zone of the pig. One last convulsive bite at the spear and the pig died. I remember thinking how easy it was to kill the pig when I finally just decided to do it.

Eric was back at camp separating the gold from our final sample results from the little remaining iron particles, so we could weigh and log accurate results and relate those back to the volume of streambed processed in each sample.

I stood there for awhile in a shocked daze, looking at the dead pig, a few of the dogs still biting at it. I had not noticed at first that the rest of the dogs had run off barking at something else. I found myself thinking how it would be to tell this story to my mining partner. Eric was at the base camp overseeing the final gold clean-ups for the previous week’s sampling results. Eric would appreciate the adventure and be sorry he didn’t take part. He likes to hunt even more than I do!

Eric and I had sampled several different concessions during this trip. The first area was a very remote location, requiring helicopter support of our operation. We decided that while the high-grade gold deposits were present, the cost of providing logistical support made it difficult to mount expanded sampling and production dredging operations.

Our Dyak helpers were always ready to jump in and try to do all the work.

  

Consequently, we found ourselves sampling a new group of concessions which were more easily and economically accessible by river boat. This new area was huge and showed excellent long-term potential. Fine gold seemed to be evenly dispersed throughout the gravels, hard-packed streambed strata and loose gravel alike. The fine-sized flakes of gold were present in every sample we took, from bank to bank in the river. We were looking hard at what kind of recovery system we would need to devise to recover this gold on a production-scale using suction dredges.

The company had six diesel-powered 8-inch production dredges located on this concession, along with all of the necessary support gear. They also had two unused 10-yard per hour placer test plants which utilized mechanical classification and jigs for fine gold recovery. Eric and I were feeling quite good about the promising results we were getting. The company could utilize the production dredges and placer plants for an expanded sampling venture and preliminary small-scale production operation. They could do exceptionally well in the areas we had already tested. Eric was doing the finishing work while I was helping our jungle guides put meat on the dinner table.

As I came out of my stupor in the creek bed, I realized that I was just standing there in a daze while the dogs were already herding another wild animal down at me. Could I do this again? Barks, squeals and the stampeding sounds of animals racing down the hillside were getting louder by the moment. It was another wild boar, a small one this time. But he came at me just the same as the first, in a mad rage, wanting the taste of my blood. This time, at a distance from any emotion, I stood my ground, took aim at the kill zone and nailed the pig on the first try. It was really just a baby compared to the first one; no great kill. But he was after me, just the same. And I got him. What a relief!

Returning to base camp in a long boat with the meat from my kill and the hunting dogs

Just that fast, the dogs were gone again, and I could hear the natives yelling and whistling just up the hillside. Then the familiar barking again. Was this ever going to end? Another crazed pig rounded the bend. This one was a female (no tusks). The dogs and the Dyaks were right behind it, yelling and whistling. But the pig never turned. It ran right down on me. I could see the fear and apprehension on the faces of my Dyak friends. They figured that pig was going to eat me alive! But, I had already been through the gauntlet twice. My emotions returned. I stood my ground. In my own killer rage, at the exact right moment, I raged back at the pig, driving the spear into its heart. The pig died quickly. The Dyaks stopped, seeing the look in my eye, the other two dead pigs, the blood on my hands; and that immediately changed their assessment of who I was. Almost immediately, they were laughing and shouting and dancing all around me and the pigs. This was a momentous occasion for all of us.

Ah, California–what a great place. I might not even need to go anywhere this winter, even though I am presently writing proposals for a preliminary evaluation in West Sumatra.

Since returning home with stories of this hunting adventure, my friends and family keep asking if I plan to hunt with the natives during my next trip. My answer is that I may help them hunt for pigs, but definitely not for bears!

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