FIJI GOLD TOWN DYING WITH MINE CLOSURE

Feature

By Francis Whippy

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, May 31, 2009) – You wake up in the morning to the hoot of the whistle that blows at 6am and then again at 7. Wives prepare their husband's and children's lunches before the whistle blows again at 7 and 7.30 which is the signal that the buses are around the corner. The 8am whistle means you are to be at work. This is Vatukoula.

Home is always home. Every corner, nook and cranny has a memory. People from your community know you inside and out and you know them in a similar fashion. You accept the bad and the good and move on, making it a part of your life and eventually you become unaware of it because it becomes a part of you and who you are. This is the case with Vatukoula.

You wake up in the morning to the hoot of the whistle that blows at 6am and then again at 7. Wives prepare their husband's and children's lunches before the whistle blows again at 7 and 7.30 which is the signal that the buses are around the corner. The 8am whistle means you are to be at work.

Growing up in a working community is very different from a normal community. Time is important and you grow up with this knowledge.

However, if you ever set foot on the Gold mining community which is not a town, mind you, you will have first-hand experience living the 'Fiji-time" syndrome. Everything is slow and at a very relaxing pace.

"I was surprised at how slow things are here, I mean, the people are so relaxed and situations can take days to deal with. It is really annoying at times, but I guess this is what makes Vatukoula," said Alanieta Robanakadavu, a teacher at Convent School. When the mines were in full operation before its closure in December 2006, there was an active population of around 8000 people who lived and worked in and around the mines.

However, when the mines closed, the community slowly collapsed around it.

People started moving out looking for greener pastures and even though the mine is in operation again, things are not the same anymore. The life of the golden community is very much alive in its past occupants' memories and hearts.

Where is it?

Geographically, Fiji lies along the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volatile zone of frequent volcanic and seismic activity, which partially surrounds the Pacific basin. This Ring of Fire is known for its rich array of precious metal deposits. Vatukoula is situated in the collapsed caldera or crater of an extinct volcano, near the edge of the Nakauvadra mountain range, in Northwest Viti Levu.

If you are not that well acquainted with geography then let me tell you, where there was a volcano there is going to be a lot of minerals like gold.

Let us go into a brief historical outlay of the place. Now, the mines started operations in 1933, however, the first recorded discovery of gold at Vatukoula was made by Baron A.B. de Este in 1872 four years after Charles Gurney found gold in the gravel deposits in the Navua River in 1868.

The mines in Vatukoula didn't open until November 5, 1932 after gold was discovered in the Lololevu Creek, by a prospector from Scotland, William Bothwick, which ensued a gold rush.

He has a shaft named after him. There was a transfer of ownership to the Australian Emperor group of companies, led by Edward G. Theodore due to a lack of technical and financial expertise in Fiji at the time.

In 1956 Emperor had full ownership of the mines after buying out Loloma Gold Mines and Dolphin Mines.

Emperor has had the mine in continuous operation since 1933 until its closure in 2006.

Vatukoula, which means, 'rock of gold' was not always called this. It was traditionally known as Matanagata or 'face of the snake'.

Anyway, we have gotten off track. Now to get back, I would like to talk about the life of workers and youths as they lived within the mining area. The small community was a hive of activities, hustling and bustling and full of life and experiences.

"Vatukoula has changed a lot since I came. There are more trees now, before we could look all the way to Tavua but now, you can't even look to the main gate," said Marika Peckham.

The Peckhams have been in the mines for a very long time and Marika is a third generation miner. His sons are now thinking of following in their father's foot-steps.

"It is a difficult job but it is our livelihood and we work, right?"

Korowere was the place where things happened. Beautiful homes with well kept gardens and very neat and clean surroundings. (This was in the '70s). There was the Fong Lee shop housing the bakery which is now closed.

The store resembled a supermarket in the urban areas. Across from the store was the post office.

Parallel to the store was the theatre just up the road from the post office where they would have movies every Saturdays. The movies were screened at 8pm and there were three different seating sections.

The first, which was expensive in those days, was the 50cents section, the 40cents section and then the Dogs lion section.

You don't sit in the Dogs lion section unless you consider yourself as one of the tough guys. That was the section where all rough and tumble toughies sat.

"Well, there were the late night shows, at 8pm which were like the famous karate movies which were filled with kids and their friends. These children would steal away into the night and pay extra just to watch the late night movies with drunks and grog 'swipers'. The peanut man would be selling his packets of peanuts and in one episode I remember the peanut man standing in front of the heavy curtain at the entrance to the cinema and a group of youths who had no money for the peanuts wrapped him in the curtain and took a few packets from him before disappearing into the darkness and the crowded cinema," said a former Korowere resident.

Okay, so that was the cinema, now, down the road from the store was the infamous 'veikaveti', which were the quarters for the 'meimei' or the expatriates' house-maids. Now, this place is an area many a man will remember well, if you get my drift.

"Kids played 'he' on the pipeline, like me, and fought over used mining ball bearings their fathers would bring for them for marbles," said Mr Poulter.

They used to have discos at the Josaia's residence and go for a swim at Turtle and Morrison pool or to the famous Rocky beach.

"It is said that if you want to experience Vatukoula to the fullest you have to swim at Rocky Beach and your experience would be complete," said William Muller.

There is the dispensary, which comes full on with doctors and nurses for the medical care of the residents.

Three primary schools operated in the area and they were the Marist Convent School which opened in 1936, Fijian Government School and Goldfield Primary which was only for the expatriate's children until recently. However, this school closed after the mines' closure.

Yes, the mining community used to be in such a hype that anyone coming for a visit would have a difficult time leaving the place.

Anyway in terms of the mine there is the Kayzer Shaft at Korowere and there is Dolphin Shaft which closed in the late 1970's because of a death.

Philip Shaft still stands in Nasomo which is about 10 minutes drive up the hills. It acts as a ventilation vent for miners below to get fresh, clean air because it is very hot in the mines. The open cut which is an amazing sight is awesome.

If you were to stand from Korowere and look, it would be like looking down at trucks running in and out of the mines, looking a lot like ants.

Bothwick Shaft closed after a strike in 1991. However, the mines extending below it connect to other shafts.

Can you believe that the mine has produced some seven million ounces of gold and two million ounces of silver from the treatment of around 22,500,000 tonnes of ore since 1936?

The mine operates within three mining leases which cover a total area of 1254.91 hectares' with the associated special site rights and special prospecting licences (this gives them the right to explore areas outside of the mining leases).

There are three operating shafts and a decline, plus over 450km of the underground drives. It is even rumored that a shaft extends to Tavua.

Vatukoula was sweet and beautiful and people who grew up there would always have fond memories of that little community.

However, there are disadvantages of living in the mining area. Residents have to close their windows in the mornings because sulphur would fall and it really is quite difficult to breath with sulphur in the air.

"Sometimes in the morning, on my way to school, I can see the whole mining community covered in a thin cloud of sulphur," said Aubel Dyer.

Water supply came straight from the Nasivi River, but the residents have learned to live with water tanks and bath and wash in the river.

There were tests conducted in 2007 showing there was a lot of feacal matter in the water and it was highly unhygienic and unsafe for human consumption. The new mine owners have promised to fix these problems.

Residents of Vatukoula grew to love the place and called it home. Their lives rested upon gold. You don't get to live like that a lot.

Fiji Times Online: http://www.fijitimes.com.

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