Many Filipinos overseas yearn for Christmas in the motherland, and in my years working abroad, I’ve had to forgo that simple pleasure.
But December 1993 was probably my best, celebrating it with five parties in three countries which are not even Christian. Although our work in Thailand was winding up, we went to Laos, across the Mekong River, after completing a technical review of exploration projects in Asia and the Pacific. We headed to Manado, capital of the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi, for our annual review of Newmont Mining’s projects in Asia (Newmont is the world’s largest gold mining company), and then to Mesel, south of Manado, for more discussions—and holiday partying afterwards.
In Mesel, we found a gold deposit similar to what Newmont discovered in Nevada in the 1960s: It was hosted in sedimentary rocks (beach rocks like limestone, sand and mud) instead of volcanic rocks as in Baguio City’s gold district. This unique occurrence became one of the largest types of gold deposits, producing 5,000 tons to date (160 million ounces); at least another 3,000 tons remain unexploited.
Baguio mines have produced 25 million ounces of gold worth almost $50 billion at today’s prices. (In one estimate I was involved in, about one million ounces remained in one of the major mines.) Mesel looked similar to the gold mines in Surigao and Davao.
The other expat geologists at Newmont thought the Mesel deposit was volcanic-hosted gold, noticing the sedimentary rocks are covered by volcanics which are the preferred host of gold in what are classified as epithermal gold deposits like in Baguio. I told them it was sediment-hosted. (I was the only Newmont geologist in Asia at that time who had visited the company’s mines in Nevada.) Mesel’s some 2 million ounces of gold is small.
We also discovered a huge gold and copper deposit called Batu Hijau (Green Rock) in Sumbawa, east of Bali, with about one billion tons containing 0.4% copper and 0.3-gram-per-ton gold, or 10 million ounces of gold and 400 million tons of copper, worth $19 billion of gold and a staggering $34.4 billion of copper. Not surprisingly, a recent report said Batu Hijau—in operation since 2000—had produced at least six billionaires, none of them geologists!
If you’re wondering why North Sulawesi, along with the Philippines’ Mindanao, are well-endowed with epithermal gold, including Carlin types and porphyry copper, here is a “quick-and-dirty, back-of-the-envelope” explanation.
This area of North Sulawesi was heavily logged by a Filipino-owned logging company. According to our Indonesian woman office manager named Cory, who married and later divorced a Filipino from Floridablanca, Pampanga, the loggers left at least a dozen children in the village.
To this day, the logging roads are called “Filipino roads.” One of them exposed an outcrop of a jasperoid, a silicified limestone with 1–>10 grams per ton (g/t), which led to the discovery at Mesel of a sediment-hosted gold deposit.
Australian geologist Dave Hoyal stumbled upon the strange-looking rock, which the Australians, British, and Kiwis all agreed to be a silicified andesite breccia. Thus, Mesel was initially known as a volcanic breccia-hosted gold prospect.
When we reached Mesel in the early afternoon, we were told that we should attend a church service in Ratatotok, a Christian (Protestant) community about 4 kilometers away. Some of us who had not seen each other for a long time decided to start the party right away. Beer and peanuts appeared and a quick toast was offered for the year’s successes—the discoveries of millions of pounds of copper and millions of ounces of gold deposits in Batu Hijau.
Henry Wong, a Malaysian-Australian project geologist, didn’t want to go to church, and tried to justify his decision: “It’s enough for geologists to go to church three times—when being baptized, you don’t know what’s going on anyway; when you die and you don’t know anything anyway; and when you get married …” He trailed off, so I quipped, ”Getting married? You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Everyone laughed, to my surprise. Then it occurred to me that the incidence of divorce among British, Australians and Kiwis in the room was high. So I laughed, too. (Actually, among the married geologists present, I was the only one not divorced.)
When the church-goers among us came back, the sound system was on and I had enough alcohol in me to start the party by grabbing an electric guitar and singing Neil Young’s “Four Strong Winds,” followed by John Denver’s “Country Road.” I remember Sam Adams, the vice president for exploration of Anaconda Mining and the president of the Society of Economic Geologists, and his wife dancing and singing to the music.
I was quickly joined in the singing by Don Clarke, an Australian geochemical consultant for Newmont/Newcrest Corp., and some of the Indonesians, like the guitar-playing geologist Agus. (Clarke christened my sexy and informative sections and maps “romigrams.”)
Soon enough, John Dow, the vice president for exploration of Newmont Indonesia and later the president of Newmont Mining, joined the fray, singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” That ballad stopped the adrenaline. We let the regular band take over and went back to drinking.
At Newmont’s Christmas parties, you got the choice of beer, red and white wines, as well as liquors and spirits. One ended up tasting everything, except Bir Bintang, because on regular days we were entitled to two cans of beer a day. We sometimes saved our cans and drank everything on weekends. The Indonesians who did not drink saved their rations in boxes for birthday parties.
Soon, Richard Lindsay, our project manager, found out what was going on and had it stopped. Sometimes, though, we would find the slightest reason to run to the beaches of Ratatotok district for a dip and a barbecue party. There would also be weekend music and dancing in the dining hall (sometimes even on ordinary nights when somebody felt really lonely).
In one night of revelry, the dancing got so hot that Dave Hoyal, who was performing a series of hops and jumps, broke the flooring. At times, I was the DJ (minus the mic) and played dance music from the Beatles to Billy Idol and, occasionally, country and western music like Seals and Crofts.
The next day, I was having coffee with Glenn White, a Kiwi project geologist, and Sam Adams, who was nursing a hangover. White said John Dow should not be revealing sensitive secrets like how long Newmont’s reserves would last (about 10 years) if the current rate of mining production (about 2 million ounces per year) continued.
I dryly told White not to worry because we had just found 12 million ounces in Indonesia, probably good for another six years. Also, one didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to deduce this from Newmont’s annual reports, to the delight of Adams and Matthew Farmer, another Kiwi project geologist. Farmer was fond of using the phrase “rocket science” in everyday geological conversation.
King and Queen
I found myself in North Jakarta for the next Christmas party held at a bayside resort called Ancol Dreamland. Helen, one of the office staff girls, performed a faithful rendition of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman.” I was glad I did not have to sing that time.
Part of the party program was to elect the night’s King and Queen. The pretty secretary barefootin’ in 1987 won handily. For the King’s crown, it was a close fight between John Dow and myself. Dow was the boss, so I voted for him.
I recalled Dow shouting at our table, “How many times did you vote?” To which I complained: “This is the first time an Aquino lost an election.” The boss should have been excluded. Dow was fond of using the phrase “fair enough,” but this one was not a fair election. What is, then?
Later, the office girls asked me something that had been bothering them since I left for Thailand. They had heard from the Indonesians (Irwan, a geophysicist, and Marcie, a geologist) who worked with me there that the Thai girls were prettier than Indonesians. I had to give a reassuring (diplomatic) answer: Girls in Thailand are as pretty as those in Indonesia and the Philippines. They are equally beautiful.
But I must admit that in Chiang Mai, I fell in love up to 10 times on the way to the office. In Jakarta, maybe once or twice only. As soon as they exclaimed, “What?!” I said that that would happen once I reach the office.
The Christmas party at the field camp in the Newmont-owned Batu Hijau, a gold and copper deposit on Sumbawa Island, 1,530 km east of Jakarta, was quite modest and uneventful. In fact, I don’t remember a thing about it; we were that drunk.
For our Christmas parties in Thailand and Laos, Alan Flint, the regional manager for Asia, planned a cruise on the Nam Ngum Lake in central Laos. Everyone signed up and one chilly morning, we boarded an aging boat. Flint was hardly seen in the boat.
I slept till the early afternoon after all the partying in Indonesia. I woke up only when the boat’s engine finally cranked.
The boat stopped at a picturesque corner of the lake, in a misty rain forest with chirping birds. Some of us took a dip but found the waters too cold for comfort. But the previous night’s alcohol finally got burned, preparing us for another night of drinking and dancing.
The late afternoon till early evening was spent singing, with Tom, a Thai geologist, and myself alternately playing guitar. We stopped once the disco music was turned on.
And that gave us the chance to dance with the pretty lasses of Laos, to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” temporarily forgetting the lure of the yellow metals.
Newmont found only small and low-grade copper and gold prospects in Thailand and Laos. But in Indonesia, the discovery of more copper and gold deposits was announced, including one found earlier in a place called Dodo (16 km east of Batu Hijau). It has similar amounts of contained copper and gold. It was initially thought of as a low-grade gold deposit in volcanics.
Newmont is a pure gold company, looking mainly for gold. But this writer advised management that gold-rich porphyry copper deposits (like Atlas Mining and Philex in the Philippines) could be mined as gold deposits. Thus, the other prospect was not “dead as a dodo”; it was renamed Elang (eagle).
There was another prospect called “kudamati” (dead horse) near Dodo. One wonders.
Romeo S. Aquino is an exploration geologist who has worked here and abroad since 1974 with geological teams that found large copper and gold deposits in Indonesia, Peru and China. He started “fact-checking” news and online columns more than 10 years ago. —Ed.