Into the world under the Mudgee region

Our adventure into the underbelly of the Mid-Western region was eye-opening.
Our adventure into the underbelly of the Mid-Western region was eye-opening.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like inside the world of a mine?

Hundreds of workers in the Mudgee region head along Ulan Road everyday to head into the depths of the Ulan underground mine.

We see the line of traffic heading in and out, you might even know someone that works underground – but what is it really like ‘down there’?

Mudgee Guardian journalist Isaac McIntyre recently donned a hard hat and breathing apparatus to take our readers into the pit – the world benefit the Mudgee region.

Go on, have a laugh at me - it's the height of fashion.

Go on, have a laugh at me - it's the height of fashion.

Mine adventure begins

From the time that I arrived at the entrance to Ulan West, it was very clear that the mine and all who worked there dealt in one thing above all – safety.

Before disappearing into the underbelly of the mine, a great deal of my visit was spent going over the safety procedures of the dig site, and the importance of keeping myself and everyone else that came down with me as safe as possible.

Led by the energetic and passionate Matt Piscioneri, the Health, Safety and Training Manager for Ulan West, the safety course was both interesting, informative and, due to Matt’s presentations, quite fun.

It was almost like a university semester crash-course – two hours of videos about the structures of the mines, discussion about the nature of the project and learning about systems like the compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA) before we undertook a guided quiz to top up our knowledge once more.

I guarantee you it's heavier than it looks.

I guarantee you it's heavier than it looks.

Though the CABA, and most of the safety gear and overalls that we donned to head down into mine, seemed like we were headed for space, it was a dark tunnel at the end of the drive that was our eventual destination.

We waited for the change of shift, and managed to time it so that we were briefed from the shift managers –each of the teams heading down into the mine share their goals and aims for the shift so that there’s a constant line of communication between all the miners in the tunnels.

The briefing room where the shift's aims and goals are laid out for the afternoon crew.

The briefing room where the shift's aims and goals are laid out for the afternoon crew.

From the briefing room, we piled into a truck that looked like something out of a war movie, and set off for the dig itself, with a team of Allyn Hamonet, Robyn Stoney (Environment and Community manager) and our adventure’s captain Dennis Wallace, the Production Manager at the mine.

Dennis and Robyn were our guides for the adventure into the underground.

Dennis and Robyn were our guides for the adventure into the underground.

As we descend underground the cold rush of the air being pumped into the tunnels finds its way through the overalls and gear that we had put on, and the smell of soil and dirt surrounds the truck.

It’s a labyrinth down there as well, with a map in the mind of the workers to make it to the long wall, or wherever their gang had been assigned for that shift.

Dennis is an old hand at the tunnel however, and we quickly found ourselves at the entrance to the long wall dig site.

The tunnels stretch out for hundreds of metres as you descend into the mine.

The tunnels stretch out for hundreds of metres as you descend into the mine.

Down there it is described by the miners as the place where “the magic happens”, and with that much advanced technology it very nearly is indistinguishable from magic.

We stand under shield walls as a massive blade comes chugging down the long wall, smashing pieces of dark coal to pieces and shattering the opposition of the machine.

The mine shield walls.

The mine shield walls.

It’s here that we need the safety goggles and protective gear – a sheet of dust covers everything in the tight space, and you can tell immediately why the ‘dirty-faced miner’ image is a common one.

The headquarters of the long wall is also a fascinating place.

Before you reach the working machinery with its million teeth, you pass a long conveyor belt in a close tunnel, and it’s here that feels most like the imagination of a mine.

It's no small surprise that eight hours in the mines leaves you wanting - and needing - a quick shower.

It's no small surprise that eight hours in the mines leaves you wanting - and needing - a quick shower.

Bolted walls on one side, a thick conveyor belt with coal running down the length, and muddy tracks that see your feet sink to the ankle make an interesting path to the ‘magic-maker’.

After meeting a handful of the miners on the shift, including some that had just signed their long-term contracts, we piled back into the troop-carrier and headed for the sunlight.

The drive back to the surface seemed quicker than the journey down, though it still took a time as the intersections were taken at snail pace – once again an onus on safety is at the forefront of every miner’s mind.

Then it’s showers, taps, hoses and the cleaning of the gear.

Gear and safety cards are returned to their homes on the return to the surface.

Gear and safety cards are returned to their homes on the return to the surface.

Underneath the Ulan Mines

Helmets off, goggles away and gloves back into pockets, with safety cards returned to miners and a return to civilian attire.

It may not have been the true experience of the mine – I was barely underground for two hours in the end compared to the eight and twelve hour shifts of the mine workers – but it certainly was eye opening for me to see the world in which these workers live.

One thing is for sure – the world of Ulan West, and all the mines of Glencore Coal, are like nothing else that I have seen.