Depth through thought
OUCC News 11th June 2003
Volume 13, Number 14
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Editor: Anette Becher, email@example.com
Another 15 mins of fame (fast becoming notoriety?): <dead link>
Serves them right if you ask me, I believe they were trying to paint over the colours of all-conquering Linacre... [Found (and commented) by Keith Hyams ]
Actually, it's the world's most dangerous mine with over 8 million fatalities in the last 450 years or so. Just to keep up with the superlatives it is next to the world's highest city ("of its size") and I also suspect I am writing this in the world's highest internet cafe at around 4200m.
Having not been caving in ages the chance to be underground in the still working silver mines of Potosi (southern Bolivia) was too good to miss. These days zinc seems to be the main produce, although there is no shortage of weird and wonderful minerals of varying toxicities and value. The mines are much safer than they used to be thanks to modernish technology with a mere 40 to 50 deaths a year..., but so far no tourists. The tour company I was going with kindly picked me up at 9am from my hotel and, once they had collected the nine other people for the tour, they took us to be kitted out. Waterproof trousers and jackets and wellies were fine, although I went against the official advice of wearing the leggings inside the wellies explaining that it was all a matter of personal preference. The helmet was a little the worse for wear, being too small and with a completely ineffectual cradle. When I tried to explain this to the guide's son, he helpfully adjusted it for me. Since we had already been assured that cave-ins were very rare, I wasn't too bothered and nor was anyone else. It would carry my light, at least, which turned out to be remarkably good. (There were only two light failures out of twelve during the trip, so pretty much in keeping with what I'm used to).
Before venturing underground, we stopped off to buy bags of coca leaves; 96pc alcohol and a pair of socks as gifts for the miners to appease them for our presence, then it was into the mine. Some of the tour agencies warn of narrow passages and crawling sections, but having found the cheapest deal in town we had a luxury mine with modern equipment and walking size passage. The first novel hazard was the 1500kg trolley of rubble which had no brakes, forcing us to step aside as it crept towards us.
Further underground, and we saw miners drilling shot holes with their bag of dynamite neatly laid out beside them. Other tours let tourists blow up their own dynamite (freely available on the local high street), but for some reason this mine doesn't allow such practices. We met a few miners hard at work and heard tales of poor practice in other mines and from the past.
At the top of the trip's only tricky ladder climb (I nearly dropped part of it down below me when I put my hand on one section only to discover that it wasn't actually attached to anything), we met two miners using traditional carbide lamps. They, the lamps that is, seemed much more robust than the over-engineered ones some of us still use for caving, and at less than 7 quid seemed a bit of a bargain.
Before we were allowed to leave the mine, we had the obligatory wait while 12 dynamite sticks (mixed with ammonium nitrate for extra effect) were set off. We even had the chance to photograph the fuses just before they were lit. Bringing up the rear of the tour group, I paused to watch 12 little sparklers glittering in the not so distance. As we stopped for a head count a short way up the passage someone was heard to ask "why are we staying here while the miners are still running?" Not to worry though: 12 mountain shaking explosions later and we were able to head out.
One last surprise remained, however, as we were taken up a side passage to visit El Diablo, a little red figure with large horns and phallus. Apparently, it is traditional to give him gifts and lit cigarettes to ward off evil fortune underground. Tomorrow dozens of llamas will be sacrificed to the same end, although I'll be heading north on the trail of a real cave at last...