Sept/Oct 2009

Canadians Abroad

You have to be a little bit crazy…

By R. Andrews

A chemist seeks adventure (and finds it) in mining

Campbell-Hicks outside a Moscow banya (public bath)

From the highlands of Papua New Guinea and the steppes of Siberia to African jungles and paradise islands, the career of metallurgist Christopher Campbell-Hicks reads like the synopsis of an Indiana Jones movie. His exploits are also a reminder of the challenges faced by mining’s field workers to get the job done.*

African coups, knife attacks by murderous tribesmen, tropical cyclones and long journeys on frozen Siberian rivers — just another day in the office for Christopher Campbell-Hicks.

The son of a Canadian pilot and an English teacher, Campbell-Hicks grew up in Australia, where a trip through the outback in the 1960s led to his life’s calling. “I ran short of money and started hopping freight trains and hitchhiking to reach Darwin,” he says. “Broke, in the middle of the Northern Territory desert, I asked for a job at the old Peko copper and gold mine outside Tennant Creek.”

The rugged area was renowned for its equally rough-and-ready individuals, who took the adventurous teenager under their wing and showed him the ropes. “I started off shovelling tailings and looking after the lime plant before graduating to mill operator,” recalls Campbell-Hicks. “When they learned that I had studied chemistry in high school, they put me to work in the gold lab. You could call it all a life-defining experience, as I knew what I wanted to do after that. I returned to Melbourne to finish a chemistry degree.”

Campbell-Hicks went on to become a consulting metallurgist in many countries, including Australia, French Guinea, Fiji, Indonesia and Turkey. Earlier this decade, he also worked in Chihuahua, Mexico, for a Canadian company.

One job along the way, during the early 90s, left him scarred for life — literally. “I was brought in to help with a gold recovery operation at a remote site in the highlands of Papua New Guinea,” he says. “At that time, it was the only operation in the world with 100 per cent service by helicopters. While I was examining a damaged pipeline, a local tribesman came up and cut me open pretty seriously with his knife. My gut was hanging out.

“It turned out that he had mistaken me for someone else who had apparently insulted him. When he realized I was the wrong man, he bandaged me with his shirt and carried me down the mountain to the mine site. They flew me to Port Moresby, where I was stitched up.

“The police arrested the guy — let’s call him John — and wanted me to press charges for attempted murder. I refused. After all, he had saved my life. In gratitude, John made me his wontok, which is a kind of blood brother. The weird thing was that every time I went back there, John was always waiting at the airport to look after me. I have no idea how he knew when I was arriving.”

Mineral-rich French Guinea was also memorable for Campbell-Hicks, who was on a job in the West African country during one of its periodic bouts of instability. “I was an evacuation leader to get people across the border into Mali, in case there was a coup and foreigners were threatened. I didn’t feel endangered, although I did come down with both typhoid and cerebral malaria in the same week. Cerebral malaria will kill you pretty quickly so they had to rush me to the American Hospital in Conakry.”

The emergency trip took nine hours by Land Cruiser down rough jungle tracks. “It wasn’t real nice,” says Campbell-Hicks, with typical understatement. “But after a whole bunch of injections, both diseases were gone in 96 hours and I was fine. No problem.”

Most recently, Campbell-Hicks has been with a major Canadian gold mining company for four years, including a three-year stint in Russia. During that time, he worked at a site in Siberia that was reachable only by an eight-hour flight from Moscow to Yakutsk, followed by another 20 hours by truck.

“We drove on the frozen River Lena because it was smoother than the road. I asked the driver what happens if the ice breaks. ‘You must get out of the truck and walk away very quickly,’ he replied. At minus 60 degrees, it was so cold that if you threw a cup of coffee in the air, the liquid turned to ice before it hit the ground. It’s no wonder everyone drinks vodka there.”

Ironically, civilization posed more of a threat than the wilds of Siberia. Back in Moscow, Campbell-Hicks learned about the city’s security problems the hard way. “I was walking to the rear entrance of my apartment building near Red Square when this guy tried to snatch my mobile phone. I pushed him away and then two others jumped me. They got me down, put the boot in and broke three ribs. Luckily they ran off when some people passed by, but I ended up in the hospital again.”

Such incidents don’t discourage Campbell-Hicks as he believes they are more than outweighed by the interest and excitement of his work. “It’s not the life for everyone,” he says. “I guess you have to be a little bit crazy.”

But you don’t have to be “crazy” to enjoy some of the most beautiful places on the planet, whether it’s scuba diving in Fiji’s coral reefs, watching game in Africa, or exploring spectacular beaches, rainforests and gorges in northern Australia’s Gove Peninsula.

“I was working at an alumina refinery in Gove. It was an amazing experience. The place was a tropical paradise. Except for Cyclone Doris, which gave us a bit of a lashing. Twenty-four inches of rain came down in 24 hours. We had to fill the conveyor belts up with ore and shut them down fully loaded so the winds wouldn’t rip the belts off.”

Campbell-Hicks acknowledges that constant travel to far-flung locations creates challenges to family life. He flies family members over to join him whenever he can. Now that his two children are older, he says it’s easier to maintain contact, and they remain close. “As for friends, you meet a lot of Canadians and Australians at mining sites all over the world. I’m always running into someone I know.”

At the age of 62, Campbell-Hicks shows little sign of slowing down. He prefers sky diving to golf and is now assessing a potential copper mining project that will take him to Pakistan. “I’ve got no thoughts of retiring and intend to keep on going until I’m 90,” he says.

In fact, one suspects that Campbell-Hicks goes out of his way to find excitement when things are too quiet. Not long ago, he visited southern Africa’s Victoria Falls, which are more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. But just watching the waters plummet 111 metres, was not enough. “When you get to the bridge they have a bungee jump there,” says Campbell Hicks. “So you’ve got to do it. Right?”

* Note: Owing to possible sensitivities linked to some aspects of this article, it was decided to be in the best interest of companies to not name them.

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