Odds ‘n’ Sods: Surviving Soviet-style exploration

Project geologist Yasar Daglioglu at a field camp in Yemen. Photo by Ralph Rushton.

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe was a rich hunting ground for mineral exploration companies. In the mid-1990s, I was part of a small, enthusiastic team assembled by Anglo American under the banner of its subsidiary, Minorco. Anglo essentially gave us carte blanche and a decent budget to conduct reconnaissance exploration along the Tethyan belt from Hungary through to Pakistan, with the odd ad hoc side trip to visit other regions of interest.

The Soviet-style exploration carried out under communism was pretty bloody awful. The metallogenic theories applied were, to say the least, iffy, and pretty much all exploration results were regarded as state secrets. From our conversations with the geologists we hired, both young and old, project information was rationed by the higher-ups, so the underlings never really got to see the whole picture — it was need-to-know stuff, and according to the prevailing political dogma, the juniors didn’t need to know. Any half-decent field geologist will tell you that you can’t explore blind with your hands tied. You have to know the target concept to be able to confidently assess the full data sets.

To make matters worse, whole geographic and geological regions were designated by the communist grandees as prospective only for specific commodities; such-and-such area was a lead-zinc province, for example, so the teams weren’t allowed to explore or assay for anything else. We regularly came across drill core from projects that had only been assayed for a single metal at the expense of a whole suite of other potentially economic ones. The net result of their ill-conceived and poorly executed programs was that we found ourselves working in highly prospective belts that had never been explored using modern metallogenic concepts or techniques.

A market in Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen. Photo by Ralph Rushton.

In the late 1990s, I was in Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. I was helping to establish a field office for a program to evaluate parts of the country for zinc-lead systems. We knew of at least one zinc oxide project, called Jabali, in northern Yemen, and, at that time, zinc oxides were an intriguing target for companies that had access to the acid-leach technology needed to treat them.

On our first fact-finding visit we travelled extensively around Yemen, including a detour to the south, which had spent years under the control of a communist, Soviet-leaning government. As the British colonial period came to a close in the mid-1960s, an armed struggle began that split Yemen into two countries between 1967 and 1990. The south became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen supported by the Soviets. In exchange, Russia got naval access to the key strategic port of Aden. In the north, the west-leaning Yemen Arab Republic was established, backed by Saudi Arabia.

The communists proceeded to divide South Yemen into four regions for their mineral exploration efforts. Exploration in each region was handled by a geological team from one of the communist sponsor governments that had supported the establishment of the People’s Republic. For example, the Czechs had one region, the Russians another, and the East Germans another. The divisions seemed to be along purely geographical rather than geological province lines.

We did a very quick reconnaissance sweep of an area near the southern port city of Aden using some of the old communist-era maps. One of their exploration techniques was to sample stream sediments, sieve and separate them, then pick out specific mineral grains using a microscope and tweezers, and count them. Cheap labour was never a problem for the communists. So their maps were covered in densely-packed coloured contours, each colour representing grain counts for specific minerals at different locations, sphalerite, pyrite, gold and so on. There were lots of apparent anomalies containing high ore mineral counts.

In the absence of any reports or other data, they weren’t definitive, but they were interesting enough that we decided to spend a day trying to ground truth a few of the more accessible ones.

We were investigating a really high concentration of native copper metal reported from one of the deeply-incised dry stream beds north of Aden, along with some traces of secondary zinc and other metals. The Soviet geologists had unusually marked the anomaly on the map to follow up as a potential mineral showing.

Curiously, the map also showed native lead grains in the sediments. The presence of native lead was a bit of a head scratcher at first, because lead typically occurs as its sulphide, galena, and the native metal is extremely rare. There is only a small handful of native lead localities known worldwide, and some of those are actually old smelters. It didn’t make sense to see so much in one small area.

A field crew in Yemen with heavily armed Yemeni geologists. Photo by Ralph Rushton.

And then the penny dropped. I remembered my dad telling me that his brother Peter had served part of his national service in the Royal Air Force in Aden. In the run up to the communist takeover, the British army had been caught up in an escalating guerilla war in and around Aden, with firefights and running battles against insurgents. The Russian geologists had been picking out weathered bullet and munitions fragments from the stream sediments, relics of the many small battles that took place during the struggle. Their exploration methodology was itself so fragmented that nobody had sufficient information to put two and two together and arrive at the obvious conclusion: it was a man-made anomaly.

I’ve come across the bloated legacy of communism in other countries, too. In Iran, I was once pushed by a local group to hire an old Soviet-trained project geologist to manage some work for us. He tried to sell me on the concept of a huge communist-style exploration camp, complete with a thin-section lab, assay facilities and all the whistles and bells that a hundred geologists might need just to explore 30 miles (48 km) of volcanic belt. The concept of a small three- to four-man team conducting a first-pass reconnaissance program was completely foreign to him.

In the mid-1990s I was based in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Exploring there was fun. It’s a beautiful country, and culturally diverse, a consequence of the many invaders that have trudged through on their way to Asia, or from Asia into Europe. The Romans, Mongols, Turks, Greeks and more recently the Nazi Germans, all left their mark on the country.

Bulgaria also provided some good examples of how not to conduct exploration. I once took a rather spooky walk into an abandoned 1.2-km-long adit somewhere near the Serbian border, which eventually cut a 50-cm-thick quartz vein with minor copper and zinc mineralization. The equivalent of millions of dollars had been spent on tunneling, when a couple of bore holes would’ve done the job quicker and cheaper.

We had a tough job educating the senior government geological staff on what modern exploration was all about — the type of deals western companies would sign, the budgets and modern methodology — it was all very confusing to them. In stark contrast, the young geologists we hired were a different breed. Fast learners, well-trained technically, and keen as anything to work, they soon adapted to operating in small mobile reconnaissance teams. In fact, they performed so well that we were able to use them as a highly mobile project evaluation team in Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and India, and they’ve all gone on to forge successful international careers.

The Petelovo gold project in the Panagyurishte volcanic belt near the village of Poplintsi in southern Bulgaria. Photo by Ralph Rushton.

Around 1995 or 1996, I was tasked with reviewing a small gold project called Petelovo, in the Panagyurishte volcanic belt near the village of Poplintsi in southern Bulgaria. It’s a small, high-sulphidation gold deposit — geologically interesting, but lowish-grade, with a mix of sulphide and oxide gold ore to complicate the metallurgy. The deposit has been explored on and off for decades, but work recently stalled in the face of staunch local environmental opposition.

When we worked there under the guise of Minorco, Petelovo hadn’t been touched since the 1980s, so we walked on to a textbook example of inefficient over-exploration. I could barely believe what had been done there. The old maps showed 4.5 km of adits and dozens of drill holes; the communists had done millions of dollars’ worth of work to explore something that contained, at most, 16 million tonnes at about 1 gram per tonne gold, and was clearly economically marginal. A Vancouver-based company would probably have drilled 20-30 holes, completed a resource estimate, run a quick economic model and walked away.

I was working with a Bulgarian colleague, Daniel, and far as we were concerned, the tunnels made our jobs easier, so I wasn’t complaining. It’s rare to come across an abandoned gold project riddled with so many well-engineered adits to provide access.

We got kitted up with underground gear — lamps and hard hats — and began work checking the underground mapping and channel sampling the adits. We were both former mine geologists so the work went quite quickly. I cut my professional teeth underground and still love it (luckily, I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia). There’s something special about the smell of broken rock, the feel of being in it rather than on top of it; you develop a unique 3-D insight into mineral deposits.

By the time we got to the third or fourth adit, we had a routine worked out. I’d map the geology and then mark the sample intervals along the adit wall with paint for Daniel. He followed along, chipping away with his hammer, bagging the samples, labelling and tagging them. Local labourers removed the samples from the adit for shipment to the assay laboratory.

We’d noticed that the floor of the tunnel was lined with old boards and planks, which were handy to stand on to work. They’d been stacked on top of the iron rails that had been left in place by the communists. After years exposed to the subsurface damp, the wood was pretty rotten and regularly crumbled underfoot.

One afternoon, a couple of hundred meters in, I stumbled and my foot went through one of the boards. Shining my head light down, I could see that my right leg was ankle deep through a splintered board. My foot had landed in an old cardboard box about 2 feet by 1 foot in size. It was lined with a plastic bag and was full of neatly packed sticks of dynamite. Even worse, the dynamite sticks had been there for so long they were sweating nitroglycerine, which had pooled at one end of the box, luckily not the end I’d stepped in. I knew straight away what it was; in the 1950s my dad was sent to the western desert of Egypt for National Service, blowing up old German munitions dumps and had described finding boxes swimming in the stuff.

At that moment, I heard a crack from along the tunnel in Daniel’s direction. The same thing had happened to him, and he was now standing in another box full of the capricious, liquid explosive.

There are various issues with nitroglycerine. Its volatility makes it highly dangerous but it also causes really nasty headaches if you get it on your skin or inhale the fumes. A potent vadose-dilator, I can only describe the side effect of inhalation as being akin to somebody driving 6-inch nails into your forehead. I’d experienced it in South Africa in the 1980s on a small tin mine in the Bushveld complex, and wasn’t keen to suffer another bout. Discretion took over and I shouted to Daniel that we needed to get out of there.

Quietly whispering ‘oh bloody hell’ to myself, I gingerly withdrew my foot from the box and pressed myself to the side of the tunnel, as far away from the tracks as you can get in a 2-3 metre wide adit.

Shining my head light down at the rails, I could see through gaps between the boards we’d walked on. There were perhaps a dozen or more rotten cardboard boxes full of waxy looking sticks hidden along the adit. The miners had simply left their dynamite underground, covered it up with wood and buggered off.

Daniel and I carefully made our way back down the tunnel, me treading in his footprints so I knew I was safe, toward a spot where only bare earth was visible between the rails. We abandoned a bunch of samples as it was too dangerous to go back in. He told me a few years later that a North American company had actually restarted the project and had cleaned up the mess to access the full length of adits for remapping.

All in all, it was a salutary lesson in communist-era inefficiency and waste that could’ve gone badly wrong for us.


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