For 12 years in the 1970s and early ‘80s, I explored for uranium in remote parts of the world, first for France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), later for Total. This is some of that story, the earliest part of which began on the island of Borneo.
Landing in Jakarta, along with the humidity, one is immediately struck by the smell of clove cigarettes, or “kreteks,” as they’re called there. From 1970 to the beginning of 1972, I made three trips to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. During the first two visits, we explored the tributaries of the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan, and on my last stay I worked in central Kalimantan along the Barito River and its tributaries.
The operational base of the Atomic Energy Commission was in Pontianak near the mouth of the Kapuas, almost on the equator. Some personnel, including the head of mission, a radio technician, the geochemist in charge of alluvial sampling analysis, and an administrative officer remained in Pontianak. Later a barge served as a forward base as close as possible to the operations.
Three to four teams were operating in the field, and a CEA geologist and a batan (the CEA’s Indonesian equivalent of a geologist or field assistant) led the group. A cook and one or two workers made up the rest of the team. Because of the scarcity of roads, the inland was only accessible by the rivers. We used inflatable rafts, called “Zodiacs,” powered by 20 to 40-horsepower outboard motors. Even filled with water, a Zodiac floats, while a canoe sinks. Our Javanese colleagues couldn’t swim, so we taught them the basics. We quickly learned the basics of Bahasa Indonesia – enough to get out of most situations.
The prospecting work consisted of a geologic and radiometric survey of the outcrops with an SPP2 portable scintillometer equipped with an adjustable alarm calibrated to the local radiometric background. The SPP2 did not differentiate the proportion of radioactivity related to uranium versus thorium or potassium, unless we observed uranium-bearing minerals such as autunite or pitchblende. Initially, we had to wait for results of the analyses, but later multispectral portable devices made it possible to sort uranium anomalies directly in the field.
We took alluvial samples at each confluence, and we nailed a numbered metal tag to a tree to find the upstream origin of the uranium anomaly. Crossing the rapids either downstream or upstream was a dangerous operation, so we often unloaded the Zodiacs at the head of the rapids. On the upper Kapuas, canoes carrying supplies were torn to pieces on a series of eight dangerous rapids.
Every evening, we spent the night in a different village where the chief provided a free house and guides. We also bought chickens and rice for the continuation of our journey.
In high valleys we camped, and a bamboo floor bound with rattan insulated us from the ground. The tarp that protected the load of the Zodiac sheltered us for the night, and a mosquito net ensured us a peaceful sleep. To improve our daily diet, we had nets for fishing. For drinking water, we used diatom filters.
Every evening, to hold a radio session with the base, we stretched an antenna between two trees and used a dynamo to power the radio. A waterproof container secured the radio during transport. It was the heaviest load, so we entrusted it to the strongest bearer.
During my first stay, we explored the tributaries of the lower and middle Kapuas. At that time, a communist guerrilla war was raging in Sarawak and along its borders. On the Ketungau River, close to the Sarawak border, we made a pass with a military escort on the Zodiacs before each stop, and the soldiers inspected the banks. On a river we were easy targets; fortunately, our escort did not have to open fire.
The penetration of the primary forest in Borneo is relatively easy. To locate our paths, we measured the distance with a topofil, a mechanical survey device that uses a roll of thread and a distance counter, as well as a protractor to measure inclination and a compass to measure the bearing. Its coil had to be replaced every five kilometers, so we noted the distance with each change of direction and recorded our route on a map.
Biting insects plagued the rivers at dusk, and the leeches came out after the rain. In the forest after every hour of walking we made a leech stop: everyone removed the leeches on their legs, especially at the shoe top. Despite the daily intake of antimalarial drugs, I contracted malaria. At the end of my first stay, I had lost 10 kilograms.
We used a helicopter for airborne exploration and logistics. Previously we had gone back to the base to write our end-mission reports. There we found some comfort, good food and our friends. As soon the helicopter was in service, we wrote our reports in a village and we were dropped with our Zodiacs on a high valley. We only returned to the base to catch a plane at the end of our stay.
The exploration of central Kalimantan was organized around the city of Bandjarmasin at the mouth of the Barito River. We went up the Murung and Djuloï rivers, and a geochemical sample taken from a tributary of the Djuloï justified a subsequent survey by another team. Some uranium occurrences were found in the upper Mahakam and Pinoh rivers, but no mining was done.
I was struck by the scarcity of carbonates in Kalimantan and found only one bank of limestone on the Djuloï. From the Samba River we reached the Bukit Raja (Mont Raya), the summit of the Schwaner Mountains, which culminate at about 2,300 meters. We thought we could enjoy a panoramic view, but that assumption didn’t take cloud cover into consideration. We found metamorphics at the high summit, no leeches and meager vegetation.
I returned to France at the end of 1971, and the next spring I was sent to Gabon. At the end of 1972, I left the CEA with a geologist friend I had met in Borneo to join Total, which was opening a uranium research department.
My family and I were to be transferred to Australia, the new “Eldorado” for uranium. However, Australia led a movement to halt French nuclear testing in Muraroa, the atoll in French Polynesia, and in retaliation the French visas were cancelled.
The Rössing uranium deposit in Namibia is located in the Damara Group, which is 700 million years old. We expected to find similar uranium deposits in southern Angola, where the Damara is also present.
An office and our accommodations were organized in the same building in Sa da Bandeira (now Lubango), Angola’s second largest city. We hired a bilingual secretary, and our Portuguese partner (Junta de Energia Nuclear) put a geologist, a field assistant and two Land Rovers at our disposal. Total, which had been exploring for oil out of the capital, Luanda, provided a driver and an all-terrain Mercedes Unimog truck.
The license extended into the Namib Desert, bounded to the west by the Atlantic and to the south by the Rio Cunene and Namibia. Iona Park in the south presented a rich fauna: zebras, rhinoceros, gazelles, springboks, oryx, elephants, ostriches, suricats, and some lions, as well as crocodiles in the Cunene. Welwitchia mirabilis, the endemic “living fossil” plant that dates to the Albian-Aptian, flourished there.
I had to make an emergency reverse after an encounter with a rhino that fortunately did not charge. After hours of driving on a dangerous track, we reached the Rio Cunene and we wanted to bathe there. A crocodile emerged from the reeds and cooled our ardor. After we found some Carboniferous dropstones typical of glacial deposits in the valley, the locals crossed the river on horseback.
The Damara Group is made of sediments (sandstones and carbonates) and metasediments including mica schists and marbles. Its meta-tillites, the glacial deposits from which the concept of a Neoproterozoic snowball Earth was derived, were described by German geologist Henno Martin as part of his Damara reconnaissance in Namibia during World War II.
Our team performed vehicular tracking with SPP2 on specific targets. We also carried out a multispectral airborne survey on lines spaced one kilometer apart at a constant altitude from the ground. We used a small Bell G47 helicopter in mountainous areas along the Rio Cunene, but due to the lack of fuel, the flights were abandoned. Kerosene, when we had some, was transported in barrels on the beds of the Land Rovers and pumped manually.
The aerial prospecting revealed an anomaly on caliche layers and ground-checked positively. However, the ground check of another aerial anomaly revealed no radioactivity. The explanation came later: the aircraft had recorded an anomaly related to the radioactive gas radon before it was dispersed by the wind and vanished. (I observed the same phenomenon in France on cuttings that no longer reacted to SPP2 after 20 minutes.)
After the April 1974 coup d’état in Lisbon, the situation in Angola, then a Portuguese colony, deteriorated rapidly. Guerrilla warfare intensified and Cuban combat troops landed in support of the communist-aligned People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. A long, tragic civil war followed. I left Angola with a South African visa in my pocket. The Total representative in Windhoek provided me with money to allow me to return safely to France via Johannesburg. Unfortunately, no mining resulted from our efforts in Angola.
I was sent to Colombia in January 1975 to set up a prospecting mission with an office in Bogota. After learning Portuguese, we had to start with Spanish, but two months of study gave me enough to get by. The literature suggested that most of the uranium there was linked to phosphates.
In the late 1940s and ‘50s, a civil war, “La Violencia,” between liberals and conservatives bloodied the country. When we arrived, a certain insecurity still reigned in the countryside. In the Central Cordillera the conservatives occupied the heights, the liberals the valleys. The two sides could meet again at parties without killings, but alcohol tended to degenerate the situation and bring out the knives. At night, an armed guard watched over the office, and when burglars tried to break in to steal equipment, the guard fired through the windows, keeping the intruders at bay.
Driving in Colombia was quite perilous. The bus company, Flota Magdalena, had yellow buses that sometimes ended their races over the mountains in a precipice. The Colombians nicknamed this company “la muerte amarilla” (the yellow death).
We began prospecting on the Guajira peninsula in northernmost Colombia. The team included two geologists, a field assistant, a cook, one or two helpers, and we recruited guides as needed. We established a base camp for several weeks and rented a house. The team worked on foot in the Cordillera, carrying out geological and radiometric surveys of the routes. Sometimes we used mules to carry the equipment.
In Guajira along the border with Venezuela was a very active smuggling area, and people in the small border town of Maicao made a living from it. I saw horsemen shooting in the air like in the Westerns. There was a vendetta in the area called “La Ley Guajira.” One night while we were staying in a school on a dead end, a car with its lights on approached. Our guide went to grab his gun, thinking men were stalking him. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, but we could have been collateral victims of an account settlement.
After Guajira we spent six months 350 kilometers north of Bogota in the Santander department in Zapatoca where we found some uranium indications in Jurassic sandstones. We had the opportunity to visit an artisanal gold mine by the light of a candle.
On the Central Cordillera, when we were able to reach the Nevado del Ruiz, an active stratovolcano with a history of deadly mudflows, we noticed a strong smell of H2S. In December 1985 an eruption there created lahars that killed more than 20,000 people.
We found some uranium occurrence in red beds in the Quetame Sumapaz massif, a part of one the toughest jobs I did in my career. Our penetration of the massif was through the llanos, the open, grassy plains whose main city was Villavincencio. Because of the high, rocky terrain, a shovel was required to set up a tent.
To save the food carried on men’s backs, the guides armed with rifles shot two monkeys who ended up on our plates. When we were exploring the continuous outcrops along the river torrents, another team was opening a trail for the return.
We tried to penetrate the massif from the heights near Gachalá, a town that lived off the emerald trade. We hired a guide who had just served a prison sentence for murder. He was the quickest in a quarrel.
It rained ceaselessly and, with no means of communication, we had to give up because of an impassable fault escarpment. One of the porters sprained his ankle; four men had to take turns transporting him. We returned to the base exhausted and frustrated at not being able to finish the job. Core drilling was undertaken on some of the uranium anomalies, but the helicopter that provided the logistics crashed. Fortunately, no casualties were reported.
My last mission in Colombia took place in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain range just 40 kilometers from the Caribbean. It culminates at about 5,700 meters at snow-capped Pico Cristóbal Colón, the highest mountain in Colombia. The nearby beaches are beautiful but dangerous due to waves and sharks. We met some indigenous people of the pre-Columbian Tairona culture in their traditional clothing, living around the Sierra.
The guides discouraged us from going deep into the mountains because marijuana plantations were beginning to develop. They feared that we would be taken for antidrug agents and targeted. Nevertheless, we persevered and saw some prosperous farms. In the final report I indicated that we were not able to complete the mission due to the drug trafficking, but I had to withdraw this remark because it was considered undiplomatic toward the Colombian authorities. Eventually, after three years, we came back to France.
Borneo, Angola and Colombia were the highlights of my geological career, because that entailed broad involvement, adventure, teamwork and the best on-the-job training. It was a great break for me to participate in these experiences. The Borneo of 1970 no longer exists, and I am sure that many of these opportunities are a thing of the past, as well.