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  • Bill Prast


William G Prast is the author of a collection of short stories, available on Amazon. Here he shares with us a piece about mining, and about world-record-setting people, both famous and anonymous.

Reg Blake was not particularly looking forward to the next ten days of work. Not that he had much choice about it. He has a responsible job and there are several dozen men waiting for him to get off an airplane and lead them in a discussion on what was to be done, and then explain how they ought to do it. But he rose from bed with less than his usual enthusiasm and glanced out the window to the flowering garden of his home on the Kent coast. It is a beautiful spring day, and the roses need a bit of tending.

Nevertheless, despite his current mental weariness, he likes what he does for a living. His job as a mining engineer is not the sort of career to happen accidentally.

As a youth he wanted to get away from the family farm in Wiltshire, and see something of the world. He did. Gifted with a quick brain and an engaging smile, he made his way through the local state school system, usually at the top of his class, and achieved a scholarship to Imperial College in London where he studied rock mechanics as an undergraduate, and then mineral processing at the graduate level.

Mining is a global business, and for a qualified young professional, the extractive industries ensure the opportunity to travel. Extensively. And incessantly.

He is now a senior manager with an international mineral consulting firm, currently assisting one of the larger gold mines in the Republic of South Africa on a programme to access additional ore so they can operate for a further twenty years. It’s a major project.

As he stirred his breakfast coffee idly and sighed, his patient and loving wife said, “Sweetheart, you look like you want to go back to sleep. Pep up. You have a plane to catch this afternoon.”

“Yes, I do,” he replied. He shrugged. “The same time as last month. And the months before, too. It may be a long flight but at least there isn’t much jet lag in changing time zones to Johannesburg. Another ten days in country, first at the office and then down the mine. Back and forth. Repetitious, to put it mildly. I feel like a yo-yo. Audrey, this is my fifth trip there this year and it’s barely June. I have a sense of déjà vu.”

“Good,” she smiled. “It keeps you busy. And you get paid.”

“True,” he said. “And also I get plenty of time to read, en route and in my hotel room in the evening. I do like having some quiet time alone at the end of the day.”

“I know, but you can be a bit of a hermit, I think.”

“You’re being unfair. I’m clocking up more than 150,000 kilometres a year in the air. Including time spent in airport lounges, it’s over thirty hours a month. In transit alone. Plus time in hotels. I have to do something to relax. And I like to read.”

Audrey is well aware of her husband’s preferred pastime. The shelves of their study are lined with books. Not geoscience texts, technical journals or handbooks on mineralogy. Nor are there many novels. An avid reader of non-fiction, he is by nature very keen on geography and has seen many of the remote corners of the world. His particular enthusiasm is the history of exploration.

His reading tastes are wide-ranging. One of his favourites is a volume of the travels of Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth-century Moroccan legal scholar and near-contemporary of Marco Polo. He visited all of the Muslim world over the course of several decades, journeying throughout northern Africa, the Horn, and the Middle East, as well as the Arabian peninsula, India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China.

Ibn Battuta left his home in Tangier, setting off alone on the hajj to Mecca at the age of 21 and did not return to Morocco until a quarter of a century later. He travelled more than 125,000 kilometres and his memoirs provide us with a rare insight into the medieval Arab world, and beyond across Asia.

Reg is also attracted to accounts of the Age of Discoveries, as begun by the Portuguese whose voyages to the Far East and to the New World took place more than a century after the itinerant Ibn Battuta.

“Perhaps the term ‘discovery’ is a misnomer,” he reflected as he surveyed his library, choosing some reading material for his trip. “These explorers were Europeans seeking new trading routes to places they knew of already. Notably India.”

He was thinking of Prince Henry the Navigator, a visionary and a son of the Portuguese king, whose efforts to promote reaching India by exploring the Atlantic islands and the African coast would lead to the first voyage around the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Dias. Shortly thereafter Vasco da Gama sailed to the eastern coast of Africa and ultimately to India. Portugal dominated the lucrative spice trade for decades thereafter.

To the west, Pedro Álvarez Cabral, also Portuguese, was the first European explorer to confirm the existence of Brazil, and a bit further north Christopher Columbus was visiting the Caribbean.

As much as he respects the bravery of these explorers, he is of two minds about Columbus. “I think he got the idea of seeking India to the west from his time on Madeira in the early 1480s. He had been in the sugar trade and was married to the daughter of the Portuguese governor. Perhaps he saw some vegetation washed ashore from a storm and he recognised the plants were not local.”

He recalled, “In any case, the Portuguese court was more interested in the eastern route to India which Dias confirmed in 1488. Lisbon said the distance to India going west was much greater than the trip around Africa. Correct, but for the wrong reason. The American continents are in the way but no one knew it. Ironically, Columbus died believing he had been to India. He was insistent.

“John Cabot in the North Atlantic, Verrazzano in New York harbour, Henry Hudson shortly thereafter, all explorers of note. But in a way they were all regional. So was Leif Eriksson, some centuries earlier. There were plenty of natives already living where they went.”

With those thoughts in mind, he selected a history of the first successful circumnavigation of the world. “Magellan,” he reflected. “Noted for the first voyage around the globe, but not made by him. He was killed in a battle with the locals in The Philippines. He left Spain with 250 men in five ships. They sailed west, and rounded Cape Horn, passing north of the island of Tierra del Fuego through what is now known universally as the Strait of Magellan.

“The expedition was close to being a disaster. Only 19 came home, in a single vessel commanded by Juan Sebastiàn Elcano. His is a name that few people would recognise today. Elcano got the survivors safely back to Spain, soon went exploring again and within three years had died of malnutrition in the Pacific.”

Musing on the nearly ill-fated Magellan voyage, which in total was about 50,000 miles or two circumnavigations of the globe, he thought, “Being the first to sail around the world is quite an achievement but aside from Elcano, what about his companions?”

He looked them up. “The only one we know much about is Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian who kept a comprehensive diary of the trip. It’s our record of what happened. A few others gave oral accounts, but that’s all. We have the names of the surviving sailors, but otherwise they are simply footnotes to history.”

“Actually,” he considered, “all these famous firsts are conveniently associated with specific individuals but each person had massive support teams. All of them. Roald Amundsen goes to the South Pole, Admiral Robert Peary probably was first to the North Pole, and Yuri Gagarin was definitely the first person to orbit the earth. But none of them did it on their own. They had plenty of help.”

He paused before his books on space flight. ”Neil Armstrong is a well-known name, although he shunned publicity. He was first to walk on the moon, and as yet only a dozen men have. I met the last one, a geologist, Dr Harrison Schmitt, who was there with Eugene Cernan in December 1972. Cernan was second to enter the lunar module for the trip back, so he was the final man to leave the moon. It’s been a long time since. And few people can name other astronauts than Armstrong.

“There are other geographic firsts closer to home than visiting the moon,” he reflected. “Heights and depths come to mind. For example, Edmund Hillary and the Nepali sherpa Tenzing Norkay were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, with assistance along the way from other equally experienced climbers.”

“Yet,” he thought, “Everest may be the highest peak above sea level at 8,800 metres but the deepest bits of the ocean are even further away. The Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench south of Guam is over 10,900 metres. The oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Dr Don Walsh got there first in the bathyscaphe ‘Trieste’ in 1960. With the support of the US Navy.”

“And,” he said to himself, “without being unfair to mountaineers, the top of Everest is the same height as the cruising altitude of a passenger jet. Like the one I’ll be on today.

“Come to think of it, in his career, Columbus made four trips to the New World, each one of which was maybe 9,000 kilometres one-way. Maximum. One way London to Joburg is the same distance and I’ve done four round-trips already this year. It’s a tie. At the rate I’m flying lately, it will take me a few more months to match Ibn Battuta’s life-time numbers. This year alone.”

His wife came into the study at this point and interrupted his reverie with a question. “Reg, I don’t want to get rid of you but when will you be leaving for Heathrow? I’d like to do some gardening.”

“Very shortly, I expect. I’m all set for whenever the car arrives. Would you like me to bring back any souvenirs?”

“If you mean a zebra skin, please don’t bother. Like all the other the times you’ve gone through the Johannesburg airport, the answer is still ‘no’. Emphatically. And I don’t want any more exotic wood carvings, either. We have enough of them around the house already.”

“Okay, I think you must have read my mind. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about some famous geographic firsts. People like Magellan, Vasco da Gama, those sorts of pioneers.

“I was appreciating the fact those individuals may be famous but by and large they all had a lot of help to achieve what they did. We shouldn’t forget it. And one other thing.

“I’ve pepped up since breakfast and now I’m looking forward to this trip. Really. Because when we get this project finished, the mine will have become the deepest in the world. Below 4,000 metres.”

“That’s nice, but why do you mention it now, dear?”

“It means we will be at record depths. It will be the farthest distance that people have yet managed to venture down into the earth’s crust. With the equipment we’re planning, not the least being huge pumps of ice slurries to lower the ambient temperature of the rock at those depths from 65 degrees Celsius to something more tolerable, practically anyone could go down into the mine and equal the world record. Briefly.”

“Why briefly?”

“Because our mine plan is to extend the workings and go deeper in future years. Even greater depths will then be reached by miners as anonymous as the Portuguese sailors of five hundred years ago.”

And on that positive note, he heard the gravel crunch on the drive as the car pulled up. He kissed Audrey good-bye, picked up his suitcase and cheerfully departed to help set a world record.




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