The day is overcast; the bush on the Denniston hills as raw and ragged as the clouds that fitfully cross it. With the indifference to weather of one who works indoors—belowdoors—Gary Bainbridge, 49, manager of Coalcorp’s Sullivan Mine, takes the rough path from the scatter of company sheds to a make-do tunnel entrance that squats below a rock outcrop. Without hesitating he crosses the threshold, striding out of the weak morning light, into darkness.
I follow—who knows where? Abode of goblins. Hades. My hard-hat barely clears the lintel.
At my waist a battery and self-rescuer joggle heavily. In the deepening gloom our helmet lamps strengthen, picking out in their roving beams old timber braces, power cables, drainage pipes, side shafts, the bootprints, frozen in earth, of those who have gone before. The path—or bord, as mine roads are called—undulates. Water drips. A cold wind forms at our backs. Fresh air is flooding past, sucked in by fans that, in some distant spot, labour to remove stale atmosphere.
In the dank confinement of the tunnel, Bainbridge, turning now and then to help light my way, is explaining how the hefty beech pit props—tree-trunk thick—act as warners, their creaks and splintering signalling the start of a roof collapse. When they begin to bend like trees in a rising wind, and when walls “dribble” or shear, wise miners take to their heels. I crane at the jumble of logs and rail irons wedged into cavities here and there above the sets—the overhead beams that help keep the roof at bay. Reaching for a pencil to note the engineering, I see by the light of the lamp that a patina of fine coal dust has already mahoganied the fleshy whorls of my fingertips.
“We also use roof bolts. They’re good, but you can’t beat a prop standing beside your arse to tell you what’s happening,” says Bainbridge, characteristically blunt. A fourth generation miner who has seen 34 years underground, he seems hewn from some primeval stuff himself, and more than a match for the 85 metres of rock between us and the sky.
Bainbridge and his team of seven work unendingly to shore up rock which everywhere looks set to betray a confidence. Usually, they dig to the bottom of a seam—anywhere from two metres to five metres thick at the Sullivan—but often leave a cap of coal above for added strength and to stop crumbling roofstone contaminating the winnings.
When a section of roof drops, says Bainbridge laconically, the punch of displaced air can lay a person flat.
We walk on. I test the darkness by glancing back and extinguishing my lamp. The absolute blackness is overwhelming. Lit again, the mineral corridor comes back, unyielding and hard-edged on either hand, its surfaces a crazed metro of fissures and shadow. It is as though we have stepped into an underworld maze, a nightmarish labyrinth of cramped streets and blind alleys.
At the Sullivan, coal is first taken from the innermost workings of the pit. The roof of each square is then collapsed in a controlled fashion as, over the months and years, miners claw back toward the surface, chewing out the seam as they go. The leavings, the area of collapse, is known as goaf. It is a well-tried technique, and extracts more coal than conventional “bord and pillar” mining where pillars of coal were left intact to hold up the roof.
As we journey deeper into the mine-500 metres away from daylight now—I hear, feel through every inch of my skin, an unearthly muffled roar, incessant and resonating like a nether world Niagara. Our helmet lights glint off the black walls of the seam as we turn to face each other.
“That’s the monitor,” says Bainbridge. I mishear. Minotaur?
Closeted deep in the earth, which coils inert and Bible-black about us, I become aware of unconscious associations, of the sudden welling up of archetypes, mythologies, primordial fears. Taniwha. A pharaoh’s tomb. Prisonhouse of rock. A Neolithic cave. The brutal underworld of H. G. Wells’ flesh-eating Morlochs.
And the Minotaur—the devouring half-man, half-beast of the labyrinth . . .
Drawing nearer to the unruly din, we come, to my astonishment, upon a lunchroom—miners rarely leave the pit during a shift. Little more than a roughly-hewn alcove, it contains one orange plastic chair; at its feet a litter of crushed Pepsis. A tin bucket and a fire extinguisher lie nearby. A stride away is a wooden box, once white, with a handpainted cross in red. Shoulder-high, a pick hangs from the wall of coal, tomahawked in.
Turning a bend, we are stopped by a torrent of inky black water. The air is chill and heavy with the malodorous smell of sulphur. Tucked against one wall, a miner stands at a set of levers on a steel tripod, working the monitor. Five metres in, at the end of its fascicled cables, the machine lurches, its metal nozzle weaving this way and that, carving coal off the face. I wade through the rush of water, lumps of washed out coal driving hard against my boots, and haul up on to a ledge. There are four of us perched here, crowding the intersection, our lightbeams crossing and recrossing, picking up clouded breath, smudged faces, glistening coal. It is as though the world is made of coal. And, counterpointing everything, is the deafening, ceaseless labour of the monitor.
Adapted from surface quarrying machinery, the robotic monitor, which can cut out 15 to 18 tonnes of coal an hour, is a recent arrival. And time isn’t the only thing it saves. Because it is operated remotely, miners are less exposed to calamity. The Sullivan machine has already been dug out and retrieved, battered but serviceable, from one cave-in. Using it has also reduced the number of detonations needed to loosen stubborn coal from around 1000 a month to a current 15. With explosives adding around $5 a tonne to the cost of conventional extraction, the monitor is a useful weapon in the fight to stay viable.
Hydromining is common in New Zealand, particularly on the West Coast fields, but the term has a broader meaning here than overseas. The use of high-pressure water to cut coal from the face, as at the Sullivan mine, is what foreign colliers understand by the phrase. Often, however, water is merely a transport medium, with coal sluiced along flumes and through ingeniously cobbled conduits to underground dewatering plants or, if the lie of the land allows, out to open-air settling ponds.
Hydromining brings to the pits the twin advantages of minimising dust and reducing the risk of spontaneous combustion. Everywhere, it has eclipsed the backbreaking drudgery of drilling charges by hand using metre-long bits, and wielding the banjo shovel—the oversized scoops used by miners in years past to fill their carts. Back then, miners at the face were paid by the tonnage shovelled, each labourer fixing his token to a wagon as he filled it.
In a harkback to those days, one of Bainbridge’s crew, burly Piet Groot, claims the title of world coal-shovelling champion. At a recent A&P show in Inangahua, he heaved 509 kg into a hopper in “28 seconds something”—an unofficial record.
For Bainbridge, the hard days of the shovel were good ones. “We were fitter, and at the end of a shift we really felt we had achieved something,” he says.
The sentiment doesn’t fool me. I can smell hard work at a hundred paces—and these lads work hard. But Bainbridge is adamant life at the face is nowhere near as strenuous as it once was. Nowadays he even jogs outside work hours to stay trim.
Stepping out again into the generous light of day, we linger at a flume, watching the viscous black tide carry its freight of coal to the holding tank. The mine’s high-sulphur coal—it has to be blended to find a market—turns the water into sulphuric acid. It eats anything: axes, picks, the mild steel of the monitor. Drop a nail in and next day it will be needle-thin. To dodge the cost of going stainless, miners are experimenting with lowering the water’s bite by adding lime at the point where it recirculates.
Bainbridge is a son of Denniston, born and bred on the plateau. He went to school here, when the town was a town, with its own butchers, grocers, confectionery shops. Almost everyone’s father was a collier in those days, and life revolved around the pits. When he came of age, Bainbridge signed on for the coalface. His dad, too old by then to work a banjo, became a shifun4an, a general hand. For a time they trod the same path to and from the tunnel mouth.
As a front-end loader lumbers past, Bainbridge recalls the 20 or so horses once used in a neighbouring mine. Pit ponies were common in New Zealand, but these, he says, were fully grown draught horses. They were stabled underground, but every day were led out to taste sunlight and fresh air.
Nearby was the famous Denniston incline, a formidable piece of engineering which let coal wagons down from the steep hills 1000 m above sea level to the coastal railhead at Waimangaroa. At a tilt of almost 45 degrees it was the world’s second steepest cableway. Rusting scraps of iron, corroded structures and concrete buttresses survive to record where hundreds once laboured to unlock the buried seams. Twenty-four million tonnes of coal have been won from the district to date.
Waimangaroa, settled by miners and farmers from Wales, Scotland and England, survives; Denniston, 1700-strong in 1914, is a ghost town, a huddle of ramshackle houses, some abandoned, others home to alternative lifestylers. In places nothing but chimneys rise from the tall grass to mark where past generations lived and died. Like Millerton and Stockton up the coast, and other settlements in the Grey field to the south, Denniston fell victim to reduced demand for a mineral once more important to the region than gold—one that fuelled the development of the colony. Hydroelectricity, geothermal energy and the rise of petroleum have whittled away its preeminence, and with it the lifeblood of many coal towns.
The Millerton mine was opened in 1896, taken over by State Coal Mines in 1948 and closed 21 years later. Plagued by fire during its working life, parts of the mine are said to be still burning, fed by air that makes its way through broken rock to the smouldering coal.
Other mines went the same way: McCabe’s mine in 1969, the Fly Creek mine in 1970, the Webb in 1979.
Just out of Millerton, under the lee of an arterial cableway that struts across the barren uplands of the Stockton plateau, nestles the trim home of Don and Pam Jennens. From their back lawn, above the road that snakes up from the coastal flats toward the vast splay of the Stockton opencast mine, the Jennens can read off the hand-numbered buckets on the aerial as they shimmy past: 241 . . . 191 . . . 256 . . . Like industrial gondolas crawling along the national grid, they carry their black cargo in relays down to the railhead at Ngakawau.
Pam Jennens, showing me in to a sitting room vibrant with family history, introduces herself as “the proverbial miner’s daughter.” She was born in Millerton in 1921. Her father, grandfather and two uncles, all assisted migrants, had journeyed from Wales together on board the Belladonna the previous year. Among the passengers were a large number of miners, mostly from Blaenavon in South Wales. Some from Scotland. All handy with a pick, set in their ways, the products of class war.
West Coast mine owners had been forced to recruit far afield because colonial miners, although considered morally superior and less tainted by social rift, were in short supply. Gold diggers tended to bridle at the discipline of pit life.
The owners’ reluctance to hire offshore came down to a fear of importing the “evils” of Methodism and Unionism. It happened anyway. In the crucible of the pits a crusading mission to humanise mine work was forged. Soon that moral zeal was expanded into a more volatile desire to transform society.
Certainly, mining towns and camps were in need of transformation. Houses were small and flimsy, ill-suited to the violent storms which swept the Coast, ripping off verandahs and smashing windows. Most were unlined, and families made do with tubs and kerosene tins in place of baths. Single men often lived two or three together in a one-roomed hut. Married quarters were not much better.
Pam’s father developed miners’ phthisis—a savage disease, common on the fields, which turned lungs to leather and made breathing torturous. She recalls standing at the window as a child to watch his halting, laborious journey home from the pit.
“All his life he was fighting for breath,” says Pam. “It got so bad in his last years, he couldn’t sleep. Sat in a chair all night.”
It was bad all right, but he lived to experience worse. Twice he had a mate crushed at his side under a fall of coal. (Miners then, as now, often worked in pairs.) Such a fate was not uncommon. Greenfield Street in Hector, a nearby town, was known locally as Widows’ Lane for the number of mine deaths suffered there.
“Whenever there was an accident, they blew the whistle at the Hector power station,” says Pam. “Everything stopped. People filled the streets, prepared to hear the worst.”
The house she now lives in was a miner’s cottage. It belonged to her aunt, whose husband was left a paraplegic by a fall of coal. Dora moved away last year after 76 years in the place.
“I swore I’d never marry a miner,” says Pam, her lips tightening with resolve all over again. In a way, she didn’t. Don, past president of the Stockton Miners’ Union, never raised a pick. Fourteen years on the field, he worked as a fitter and turner, and ran the bath-house. Her son, she adds as I stand to leave, is a wool buyer.
Hardship persists on the Stockton plateau. Inland, just 12 km from Sullivan mine, at the far end of the 7.7 km cableway, Coalcorp surface-mines a licence area of 2300 hectares. There, often in extreme conditions, miners hew at an estimated 30 million tonnes of coal. I drive across the plateau through cloud. Earthmoving equipment looms out of the swirling mist against indistinct mineral cliffs. A massive faceshovel here, a dozer there. Giant trucks, toting 60 tonnes of coal apiece, crawl by. The mine is worked night and day—even in snow. Only the poor visibility of heavy rain brings the big mine to a stop, and there’s no shortage of rain up here: the plateau gets six or more metres in a year.
Surface extraction is more efficient than underground techniques, which in the past often left up to 85 per cent of deposits behind. Now, thanks to powerful machinery, the economics of exposing buried coal seams from above have improved. Yet the high cost of freighting Coast coal to Lyttelton for export means it is unprofitable to remove more than 40 metres of earth cover. By contrast, workers at the North island’s Huntly opencast routinely slice off 100 metres of overburden to reach coal.
It would be a mistake to think opencast mining straightforward. Customers have grown finicky, their pulverised-fuel furnaces and other high-tech plant demanding coal with specific properties. Stockton mines 11 coal types, each with its own sulphur, ash and coking properties. Alone or blended, each has its use and market. Ninety-five per cent of Stockton coal is exported—to Japan, India, China, Belgium, the United States, Korea, Chile, even to Newcastle (New South Wales!). Locally, big customers include cement works, steelmakers and the dairy, meat and timber industries.
At Francis Mining’s Surprise Mine, in Reefton’s chiselled sandstone hills, mine manager Mike Kennedy’s chief concern is getting enough coal out. With freezing works to supply, he is gearing up for the busy season. “The seven lads are down there for the day. If anyone shows up top before knockoff, I want to know why.”
Unlike the Sullivan, the Surprise sinks at a keen angle to follow the field’s tilted seams, sandwiched one upon another like a wafered confection. To those experienced in such things, it is a beautifully driven dip. Despite warnings about the gradient of this pit and what it can do to unfit legs, psychologically I am unprepared for the sheer downwardness, the swallow of it all. It is an odd sensation to follow a beam of light down an incline that seems to have no end. The wooden rails, the sleepers, the smooth grooves caused by wear from cables long since stopped, give it the appearance of a hellish one-way roller coaster.
Concrete stoppings seal disused side tunnels to prevent spontaneous combustion. For the same reason, the workings are blocked off when the miners come out for holidays. Coal, I’m told, is like wet hay. A damp pocket can gradually heat up and unexpectedly take fire. Monitoring temperature and gas levels gives early warning of danger. Where electronic devices aren’t used, miners test for methane—known as firedamp—with a flame safety lamp. The presence of the colourless, odourless, and potentially explosive gas is signalled by a halo over the low flame. If atmospheric oxygen falls below 17 per cent, the flame goes out. Black damp—mainly nitrogen—is announced without instruments by a noticeable shortness of breath.
The Surprise is a low-risk mine with no detectable methane gas, Kennedy assures me. “Years ago I used to smoke underground in these parts,” he says.
Then came safety clampdowns. Naked flames were banned. Today, at some mines, even electronic watches can’t be worn underground, and flash photography is prohibited because of the risk of sparks from batteries. Since the 1985 Boatman’s Mine disaster, which killed four, self-rescuers have been compulsory. Carried in canisters at the waist in case of fire or explosion, they turn poisonous carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. Assuming there is enough oxygen left in the shaft to breathe, one of these devices will give a surviving miner up to 40 minutes to clamber to the surface.
It is 280 metres from the mine mouth down to the solitary lair where Frank Waghorn tends his pumping machinery. “Must be mad as a March hare,” jest his mates—”only the rats for company.” From the pump station, it is a further 100 metres to the rubble-filled bottom of the dip.
We continue towards a hiss of compressed air, the sound of a pick, an acrid Guy Fawkes smell that grows stronger with each step. Somewhere a waterfall cascades. We are forced to scramble 10 or 20 metres up a scree slope, gripping water pipes, whatever, to get to where two miners are giving the coal seam a hard time. Richard Scrivens whacks the low roof of coal with the crown of his pick. Straight up. Thwack. Again. Thwack. It rings like steel with each solid blow. He grins: “That’s what you want to hear. Good roof.”
Not far off, in the deteriorating outer fringe of the seam, a slab of coal the size of a desk lies where it dropped a day or two back without warning, narrowly missing him. Today looks better, the roof more reliable.
The miners set to, drilling fresh holes for the explosive charges made from a water-based gel that won’t flare. Scrivens drills half a dozen carefully placed holes into the hard coal, each more than a metre deep, and lays down the hefty airgun. “I’ve seen Mike Kennedy tied up in a knot by this so had he couldn’t move. Just wrapped the hose around him like a boa constrictor.”
Jim Heslop’s turn to grin. He’s only been two days in the mine, so the story’s new. The two men are still sizing each other up, deciding whether they will get on, whether they can trust each other—as they must, down here—with their lives. Heslop lends a hand, ramming the charges home and tamping them.
We hack around a sheltering bend, uncoiling wire as we go. Scrivens winds the Beethoven Converter, a capacitor that fires the charges, and hands it to me. I press the button, releasing a freight train in the small, neatly arched tunnel.
The ripple of explosions sends shockwaves through us. It sounds as though somewhere deep in the rock, something unimaginably heavy has been dropped. Dust fills the air, bouncing our lights back at us.
When we can speak again, Kennedy mentions earthquakes. Says underground they are felt as a roll rather than a shake, and that you can hear them coming at you through the coal. He heard the ’68 Inangahua quake 21 miles off, he says, clear as a bell.
After the dust settles, the miners head back to wash out the winnings.
“You’d wonder where all the bloody time went, wouldn’t you,” says Scrivens later, over crib. “Thirty-one years underground and I’ve only had one decent break—two months off.”
The lads are swapping coal yarns for my benefit. We sit with our backs to the tunnel walls, facing each other like troops in a cramped transport. Others have joined us from the second face, and our lights, almost jolly in their collective radiance, keep the blackness at hay.
“Back when I started, someone had to die for a trucker to get on to the coalface,” says one. “Then you’d have to find a mate who’d have you.”
“I started as a trucker at 17. They had me on a banjo for three years,” says another.
When I ask the reaction of their wives and families to the constant danger, they grow evasive. Kennedy says he’s been up north. He’s driven Auckland’s motorways, and he knows where he’d rather he. It is a familiar refrain on the fields: there are more killed on the road; more in the hush. Mike Kennedy, I later learn, lost a son in an Australian gold mine.
“When I’m late, my cook digs out the insurance policy,” says a nian who looks too young to be down a mine or to have a cook. Jim Heslop, who spent 20 years working Denniston pits before being made redundant in. 1987, says a few years back a miner had his work cut out getting insurance at all.
Scrivens stares hard at Jim. Wants to know why he crawled back down a mine, having made the break. “You’re mad,” he says. “lb get away like that and then turn round.”
Jim suddenly looks vulnerable, like he’s hiding something. Fear, maybe, that needs to be conquered all over again. Maybe it’s a trick of the light. There is an uncomfortable silence. “It’s a job,” Jim says to no one in particular. “It’s money in the bank.”
The climb up into sunlight is hard, interminable. Driving away, I think of Mike and the others, far below. Maybe under my wheels right now. Beneath the weight of the car, the road and so much more. For the first time this trip, the thought panics me.
Reefton remains a coaltown, though diminished from its prime. The clubs have mostly gone, as has the intense trust that once welded the community together. Mothers no longer send children outdoors of an evening to watch for returning miners, their lights winking like glow-worms as they come down from the hills at shift’s end. But a lingering attachment remains. The weatherboarded rail station, overgrown with blackberries, still wears a dusting of coal on its ageing platform. Signage at the local school tells passers-by it is heated courtesy of Francis Mining, the biggest employer in these parts and regarded by townsfolk as something of an economic saviour.
The local Four Square is warmed by a pot-belly stove. Backyards have telltale cones of glistening “No 4” coal for space heaters. Only $80 a tonne, delivered. And, of course, there is the trademark fug of coalsmoke, rising lazily from countless domestic hearths to scent the cold night air.
Mike Kennedy’s wife Barbara was born in the town, she tells me. Her father worked his own mine for a time, but lost it in the ’68 quake and took up a builder’s hammer instead. Exploration costs and other outlays have made it too expensive for miners to go independent now, she says.
Two private mines still scratch a living in Reefton, down from 26 in the 1960s. The number had shrunk to eight by the early ’80s when Barbara set up selling explosives, buying direct from Du Pont and stocking a magazine out back in her sister-in-law’s yard.
Over the years more mines closed and, seeing the writing on the wall, she sold her last sticks and shut the magazine for good. For a time her parents owned a mine, the Olympic. “It was going to get us to the Olympic Games,” says her mother, Esma. “Never did.” The only money they made came from building work, and the music pupils Esma took on.
In private mines, she says, the workers were often better off than the owners after the royalties had been paid. Then there were gumboots, clothes, equipment to buy. “You’d spend a fortune just dressing them.”
Saturday nights, while others socialised, Esma would head off with her husband to the pit—”the Night Club,” she called it—to pump out. Weekdays she would be on the phone, sometimes before daybreak, fighting other mines for railtrucks to cart the winnings.
Sooner or later, tragedy would strike. “With a man in the mines, I was always nervous. But you learn to put it at the back of your mind. You can’t live with apprehensions,” she says. But, adds her daughter, she was not one to sit at home in a crisis and await events. At one fire, while men in breathing gear worked to seal a pit, Esma materialised deep in the mine, wreathed in smoke, bearing sugar sacks full of fish and chips and meat pies. During the lockouts and strikes which plagued Coast mining in the early days, as well as in the accidents which have claimed hundreds of lives, the womenfolk have stood unshakeably by their men.
“The Boatman’s disaster was the worst I’ve known,” says Barbara of the fire that killed four men. “We sat up all night until Mike came home—he was in the rescue team. Next day when I washed his clothes they stank of smoke. That was powerful. It really brought things home.”
Ron Gibbs, until this year Superintendent of Mines Rescue, the organisation of volunteer miners that trains for such emergencies, has equally powerful memories. Ones he’d rather forget. When he began underground at 14, rarely a month went by without a fire somewhere. One at Eight Mile Creek burnt out eight acres of coal before it finished. Another, the Kiwi mine, was sealed a dozen or more times in its turbulent life. Other old mines, near the surface, continue to burn, fuelled perhaps by the fine dust left by the old practice of forking coal to get only the larger pieces preferred by railway stokers.
The devastating Strongman explosion of 1967, in which 19 were killed—the worst for half a century—followed a typical pattern. The shockwave from an ignition of methane, travelling at 1000 metres per second, lifted coal dust in the warren of underground tunnels. Flame following in its wake ignited the dust, which is seven times more explosive than gunpowder. Those surviving the explosions were killed by the aftergases. The Strongman disaster left its mark on survivors and rescuers, who found bodies cut in half. Two remain sealed underground.
Some miners walked out of the pit and kept walking. Others, like Gibbs, worked on, but continued to be affected by what they experienced. “I knew all the families. It was traumatic. About a year after the accident, I started to get a migraine every time I went underground. Eventually I had to leave the mines.”
At 9:30 A.M. on a day in late March 1896, smoke and steam billowed from the mouth of the Brunner Mine, signalling calamity at the face. An explosion had extinguished all life below, leaving 65 miners dead and 186 children fatherless.
The road from Reefton to Greymouth winds past remains of the mine’s coke ovens and ventilation shaft. Most of the victims lie buried at nearby Stillwater in a mass grave, a monument to the country’s worst mine disaster.
They work in the heat, and the coal black dust
Sticks to the skin like a burn’d pie-crust.
We curse each day that the miner must
Go down in the Brunner Mine
sang the balladeers.
A cave-in’ll give us a shut down day
But that’ll never make a miner gay
For the trembling earth speaks Judgement Day,
Down at the Brunner Mine.
Dangerous conditions and brutally hard work bred discontent. Blackball, another coaltown nearby, became a centre of resistance to poor working practices. In 1908, the miners struck. Among their demands, a maximum eight-hour work day and a doubling of the 15-minute lunch break. They won, but their union was taken to court, where the irony of the court’s rising for a two hour luncheon adjournment wasn’t lost on the strikers.
The victory in Blackball, which raised spirits throughout West Coast coalfields, was to change the face of New Zealand’s labour relations. It helped sow the seeds of the future Labour Party and led to the creation of the Miners’ Federation, which later became the New Zealand Federation of Labour.
Things at Blackball were so dynamic that for a short but heady time the New Zealand Communist Party was headquartered there. “Fighting Bob” Semple arrived in Runanga just north of Greymouth from Australia to start the country’s first miners’ union. The town was State-sponsored and purpose built as a coaltown, but most miners hereabouts now call Greymouth home.
Strongman 2, at the headwaters of Nine Mile Creek to the north, is less than a year old and has a potential output of 3.5 million tonnes of high-grade steaming coal. Cheek-by-jowl with the notorious Strongman 1 Mine, it is sophisticated and determinedly safety conscious. Its men and materials road is more of a country lane than a tunnel; a regular pattern of two-metre roofbolts with their breadboard-sized metal plates turn the overhead rock into a virtual laminated beam. The walls have been talced with a fine white powder to stop coaldust fires, and at regular intervals junction boxes for telephones dangle from cabling. Glow worms—rods patched with reflectors—hang suspended from the roof to guide site surveyors. Gone are the timber props and sets and the unrelieved blackness of less well-resourced mines.
Working in teams of eight, miners in bright gear go about their business with noisy purposefulness. The place is lively. When caught by light at a distance, the reflectorised strips on their clothing make them seem like strange underwater life, electric creatures of the deep.
Heavy iron water pipes for the monitor lie to one side. Water cutting will come later. At present coal is won largely as a byproduct of building the grid of roads. This is done with something called a roadheader: a million-dollar piece of equipment that looks as though it just drove down a steel ramp from the set of Aliens. Squat, tracked and remote controlled, it edges up to the face where the cutting head, a revolving metal cone with blunt spikes, slowly tracks across the coal. There is a mist of water, a low vibration, a hiss of falling rubble. Dust billows in a thick fog, helmet beams turn yellow and the cutting head becomes the merest silhouette. Then a rumble like scoria off a truck as coal is conveyored back along the roadheader’s fanned tail.
The work goes on endlessly. Strongman 2 is trialling 12-hour shifts—three days on, three off—and some of the men look like they could do with more down time. Feelings are mixed. Miners elsewhere talk about fatigue compromising safety. About family life suffering. Strongman manager Greg Duncan says his miners like the rotations, but that the necessity of nonstop operation has put paid to weekend shutdowns and caused headaches for management. “Weekends used to be days you fixed problems. Now they are just two more days you create them.”
He admits that, with the new export drive, rates and conditions have fallen back. Men toil longer hours for similar pay—and the miners’ lot is not a lot: $40,000 plus with bonuses at Strongman.
Given that there’s not a lot of money to be made underground, sonic Coast miners have gone private, carrying on the long, if endangered, tradition of cooperative mining. Banding together to work their claims, they make a virtue of the independence such a vocation brings. Lifestyle miners, they are called.
I make arrangements over the phone with George Ewen, who has shares in a mine at Ten Mile Creek: Harrison & Party. “Haven’t got time to talk up there,” he says gruffly. It’s the sort of tone to fend off an auditor, an inspector of mines, a meddling outsider. “We are just in to work. Don’t take food, don’t stop.”
The big reward isn’t money—the six partners earn a mere $100 each after expenses some months—hut time. The work day finishes while the sun is still high. “If they’re not out of there and at the Rapahoe pub by one o’clock, a search party goes in,” Mike Kennedy had joked.
Ten Mile Creek is breathtaking. The river runs noisily through its narrow forested gorge, fussing over a rocky bed. It is 7 A.M. The dew sits heavily.
On time, I see the lights of a van threading the gorge road toward me. The miners clamber out and unlock their change room. Kitted out, we drive up a steep road that ends at a loading bay where trucks come to cart out the coal. In front of us an aerial cableway climbs almost vertically up through the bush.
I don’t pay enough attention to “up.” What starts off as a climb on a steel-runged ladder continues as a steep bush hike on greasy paths, and progresses to wooden ladders, a haul on steel hawsers and ropes up wet rock faces and scree slopes, over tree trunks and the remains of old machinery. The others ascend at a cracking pace, chewing over life’s imponderables, swapping jokes, pulling further ahead. They go like jack rabbits, though one, at least, is in his 60s. I reach the tunnel-350 metres above sea level—a little tarnished, a little last. Snatching breath.
Deep inside, at the face, all is not well minewise. Ewen and company are working outcrops from the old Strongman seam, and they are dodgy. Splintered posts strain to do their job. One ends in midair. Water puddles the tunnels. The mine is 32 years old and shows its age. Strongman 2 lies just over, or rather just through, the hill. So close that miners who worked in the old State mine recall hearing blasts, now and then, as independents worked their coal.
There are no roadheaders for Harrison & Party. And no monitors. A plastic container floating down the flue from the face takes the place of a telephone, its arrival telling someone to stop the pump.
“They’re a dying breed,” Daly had said of these hardy undergrounders. Less than 50 mines left out of more than 100 just 20 years ago. “Killed off by the Resource Management Act and tight health and safety regulations.”
At the mine mouth, on a wooden platform to quicken the heart of any tree dweller, 62-year-old Alan Cust grunts with the effort of moving loaded tubs as they come up and off the winch. One by one he wrestles them on to a tipping frame, expertly whacking a dob of grease on each axle in the few seconds it takes the tub to right itself.
Directly below is the start of the aerial cable. Obligingly, Cust starts a full bucket on its way to demonstrate how the system works, easing back on the brake handle to nurse the bucket’s wheels over the wooden pylons, only the tension of the unattached cable keeping it from slipping off the pylons’ wings and sending the coal crashing to the bush below.
Threading over pylon after pylon, the bucket grows smaller, more distant, until by the time it reaches the holding bin it is not much more than a speck. No one else is game enough, skilled enough, to take on Cust’s job. It’s his baby. He lost just one bucket last year.
Leaning on the wet timber rail, I remark on the view, so encompassing that the eyes have trouble focusing. The cascading rivers, the ornate patchwork of forested valley, the squeal of machinery, softened into melody by the distance.
“I’ve had enough of the bloody scenery,” Cust says, taking a breather from his tubs. “I might retire this year.” He shakes his head and straightens. “Said that last year, too.”
One day, though, it will happen. Cust will hang up his gear in earnest. Then this long Coast tradition of hewing coal underground will draw that much closer to its inevitable end. Some reckon on 20 years, 30 at most, before this way of life is just a memory.
As I start back down to the car the winch engine fires up again with a tired wheeze. It’s the closest I get to goodbye.