Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Backdam

“No, of course I won’t bother taking my raincoat” I knew I was wrong the moment the first drop of rain landed on my shoulder. Ben was probably cursing me already for changing his mind about his own raincoat (But we never need raincoats when we do bring them!). The next thing I knew I was hunched awkwardly to the side in an attempt to keep as much of myself as possible under a little piece of tarpaulin, that covered our bags and a 4 year-old boy. Through the darkness our boat swept, black trees towering above us but giving no shelter from the hammering tropical rain that stung our faces, soaked our skin, made our teeth chatter, and kept the bailer-man busy. Thunder rumbled across the forest above the drone of the boat’s engine, as the last drops of colour drained from the sky and the six of us braced ourselves against the cold wind.

It was hard to believe that just an hour or so earlier I had been comfortably lazing in a rocking chair, soaking up the day’s last rays of golden sunshine, when a call and footsteps on the stairs snapped my attention away from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In less than two minutes, we had been recruited as workers for three days in the gold mines, and had started packing frantically to catch the ‘Just Now’ boat. Nothing like short-notice. Just before we left, out went the raincoat- “won’t be needing that”.

Eddie, the man who had invited us, kept the cold away by keeping up the chat throughout the journey. It was still a relief to pull in at the camp by the glowing embers of a fire and warm our insides with hot, spicy ‘tuma’, freshly caught fish and some cassava bread, before climbing into dry hammocks and sleeping bags.

A mining camp is quite a simple affair. Firstly there is the kitchen- where an old piece of oil drum acts as a wood burning stove and a picnic bench is put together with a few boards. Outside the kitchen is the washing-up table where the plates, spoons and mugs are kept with soap and containers of water. The camp cook’s only job is to havehot meals ready for the workers three times a day- to fuel the man power in the mines with rice or bakes, porridge or cassava bread. Then there is the worker’s camp-  a frame made from straight, sturdy branches and sheltered by a big tarpaulin. Some camps have extras, like kerosene stoves or even a generator, but this one here was lit at night only by flickering orange petrol lamps. All around, the forest, thick and wild, encircles the little camp, apart from at the landing where the Potaro rushes past, deep and black.

The backdam. We were finally going to the fabled backdam, the place where fortunes are won or lost, the place where men spend their lives scouring the land for sparkling diamonds and gold dust, the place where sweat and diesel is exchanged for those precious minerals that so many families now depend on for their little money. To the boss, the owner of an operation, working the backdam is gambling. It is investment on a huge scale- the camps, the engines, the pipes, the workers, the fuel and the food- it all comes out of their pocket, before the first grain of gold can be found. They might double their money, they might multiply it tenfold. Or they might lose every penny of it. The taste of success always keeps them at it though- who knows where the next $8m diamond is? Some have the option of settling down to a regular job with monthly wages, but the possibility of making millions in a few days’ work in the backdam always draws them back. It is almost an addiction.

Let’s face it; I’m never going to be a miner. I’m useless at using my hands, I care too much about my hearing, I’m weak and feeble I don’t understand engines, and I’m too much of a pessimist to believe  that there is any gold to be found.

To me, the backdam had no glamour, it had no thrill. It was simply brutality. What was another patch of untouched rainforest, teeming with life and lush vegetation, became a battlefield, where clanking diesel engines, men with axes and a power-hose waged war against nature. Tons of earth and sand were blasted to oblivion with the water jet, undermining roots, sending mighty trees down to their deaths. Cutlasses hacked away from above, slashing vines, slicing the soil and sending ants and centipedes and worms scurrying for their lives. The calls of the birds and the beetles were drowned by the deafening, machine-gun din echoing through the forest from the two old engines. All day long, filthy brown water, mixed with fuel, was pumped round in an endless circuit from pool to pit and back by hungry, sucking pipes. The result of the battle was an ugly mess of discarded roots, fallen trees, gaping holes and swathes of white sand.

Back in that rocking chair, a few days later, I sat examining my earnings. With the mercury burned off, my half-pennyweight of gold looked a little more attractive, and I found myself pondering over a mixture of feelings- satisfaction, wonder, guilt, and greed. Hidden away in those mountains of dirt and sand, these grains of wealth had been lying, all along. But was it ever mine to take? What was the true cost of extracting the gold from its home? And, despite all my criticisms, why do I feel the urge to go back for more?

Below are some pictures of a backdam that we visited a few days before the work I have described. 

Checking for diamonds
Beating the gold from the mat
A few hard days' work
Trying out the jet for the first time

A more experienced 'jetter'