Crikey intern Ben Hagemann writes:
Mining work is an interesting yet inconvenient way to see the country. I once received a phone call from a certain engineering firm, asking if I wanted to fly up to Darwin for a one-month shutdown in Kakadu. The pay was a bit less than what I’d become used to, but having never been to the Northern Territory I decided that it was a good opportunity to see the countryside.
NT is a beautiful place. In the tropics the greens are greener, the smells are brighter and fresher, and the air hangs thick enough to feel heavy on your shoulders. Stepping out onto the tarmac in Darwin, the air will actually hit you like a punch in the face. Get used to it: it doesn’t stop.
Meeting up with my crew in the baggage collection area, we all shook hands and remembered names and filed into a couple of rented four-wheel-drives. The day was hot, sunny and sticky, but I relished the change in climate. Strangely though, on our way to Kakadu it began to rain. Quite heavily. And it got heavier, so heavy in fact that we could no longer see out of the windscreen. For all I knew we might have been 20,000 leagues under the sea.
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The driver, a crusty old alcoholic veteran of the industry, merely passed his beer over to one of his cohorts so he could put both hands on the wheel and concentrate on maintaining his speed of 140 km/h.
Unfortunately the rest of the crew seemed quite nonchalant, so I did my best to appear the same way. The rain was so deafening I don’t think he would have heard me anyway. Just as quickly as the rain had started, it disappeared from the road, and we continued on as if nothing had happened. I was unnerved, and accepted the lukewarm tinny when it was offered.
But it was all okay, as I would be protected in the township of Jabiru, where live the workers of the Ranger Uranium Mine. What’s that, I hear you say? Uranium mine? Yes indeedy: All that protesting back in the 90s was about preventing a SECOND mine from opening up. Jabiluka is the area adjacent to the north of the Ranger Uranium Mine, so it is hard to see how opening it up would cause any further damage to the region. The place is already rotten with radioactive swamps, and two-headed crocodiles.
Actually, the filtration ponds from the mine are quite picturesque, and will hardly give you radiation poisoning at all. The deformed crocodiles are chopped up for dog meat, so the media don’t find out (whoops!).
But seriously folks, it is a breathtaking part of the world. Everything is so unbelievably green that it feels like a dream, and everything has a deep resonance of the ancient world, of a time long forgotten. From high vantages around the mine, you can see the rocky outcrop of a mountain which local aborigines believe is the final resting place of the head of the Rainbow Serpent.
One of the local mine workers pointed it out for me, while we stood on the catwalks on top of a massive tank for washing uranium ore. He told me that the oral tradition of the local tribes had labelled the area a kind of badlands, where no tribe could reside for long before sickness and general bad juju would abound, killing off the young and the weak.
The natural conclusion to draw is that the ancient tribes discovered that if you spend too long by the Rainbow Serpent’s head, you’ll wind up with radiation poisoning. I asked the man, who had been at Ranger for several years, if he was concerned about his health? But he simply shrugged and said “I reckon, workin’ around here, I’ve gotta be immune to cancer by now.”
He chuckled, and I noticed that a few of his teeth were missing, and his skin had a pasty pallor despite his time in the tropical sun. He wouldn’t have been 30 years old. I did notice over the weeks that full-time workers at the mine used a sort of gallows humour when on the subject of radiation: Lots of jokes about glowing in the dark, and such.
But it’s not all about scary legends and nuclear bogeymen. I had the most amazing experience one night, when I realised I could smell a frangipani tree from 100 metres away. There’s something about the heavy tropical air that lets a fragrance skip buoyantly to your nose over great distances. Unfortunately this can also apply to rotting carcasses, but we won’t put that in the travel brochure.
I also had my first coconut off a tree. I bought a machete from the local supermarket for $10 and chopped the thing open. Admittedly it had already fallen off the tree, so it wasn’t that fresh, but the hunter-gatherer act of finding your own coconut and eating it is quite satisfying. They were everywhere, and people would warn that you could be killed by one if it fell on you.
It didn’t take me long to realise that after work I could lie in the swimming pool with half a coconut, with its juice and some lemonade and vodka in, and sip the rare fluid through a straw. Unfortunately, the supermarket didn’t stock little paper umbrellas, so I am yet to live out that part of the fantasy.
It wasn’t all coconuts and vodka though. The great majority of my time was spent in the ungodly heat, soaking wet with sweat and the monsoonal downpours that opened up every few hours, trying to pressure clean sulphurous uranium ore sediment from enormous open topped tanks, which sometimes produced poisonous gases which we monitored with gas meters. Heat exhaustion was a daily risk. We would end up covered in the vile material, and have to trudge back to the change rooms for decontamination showers. It was quite a miserable task. I never saw a living cane toad on the mine site: they were all dead. I think the toads must be poisoned fairly quickly once they begin to splash around the radioactive puddles. This could be the answer to the cane toad menace of the north: atomic bombs!
After three weeks of this nonsense, I found out that there was a radiation laboratory on site (duh!) so I went there, covered in filth, and asked to be tested with a scintillometer (formerly known as a Geiger counter). My clothes, which were covered in the grey and yellow muck, did not register much more than the background radiation level (which they told us was safe: I think I can still have babies), but my boots were another story.
As soon as the wand passed over my feet the meter started to crackle and spit like the static on a badly tuned radio. The lab assistant asked what the hell I’d been doing, so I told him I was cleaning CCD tanks with process water. He told me the process water has uranium dissolved into the solution, and sulphuric acid to boot, and that I should be extra careful. With that helpful advice in mind I went back to getting myself covered in the evil shit. When the company offered me another month on, I politely declined.
And just so, best beloveds, the moral of the story is that you should never try to take a working holiday in Kakadu. Save your pennies. Buy your own plane ticket. Go and see the wonderful sights. Catch barramundi and drink vodka from coconuts. Take a riverboat cruise and watch the crocs jump for chickens on sticks. Smell the frangipani on the air.
If none of that is real enough for you, go to the head of the Rainbow Serpent, and see for yourself what a real uranium mine looks like. You can paddle in the ponds, taste the sulphur in your eyes, and wrestle with the two-headed crocodiles, all courtesy of Ranger operator ERA (owned by Rio Tinto: Thanks guys!).