An Australian Gold Dredger In Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) first gold rush was in 1878, bringing white miners to the jungles close to where the capital city of PNG, Port Moresby, now stands. Then, in 1888, Australian miners entered a few of the small islands and coastal areas. During the 1920’s rich lowland rivers were prospected, and then in the 1930’s and 1940’s were mined by bucket dredges. Up until the 1920’s most gold prospecting had been fairly superficial, and mostly limited to easily accessible areas.

The highlands, where we know the richest gold deposits are located, was first penetrated by government patrol officers and gold prospectors in the 1930’s. Some of the most notable of these men are still alive today. They discovered an area which was highly populated, and contained a multiplicity of clans, cultures and languages. It was a civilization based on agriculture dating back at least 8,000 years, where ritual inter-tribal battles and head-hunting was common.

papau new guinea gold

It was not until the 1950’s and 1960’s that a new era of exploration and discovery brought government geologists into the most remote highlands. The present era of gold exploration by company geologists commenced in the late 1970’s when the gold price rose so dramatically.

PNG now has some of the world’s largest operating gold mines, and the country aims to be producing 100 tons a year by 1992, to become the worldÕs fifth largest producer. A mine scheduled to open in 1992 on Lihir Island is said to contain reserves of more than 25 million ounces of gold, and will have an annual production rate of between 250,000 and 600,000 ounces of gold.

PNG is an independent nation, gaining its independence in 1975 after many years as an Australian dependency. It is a democratic nation, with a government based on the Westminster system.

Land ownership is a sensitive political issue in PNG. The indigenous landowners have no concept of the western notion of land as a marketable commodity. The use of mining titles is not understood, and is not readily accepted by landowners. In PNG, land is considered an asset more precious than anything else, to be passed on to future generations. In remote areas, there is no official register of landowners. Land rights are traditional, rather than legally described.

The present PNG mining laws, as they relate to small-scale mining are confusing, and are widely ignored in the field. The unwritten law says that, “The clan which owns the land, mines the land.” It is widely acknowledged that a change in the laws to better provide for landowner mining is long overdue. And, the government Department of Minerals and Energy is presently in the process of drafting new regulations.

The present PNG mining laws show a preference to the establishment of large bulk, tonnage mines. However, landowners are entitled to mine the surface alluvial gold on their land regardless of any claims by companies. But there is no law which says at what depth “surface” ends and “underground” begins. The most serious problem now facing the National government is dealing with traditional miners operating in areas where mining contracts have been awarded to companies.

Under present laws, landowners cannot use mechanical equipment. They are restricted to the traditional methods of pick, shovel, and gold pan. It can be expected that landowners will be allowed to use mechanical equipment, such as modern gold dredges, under new legislation.

In PNG, all mining and prospecting for gold by non-nationals is prohibited. This law was enforced in recent years when a group of Australians using metal detectors entered on to land where mining rights were held exclusively by nationals. These Australian prospectors were expelled from the country. This prohibition will most likely be retained under any new legislation. However, formal joint-ventures between nationals and non-nationals may be permitted under specific conditions. Extensive illegal exporting of gold by non-nationals has occurred in PNG over recent years, and the PNG government authorities prosecute individuals apprehended while carrying gold from the country.

PNG has excellent potential for medium-scale mineral development, and the National government is actively encouraging overseas investors to set up medium-size ventures. The US $5 million Mt. Victor Mine opened during 1988 in the eastern highlands, is the first medium-size mine in PNG to use modern mechanized and processing methods. This mine is acting as a model for the future development of small to medium-scale gold deposits in PNG.

gold prospecting

The last 12 months has seen a unique gold rush occur in the PNG highlands, which has received world-wide publicity. What has since become known as the “Mt. Kare Rush,” will go down in history as one of the greatest gold rushes ever. This rush has been compared with the California Rush of 1849 and the Klondike in the 1890’s. From the time the rush started just over a year ago, well over US $100 million worth of chunky alluvial gold has been mined by indigenous people using only picks, shovels, and pans.

And now for our story…

The last rays of the afternoon sun were glinting on the shining, aluminium, Fokker-Friendship wing. Below, clouds seemed to be suspended among rugged valleys, and mile after mile of jungle terrain. Turning away from the aircraft window and glancing around me, I took note of a group of people as diverse as could be found anywhere in the world. Seated near me was a Chinese man who was trying to look the part in his polyester safari suit, but instead looked decidedly uncomfortable. There were a few tourists, who I guessed were from North America, and a young man from Scandinavia who I had spoken to while waiting to board the aircraft. Most of the other passengers were expatriate Australian businessmen and a few civil servants. Looking again out the window, my mind wandered.

It was just 24 hours earlier that I had left Australia to fly to the capitol city of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Port Moresby, where I had changed planes. And now, minutes ahead of me was the coastal town of Madang, where I was to make my home for…who knows how long? It all depended on the gold. I thought of my friend back in Australia, who at that very same moment, would be finishing a day’s dredging by panning off the concentrates and then taking that day’s gold back to camp where it would be weighed, then added to the gold already produced that summer. With these thoughts, I had to reassure myself, “Sure I was doing the right thing…or maybe I was making the same mistake many a gold miner had made before me by believing talk of rivers full of nuggets the size of a man’s fist.”

In Australia some months earlier, I had been approached by an “entrepreneur” who told me he represented a group of indigenous PNG landowners that had recently formed a co-operative company to mine for gold on their land. I was offered employment as an advisor to the company. So here I was, in route for the jungles of PNG, and for a complete change of lifestyle.

Since the late 1970’s, I had been dredging for gold and tin as a living, and like most professional “Aussie” dredgers, I traveled up and down the east coast of Australia, dredging according to the season. During the summer months I usually dredged in the southern State of Victoria, then spent the remainder of the year in the tropical areas of the far north of the State of Queensland.

Was it my fascination for the tropics that had brought me once again to PNG, the lure of gold, or was I simply tired of the continual harassment Australian dredgers have to contend with from the ban anything that moves “environmentalists,” hostile bureaucrats, and the far too many self-interest groups who are on a crusade to stop all gold dredging in Australia? I decided it was a combination, together with a liking for adventure…a dredger’s lot?

Precisely on sundown, we landed at Madang’s domestic airport. Apart from the expected large number of black PNG nationals, it all appeared not unlike a typical small northern Australian town. To greet me was a local politician who introduced himself as representing the miners I was to advise. From the airport, I was taken to meet more politicians. A telling start, as the following two weeks in Madang were taken up with more meetings, with more politicians. All of whom expressed interest in getting, what they referred to as “The Project” started. Yet during those two weeks, not one individual from the company appeared. I began to wonder just what was going on. The only information I had been able to glean was that the area controlled by the company was in the highlands to the west, a few hours flying time away by light aircraft. Locating the area on a map, I could see that I was heading into one of the most remote and rugged areas of PNG. An area with no roads in, only accessible by air.

After two weeks of doing nothing but talk, I had to remind myself I was not here for a holiday. So, to get The Project going, I flew into the highlands. And, as I thought, leave all the politicians back in Madang.

Arriving at what I will call Iabmis Valley, I finally met with the landowners, who were all very welcoming. And the few who spoke English, became my guides. The days that followed were long days, each spent visiting the surrounding gold mines to take samples, and generally assess the gold mining prospects. What I saw were hundreds of gold miners scattered throughout many jungle valleys. A genuine gold rush was occurring in the hand-mining style of last century.

My longest prospecting trip, from my base camp at the airfield, was for six of the most physically taxing days I have ever experienced. On the first day of the trip, I was awakened before dawn to be told by my guide that we would be walking all day and would have to maintain a faster than normal pace to get to his village before dark. Apart from myself, our walking party consisted of my guide, his wife, another woman, and three non-English speaking men.

A gentle incline started the track, which after an hour’s walk developed into an amazing twisting track dug from the very edge of the mountains. We followed the contours, slowly rising from the heat to a more temperate zone with its cooler, refreshing atmosphere.

Resting at the top of a ridge, we could look back on the valley left three hours earlier, and into the valleys before us. Looking toward the valley we were about to enter, my guide explained, “The Nambrok people belong here.” Then pointing far into the distance, and into the clouds, he said, “That is my peoples’ land, we will be there before dark,” then added, “Let’s go!”

What I saw as we entered the valley of the Nambrok people interested me more than any area I had seen so far. The valley terrain had been subject, for thousands of years, to extreme weathering and was of low relief. It appeared volcanic in origin, and I was later to confirm this from geological reports. Their reports also indicated that the valley had been subject to the movement of a geological fault, which played a part in the deposition of wide expanses of ancient alluvial gravels. The present day watercourses had cut deeply into these, to leave a series of exposed terraces, many of which were then being worked for gold.

As we passed on, my guide pointed out a ridge in the distance to tell me that an Australian prospector had lived there many years earlier. Later, after returning to Australia and researching old records, I learned that from 1954 to 1962 the miner had carried out a hand-sluicing operation. In that time, he produced, as the official records said, 677 ounces of gold.

Also pointed out was a clearing higher up the valley that a mining company had recently used for a base camp. Later, I found out that this multi-national exploration company had prospected the valley a year earlier. And the company geologists had found the valley to have good prospects, or in the words of their report, ‘The potential for a major find is excellent.” They found numerous narrow veins which assayed an average of 50/60 grams per tonne AU, which was information I found very interesting.

I knew that such small, but richly gold bearing quartz veins;or as we call them in Australia, ÒleadersÓ or ÒstringersÓ, were well suited to selective shallow mining by hand. And which, once located, could produce much more bankable gold in a set time than any alluvial deposit. However, at the time I was passing through, the landowner miners were completely unaware such deposits existed. Then all mining was directed toward the elevated alluvial terraces. They were mining just as they had seen the Australian prospector work so many years earlier. Many months later, in my report, I detailed for these people the ways and means to locate and mine the stringers, and other deposits.

This valley with its rich narrow veins, was a classic epithermal deposit, of the type eagerly sought after by geologists in many of the Pacific Rim of Fire countries. Thousands of years ago these epithermal deposits had formed near the earth’s surface after complex chemical reactions between rock and mineralized hot water under pressure. And, as in this valley, are usually found today in the terrain of a collapsed volcano.

In other areas of the PNG highlands, and also in the Solomon Islands, similar quartz stringers have been mined by indigenous miners in recent years. Widespread rock alteration is usually found around the ore zone, which when coupled with the severe weathering effects of a tropical climate, result in a deposit that is “soft,” therefore, allowing easy and quick-hand mining. It has been found that as these veins go deeper, they enter the so-called bonanza zone, which is expensive to mine. And, no longer accessible to the hand miners, become the domain of the mining company.

As we passed on down the track, I told myself that I must stopover in this valley on my return, to more closely examine the creeks and try a few pans.

The valley was well populated, and along the way I could see typical groups of bush material houses amid clumps of trees, each seemingly randomly scattered. Each village had its vegetable garden, growing the staple of sweet-potato (Kau-kau), and Taro. The lifestyle I saw before me had not changed for centuries. I felt like I had stepped out of time, and into a forgotten land.

As each hour passed, I was tiring rapidly, the track deteriorated to such an extent that it was scarcely 12 inches wide. The jungle was getting denser and the climb became steeper. After one nearly vertical section of track, which my guide informed me was a short cut, we were surrounded by mist. Then it rained, and we got a thorough tropical soaking.

The jungle was everywhere, rain dripping off every leaf. Each drop helping to swell the many perennial streams that issue from this jungle. And echoing off the steep valley walls, I could hear the loud roaring of just one such stream.

We came to a deep gully which could only be crossed via a single old tree trunk laid flat. Slipping off did not bear thinking about. Those ahead of me crossed by placing one foot slowly in front of the other, and, relying on their natural agility, crossed successfully. I had to be led across while holding on to the man in front, with a man following to steady me.

Once we were all safely on the other side, my guide said with obvious pride, “My people’s land starts here,” and as we proceeded further down the track, he started to call out. Soon men appeared from the jungle, with women following carrying the garden tools used during their day’s work. Occasionally a small child would come running out of nowhere, then, after taking one quick look at my white face, run screaming back into the jungle.

After clambering and sliding over slippery logs, and scurrying up gullies for another hour, we finally reached my guide’s village. We entered just as the sun had set, surrounded by a light mist. And as pointed out to me by my guide, “Just as I had planned,” making sure he took credit for our safe and scheduled arrival. I was now deep in the jungle, and as far from civilization as it is possible to be. This village of grass huts with dirt floors was to be my home for the next few nights.

The village people gathered around, and after the introductions were taken care of, the woman made a good fire to warm ourselves and cook with. On finishing our meal, my companions and I sat around the only light, a wood fire. Then to my great surprise and dismay, my guide started talking politics. And after listening to him for the next hour or so, I was now starting to believe the often quoted remark about PNG which says that “politics is the only game in town!” When he finally realized I was not interested in hearing anymore, the conversation turned, and we started to talk about his village.

I was told that his clan had just recently built the village on a site, where, for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, inter-tribal fighting had traditionally taken place. To these people this new village was a symbolic gesture, a means of showing that the bad-old days of head-hunting had been done away with forever. And by building a church in particular, showing how they had now adopted peaceful Christian ways. The symbolism was lost on me, I could only think of the many men who had suffered a very violent death on the very spot I was to sleep that night. Lucky for me I don’t believe in ghosts.

On this mountain where the climate is cold, there were no mosquitos to keep me awake, and I slept well that night. Next morning the chill mountain air woke me early, and the exhilarating view I saw before me is something I will never forget.

The village was built into the side of the highest mountain range in PNG, very close to the summit. Above me the sky was crystal clear, and looking down, I saw clouds scattered about. I appeared to be a tremendous height above the valley floor.

My last night in the village was spent discussing with my guide the results from the previous days of prospecting. I reluctantly had to explain that my report would recommend not to bring mining equipment into his particular area. I went on to tell him that they would be best to proceed as they had, by using picks and shovels to pry the wash dirt out, and then use gold pans to separate out the gold.

I wanted to achieve a positive result from this trip, so I asked about the river I could just see from the village. A river which flowed peacefully below, at the very bottom of the valley. It was obvious to me that this river would carry most of the mineable alluvial gold in the valley. I was aware from this, and previous prospecting trips, that each creek running into the river on the village side of the valley for a distance of 16 miles, carried gold. Therefore, in a classic text book situation, each of these steep and fast flowing creeks would have been dumping gold into the larger, slower river for thousands of years. And importantly for me as a gold dredger, the river flowed over relatively flat ground with only slight fall, was wide, meandered in places to allow gold deposition on bends, and although it carried a large volume of water, it appeared not to be fast flowing.

After talking about this with my guide, I got little response. He only indicated that he could not take me to the river. And gave me the impression that, for him this river may as well be on the moon. I had no doubt that the land through which the river flowed, belonged to another, culturally different people or clan, and was out of my guide’s sphere of influence.

Having now gathered enough information, it was time to return to my base camp. I left thinking to myself that I would have liked to have stayed longer. The men of this village had been the best and most helpful prospecting partners I could have had. And, it was good fortune to share what was a memorable experience with such men. The simplicity of their lifestyle had fascinated me, and although they lack any of the material comforts all of us in the western world take for granted, they still live quite comfortably.

After one day’s walk, this time accompanied by two men, I arrived before sundown at the valley of the Nambrok people. I was starting to feel very much the worse for my trip. My feet were bloody and sore as a result of following my barefoot companions through too many mountain streams. When wet, my leather hiking boots, which were too tight, acted like an abrasive and caused my feet to bleed. As abrasions are slow to heal in a tropical, continually moist environment, I had to consider the very real risk of an infection.

I decided there would be no more prospecting for now. I was still six hours walk away from a medical aid post and it would soon be dark. All I could do was walk out next morning, and I arranged accommodation for the night. My only thought now was to get a good nights sleep.

I woke the next morning to find I could barely walk. Leaving as soon as possible after sunrise, I headed directly for my base camp and medical assistance. Weak with fatigue, I had to rest every hour, and what would normally have been an easy six-hour walk, turned into a 10-hour torture test. Forcing myself on, I managed to arrive just before dark, and I spent that night on my first soft bed for six days.

At the medical aid post next morning, I was told they had no drugs or dressings, and all I could do was to keep the wounds clean. That left me with no choice but to fly back to Madang for treatment by an Australian doctor.

The scheduled mid-morning plane had not arrived that day, due, as the locals guessed, to mechanical breakdown. Thinking I had no chance of getting out that day, I suddenly heard the slow drone of an aircraft engine. Without thinking, I jumped up and said, “Let’s try to get me on that plane!” Arriving at the airfield in less than ten minutes, I found that the plane had landed, and I was able to get the last available seat.

We took off in low cloud cover. The pilot, looking around for a break in the clouds, headed southeast, rather than his usual route directly east. To my delight, we were soon flying down the valley where I had spent the previous week. Flying just over 500 feet above the valley floor, I got the best view possible of the river. My earlier thoughts were confirmedÑthis was a perfect river for gold dredging.

Now, being so close, I could see that the river bed was not choked with large boulders. Just as I had hoped, and unlike all the creeks that feed into this, the main river of the district.

As we flew away and on to Madang, I wondered to myself just how many similar rivers there must be in PNG. “There would be so many,” I thought. It would be a lifetime job to prospect even half of them. Rivers virtually untouched, and rivers that would be best prospected and mined with modern gold dredges.

Back in Madang, doctors examined me and prescribed antibiotics and two weeks off.

Throughout the PNG highlands, there are hundreds of valleys similar to Iabmis Valley where the mining of gold is becoming an increasingly important source of revenue for the local people. Since I returned to Australia, there has been a 5-inch dredge taken into Iabmis Valley, and the mining of the alluvial terraces is continuing on an ever-increasing scale. The stringer deposits, however, remain virtually untouched.