Sunday, June 15, 2014

Coal in Laos

June had me off to Laos (incidentally, it is supposed to be spelt Lao, but a French grammatical error now has the western world adding the silent "s" at the end) to meet up with some MineSight users working for Phonesack Group at their Kaleum Coal Project. This was going to mean I was a week on site going through some geology modelling and seeing a new part of southern Laos. This should be a nice return to geology again.

A routine flight to Bangkok, overnight and then an early afternoon flight to Pakse and then a couple of hours in the car to site. Nope. Unfortunately Laos airlines wont fly when only two people are booked, so the Bangkok to Pakse leg was cancelled. This meant day one ended with a late flight to Vientiane instead. Now normally I wouldn't mind this, but the 10pm arrival at the hotel and 5am departure was not conducive to experiencing the food and sights of Vientiane which I do enjoy. The karaoke club next door wasn't particularly helpful either, so I wouldn't recommend the Vientiane Mercure Hotel if you don't sing. So the six thirty flight to Pakse means that we would be on the road by nine, this actually would be a good thing. The roads and drivers in Laos are similar to a lot of Asia in that the driving rules aren't really rules. So red lights and green lights all mean caution, 50 means go flat out and well, just don't crash if you can avoid it. You certainly have a vast mix of vehicles, speeds and abilities on the roads. So in this regard, having a morning drive to site certainly beat having a late afternoon journey as was the original plan.

A quick stop was made at the Phonesack Padou camp in order to refuel the car and change driver, and then it was back on the road. But while most of the first segment was flat land driving on reasonable roads, this second segment was mostly driven through range country and most of that was gravel roads. The roads had been worked on in the not too distant past, a lot of new concrete bridges had been put in and the gravel was reasonably smooth. Then just before midday we arrived at the Kaleum Coal Project camp.

This meant time to say hallo to the more senior guys who I would be working with during the week before being shown to my room and then heading to the mess for lunch. This would be the start of a week where rice was the staple. Not that that was a problem as the opportunity to exercise wasn't high so at least this way and with no dessert options weight didn't become an issue. 

It must be nice to have an outdoor kitchen. Barbeques for the meat and the big rice vats are just around the corner.

I must remember on the next visit to site that they do not provide you with a towel as in normal at other mine sites I've visited. And as the laundry lady air dries all your clothing, she doesn't work on rainy days. So going to site during June (wet season) means the best way to not run out of clothing is to do your own washing and dry it on the chairs in your room. But at least being put in the management rooms means there is space to do so. Unfortunately the day I chose to start doing my own clothes washing was the day the laundry lady came back and took my dirty clothes basket away. So it was a very restricted range of uniforms for the rest of the week. 

One of the best things about the buildings on site, be it the office, mess or sleeping buildings, is that the rules are no shoes inside. So there ends up being a collection of footwear (mostly thongs) outside the doors and a lot of bare or socked feet within. The best thing about this is (especially with the amount of rain and mud about) the floors stay very clean. It also helps promote better aim in the bathrooms too it would seem ;)

The training group ended up being 8 people, from the Mining Manager and a few other engineers to the senior geologists on site and some of their juniors. The training ended up being more focused on the process of taking the drilling and creating a resource model, and all that entailed. So while not all the usual CAD tools were put on show, most of those that would be helpful were. Plus we had a little time to show off some of the newer tools that would be helpful now, and others for when production gets going, hopefully in the next 12 months.

The camp and office area is actually built above part of the coal resource and marks about the half life of the mine. The pit will hopefully provide 35 years (or more) of mine life and the camp area would disappear around year 15 if all goes to plan. And a clearing happening above the camp up the hill is actually so the land owner can build a nice new house. I'm not sure what they think of having to relocate in a decade or two. I learnt these facts as I received a brief pit tour prior to the final mornings training. 

The pit tour gave me the opportunity to better see the complexity of the coal structures, as well as the current trench sampling and mapping program that has been taking place. Around the area there are also about 20 drilling rigs in operation, which keeps the core shed quite busy. But ultimately the aim is for a 35 year plus mine life to feed a coal fired power station that will be built on site. This should be achievable given that the coal deposit stretches for upwards of 50 km. it's whether a second power station at the other end of the deposit is feasible or not becomes a question for Phonesack in the future.

So the rest of Saturday was pretty busy with going over last minute queries prior to leaving site. The drive from Kaleum to Pakse was reasonably uneventful. Wet muddy 4wd roads for the first half hour were very much like some of the mining pits and roads I've visited. The road was a little narrower in places on the trip back where some of the weeks rain had helped slump some of the roadside batters. There was still the mandatory vehicle change at the Phonesack Padou office followed by the butt clenching flat land local driving to complete the trip. "Professional" drivers in Laos (and Philippines) are not the most patient of people. It probably won't change how I drive, but it should. I would love a day to do the trip though as there are some fantastic photo opportunities out there.

I hadn't been to Pakse before (with the exception of driving the central bypass on the way to site from the airport), so a chance to spend an evening there was good. Unfortunately it was rather dark by the time I arrived so I didn't get to see too much of town. The Athena Hotel was my supposed place of stay, however the travel agent hadn't actually reserved a room for me. Fortunately there were rooms still available so I had the night there as planned. Then in the morning it was to the airport for the flight from Pakse to Bangkok via Savannakhet. No cancellation this time. Then 13 hours of thumb twiddling at the airport and now the red eye back to Perth.

Plenty of rice fields on the outskirts of Pakse. But that's not unusual for this part of the world.

All in all it ended up being a good trip. The chance to see plenty of new countryside, eat local food and train some newer users in  the software with the potential to go back again. Now to prepare for MineQuest Perth.

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