Photographers' Blog

Panning for gold

Braidwood, Australia

By Daniel Munoz

For 59 year-old Wal Krikowa his hobby has become his passion. The recent volatility affecting gold prices is the least of his concerns. After decades of doing what he calls “the business”, his passion for prospecting gold on weekends has remained unchanged. His experience tells him it all just comes down to luck. Worrying about whether he finds anything is just a waste of time.

Wal and his wife Liz always start their gold prospecting trips with a strict routine. I arrived at their beautiful house in North Canberra on a recent Saturday morning. We hit the road and a short time later we stopped at a local petrol station for what I first thought was a morning cup of coffee. But there was an different motive to this visit. Liz is hugely superstitious, and the stop was part of their ‘luck routine’ before prospecting. She admitted to me between sips of the local brew that another one of her superstitions is to place four soda cans into the same bag, the same way, at the same time before leaving the house. “Everything needs to be perfectly in place to find gold,” she said with a wry grin.

As a football fan, superstition is no stranger to me. I know of coaches who wear the same tie or smoke the same amount of tobacco before every match just to re-enact the same procedures of their previous victory.

After traveling for over an hour we arrived at the Shoalhaven River, located in what’s known as the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales. Wal immediately began to set up a device he called a ‘highbanker’. He designed it himself to filter river rocks and pebbles with a sole purpose – to accelerate the process of finding gold.

Meanwhile, Liz conducted what she calls ‘panning tests’, looking for small iron stones and black sand associated with gold. She conducted the tests by putting dirt around the stones in her pan, washing away the bigger pieces and keeping the smaller and heavier ones in the bottom. The ideal outcome is that after washing away all the remaining black sand, what will remain in the pan will be beautiful, golden flakes. It’s a clever and simple process, knowing that gold is the heaviest of all the elements found in the dirt. If between 15 and 20 tiny flakes of gold are found, then its time for the “highbanker”.

Don’t rush for gold

Tien Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

By Shamil Zhumatov

“Don’t run! Slow down! Just don’t run!” I repeated this non-stop to myself like an incantation. Indeed, it is hard even to pace quickly – let alone run — when you have to breathe in the rarefied air and wear a supplied protective helmet and brand-new rigid boots with steel toes.

I also had to look out for giant trucks the size of three-story houses chugging around. It was difficult to keep my emotions under control during the few hours on this tight assignment. I was at an altitude of over 4,000 meters above sea level near the Chinese border, inside a huge open-pit gold mine at Kumtor, Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold asset, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold. Gigantic trucks and excavators worked non-stop in the snow-clad pit, looking like characters from a fantasy movie. As if playing a computer game, an excavator operator elegantly manipulated small joysticks – just five scoops full of ore, and almost 200 tones were loaded into a truck in about one minute.

In line with Centerra Gold’s tough requirements, I passed two medical checks before I started working at these giddy heights. A day before, we had to stay for the night at a guest house located at about 1,700 meters above sea level to get accustomed to high altitudes before ascending to Kumtor. The gold mine is the world’s second highest-altitude gold deposit after Peru’s Yanacocha mine. Some vehicles never even stop their engines in these ferocious conditions of Arctic tundra and permafrost.

Dreaming of diamonds

By Jorge Silva

We are just north of the Amazon Basin, riding a boat on the Ikabaru River. The passengers are people who buy gold and diamonds. They stop at each of the illegal mines that appear as craters on the river’s edge. They carry small weighing scales that seem very accurate, magnifying loupes, burners to melt the gold and separate the mercury, and some large spoons to collect it.

They are also carrying bags full of cash.

We are very close to the porous and at times imperceptible triple border between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. The area is remote and hard to access. Getting here takes a day of navigating along the river, or flying in one of the small planes that land on makeshift dirt landing strips. There are no roads.

To get here days before, we flew on a small Cessna over the area where the immense savanna and its table-top mountains meet the jungle.

Gold rush

Vienna, Austria

By Heinz-Peter Bader

Remember the James Bond film Goldfinger and how the characters handled the gold bars without even thinking of their weight? Each gold bar at Fort Knox weighs about 12 kilos (24 pounds), as much as six six-packs of beer. But they could certainly buy you a lot more Champagne!

I witnessed gold bar production at Austria’s Oegussa company. A one kilo (two pound) gold bar is only about the size of a small mobile phone. It was impressive to hold something of so much value – as of November 15, each of the Oegussa 1 kilo gold bars would sell for 43,854 euros ($61,264).

The other side of the coin (or should I say gold bar) is where the plain gold comes from. All kinds of golden rings, bracelets, and necklaces are poured into the furnace, melting together and leaving no trace of the private stories behind the former jewellery.

Mining in the middle of nowhere

By Yusuf Ahmad

I can feel the strong sun’s sting when, for the first time, I set foot in Palu, a city on Sulawesi island. The city is growing slowly as it is still recovering from ethnic and religious conflict in the early 2000s. As I stand at the city center I can see the top of Masomba mountain wrapped in clouds with the blue sky in the background. However, traveling to the Masomba area is not easy. I go with a local gold miner on a motorcycle.

There are two ways to get to the area. You can cross several rivers or take a mountainous way. The second way is harder as the road is severely damaged.

I arrived at the mining location in two hours. I didn’t expected to see tens of thousands of people at the feet of the mountain in temporary housing and tents. Not far from the houses and tents, the hill was filled with gold miners.

Catching gold fever

For the past 15 years Boonchu Tiengtan has been digging for gold in Panompa, a small village in Thailand’s Phichit province. His bare hands, a hammer and a shovel are his only tools.

Boonchu Tiengtan carries a load of stones to break at a primitive gold mine in Panompa near Phichin February 17, 2011.  REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Boonchy’s spouse sits in the shade of netting and patiently breaks rock into small stones with her little mallet. They seem to be a happy couple, laughing and joking when talking about what they do. We call it a hard job and primitive gold digging; they call it the only life they know.

A woman breaks stones at a primitive gold mine in Panompa near Phichin February 17, 2011.  REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

With gold prices skyrocketing and investors finding safe haven in precious metal, Boonchu and his wife make $30 dollars a day. That is more than what an average rural Thai family makes in the agriculture industry or with livestock.

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