RU Alumnus recounts a job where it really is a jungle out there
A self-professed rock hound, Ed Blackford '99, followed his interest to the extreme.
Blackford's tales were of the quest for diamonds and gold in South America and attendant logistical challenges. His Dec. 3 presentation in the Hurlburt Auditorium concluded the Fall 2013 Museum of the Earth Sciences lecture series.
"I was hooked when I found my first diamond, a quarter-carat stone that I panned out of a creek we were bridging," said Blackford, operations manager of Dream Hole Mining Company. A perfect seven-carat diamond was just one of many diamonds discovered by Blackford's fellow prospectors during his three-year stint in the former British colony of Guyana on the northern coast of South America.
Blackford's presentation, titled "Legend of El Dorado," recapped his experience in search of the gems and minerals that inspired Portugese and Spanish conquistadors, Sir Walter Raleigh and the prospectors featured in the Discovery Channel's "Gold Rush" television series.
Accessing the company's 37,000-acre mining concession in the Mazaruni District on Guyana's Wataburu Mountain was Blackford's job. The effort, which began when a friend asked him to help out, entailed more than a quick commute to work. Blackford was tasked with building a 45-mile unpaved track through the virgin bush, or what he said Americans call jungle.
"My job was to build that road and those bridges and take care of my guys," he said. "Logistics was perhaps the largest part of my job. I had to figure out what we needed and how to get it to our site efficiently and affordably."
The road traversed rivers, climbed mountains, turned to a gelatinous morass in the daily rains and presented challenges that engrossed him. His "guys" were a 30-man crew of Arawak Amerindians and Guyanese technicians native to the mountainous, thickly vegetated region. His bridges - 18 in total and including one 186-foot span - were hewn from native wood and constructed on the spot. Some bridges survived the ferocious daily tropical forest flooding and some were replaced by improvised ferries and barges. The food and fuel flowing along the road established the nascent mining operation - three years in the construction – that is now moving into production.
"There are a lot of trees and there is a lot of sand. Everything else has to be brought in," said the retired Army Chief Warrant Officer, who earned his general studies degree at RU while stationed at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. Everything - food, fuel, heavy equipment and mining gear - was brought in along the road that followed and crossed a branch of the Kurupung River that eventually drops over the 600-foot Kumerau Falls.
He said that the falls would be a national park in the United States for their sheer beauty. But with a prospector's wistful eye, he also speculated about the incredible Golconda of gems deposited at the foot of the falls by a millennia's flow of water. Alas, he said, the area was completely inaccessible due to rugged terrain.
"Supply runs may take days or they may take weeks," said Blackford of the road that sustains the mine. Blackford also briefed the almost 100 faculty, students and guests on life in the bush, which he experienced during his two-months-on, two-weeks-off shifts.
Blackford said the natives called the ants the "kings of the bush" as every animal, including man, gets out of their way. Blackford watched the ants denude a full-grown tree in three days.
"There were scorpions, poisonous frogs and snakes, tigers, ocelots, jaguars, pumas and countless types of insects. But, the worst were the wild pigs or peccaries. As I walked through the jungle, I always kept an eye peeled for a tall tree to climb and escape them," he said.
The goal of the effort is to mine the quartz sand in the ancient riverbeds by placer mining, or blasting water through the sand and collecting the material as it goes through sluices. The gold is amalgamated with mercury and the diamonds are sifted out.
The next Museum of the Earth Science lecture will be Tuesday, Feb. 4 when Joe Keiper, director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, presents "The Entomology of Serial Killings.” To learn more about the Museum of the Earth Sciences and the lecture series, contact Steve Lenhart at (540) 831-5257 or firstname.lastname@example.org.