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The Big Fish
written by: John H Paterson
Have you ever heard of Benin? It’s a little country in West Africa about the size of Pennsylvania. Sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria, Benin is primarily a cotton growing country. So, if you’re not in the cotton business, it may explain why you are unfamiliar with it. I can’t say I knew anything about Benin until a friend passed on a fax about a gold prospect in the country and I started doing a bit of research. Benin didn’t have any gold mines at the time (late 1990’s), or any other types of mines for that matter, but I found the description intriguing. The excerpt from a report by the Benin Ministry of Energy and Mines read:
DEPOSIT IN THE DISTRICT OF PERMA
It consists of 26 quartz veins spread over an area of 2 sq. km. The proven reserve amounts to 8000kg of lode gold at a grade of 9 g/t.
A quick calculation told me that the reserves were worth over $100 million. Three times that today. It would be perfect for our company. And, as evaluating new gold prospects was part of my job, off I went to check it out. This could be a nice feather in my cap.
Someone more skeptical might have questioned colleagues about the prospect but only a fool would go wagging his tongue about a great prospect without first securing title. Greedy, unscrupulous competition might get in my way. I was going to land this fine fish on my own. So, without hesitation and mind made up, I boarded a plane bound for Cotonou, the Capital of an African nation I hadn’t heard of a week before.
I flew overnight through Paris, all the way dreaming of how profitable this project might be. Damn I’d been lucky to come across this gem.
The government geologist was waiting for me when I arrived at the Ministry of Energy and Mines. The Ministry’s offices were shockingly modest, but that was only to be expected in a country where there were no energy or mines. I spent most of the day in a small meeting room reviewing maps, drill cross sections, drill logs and analytical results. I tried to conceal my enthusiasm as I reviewed the data, taking notes and rubbing my chin while mentally calculating future profits.
The reports were in either French, the official language of the country, or Russian. Most of the work was done by Russian geologists before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Then I discovered a report in English, the one containing the excerpt I had been sent by fax.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I came to the part which quoted the “proven reserves.” The reserves were quoted as 800 kg instead of 8000kg. I was sure there must be some mistake. Quickly pulling out my fax, my mouth went dry. The excerpt I had been sent had been altered. Someone had added an extra zero! My big fish had flopped out of the boat and was quickly swimming away.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Anyone in their right mind would walk out the door and catch the next plane home. Ninety percent of this potential gold mine had just evaporated and even worse, someone here, probably the geologist, was crooked enough to alter a report to entice someone to fly halfway around the globe to examine the project. And that someone was me! And you’re probably thinking that this should be the end of the story, the moral of which should be “don’t look for gold in cotton country” or “if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably bullshit.” But I wasn’t ready to give up and decided to dig a little deeper.
I asked the geologist what he personally thought the reserves of the deposit might be. He said no one could say because it had yet to be properly drilled. At this point we were just seeing the “tip of the iceberg.” I could take his word for it that the deposit was getting bigger and richer with depth. This was a hydrothermal orebody, formed over eons, by gold rich fluids flowing from deep in the earth’s crust and precipitating the gold in the quartz matrix. It was just a matter of finding the “feeder zone” and we’d see gold grades that would make the Egyptian Pharaohs blush.
You must admit he had a point. And while most people still might have written him off as a corrupt West-African fraudster and focused on putting as much distance between themselves and him, it’s hard to succeed by doing what most other people would do. And, wouldn’t it make sense, after coming all this way, to get a look at the property and make a fully informed firsthand judgement of the potential of the project? So, for better or worse, my pursuit of the big fish continued as does the story.
The geologist and his driver picked me up at my hotel at four o’clock the next morning and we drove for 8 hours to the project site. The countryside was flat with miles upon miles of nothing but cotton fields. Hot and dry. Like 40 degrees Celsius hot. Not surprising because we were only a few degrees north of the equator. But we rode in comfort in an air-conditioned Land Cruiser from the capital on the coast to the north part of the country. The road, which was under construction, was straight and flat and we would have made good time if it weren’t for the fact that the bridges over the dry streambeds every couple of kilometers had yet to be constructed. All the way I was thinking about the “tip of the iceberg” and what riches might lie below. As we neared our destination, the hills grew bigger and the vegetation turned to jungle.
Arriving at the project site around noon, we were surrounded by several shuttered maintenance shops, an empty office and fleet of rusty earth-moving equipment which looked like it hadn’t been moved since being abandoned by the Russians. This hidden gem had been kept secret for quite some time. We parked the vehicle in the yard and started on foot with the geologist and a pair of local caretaker/watchman types. The heat was almost unbearable but fortunately, the forest canopy gave us some shelter from the scorching sun. We crossed the river and started up the hill through the jungle. I imagined myself as Indiana Jones heading out to discover the Lost Ark.
Trudging up the path through the forest, we eventually came to the edge of a clearing. Perhaps a dozen artisanal miners could be seen crushing rocks with hammers and panning the fine material for gold. The watchmen said something to the geologist who held a finger to his lips making a shushing sound and telling us to stand still. The two watchmen bent down to collect several fist sized rocks then ran out into the clearing yelling at the miners and pelting them with the rocks. The surprised miners grabbed what possessions they could and scrambled to safety at the edge of the jungle where they stopped and yelled back at the watchmen.
The geologist explained that the miners were trespassing and knew very well that they were mining illegally, though it was obvious that they had been working the site for quite some time. While he showed me the geology of the area, the watchmen gathered the miners’ belongings. There were hand carved wooden gold pans made of sections cut from tree trunks, hammers, some basic food, and even a small vial of gold one of the miners had collected. The sun beat down on us while the watchmen dumped the miners’ precious water onto the ground. This upset the miners even more and the shouting grew louder.
I looked up and the miners were waving machetes at us, yelling in some tribal language and making threatening gestures. I guess the geologist sensed that I was feeling uneasy. And I wish it was as simple as “uneasy.” But in fact, I was terrified!
“They won’t bother us,” he explained. “They know that there would be big trouble if they did. We have to be strict with them or they won’t respect us.”
That response didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. I wasn’t the least bit interested in teaching these poor devils any lessons or gaining their respect. All I was interested in was getting out of there in one piece. I didn’t have a lot of faith in my host but, at this point, there wasn’t much I could do.
The way the miners made their shafts was fascinating. They would build a fire on the ground and when the rock got hot, they would dump water on it. This would cause the rock to crack where upon the pieces could be pried loose and crushed to powder to recover the gold. Then they’d repeat the process over and over following the rock containing quartz veinlets and eventually developing a shaft. Each miner had his own little work area, like a claim, perhaps 5 meters square. Some of the shafts were 5 or 10 meters deep.
While the geologist was showing me rock samples and explaining what was going on, I was keeping one eye on the miners at the edge of the forest. They had stopped yelling and were now talking amongst themselves. Unquestionably, they were working out a strategy to get revenge and regain their precious belongings. It was just a matter of where and when. When the attack finally came, my strategy was simple: to run as fast and far as I could. I had a Swiss Army knife in my pocket, but the tiny blade was no match for a machete. And the corkscrew attachment was also worthless, unless they wanted to share a bottle of wine with me, which wasn’t very likely. The only other thing I had was a pocket full of Central African Francs, the local currency. The plan I devised was that while I was running down the hill through the forest, I would throw the money over my shoulder and anyone chasing me would be inclined to stop to pick it up letting me get farther away. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all I had.
When we finished looking around the clearing, I thought we would be returning to the car but the area where most of the gold was concentrated lay further ahead.
“Not far at all,” explained the geologist. “Just over the hill. And we head straight back to the car from there.”
As we continued through the jungle my eyes darted back and forth looking for signs of the ambush. The miners would be jumping out of trees and chopping us to pieces any minute. Sweat rolled off my forehead and into my eyes like it was raining. It seemed like we were walking for hours. If only I had done what most people would have done when they found out they’d been tricked, I’d be on my way home by now. What a mistake. A wife and two young children at home and me hacked to death in some godforsaken African Republic.
Eventually we came to the other clearing. This one was much bigger and had a lot more people working it. Perhaps seventy-five or a hundred. There was a lot of talking and a bit of yelling, but I was relieved that the watchmen refrained from rock throwing. The miners made like they were packing up to leave but I’d wager they were back working their pits as soon as we left.
We sweltered in the heat of the afternoon with no shelter from the sun. The place was dirty and foul smelling. It was painfully obvious there were no toilets. I was out of drinking water and my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten lunch, though food was the least of my worries at that point. So, we continued our quest. At least the geology was interesting. There were horizontal and inclined beds of white quartzite of variable thickness, up to a meter or more, which seemed to host most of the gold. Or at least that was the conclusion I drew because these were the ones into which the miners drove their tunnels. Some of the openings were so narrow it was hard to believe a man could fit inside. I wondered how many poor souls may have perished from being crushed by rock falls in these narrow caverns. It was doubtful that much of the 800 kg of gold that had been outlined by the Russians, might be left in this rabbit warren of tunnels. It seemed that my big fish had been picked clean to the bone. Even if there was something mineable there, the social problem of dealing with these destitute artisans would have been formidable.
The deprived miners were skinny and sunbaked. Hardly any clothes. Their black skin caked with white powder from the crushed quartzite. I’d hate to think what their lungs were like. The only tools they had were machetes and hammers. Some didn’t even have hammers, they just used big rocks to pound the little rocks. When I thought of how desperately poor these people were, I remembered that the watchmen still had their food, tools and gold. I expected them to come after us any minute.
The geologist explained that most of the artisanal miners came from the neighbouring countries of Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. During the dry season, when there was no farming work at home, any money they could make mining was better than sitting, waiting for the next rainy season. So, they migrated here and worked their pits in hopes of some meager reward. He complained bitterly because the police didn’t help keep them away. I didn’t care. All I could think of was getting back to our vehicle and getting the hell away from there.
We made our way down the hill and back across the river. A sense of relief swept over me as we arrived back at the office area. The confiscated tools were taken to a warehouse that was empty except for one corner where dozens of these hand carved wooden gold pans and various other simple tools were piled. I didn’t see, but I surmised, that the watchmen got the food and the geologist took home the gold concentrate.
I could end the story here by saying that I made it back to Canada unscathed and never returned to Benin again but please indulge me as I feel it is important to include one more incident.
We got into the Land Cruiser and drove to a small hotel near the town of Perma to have dinner and spend the night. The first order of business was to take a badly needed shower. Next, I opened my suitcase to find some clean clothes and was surprised to see how hot they were after sitting in the locked car for the afternoon. And I was happy to discover that amongst my clothes were two small airline bottles of gin that I had tucked in for a situation such as this. There was no ice or mix, so I poured the hot gin into the water glass from the bathroom and took a drink.
I was expecting the worst but to my surprise, it was wonderful! The heat must have activated the alcohol because it immediately started calming my frayed nerves.
A wise person once said that you learn more from your failures than from your successes. And because my trip to Benin was clearly a failure in almost all respects, I should have learned a lot. But I didn’t.
The first lesson should have been to be more skeptical about properties that sound too good to be true. But, once a dreamer, always a dreamer.
The second lesson should have been that, if you discover that the person trying to sell you something is lying; walk. Only that one didn’t take either because there are so many unscrupulous people in the business, its best to assume they are all liars and check each fact yourself.
Perhaps the only thing I did take away from the whole horrendous ordeal, was that hot gin, as terrible as it may sound, is still a damn sight better than no gin at all.