Here Thar Be Monsters!

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26.11.11

Gold In Tham Thar Hills! - Part 1

We exited the airport at the first light of dawn.  A 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser, which had seen much better days, was waiting to pick us up.  In the back was a massive engine, and in the front was a miniature man with dark skin and a cloud of clove smoke obscuring his head.

We piled in, throwing our packs on top of the engine.  I arranged my water bottle and snacks and settled in for a long, bone crushing journey.  The old Land Cruiser shuttered to life and we were off.

Within fifteen minutes, the city had disappeared.  The four-lane blacktop has dwindled to a two-lane tarmac riddled with potholes.  In the potholes were either a pile of branches or a stick with a rag tied to the top, to notify motorists of the hazards.

We paralleled the coast for three hours, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away.  As the sun rose, we could make out the deep blue waters and volcanoes thrusting up though the ocean to become jungle-covered tropical paradises.  On the left side was dense jungle, black and inscrutable, hiding untold wonders and danger.

At some point, there were no signs or markings of any kind, the driver slowed and hooked a hard left, then accelerated hard into the jungle.  Now the road was becoming barely distinguishable from the jungle, save for the fact there were no trees on the narrow strip that cut into tropical vegetation.

For a while, we went uphill, then downhill, as we crossed the center of the long, narrow neck of the island.  Being completely covered by trees gave no break from the heat as the sun labored towards mid-day.  Occasionally, a gap in the canopy would allow a shaft of blazing light down to the ground, but otherwise it was a strange sort of green gloom, kind of like the color of the sky before a tornado.  We hadn't passed another car for some time, though I couldn't say how much, since time seemed to mean nothing here.

Finally, after an eternity of jungle, the trees broke open and there before us was the ocean, again.  In the distance was a small fishing village, maybe 20 or 30 houses and as many boats on the beach.  Most of the people were laying or sitting in the shade as we glided into the center and parked near the water well, were a few women were filling various containers.  Off to one side of the square was a milk circle.  I had seen this before: a group of wet nurses sit in a circle, in this case working on scaling fish, while children run around taking milk from the bared breasts.  The men had finished their work of fishing for the day and were gathered in knots around the area.

As the Land Cruiser sputtered to a stop, we flung open the doors and thankfully unfolded ourselves from the cramped space that had been our home for six unending hours of kidney bruising.  A small group of men approached with a contraption made out of large bamboo poles.  It was two larger lengths joined by two smaller cross pieces, all tied together with coconut husk rope to form a rectangle.

As I watched, they hefted the engine out of the back of the Land Cruiser.  The thing must have weighed easily 300 pounds, and none of the five men were much over five feet tall, but they seemed well practiced at this sort of thing.  By now, small audience had formed.  It wasn't often a tall, white, red-haired stranger rolled into town, if it had ever happened at all.

The men started talking rapidly, making a plan of action.  One ran off and returned with several lengths of sisal rope.  Four men held the bamboo rectangle, while two proceeded to lash the engine to it.  When they were done, our guide looked at us and gave the nod, meaning we were off...to where, I had no idea, but it was on foot from here on out.

I laced up my hiking boots (the men were either barefoot or using sandals) and slung my pack.  Four men hefted the engine onto their shoulders, called mikul.  There were no roads where we were going, and I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead.  Seeing these men mikul this heavy engine, I assumed it would be nearby.  I was in for a shock.

Within five minutes, we were on a well-worn path heading straight up the mountain that formed the backdrop of the village.  The first few hundred meters were relatively unchallenging.  The men carrying the engine were up ahead, while I was with a group of five bringing up the rear.  We marched bravely into the dense forest, and at one point, there was a group of gray monkeys sitting in a line on the ground, watching us pass with bemused looks on their faces as they gnawed on whatever it was that monkeys gnawed in these parts.

It wasn't long before the path started rising sharply and becoming much narrower.  In a couple of places, it got so narrow that two men couldn't walk abreast without going off a cliff.  It was at this point that I discovered the genius of the bamboo contraption.  At the narrow spots, the rack would scissor together, one long pole shifting rearward, to allow the men to continue carrying the whole rig.

By now, my chest was heaving and my shins were burning from the climb.  I hadn't mentally prepared for this kind of exertion.  To my amazement, the men carrying the engine weren't even breathing hard.  They didn't stop to rest.  They never stumbled or missed their footing.  They marched like machines up the mountain side. After two hours, I was near death.

As if taking pity on me, the mountain turned down into a narrow valley.  The path widened out and leveled off.  We marched on until reaching the far side of the valley.  Here we all stopped next to a small waterfall of icy water that felt like a gift directly from the mountain gods, as I stuck my head into the stream.  Everyone drank a bit, except for one man whose age was unknowable.  He could have been 40 or 90.  There were good arguments either way.  He just sat and smoked his clove cigarette and regarded me with deep black eyes.

I asked, regrettably, one of the crew how much further.  He pointed up the mountain to a group of shacks that were just barely visible near the crest.  My heart stopped and my arches fell.  When we saddled up for the next push, I felt deflated, having seen what was in store.  My eyes followed the line of the path up the mountain, and it appeared from here as if it went straight up relentlessly.

Soon we were off again.  The break had actually been a bad thing.  For one, I was now mentally defeated by having seen what I was up against, and the other was that I had time to think about my feet.  I could feel the sting on my heels that told me I had some major blisters forming.  I knew if I took off my boots, I wouldn't get them on again for another week.

We soldiered up the mountain.  The sun was already sliding towards dusk and every time I looked, the camp seemed just as far away, as if we were making no progress.  My legs were shaking from the strain, though the four men carrying the engine seemed as if they had just stepped out of the shower that morning.  I cursed them and the mountain and my throbbing feet, but I wouldn't allow myself to show any of it.  Being the only white man to come this way in more than a hundred years, I was determined to show that I was as tough as anyone, though inside I was seeing a bright light beckoning me from Heaven.

At last, just as the sun began to melt into the horizon, we passed an ancient shack, abandoned and haunted.  Then another and another.  We crosses a small stream.  The men hefting the engine nearly danced from stone to stone across the two meters of burbling ice water.  I was too tired to even try, and so plunged ankle deep and sloshed across.  The cold water seeping into my boots was a welcome relief, if only for a moment.

A year later, or was it only five minutes, we came to the heart of the camp.  By now, work had stopped the the smell of roasting goat and steaming rice filled the hollow in the peaks around us.  I waved off several offers of food.  Not that I wasn't hungry, but I was too tied to chew.  I asked where my bunk was and a young girl popped out of the mess hall to show me to the cabin.

The wood was so old, it had petrified in place and turned steel grey.  Inside, the dirt floor had been trodden to the point of becoming stone, as well.  In one corner was a bamboo cot with a thin cotton blanket, and in the other was a wash basin and a plastic barrel of water.  I thanked my escort and made as if to freshen up before dinner.  Within seconds, I was dead asleep, fully clothed with my boots still on.

At dawn, I awoke to the sounds of monkey fights and the smell of bubbling goat soup, the remains of last night's dinner.  I felt somewhat refreshed until I placed my booted foot and the floor.  Lightning bolts of pains shot up my legs, scorched across my spine and set fire to my brain.  I reached down and dug in my pack to find the supply of ibuprofen I had fortuitously remembered to pack along.  I downed two of them and waiting another fifteen minutes before attempting to stand again.  When I did, it was somewhat more tolerable, as a matter of degree.

I stumbled out the door and blinked in the bright morning sun.  Directly behind my shack was a mountain peak.  Following the contour down with my eyes, they alighted on a dark opening, barely discernible in the twilight and amongst the overhanging vegetation.

The Mine.

In camp, the men were just finishing up breakfast and greeted me with sly grins, knowing that I had nearly been beat by the mountain before I even started.  The four who had hefted the engine to the top seemed even more spry and energetic than the rest.  I cursed them again.

As I gobbled down the steaming bowl of goat stew, the men started drifting off to work.  They gathered near several piles of greenish white rocks near one end of the camp.  Each man took to a pile, apparently having some system as to who's rocks belonged to whom.

They squatted down on their haunches and took up a length of old inner tube.  They placed several rocks inside the rubber and folded it over on itself.  Then they took a hammer and began to pound the rocks into dust.  As they worked, the women brought over pans to collect the dust.  This went on for hours, until each had a fairly large quantity of dust.

One by one, they took the dust over to a shed with ten rusted 55-gallon drums arranged in a row.  Each had a trap door on one side and a wheel at one end with a long rubber strap that linked all of them to the newly installed engine.  They dumped the dust into the barrels and then one man came along with some kind of powder.  Whatever it was, he was wearing gloves and a mask and a long leather apron.

I asked what he was doing, and was told that he was putting cyanide in the drums.  He ladled out measured amounts into each barrel, then another man came along and added water with a hose from a spring-fed tank up the hill.  When this was done, the trap doors were closed and sealed and the engine was fired up.  Once it was idling right, the operator pulled a lever and the rubber strap tightened and the barrels began to roll with a loud sloshing, crashing noise.

By this time, dinner was served.  Teenaged girls called kijang, or 'deer', had run (almost literally) up the mountain, as they did once a week, to sell coffee, cigarettes, instant noodles, and assorted sundries and luxuries.  They carried it all in baskets on their backs held in place by a cloth sling that put the weight on their poreheads.

That night, we sat around the tables in the mess hall and talked shop, smoking and picking our teeth from a hearty and spicy meal or unknown origin...maybe dog or monkey, for all I knew.  At any rate, the mine was opened by Dutch colonists 150 years before, but abandoned within a few years when the easy seams had played out.

After the fall of Soeharto, among the many reforms was the transfer of mineral rights to local and regional governments.  At that point, a group of people had bought several concessions and donated them to the village church.  The church received a percentage of any gold that was taken out of the mine and any of the villagers could climb up the hill and whittle out as much as they cared to, though the process was rather laborious.  Each man could generally produce about half an ounce per week of 18 karat gold.  The balls they produced were still mixed with silver and copper (thus the green color of the rocks), but they fetched a pretty penny from buyers who would roll through the area once in a while to buy up the production.

In a couple of days, I would see the whole process, after the tumblers had done their magic.  In the meantime, I was going to get a first-hand taste of borrowing from Mother Nature's wealth.

to be continued...

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