Here Thar Be Monsters!

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10.11.10

Into The Jungle

(Written in 2008)

An hour's drive north of Balikpapan, Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, brings us to a cross-road marked by a Pertamina gas station and two dozen or more warung (small shops selling water, coffee and other necessities). We turn left and head west over a blacktop road that is only slightly better than ruts in the dirt. At one point, traffic comes to a halt as a wash-out has claimed half the road and traffic is proceeding single file. The rest of the road is a series of pot holes that could easily swallow the myriad motorcycles around us. Sudden braking throws us around the truck cab on a regular basis. On a blind turn, a pile of brush in the road alerts us to a stalled truck just ahead.

In about 30 minutes, we come to a turn-off that goes up a steep incline. There is a guard shack and swing arm gate, but no one is manning it today and the gate is up far enough to let us through. Going up the hill, we pass dilapidated scarecrows on the side of the road. The faces are painted on the central pole and tattered clothes hang from the cross bar. There are no gardens in sight, so one assumes that they are warnings to trespassers rather than wildlife.
What follows tests the patience of even the most saintly. Fifteen kilometers of the most bone-jarring, tooth-rattling, kidney-bruising road I have ever experienced. And this only brings us to a cross-road, with one sign denoting "Base Camp" pointing south along a ridge lined by sheer drops on either side, the other north on a slightly more improved road. We take the north branch, to my brief relief. What follows is not so bad, to start. We nearly hit 30 kph at one point. The jungle on either side would take some serious machete work to penetrate just 5 meters into it. The sunlight is heavily filtered.

Passing a road cut, we see the reason for this trip: a coal seam one meter thick embedded in the rock. It dives down in the direction of our travel and foreshadows the sudden and nerve-racking incline we must now descend.

My head repeatedly hits the roof of the truck, only to have my body slammed into the seat on the next bump. The Isuzu 4x4 takes the road easily, but the occupants are a bit more rattled. At the bottom, we pause to switch to four-wheel drive, as there is a mud pit about 20 meters across in front of us. The ruts are about one meter deep, and that is the passable part of the road. One bad turn and we either slam directly into a rock wall, or fall 100 meters into the dense jungle. From the looks of things, rescue would be several days off.

I try to photograph the monkeys and various birds and the ants that are shiny black and at least an inch long. Either the jostling of the ride or the poor lighting or the impatience of my jaded companions frustrates my attempts to document the wildlife.

This scene is repeated several more times before we come to the first signs of civilization in the past hour. There is another guard shack and swing arm gate, but this time there are four men manning the station.

A man called Blondie (his hair is dyed red), who is a member of the local tribe hired to keep security, wearing Oakley sunglasses, approaches the truck warily. He glances in the driver's window to inspect the occupants. Recognizing one of our party as the "Boss," we are quickly waved through with some brief pleasantries exchanged. There is another gate 100 meters ahead and one of the men rides a motorcycle past us to open the gate with a smile and a salute, as we arrive.

What follows is yet another nerve-jangling series of steep declines, mud pits, sheer drops, and encroaching jungle. After nearly two hours, we arrive at the destination: a wide, level field with a 500-meter long conveyor belt being assembled across the middle of it.

We turn left and drive a bit down a newly made jetty of clay and rock that cuts through mango swamp until it stops abruptly at the open water of a large river. Here there are two shacks, several generators, a crane, a cell phone tower, and several men watching badminton tourneys on TV. It's a national holiday and they are relaxing on a rare day off.

I notice that my cell phone suddenly has signal, a sign that the rudimentary forms of civilization have returned. Only the broad, open space of the river allows signal access to the beach several kilometers down river for such amenities. I unfold myself from the cab of the truck and painfully stretch away the cramps.

Out in the water are four steel piers jutting up tracing out what will be a 100-meter long dock. Leading out to them are a couple of wooden ramps made of tree branches topped with three narrow planks of finished wood that look barely able to support my weight, much less that of the three of us walking across. At the end of one is a meter-high box with the floor cut away to the river that serves as the camp toilet.

We slosh through ankle deep ocher mud to reach the ramps. Tied to one is a narrow boat, like a canoe but with a square stern. Using these ramps, the boat and the crane, these men have welded the piers and placed them out in the river. I find myself wishing I had seen this operation. It never ceases to amaze me how much these people achieve with the simplest of tools. In some cases, construction plans are drawn in the mud and executed with precision an engineer could appreciate.

In four months, this will be a thriving coal mine, with over 600 men employed around the clock digging and loading, ultimately reaching 100,000 tonnes of coal a month. The client has joint-ventured with the Indonesian producer to develop 10 concessions, totaling 25,000 hectare here in the jungle. This initial operation will open four of the concessions and production will start up at 25,000 tonnes per month, ultimately reaching the production goal by next year, with an estimated 10-year supply of coal in reserve at that level.

The coal will be dug from the jungle and piled on the leveled field we just crossed. It will then be shoveled into a crusher and transferred to the conveyor, which will load barges tied to the dock. The barges will be ushered downstream to the ocean and the coal transferred to ships for the ultimate destinations. From shovel to plant, the whole process will take 45 days.

The coal will be used to fire power plants, ceramic, glass and textile factories, and a half-dozen other industries. The resulting products will ultimately be your table or sit on your table or be worn by your children or sit on your bookshelf or fertilize your lawn. The lights in three countries will be powered by this mine. Over 1,000 men and women will ultimately spend the better part of their working lives at this mine, and many will retire before the mine is spent. Huge trucks and earth movers will be delivered down the road we just came.

When the mine is ultimately shut down, the jungle will quickly reclaim the land. Keeping the jungle at bay is a full-time job. If work stopped today, everything I have just seen would be buried in dense growth within months. In fact, on the drive in, we passed a mine that closed last year. Already there are trees ten feet high and brush everywhere, with bananas ready to pick. On my next visit, there will likely be bamboo thickets 50 feet tall.

That night, we meet with the senior geologist in a hotel lobby in Samarinda. The seam is likely half again as large as the last round of estimates, based on new core samples and the findings at other mines in the region. We spread the papers discretely but excitedly on the table. The shareholders will be ecstatic. The "Boss" grins like a Cheshire cat.

You, dear reader, can look forward to even more fine dishes, cups, furniture, clothing, fertilizer, and other necessities. The labels on your products will say made in half a dozen different countries.

Now you know how the process begins.

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