So it’s now 1020 on the 23rd of December, 2010. I just had one of the most intense experiences I have had for a long time. We’ve just left the dirt road between Mane and the main highway linking Konguosi and Ouaga.
The plan this afternoon was to shoot the artisanal village we visited yesterday near Mane. Being the last day of filming in Burkina I had to make a decision as to whether I would go down one of the artisanal mines. As the sixty five kilometre drive out of Konguosi progressed I managed mentally to start to get my head around a serious descent of one of those holes. I decided that if I could find a twenty metre hole I would do it. So we bought thirty metres of thick rope south of Konguosi at a large market and then headed to a village near Mane.
The village was about ten kilometres south of the town along a bicycle track. We rocked up and made ourselves known to the powers that be. It turned out to be a different village to the one we saw yesterday but in the same area and probably running along the same orebody. The head of the mining area agreed to my descending a hole and introduced me to a man that had dug a very neat hole. Trouble was it was thirty metres deep almost exactly. Maybe a metre or two deeper if anything.
The mental preparation was intense. Thirty metres is a long way down and if I fell and had no support it was almost certainly curtains. But I really wanted to do the descent because I’d captured everything else with the exception ofwhat the miners did inside the mines.
On the drive to the mining area we'd been working through a pretty intense risk analysis. My first concern was to put in place some protection in case I fell. Rope fitted the bill there and we made sure we got the thickest stuff we could. Probably about 10mm thick in roping parlance but not stress tested and all that stuff that goes with proper climbing rope.
The second, and probably most concerning, issue was the existence of toxic gases such as methane and carbon monoxide. How long could I last down there if they were present and what would happen if I became debilitated and couldn’t get back up the shaft? We probed this question heavily before we effected the descent.
And then finally, if these gases were present, would electronic flash create any problems and cause an explosion?
Once I’d gained a degree of confidence that the above risks could be managed, quite a large crowd had formed to watch me go down the hole. I was as nervous as all hell and the camera was filming at the same time.
I decided to go down in bare feet to give me better grip on the walls of the shaft but ended up wearing socks. We spent perhaps twenty minutes or half an hour getting the knots tied right. This meant a knot around me that would not crush or strangle me if I fell. And second, we had to secure it to a makeshift head-frame that would enable the guys to lower me down as I went.
With these issues attended to, the risk analysis all looked pretty good and so it came down to overcoming my fears. The head of the village stepped in and said if I was too afraid I should not do it. It was very dangerous if it went wrong. I was scared as hell.
It probably took me about half an hour to decide finally that I would do it. I stepped over to the top of the shaft and lowered myself into the hole,. Basically what these guys had done was dig footholds into either side of the shaft so that people stepped down with one foot on either side of the shaft,. They had a rope in the middle to steady me if need be, but I didn't’t need it.
It’s a very unnerving feeling stepping into the top of a 32 metre vertical shaft. You can’t see the bottom and you can't hear people at the bottom: it’s that far down. After the first few footholds I managed to slip into the rhythm of the climb. My legs were like jelly and shaking when I propped to rest but I managed to get to the bottom after about ten minutes of climbing. It turned out to be not too difficult.
The experience was amazing. These guys not only work incredibly hard at surface but the working area down the hole was literally tiny. Just room enough to crouch and dig. The guys had hooked into the gold seam and were following that along at the bottom. We spent probably 45 minutes down there.
My flash triggers at the bottom of the shaft were causing problems as they were being set off by the video microphone attached to me. It was only after about 10 minutes of things not working that I realised that it was the video microphone that was causing the problems. So I killed that and got some average photos only.
Photographing in the environment of the miners was extremely difficult. There was virtually no room to work. Dust was getting into everything. The lungs, the gear, my camera bag. I was soaking wet after about ten minutes. The temperature down there was at least 55 degrees. Amazing how they do it.
After we'd finished the photo shoot, the miner showed me the gold seam. They have an amazing knack for knowing where the gold is, even when there's no visible gold.
The climb out was pretty tough. Physically very demanding. My legs were again shaking and like jelly and the climb again took about 10 minutes. The guys at the top were a bit blown away and said “many black men will not go down there. You are very strong.”
I was buggered: mentally and physically. I had established a unique connection with these guys that came only from understanding and being able to relate to the lives they lead. That was probably the biggest buzz of all. I felt like I had joined some unique brotherhood and established a degree of respect that would not otherwise have existed. The miners were so incredibly friendly again. My camera bag and shoes sat out in the open and no-one so much as touched them. The miners here were the most incredible people.
The experience will go down as one of the most intense of my life. While it turned out very much to be an exercise in conquering fear - a fear that was more perceived than real given the mitigation measures put in place - it had not been about that. I’d covered most of the artisanal mining value chain and that was the missing bit. Nothing more: nothing less. My portfolio would have been incomplete if I’d not gone down the hole, regardless of how scary the whole exercise was.
We had effectively shut down the mining area and that was amazing in itself. All these people earning hardly any money and they’d taken time out to help and watch a white bloke they didn’t even know experience their lifestyle and work environment.
So we’re now on the drive to Ouaga. Quite tricky. Lots of donkeys and carts and many of them don’t have lights. Very easy to run up the back of them if we are not careful. Some of these donkey trains very very long. It appears that they are doing their travel at night rather than during the day. Mostly carrying firewood. It's pretty interesting. Some trains up to 15 or more donkeys and carts. There’s heaps of them.
We nearly had a crash a minute ago when Allison narrowly missed a traffic island at speed. It would not have been pretty.