GOING UNDERGROUND WITH A GOLDEN GLEAM IN MY EYE
(The Balatoc Mines Story)
“Well, you can start your chronicles by saying we are in the middle of nowhere,” my friend Ramil quipped wryly. I could only manage a forced smile, and looked around me, taking in the eerie stillness of our surroundings. Come to think of it, we DID seem to be in the middle of nowhere.
Some forty minutes earlier, we had boarded the Baguio-Acupan jeepney at the Petron gas station on Harrison St., right across the Baguio Patriotic High School and fronting Burnham Park. Our destination? The Balatoc Mines in Itogon, Benguet, where we planned to tour the underground gold mines.
The ride was initially not as arduous or uncomfortable as we had expected, as our jeepney was traveling through generally well-paved roads. This changed dramatically, however, once we got off the main highway. The roads turned into narrow, bumpy and winding rock-strewn stretches of dirt and gravel. The pervasive, swirling dust made it necessary to cover one’s nose with a handkerchief. Yet, as if to somehow compensate for this, a magnificent view of the Baguio mountainside was present with every twist and turn of the jeepney.
Eventually, the driver turned to face us and asked, “Balatoc? Go down here.” With alacrity, we did as we were told.
The three of us were standing on the side of the dusty, unpaved road with the hot mid-morning sun bearing down on us. No other signs of life anywhere. No other vehicles passing by, either. Most ominously, not a single sign to point us to the Balatoc mines.
“Where are we?” my other friend, Dale, asked plaintively.
Looking down over the side of the road, we espied the steel roof and wooden frame of a large, semi-rundown building nestled amongst the trees and foliage, some fifty meters below. Could this be it? We carefully – make that very carefully – negotiated the steep stone path leading towards it, as a ravine on the side welcomed us should we lose our footing. We found no one in sight, but undaunted (or was it foolhardy?), we decided to keep on walking.
Visitor's chapa, with unique visitor number.
Mercifully, we ended up at the main gate of the rather grandiosely named Benguet Mines Tourism Village. A few workers loitered here and there, minding their own business. Otherwise, there was little sign of activity this Saturday morning. In fact, the atmosphere of the place could be described as too quiet, somewhat desolate even. I started to have doubts, and wondered what possessed us to go all the way here.
It turned out that our jeepney driver had overshot the main gate, thus leading us to be momentarily stranded in no-man’s land. No wonder, for right after we told him of our destination, he had looked at us quizzically, obviously asking himself why on earth these city slickers would want to go to Balatoc.
We were eventually pointed to the Visitors’ Center, where the staff on duty proved friendly and enthusiastic. Billed as the first and only mine tour in the country, the Balatoc Mines underground tour promised to let one experience how it was to be a miner for one day. All in all, our batch consisted of twelve intrepid would-be miners.
Each of us was issued standard miner’s safety gear, comprising of skull guard, rubber boots and miner’s lamp. We were also each given a “chapa”, a round metal button roughly the size of the old Bagong Lipunan one-peso coin, which indicated our visitor number. I was officially the 77,266th visitor since Benguet Corp. started giving underground mine tours in 1997. Cool!
Our guide, Ms. Alma, explained that “chapas” served a practical purpose as well. At the entrance to the mines area proper, each miner drops his “chapa” into a wooden box. This serves as a control measure, making it easy to keep track of which miners were still underground. As a rule, the miners work on a buddy system and are prohibited to go out alone. They work a maximum of eight hours per shift, as their work is evidently physically strenuous.
She further narrated that the Balatoc Mines had a long and storied past. Started in 1903, it was the oldest mine in the country. The main product was gold, with silver as a by-product. They sold their gold bullion to the Bangko Sentral, who further refines it to gold bars with 99.9% purity. The devastating Baguio earthquake in 1990 flooded the mines with water. Compounded by the drastic fall in world prices of gold to below US$200/oz. levels in 1992 [Gold prices are presently around US$570-600/oz.], operations became economically unviable and the Balatoc Mines were shut down.
Fortunately, a few years after, the Acupan area mines were re-opened. Now operated by a contractor, the output (in the form of gold ore) is divided equally between Benguet Corp. and the nearby community.
On the way to the underground tunnel, we passed by a display of the various antique tools and equipment used in the olden days, such as slusher, pinch bar, blow pipe and claw bar. Back then, the basic qualification to be a miner was that one just had to be healthy and strong.
Of humorous interest was the toilet car (literally, a portable toilet on wheels). Instead of the miners going to the toilet, it was the toilet which came to them. Imagine, if you will, the sanitary man pushing around the toilet car, just like your friendly neighborhood ice cream man, and tending to each miner’s respective call of nature.
Ms. Alma mentioned that our miner’s gear totaled 4.9 kilos per person, with the battery of our skull guard light taking up majority. While the equipment weight was bearable, the knee-high rubber boots were rather uncomfortable and made brisk walking difficult.
Now, we were at the start of the 500-meter long Vegas tunnel, built back in 1946. Time to turn on our lights! We gingerly walked single-file into the tunnel. The ground was moist with water, and one had to walk carefully lest one slipped. But this was no longer a problem once our eyes became accustomed to the limited visibility. Our rubber boots provide good stability as well. Contrary to expectations, the tunnel wasn’t hot or stuffy and cramped. Rather, it was surprisingly roomy, and the air inside was light and cool due to the presence of blowers. Hardly any claustrophobic moments inside this tunnel, for sure.
We made our way to a portion of the tunnel where miners were preparing to do some dynamite blasting. Once gold veins embedded on the rock are deemed viable to extract, the foremost rule is to ensure that the blasting site, or “doghole” in industry parlance, was safe before operations could begin. The procedure, in simplified terms, goes like this: Strategically-placed holes are drilled on the wall to complete a blasting pattern. Safety fuses are put in, after which dynamite is loaded and pushed six feet deep into the holes. The blasting agent, comprised of Ammonium Nitrate and fuel oil, is added using an auto loader.
Huddling together at the Miners' Lunch Room...
waiting for the big BOOM!
Once everything is all set, the miner lights the fuse and scampers as fast as possible to safety. The burning rate of the fuse is 40 seconds per foot, so there is sufficient time to be quite a safe distance away from the blast. A round canvas exhaust bag, dubbed the “Anaconda” by the miners, runs along a fair length of the tunnel and is used to get rid of the smoke and dust after blasting operations, thereby preventing suffocation.
Over time, certain sections of the mine are fully exploited and deemed unsafe for any more blasting. Once this happens, the site is filled with sand, water and cement, to prevent future collapse.
Next stop was the Miner’s lunchroom, a small recessed area with spare wooden benches and tables. As its name suggested, this was where the miners partook of their meals when on duty. Our group sat on the benches to take a brief respite. We all turned off our head lamps in unison, and were plunged into pitch-black darkness. Shrieks and cries abounded, and we quickly turned on our lights again.
Ms. Alma forewarned us that the miners were now preparing to detonate some dynamite. With collective bated breath, our group eagerly strained our ears and waited. Seconds ticked by, in excruciatingly slow motion. She motioned us to cover our ears . . . .5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .BOOM!! Perceptible shaking accompanied this muffled, yet unmistakable, sound. A few seconds later, the tunnel was still anew. I heaved a sigh of relief; and at the same time, I felt giddy and energized by what we had just experienced.
Riding the locomotive mine train. . .and
wishing Kylie was here to do the locomotion! :D
Our group walked until we reached the end of the Vegas tunnel, only too glad to see daylight again. We hopped on the locomotive mine train and rode back, passing by workers going about their daily work routine, be it fixing equipment, carrying sacks of gold ore, etc. The distinctive smell of diesel fumes filled the air. We were proceeding onwards to the ore processing area, where we would take a closer look at what happened to all that rock extracted from the mines.
Heaps and heaps of woven sacks containing gold ore occupied the ore processing area. Truth be told, these looked just like ordinary rocks mixed with sand, gravel and whatnot, so it was difficult to visualize the gold waiting to be unearthed. The ore is crushed until approximately the size of sand. Now, for the fun but arduous part, gold “panning.”
Simply put, the gold panners sit in front of round plastic basins filled with water and ore. They use a rectangular “pan” with a handle near each end, on which they continuously sift the mix back and forth, the purpose being to isolate the minute specks of gold dust from the rest of the rock. According to Ms. Alma, this could actually be done by machine, but it was cheaper to do it the time-honored way. The women doing this task took great pains to point out that only water was used in the panning process, and no Mercury (a very toxic metal) was used to extract the gold. Peering over the heads and shoulders of my fellow tourists huddling closely over the panners, I finally caught my first glimpse of the specks of gold sparkling underneath the hot, blistering sun. It truly, madly and wonderfully made my day.
Our last stop was the mini-museum beside the Visitors’ Center, showing rock samples that present gold in its natural form, and pictures of the Balatoc Mines through the years, among others. A 20-kilo (643 oz.) replica of gold bullion sat grandly on a dark, wooden pedestal, as if daring visitors to pick it up. (Warning: Do so only if you have adequate footwear, as you are liable to drop it on your toes)
Best of all, each of us intrepid souls was given a Certificate of Appreciation by the Benguet Mines staff, providing evidence that we had bravely gone to the innermost bowels of the earth and made it back successfully. I am exaggerating, of course, but what the heck. . .who wouldn’t?
As Ramil, Dale and I shared Cokes at the canteen while waiting for the next passing jeepney to take us back to Baguio City, our faces sprinkled with a fine layer of dust and our shirts lined with sweat, we agreed that visiting the mines was an educational experience and a rollicking adventure rolled into one. While I hesitate to use the much-repeated phrase “We had a blast!”, well, that was exactly what we had!
P.S. Thanks to Dale S., for these great pics!
(The Benguet Mines Tourism Village is located at Balatoc, Itogon, Benguet, 16 kilometers from the heart of Baguio City. For more info, please check : www.benguetcorp.com)