Everyday Futures: The Super Pit

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to contribute a Western Australian story to the Everyday Futures gallery. This gallery is part of a larger project to create welcoming spaces for discussion, sharing ideas, and expressing emotions about the nature of the Anthropocene in Australia. It was a small foray into what is becoming a growing interest of mine in the environmental history of the subterranean world. Thanks to Cameron Muir for making it possible!

The Super Pit was just 4 years old when I visited Kalgoorlie with my parents in 1993. It was the Easter school holidays and we’d gone to see where Mum’s family had come from. We’d set out from Perth on the Great Eastern Highway and seven hours and 600 kilometres later, we arrived on the fringe of what is known as the richest square mile of earth on the planet. Back then, the Super Pit was the largest open pit mine in the country, over three kilometres long, a kilometre wide, and five hundred metres deep. It’s so big that you can see it from space.

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The Fimiston Open Pit, or “Super Pit”, was the brainchild of Western Australia’s golden boy, Alan Bond. The bubble of WA Inc. had yet to burst in 1988 when Bondy bought the mile that Midas touched with the plan to amalgamate dozens of old leases into a single big pit with a single owner. Many scoffed at his idea. Thirty years later, the Super Pit has produced over 20 million ounces of gold, and looks set to continue production until at least 2025.

 The Super Pit in 2010, NASA

The Super Pit in 2010, NASA

Over 60 million ounces of gold have been poured from the Golden Mile since prospectors Paddy Hannan, Tom Flanagan and Dan Shea struck it lucky at Mt Charlotte in 1893. Their discovery drew thousands of people to the West in search of the latest El Dorado and my great grandparents were among them. There, they had to separate gold from the dirt and dust using a technique called “dryblowing”, since water was in such short supply on the fringe of the desert. But relatively little gold lay at the surface; the real riches were to be found in the quartz dolerite greenstone. Getting to it was an expensive undertaking and London-based speculators were only too happy to oblige. By Federation, the first of Western Australia’s mining booms was well underway.

With the low hanging fruit long gone, gold’s siren song still lures mining companies to drill ever deeper into the Earth’s crust, gouging the Yilgarn Craton for the lodes that formed there nearly three billion years ago. In 2015, at the southern end of the Super Pit, the miners set an Australian record when they drilled over three kilometres deep. Drilling, blasting and hauling rock, the Super Pit is awake 24-7, 365 days a year. Each day, some forty Caterpillar 793 haul trucks lug 240,000 tonnes of earth to the surface on a round trip that can take up to forty minutes. From every eight trucks, about a golf-ball size amount of gold is extracted. It’s not much, but it’s enough to keep the Super Pit going.