Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mild Mongolia

Ok, so going to Mongolia in the middle of winter isn't mild as such, more like bloody freezing. When you look at a temperature forecast and see the warm day is from -17 to -29 degrees (Celsius for my international friends), you know you’re in for a bit of a shock.

So leaving Perth on another balmy 30 degree day to begin the double (yay for business class) leg to Beijing via Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian Airlines.  The stopover in KL was brief and then upon reaching Beijing after a few hours sleep it was about trying to find ways to occupy nearly 6 hours until the next flight. With no wi-fi unless you have a Chinese mobile number or want to pay the extravagant Australian mobile company roaming fees, it’s not all fun and net surfing. Unfortunately as the next leg was on Air China and only economy (oh boo hoo I hear you say), no use of the airline lounge either. Fortunately on this trip to site I had a travel buddy (thanks Verne) which certainly helped ease the boredom of the 24 hour trip to Mongolia. So a wander around, feeling a little chilly (only -10 in Beijing at time of landing, but figuring it was good acclimatisation for later that day) and a coffee break later and it was time to board the flight to Ulaanbaatar.

We landed in UB, picked up the bags and then proceeded to put on extra jackets and beanies before even leaving the airport terminal. Then it was meeting the driver who would take us to the Corporate Hotel where the night would be spent. After checking in, a quick afternoons walk around the city centre involved a couple of stops in the nearest stores to help warm up a bit. It would take two minutes for any exposed (and not so exposed) body parts to feel numb again, so half a dozen shops were entered for browsing and more importantly, reheating purposes. Once back at the hotel there was some relaxation time before dinner and bed.

The defined pickup time the next morning of 5am wasn’t such a big problem. The biggest issue was opening the door of the hotel to exit the building as the pressure difference when stepping outside to -30 degrees was a little more substantial than expected. After the flight check-in, the flight to the Oyu Tolgoi mine site from Ulaanbaatar was quite relaxing. The view of the sunrise and the landscape was incredible and the breakfast was certainly interesting. But it was eaten regardless.

The Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine is located in southern Mongolia in the Gobi Desert. It will be Mongolia’s largest copper and gold mine and one of the largest in the world upon its completion. It started commercial production in 2013. Oyu Tolgoi LLC is a partnership between the Government of Mongolia, which owns 34%, and Turquoise Hill Resources, which owns 66%. The Oyu Tolgoi operation consists of open-pit and underground mines, a processing plant and supporting infrastructure.  It produces high-grade copper and gold concentrates. The open-pit mine will be a large tonnage operation expecting to move over 100 million tonnes of dirt per annum using traditional shovel and truck fleets.

My job on site was to help the geology department change over to using our software, with particular attention to implementing a full grade control process on site. This process takes the drilling results, working with the data to figure out what is actually in the ground (high grade dirt, low grade, waste, etc) and then after classification, pass this information on to the surveyors to mark it out in the pit and to the engineers so they can plan how best to order the mining of the dirt. It’s a reasonably simple process, but getting it wrong means you’re literally throwing away gold (and copper at Oyu Tolgoi).

Tuesday night had a light snowfall. This made a nice change to it being cold and clear. A little snow always adds something pleasant to the chilly days. So waking up on Wednesday there was some minor snow cover, and the crunch underfoot was a little different to normal. The only reason the snow slowly disappeared from the ground over the next few days was the wind and bright sun shiny day. The temperatures continued to hold around the -5 to -20 range throughout the fortnight on site.

The second week on site was more about the training of new (and existing) users in both MineSight and particularly the MSAxis utilities. The production geology group on site hadn’t been exposed to MineSight other than a training course a few months previously. As these users would also be now working in close collaboration with the Ore Control engineers in the MineSight Grade Control project, it was important for them to understand and be comfortable with the software and the specific utilities within.

As the trip wound down on the last day (yeah right, things never wind down on the last day), we found an opportunity to go and have a quick look at the pit and the stockpile area of the mine. Due to the vast space available, the mining complex covers a large area, with camps, processing facilities, ware houses, store yards, the pit and the various stockpiles being spread out.

It was good to see how the actual process takes place on the ground compared to the computer version of mining. Then it was time to thank everyone on site for their help, have one last night of sleep and prepare for the even longer trip back home.

This meant a flight from site back to Ulaanbaatar, 5 hours sitting around the UB airport, a flight to Beijing and 8 hours sitting there. Remember, if you’re flying with Malaysian Airlines, check-in is only 2 hours before scheduled departure, so a long wait with baggage after heading through immigration is required. I did manage to find the most unhelpful airport restaurant in the world within the terminal though so the already frustrating wait became that much more fun. Then it was a comfortable seat for the flight to Kuala Lumpur, a brief stopover and back in the plane to finally get back to Perth on the Monday afternoon. It’s a strange travel arrangement when out of the 30-ish hours, half of them are spent in airports waiting for that next flight. But hey, it’s what we do.

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