Roy Woodall was born in Perth, W.A. in 1930 and spent his childhood in the midst of the Great Depression. At age 16 Woodall began work as a junior clerk in the Hydraulics Division of the Public Works Department, while continuing his studies at night school. Woodall then enrolled in a science degree at the University of Western Australia which he completed with honours in 1953. After spending his university holidays working with Western Mining Corporation (WMC) he took up a geologist position with them in 1953. Woodall moved briefly to the University of California, Berkeley to complete a MSc (1957). Upon his return to Australia, Woodall again worked very successfully with the WMC as a geologist (1957-61), assistant chief geologist (1962-67), chief geologist (1967-68), exploration manager (1968-78) and director of exploration (1978-95). He remains as a non-executive director.
Woodall’s scientific approach to exploration, coupled with his use of the latest geological techniques, contributed greatly to the discovery of the Kambalda Nickel Field (1964), uranium at Yeelirrie (1971), the Olympic Dam copper-gold-uranium deposit (1975) and the East Spar oil-condensate field (1993).
Interviewed by Professor Richard Stanton in 2008.
Mineral and petroleum exploration is scientific research when it is guided and driven by science, and brought to effect by both the pursuit of new knowledge and the interpretation of that knowledge through the application of science.
Mineral and petroleum exploration aims to explore for what is hidden deep in the Earth or concealed by surficial, barren sediments. Scientific research seeks knowledge of how the unique rocks we call ore deposits and the rocks which contain recoverable hydrocarbons have formed. Such scientific knowledge creates an hypothesis for testing.
Testing the hypothesis requires the application of state-of-the-art instrumentation to gather geological, geophysical and geochemical data for further scientific assessment. If this work strengthens the validity of the hypothesis, testing the hypothesis requires the expensive business of drilling often deep into the Earth to sample the geological environment. This sampling and assessment often proceeds through several phases until the hypothesis is either disproved, or mineralisation or hydrocarbons are proved to occur in sufficient abundance for their recovery to be economic, i.e. a national, wealth-creating, financial investment.
From Depression years to graduate geology
Let us start at the beginning. Soon after your parents came to Perth, Australia, they found themselves having to cope with the ravages of the Great Depression. It seems to me that children born to people who have had to battle the many problems associated with migrating to a distant country may have a special urge to strive, and may go on to do extraordinarily worthwhile things.
The Western Mining team which you formed and led became Australia’s greatest discoverers of ore deposits – and you, yourself, are already an international legend in mineral exploration. That must have required a great deal of ability and determination. Could you tell us something of your early life, your school and university days, and what influenced you to become a geologist and to begin mineral exploration with Western Mining Corporation?
I was born on 3 November 1930. My mum and dad emigrated from Britain in 1928 to start a new life in Australia. It started well, but then the Great Depression came and my father was unemployed, as were so many Australians. To feed his family of three children, my father had to do manual work on community projects. For that he received food vouchers which, when taken to the grocery store, allowed my mother to put food on the table.
My primary education was at the East Claremont Practising School. It was called a practising school because it was alongside West Australia’s only teachers’ training college. The teachers in training often came to observe how our teachers were handling their class and would sometimes practise on us in the presence of much more experienced teachers. The school was a good one, with excellent teachers. It was about a mile from my home, which was a simple weatherboard dwelling in a workers’ suburb. George, one of my best friends, often walked with me, he barefooted – his parents could not afford shoes. Somehow my mum and dad were able to find shoes for us all.
After primary education, I went to the government Claremont Central School to commence high school. There again I found excellent teachers. For three years I studied for what the University of Western Australia considered to be an essential state-wide examination, the Junior Certificate, which I sat and passed in eight subjects. Unfortunately, one might say, that was the end of my high school education in a full-time manner and I was forced, for financial reasons, to leave school at 16 and find work.
The good fortune was that I obtained a job as a junior clerk in the Public Works Department and, even more fortunately, I was placed in the Hydraulics Division, where the engineers designed dams and built country water supplies and irrigation systems. They inspired me and encouraged me to continue my education at night school, which was possible by going to the Perth Technical College. So for two years I went there and studied English, Mathematics, Physics, Geology and Geography. There also I had outstanding teachers – who had to cover in one year, while seeing us only two or three nights a week, a full two-year course in those subjects. I succeeded in passing five subjects essential for me to gain entrance into the university, where my engineering friends wanted me to go. They wanted me to study engineering, but I decided to enrol in a science degree. The Chief Engineer was disappointed when I told him that news.
In my first year at university I studied Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Geology. I did very well in First Year but then came a most important ‘crossroads’: to choose a major subject. I had developed an interest in geology from my studies at the Perth Technical College under a very famous teacher, Dr Tiller, and I was so interested in both Geology and Chemistry that I couldn’t decide which I would like to choose, so I carried the full load of Geology, Mathematics and Chemistry in Second Year to keep my options open. Then in Third Year I chose Geology rather than Chemistry as my final subject, as I thought I would be happier working in the wider regions of the outback than in the narrow confines of a chemistry laboratory. I continued university studies for a fourth year and completed Honours in Geology.
During those university days, to help with finances, I took vacational work with a company called Western Mining Corporation but referred to as WMC, which operated goldmines at Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie and Norseman. My first summer job was at Coolgardie, my second at Norseman. It was at Norseman that I was exposed to the science that this company applied in its exploration work and its documentation of ore deposits. That was where one famous Australian geologist, Haddon King, spent his early years too. He was the geologist who questioned the belief that all the ore systems at Norseman plunged to the south. He did careful mapping and argued that the ore systems plunged to the north and, if you wanted to find an extension of the ore systems, that’s where you must drill. Before he left Norseman, he drilled to the north of the known ore deposits and discovered the fabulously rich Princess Royal orebody. All this – plus finding how inspirational the Chief Geologist, Don Campbell, was – convinced me that on graduation, if I had the opportunity, I would like to work with that company.
I think you have been a little overmodest. You have said that you majored in geology; you did so, I believe, with a number of distinctions in the course. You won the Edward Sydney Simpson Prize in Geology, you shared the Science Union Prize and, in fact, you went on to gain first-class honours in your fourth year. You might have been expected to proceed to an academic career, but you didn’t.
To Berkeley, with a scholarship and a wife
After careful, deliberate consideration, you decided to enter the mining industry and the world of applied rather than pure science. For most people, such a decision would have been permanent and there would have followed a life devoted to the application of science and technology within industry. After about two years with Western Mining, however, you moved back to the university world to do postgraduate work and obtain research training. Could you tell us why you did this, where you decided to undertake advanced study and research, and who you worked with and how they influenced you?
The Head of the Geology Department at the University of Western Australia, who influenced me greatly, was Professor Rex Prider. He wanted me to apply for a Rhodes scholarship and certainly to go on and do doctoral research and obtain a PhD. Instead, I chose to delay any further academic studies and go into industry to learn more about what was most important to study if one was concerned with the origin of ore deposits. So I went to work for Western Mining, which gave me experience at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie.
However, in my second year with WMC, I was busy writing letters to overseas universities seeking a scholarship. I chose universities in North America because that’s where, as far as I knew, all the best and greatest ore deposits were centred and that’s where the best ore deposit research was being done. I didn’t have to wait very long, because one of the universities I wrote to was the University of California at Berkeley. Back came a letter, not from the university but from a group I didn’t even know existed – the English-Speaking Union, based in San Francisco. They were a group of quite wealthy San Franciscans who offered a scholarship each year to bring a student from Australia one year and from New Zealand the next year to study at Berkeley. One of their representatives had gone to the Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of California to advise that they had a scholarship available for an Australian student. The Dean showed the lady my letter, and she decided to write offering me the scholarship, which was $1000. I accepted the offer, as I felt it was probably enough to see me through the first year of studies at Berkeley.
In the meantime I had met a beautiful 19-year-old young lady, Barbara Smith, and we chose to be married before I went to the United States. This meant that I had to leave for Berkeley initially on my own and find accommodation, to be sure we could have a roof over our heads.
Having arrived in California, not only did you have to cope with the demands of the University of California at Berkeley, a university that required the highest of standards, but with your young wife you then embarked on the early stages of married life in a new and strange country. And you went on to have two children. You did this under what must have been quite spartan financial circumstances. How did you manage it?
Well, we owe a lot to the kindness of American people, especially the influential ladies in the English-Speaking Union; they showered Barbara with the most beautiful baby clothes. Other ladies, mainly wives of faculty, took a great interest in international students and helped us a great deal. Of most importance was the need to find accommodation, and I quickly discovered that accommodation near the campus was, from my point of view, far too expensive.
With the help of these faculty ladies, I found a oneroomed apartment, as you might call it, above a garage in a quite wealthy suburb called Piedmont, and it was very cheap. Mrs Cotton, the owner, realised that it needed a coat of paint, so she provided the paint and I repainted this little apartment. I then told Barbara to catch the first available ship from Australia to San Francisco, because I was ready to make this our home.
Of course, I had to get to university, which was some miles away. While the children living in this district drove to their high school in their best and latest cars, including Ford Thunderbirds, I pedalled a bicycle off to the campus – much to the delight and humour of the children, who used to laugh at me as I would ride off.
In my second year I was awarded a studentship worth $1500 and, for that, I had to do a certain amount of laboratory work and lecturing. So, in one way, it was quite humorous to see children going to high school in flashy modern cars and a university lecturer pedalling his bicycle to campus. [laugh]
At university there were two wonderful professors. One was Professor Charles Meyer, who had spent quite a number of years working in industry with the Anaconda Mining Company and had recently been appointed Professor of Geology. He was a great mentor to me and an inspiration – as was Professor Ed Wisser. He also was from industry, and had worked in South America, especially in Mexico, and in the Philippines. He had a vast knowledge of ore deposits. Between Professor Meyer and Professor Wisser, I learnt so much. I am forever grateful for the wonderful opportunity I had to know these two gentlemen, and to be taught and inspired by them – but especially by Chuck Meyer.
After two years and the awarding of a Masters degree, the time came for me to decide whether I would go on and do doctorate studies. So off I went to see Chuck Meyer. I sat down at his table and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Roy, to do a doctorate you’ll have to spend probably a year becoming fluent in French or German and then at least three years in research. You should go back to Australia and find ore deposits.’ That was another ‘crossroads’. The right decision was made, I am sure, and I went back to Australia, where Western Mining was pleased to have me back as a young geologist.
A fresh approach to the Darling Range bauxites
You say that, in hindsight, you made a wise decision, but how did you feel on your return to Kalgoorlie and Western Mining? Did you find yourself wavering and having second thoughts, or did you find yourself full of zest, armed now with all you had learned from your mentors in Berkeley and with an urge to get back into active mineral exploration?
I did come back full of zest and ready to establish the most advanced, modern mineral exploration and mineral research facility that the country knew. The Managing Director and Chairman of the Board, Mr Clark (who subsequently became Sir Lindesay Clark) was a great mentor. He wrote to me while I was in Berkeley and encouraged me to come back, indicating that he would support my vision. But when I returned, the company was still very small, the gold price was low and gold mining was not very profitable. He said I would just have to be patient.
I believe, however, that you did some detective work that brought almost immediate and really quite spectacular results. Could you tell us about your contribution to the discovery of the Darling Range bauxites, and just how important these have turned out to be?
One day, while I was working in an office next door to the Chief Geologist, Mr Don Campbell, he came in with a letter from Mr Clark. In it, Mr Clark asked him whether there was any chance that we might be able to find bauxite in Western Australia. The fabulous deposits up in northern Queensland had been discovered and he asked about bauxitic laterites, which were known in the Darling Ranges just east and south of Perth. Don asked me to investigate!
Well, I knew nothing about these deposits other than how they were formed – one learnt that in Geology I – but I rummaged through the limited library that was in the office and found a volume written by the Bureau of Mineral Resources (now Geoscience Australia) on bauxite occurrences in Australia. The bureau had written up a short account of what it called the low-grade bauxite deposits in the Darling Ranges, just east of Perth. I read the account of the mineralogy of the Darling Range laterites and the description of why they were considered subeconomic: they were high in silica and relatively low in alumina. Reading that, I noticed that the silica was in the form of quartz. As I studied the volume in more detail, I realised that the burden on the refining process was silica in the form of clays, because the clays consumed caustic soda when they went into solution, but not silica as quartz.
So this so-called uneconomic bauxite deposit, uneconomic because of low grade and potentially high caustic soda use in the refining process, had been misunderstood! Quartz, as far as I knew, did not go into solution easily in caustic soda – certainly not in the concentrations used in the bauxite refining process – and was therefore merely an inert diluent. Moreover, remove the quartz and you would have much better grade. There was also a bonus which at that time I did not realise: the alumina mineral in the West Australian bauxites was gibbsite rather than the boehmite in the bauxites of Queensland. Gibbsite dissolves at a lower temperature than boehmite and thus aids lower cost-refining.
Anyway, Western Mining pegged all this area and, with the help of Alcoa of America, established an exploration project which proved the deposits to be one of the great alumina sources in the world. They produce the lowest cost alumina in the world and the deposits are vast. They have been in production now for many years and will be in production for many more years to come. It was a case that reminded me of the words of Sir Harold Raggatt, who was Director of the Bureau of Mineral Resources and a great Australian. He said that a ‘discoverer’ is someone who sees what everyone else sees but thinks what noone else has thought before. The Darling Range bauxite ‘discovery’ story is a classic case of seeing what everyone else had seen but thinking what noone else had thought before.
So this was the application of quite simple science, quite simple mineralogy which for some unknown reason nobody else had thought of, and it yielded huge dividends.
Remapping the Kalgoorlie goldfields
At that time you were based in Western Mining Corporation’s main office, essentially right on top of the great Kalgoorlie gold deposit, on which a lot of outstanding geological work had been done. Your being there, I think, gave you the chance to study the deposit yourself and contribute to our understanding of that famous gold occurrence.
I had a wonderful opportunity, because Mr Campbell came in to me one day and said, ‘Roy, I would like you to remap the Kalgoorlie goldfield.’ It hadn’t been done since 1933, when two quite famous American geologists, Dr John Gustafson and Dr Miller, came to Australia. They did a very good job in defining the structure of the field by mapping the slates and identifying pillow lavas, which allowed them to decide which way was top and which way was bottom in any particular lava flow. As a result they were able to define the basic structure of the field, which was a big advance.
As far as I could see, however, no-one had done any detailed petrology. Gustafson and Miller had not really considered the petrology of the ‘greenstone rocks’, as they were called. So, with the help of a young geologist I recruited from the lowly Kalgoorlie School of Mines, Guy Travis, we set about systematic sampling of the ‘greenstones’ right throughout the mines, to have good samples for petrological work and to find out exactly what these rocks were all about. The current nomenclature was crude and scientifically very poor, just talking about coarse-grained ‘greenstones’, fine-grained ‘greenstones’ and ‘calc-schist’, which we found was really just a highly altered lava.
So we started doing good petrology and we realised that we could identify 10 distinct petrological zones in the main host rock of the famous Golden Mile deposit. We proved beyond all doubt that the interesting structure in the centre of the field, the so-called ‘Boulder Dyke’, was without all doubt a very tight syncline that plunged to the south. This gave us encouragement to continue what Mr Campbell had started, a search to the south of Kalgoorlie for a repetition of the Golden Mile gold deposit.
Mr Clark, in his account of this work, said:
The next important advance was made by Roy Woodall in the early 1960s. He further defined the rock succession in the Kalgoorlie field, including two identifiable basalt horizons and two distinct dolerite sills. One dolerite and one basalt horizon were shown to be most favourable for gold, and this led to an increased ability to direct exploration into areas of special significance.
Yes, that quote comes from Sir Lindesay Clark’s book Built on Gold, and puts it very succinctly. As a result, we were able to go back to the early drilling that Western Mining had done looking for a southern repetition of the Kalgoorlie goldfield and show that the drilling had been relatively ineffective, not testing the most favourable rocks in the most favourable structural environment. We were also able to convince Newmont Mining Corporation and Anglo American from South Africa to fund the drilling of some further holes to search for a repetition of Kalgoorlie’s famous gold deposits.
We intersected high-grade telluride mineralisation, in a narrow vein no more than perhaps 19 inches wide, which was classic Kalgoorlie high-grade mineralisation. But it was down at a depth of over a kilometre, and with gold only $35 an ounce there was no enthusiasm to continue the exploration. One day I think somebody is going to go back to that discovery and assess whether it is really the guide to another ‘Kalgoorlie’.
New understanding of ironstone at Kambalda
For about the next 10 years and after your assumption to the position of Chief Geologist and Director of Exploration for WMC in 1967, you had a number of successes – understanding of the Three Springs talc deposit, for example, and discovery of the Kambalda nickel orebodies, orebodies of profound importance. They were the first of their type found anywhere in the world; their discovery changed the international balance of power in the nickel mining industry; and the beginning of their exploration had an enormous economic effect and a substantial influence on attitudes to the mining industry in Australia. The ingredients of discovery here were good science and, I think, not only confidence in your observations and deductions but sheer determination and persistence. Could you tell us about it?
The Three Springs talc deposit was small, very profitable – and scientifically very interesting. I had gone there expecting to find that the talc was the result of the alteration of an ultramafic rock, like a dunite, because that’s what I had learnt in university. To my surprise, I found that I was looking at an ancient coral reef, a carbonate rock. By some mysterious means due to hydrothermal alteration, the carbonate had been replaced by pure talc. But the most amazing thing was the way this alteration had changed the rock. It had preserved all the intricate details of the coral reef formation. That taught me something very important about how subtle hydrothermal alteration can be in preserving rock textures. As there seemed to be a lot of exploration potential, the company took an interest in the deposit and a very profitable little mine resulted.
The discovery of nickel at Kambalda was a much more important event and it helped me make a very significant contribution to Australia and the Australian people – which was always what I wanted to do!
The story began in about the late 1890s, when prospectors found gold on the north shore of Lake Lefroy, about 50 kilometres south of Kalgoorlie. They established a very profitable little goldmine called the Butterfly Mine. After the discovery, of course, other prospectors swarmed over the area and dug holes in anything that looked to be mineralised. One place they dug holes was on an ironstone outcrop. In fact, they put some charges of dynamite into it and exposed massive sulphides – fresh sulphides. Unfortunately the sulphides didn’t contain any gold, so they left and went on to other things.
You say ‘unfortunately’. It was probably ‘fortunately’ for you and Western Mining Corporation.
Of course, yes. They didn’t see what we were later able to see.
A farmer named George Cowcill, from Quairading in the West Australian wheat belt, was an amateur prospector. When the price of gold increased in the 1930s, he decided to spend some time prospecting. He went to the environment of the Butterfly goldmine and prospected. He came across the pit showing massive fresh sulphides and when he asked some of the local prospectors why it was not pegged, they said, ‘There’s no bloody gold in that stuff.’ So he moved on, and later went back to his farm.
When the uranium boom started in the 1950s, George Cowcill thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be more successful finding uranium than gold.’ So he went back to the goldfields. First, he called in to the mining registrar’s office in Coolgardie and asked for some advice on what to look for in searching for uranium, and they showed him some specimens of uranium ore. Some of them had a bright green mineral in them, or a bright green stain, and he remembered that the massive sulphide he had seen near the Butterfly goldmine – which had ‘no bloody gold’ in it – had a green stain. He went back there, collected some samples and took them in to the Kalgoorlie School of Mines. One of the lecturers, Mr Bill Cleverly, checked the samples and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Mr Cowcill. This green stain is not due to uranium minerals; it’s due to nickel, but nickel in relatively small amounts and not economic.’ So George did a bit more prospecting and again went back to his farm.
In the early 1960s he came back to the goldfields with a partner, John Morgan. They went back to these ‘diggings’ south of Kalgoorlie and collected some more samples of the ironstone rock, looking particularly for green colouration. (They couldn’t find any of the massive sulphides, because a big flood in 1948 had filled in all the old workings.) John Morgan was asked to take the samples in to Western Mining to see if they were interested in this material which had been said to contain small quantities of nickel.
So John Morgan brought me the samples, and I sent them off to the Amdel laboratory in Adelaide, where I knew a new emissions spectrograph had just been established. This made it possible to scan a sample for a range of elements, not in a quantitative way but at least in a qualitative way, to give some idea what minerals and what elements were in the sample. Back came the report: ‘The sample contains about 0.7% nickel and about half a per cent of copper.’ This was all ‘low-grade’. But the report continued: ‘This rock contains unusually high amounts of silver, tellurium and molybdenum.’
Well, when I was in Berkeley, Chuck Meyer instructed all his students to buy Goldschmidt’s Geochemistry, and what a blessing that was.
At that stage the book had only very recently been published.
Yes. When I opened the book to learn a bit more about silver and tellurium, which I knew occurred in gold ores, to my astonishment it said that these elements are ‘present in significant amounts in pyrrhotite magmas together with pentlandite’ – a nickel sulphide – ‘and chalcopyrite’, a copper sulphide.
I knew molybdenum occurred in porphyry coppers, but I had no idea of what it was doing in an Archaean ironstone. Goldschmidt wrote of molybdenum that ‘small amounts of molybdenite are sometimes found in genetic relationship to basic gabbroic magmas and norites…’ – and I knew norites were associated with the great Canadian nickel sulphide deposits!
There could be no doubt that this ironstone outcrop, which I had seen now by visiting the location, was coming from an iron-nickel-copper-sulphide vein that had precipitated out of classic mafic or ultramafic rocks. Therefore, despite the wisdom of the day that you had to be in Proterozoic rocks to find nickel sulphides, here in Archaean rocks there was proof beyond doubt that magmatic rocks had been intruded and with them had come potentially economic grades of nickel and nickel-copper sulphides.
Kambalda nickel ore at bonanza grade
I went back to the company executives and said, ‘Look, I’ve always believed that this country of Kalgoorlie and the Western Australian goldfields, when you compare the rocks with those in Canada, should have metals other than gold in economic quantities – maybe copper, lead or zinc and maybe nickel.’
Certainly there are many remarkable geological similarities between the two terrains.
‘Yes,’ they said! ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I need to map the area and I can use university students over the coming summer’ – the summer of 1964–65. They asked what that would cost, to which I said, ‘Well, £2000,’ which is $4000 in today’s terms. We didn’t pay them much! Anyway, with Guy Travis guiding them, two university students mapped the area. We found that the contact on which there were occurrences of this ironstone, which I now knew definitely had been derived from the weathering of nickel-copper sulphides, could be traced for 13 kilometres, defining a beautiful dome-shaped structure, and that many places along that contact justified drilling to find out how much sulphide there would be in these veins and at what grade.
I showed the outcrop to some renowned geologists from major companies, but they were not impressed. They did not think it was worthwhile providing any finance to earn an equity, even a big equity, in this occurrence. So I went back to Western Mining’s head office in Melbourne and said, ‘Please, Sir, may I drill some of these ironstone outcrops?’ There was great scepticism: ‘How is it that this area has been prospected for 70 years by mining companies and prospectors and they’ve only found gold, yet you come along and say that there are also potentially economic nickel sulphide ores? Moreover, noone else has ever found nickel ores in Archaean rocks!’
Mr Bill Morgan was now the Managing Director and was supportive, and I had the support of the Chairman, Mr (later Sir) Lindesay Clark. The man in charge of Western Australia’s gold operations at the time, Mr Brodie-Hall – ‘Brodie’, as we used to call him – was also supportive. (He too was knighted eventually, becoming Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall.) Brodie went to Melbourne and talked seriously to Mr Bill Morgan and Mr Clark, and they approved a small budget of £22,000, sufficient to allow me to drill six short diamond drill holes.
So, in January 1966, a man who had been drilling for me on other prospects for some time, Jack Lunnon – a rough gentleman – rigged up his diamond drill close to the discovery gossan which I had initially sampled, and drilled down-dip from the occurrence to see what this ironstone would be like below the weathered zone. We intersected nickel sulphides, I think nine feet wide – we measured in feet in those days – which assayed 8.3% nickel.
By any standards, that could almost be described as a fabulous grade of nickel ore, a bonanza grade!
Then I had to learn a lesson that I guess anyone who’s involved with scientific research has to learn, that you may be at the point of a discovery, only to get setbacks. When the second hole was drilled, where we also thought ironstone would pass into nickel sulphides below the weathered zone, we found nothing. In the third hole we found nothing. In the fourth hole we found nothing. In the fifth and sixth holes we found nothing. Remember, nobody stopped us doing this drilling, even though there was great scepticism. Eventually we worked out the trend of the nickel sulphide ore. Jack Lunnon then put a whole series of successful drill holes into the orebody. Almost weekly he would come back with a drill core of very high grade nickel ore.
Lunnon became quite a famous name in mineral exploration, didn’t it? You named that nickel orebody the Lunnon Shoot.
I named each of the nickel orebodies we found after the diamond driller who was on shift when the drill went through the orebody, and that was the origin of the discovery and naming of the Lunnon Shoot.
Anyway – well, it’s all history now – it started the great West Australian nickel boom. Nickel sulphide deposits were discovered all through the country to the south of Kalgoorlie. They were then found well north, up towards Wiluna in the northern part of the goldfields, and a great new Australian industry was created. We commenced production within 18 months, in 1967. That nickel boom and that nickel production is still going to this day, and new nickel discoveries are still being made.
To return to how this came about, however: the initial discovery was at a place which initially was called ‘Red Hill’, but in the mapping that summer of 1964–65, the students discovered an old townsite. We applied to the Lands Department for some information about what this townsite was. It must have been surveyed to provide accommodation for the Butterfly goldmine and its workers, but that didn’t last very long and now there were no buildings. For some reason the townsite was called Kambalda. So, from then on, ‘Red Hill’ became ‘Kambalda’, and Kambalda became the discovery site of the first nickel sulphides ever found in the world in Archaean rocks. The sulphides were associated with a very strange ultramafic rock which we now know was a very high-temperature ultramafic lava called a komatiite, and ‘komatiite’ became the word to use if looking for nickel.
So we made history, and we made Western Mining a great company. It suddenly became the glamour stock on the Stock Exchange.
And helped other stocks to become glamour stocks on the Stock Exchange too.
One of the most important things it did was to convince a lot of sceptics that maybe this little group of explorers that I was able to lead knew something that perhaps other people didn’t know. More importantly, it is a classic example of how very careful science can lead to a discovery. Many had seen the ironstone and some knew it contained copper and nickel, but for years they did not understand its significance and they did nothing about it. As Sir Harold Raggatt said, the ‘discoverer’ is the person who, seeing what other people have seen, thinks what noone else has thought before.
In principle, this was a repetition of your experience with the Darling Range bauxites, wasn’t it?
Very similar! This time, I had the added benefit of knowing that the Amdel laboratories in Adelaide had set up semi-quantitative-cum-qualitative analytical facilities. Those – with the help of Professor Goldschmidt – allowed me to be absolutely certain that this ironstone would pass into nickel-copper sulphides.
I went underground with you very soon after you began production, in July 1967, and I saw the first working underground exposures. Little did we imagine at the time that 41 years later I would be interviewing you for the Academy records!
[laugh] You were one of the first to realise that this was a mineralised ultramafic lava. We didn’t know that at the time, but the clue was there in the texture. I had seen that strange-textured rock in Coolgardie, when I was there as a student. Because it looked like spinifex grass trapped in a dark magmatic rock, we called it spinifex rock, and it is still called by that name today. Really, that texture should have told me that this was a very high-temperature ultramafic rock, a lava, which had been chilled very quickly. If I’d had some metallurgical knowledge I would have realised that, because the same texture occurs in chilled slags from metal smelters.
Carnotite-rich uranium in a Tertiary river channel
Almost immediately after the discovery of nickel at Kambalda, the name Woodall became synonymous with a momentous development: the first discovery of commercial nickel in Australia, and at last a rival for the great nickel deposits of Canada, the Sudbury deposits. Having discovered the very first komatiite nickel deposits, an ore type then very new to the geological world, you became an international figure not only on the mineral exploration and the mining scenes but in that part of the academic world concerned with ore deposits.
All this must have had a great effect on management in WMC and its attitude to and support of its Exploration Division. You were now in full charge of the direction of WMC’s burgeoning mineral exploration and you must have set out on the next decade with high hopes for nickel, for WMC’s traditional commodity, gold, and also for base metal exploration. In addition, uranium exploration began a resurgence, and with Western Mining you made quite a successful sally into the petroleum industry. Could you tell us how these things began to unfold?
Well, we had no trouble establishing a very substantial exploration budget and having it approved. With careful recruitment, I built up the geological staff. We established exploration bases throughout Western Australia on the logic that, if you are living and working in an area where there are local prospectors and local knowledge, you are likely to be the first to hear about any new lead that develops toward a new discovery. (Actually, that did happen but Western Mining, unfortunately, did not benefit. That’s the Telfer discovery story, and the Granny Smith discovery story: both significant gold discoveries.)
I put aside one of our top geologists, Eric Cameron, to think about where we might look for uranium. Now, the whole world knew that there was much uranium mineralisation in the United States, occurring where fluids had moved down through sandstone, leaching uranium and re-depositing it in enrichments at deeper levels.
These were in sandstones that were part of old riverbeds. Is that right?
That’s right! Eric looked around Western Australia and noticed ancient Tertiary river channels, all filled-in now and occupied by salt lakes. They relate to a much earlier period when the climate was much wetter in Western Australia – and in all of Australia. He thought, ‘Maybe, in these much more recent river channels, the same thing might work because there are plenty of granites around containing uranium minerals, and sediments from those granites have been washed into Tertiary river channels. Why not go and look in those river channels for uranium enrichments?’
At the time, the Bureau of Mineral Resources had produced some radiometric maps from aerial surveys. Eric came in very excited one day and said, ‘Look, there are radiometric anomalies over some of these old river channels.’ But, ‘Eric, these might be due just to potassium minerals,’ which we knew would also accumulate in the salt lakes and also be radioactive. So we had to rush off and buy a scintillometer to tell us whether the radiation was coming from potassium or uranium. Many were just potassium anomalies but, lo and behold, some were due to uranium and quite close to our regional base at Meekatharra, on the Yeelirrie pastoral property.
At that time the government had put a complete ban on anyone pegging mineral leases. They were so inundated in the nickel boom with applications, they said, ‘No more pegging’. There was also an embargo due to the early days of the iron ore exploration. So, secretly, John Haycraft, our geologist based at Meekatharra, went out to this environment on a pastoral property to see whether he could find the source of the radioactive anomaly. And there, along a fence line, he actually did find a yellow mineral which was highly radioactive. It had been found by the men who had dug the holes for the fence and it was carnotite, a potassium-vanadium-uranium oxide. John’s discovery remained hush-hush until such time as we could peg mineral claims over it.
When that time came, we drilled out and discovered and announced the world’s first uranium deposit in which the key mineral was carnotite, discovered in calcareous sediments in an old Tertiary river channel. It was a world-class deposit waiting to be discovered, the first discovery anywhere in the world of this type of economic uranium mineralisation – and our second world-first discovery.
Seeking copper in Western and South Australia
The story of that carnotite-rich calcrete uranium deposit brings me inevitably to the greatest triumph of your professional career, one of the most valuable ore deposits discovered in the whole of human history: the great Olympic Dam copper-uranium-gold deposit. It is now well on the record that this was a triumph of good science, and you have often emphasised that it was an illustration of the power of team effort in the application of science in mineral exploration. Could you tell us about it?
Well, everything you say is absolutely correct, but with one personal addition. When I came back from Berkeley, I was most determined to find Western Mining a copper deposit. So, when WMC’s prospector in the 1950s said that he’d found some copper-stained outcrops in the Kimberley region of far-north Western Australia, I was sent to have a look at them. Sure enough, they were outcrops of lode material with copper staining. The less fortunate ‘benefit’ to me was that I was immediately dispatched to establish a camp up there, and I had to leave my wife and kids behind for stints of three months at a time. We established an exploration base in the remote West Kimberley region of the Tarraji River valley. Nobody lived there; there were no Aboriginals and no pastoralists. There were, however, clean-skin cattle roaming the area – obviously, escaped from somebody’s pastoral property or the progeny of previous pastoralists’ efforts in the district – and they were important to our food supplies.
For two years we tried to find Western Mining a copper deposit in the West Kimberley. We used some very elementary geophysics and some very elementary geochemistry. I pioneered with the help of Dr Haldane, a geochemist in the Bureau of Mineral Resources. He developed a method whereby, in the field, we could take a sample of clay material from a creek and determine whether it was anomalous in copper, lead or zinc. So I did some pioneering geochemical exploration, and we drilled holes. And we failed.
The second attempt to find a copper deposit for the company was around the historically famous and important copper mining districts of Moonta and Wallaroo, in South Australia. The area around these mines was completely covered by windblown soils, so there was an opportunity to find concealed deposits. We now had more advanced geophysical methods, which we used extensively, and for 10 years we explored that district. And we failed.
Then the geologist I had based up in the Pilbara region of Western Australia advised that, through the help of a prospector, he had found extensive outcrops of shale that was extensively copper-stained. There was no question that these were copper-bearing shales, so he asked for permission to start a major exploration project based on the outcrops; The Fortescue Project. Well, the world knew that some of the world’s greatest copper deposits were in rocks of the same age over in Africa, in the famous Copper Belt of ‘Rhodesia’ (now Zimbabwe and Zaire) – fabulously rich copper deposits. Here we were, so excited that we were going to make the great discovery that for some years we had been looking for! We persisted. We sampled and mapped probably 100 kilometres of the shales and we drilled the best outcrops. Again we couldn’t find economic grades, and the project failed.
Meanwhile, I had developed quite a friendship with the Aboriginal community in the goldfields. Through their Native Welfare Department advisers, they brought in some fabulously rich copper samples from the Warburton Range region, in far-eastern Western Australia, almost on the South Australian border – very remote. And out I went to have a look at this, in my fourth attempt to find a major copper deposit.
Well, the copper veins were there. They were very rich. The veins assayed 60% copper and 60 ounces of silver to the tonne, and they were very discrete; you didn’t have to be a brilliant scientist to tell which was ore and which was waste. So for two years, in partnership with the Aborigines and a mining party from Kalgoorlie, we mined these veins, sent that fabulously rich ore all the way from the Warburtons to Fremantle and shipped it on to copper smelters. And we made money! We split the money three ways: one-third to the Aborigines; one-third to Western Mining, who had provided all the equipment; and one-third to the fourman mining party that did a lot of the mining and helped the Aborigines understand what mining was all about. Meanwhile we set up an analytical laboratory there and explored the region, looking for the big deposit. We failed: the fourth failure.
A team and good science in the search for copper
The fifth opportunity came partly as a result of us being in the Warburtons – and this is an example of how you never know quite when some of the work you’re doing is going to have a beneficial result. One of the young geologists that I had sent to the Warburton in the days when we were exploring around those rich copper veins was a young man by the name of Douglas Haynes, a very talented recent graduate. Douglas now wanted to do a PhD, and being a proud Australian he didn’t want to go to any international university, he wanted to do his PhD in Australia, for Australia. So where did he go? To the Australian National University, to study these copper veins and try to determine where the copper had come from. He conclusively proved that the copper had come out of the basalts that were on either side of the vein, in which there was the mineral magnetite. That magnetite can hold quite a lot of copper in its atomic structure. But, when magnetite is oxidised to hematite, the hematite can’t accommodate copper and so the copper is liberated and migrates. It had migrated into the cracks and formed the rich copper sulphide veins – a very simple concept, proved by good science right here in Canberra.
When Douglas had finished his PhD research, he came back to me in Kalgoorlie, where I lived for 25 years running these exploration projects, and we had a big strategy think-session, just the two of us, about what we should do. Douglas recommended that we go looking for oxidised basic lavas like those up in the Warburtons but on a much bigger scale. So now we were not thinking about looking for favourable host rocks, say for shales, which were known to be good hosts for copper; the strategy now was to look for where copper had been sourced in large enough quantities to form a major orebody. We based that strategy on Douglas’s PhD research at ANU. We had to go and find large volumes of mafic rock – ironmagnesium-rich rock – in which the magnetite had been oxidised to hematite, and the copper released to become an ore-forming solution which, if near the right plumbing system, might precipitate and form an orebody.
Well, Australia is a big place. Where to? We chose South Australia, because that’s where the government was very pro-mining. That’s where there was one of the best state geological surveys, with good geological and geophysical maps. And that’s where there had been the earlier copper mining industry around Moonta and Wallaroo. In fact, there were other deposits at Kapunda and Burra that were essential to the survival of the early South Australian colony. So Douglas went off to South Australia, looking for oxidised basalts and dolerites – and, lo and behold, he found some, outcropping not too far north of Port Augusta, in northern South Australia.
We then made a very wise decision. Good science, tackling complex problems, is best done with a multidisciplinary team. We’d always used geophysics, geochemistry and geology together, but this was going to be a much more determined attempt to set up a multidisciplinary team to find the copper deposit we were after.
On the matter of a team: perhaps all of your first three important discoveries – the Darling Range bauxites, the nickel and the Three Springs talc – were all really the result of your own individual work. Certainly you made those discoveries. I suppose discoveries began to result from team activity with your discovery of the calcrete uranium, and you then moved on to a greater emphasis on teamwork as you started into this copper program.
That’s an interesting observation. The discovery of the carnotite uranium deposit was the work of a specialist thinking about how to find uranium, how it moves in the environment, where it might be concentrated. Then a very able and very observant geologist, based with his family in the little town of Meekatharra, went out and actually found the deposit. It was good teamwork. Anyway, this exploration project now in South Australia was to be a multidisciplinary team effort.
We had access to a very good geophysicist, Hugh Rutter, who was on our staff based in Melbourne. So Hugh was consulted, and he came and got involved. He got access to the Bureau of Mineral Resources’ regional airborne maps of magnetics and ground-survey gravity maps of northern South Australia, and noticed that there was a small copper deposit at a place called Mt Gunson. That was not really close to where Douglas thought we ought to go drilling for copper, where he had found rocks that could have sourced copper. But for a geophysicist, why not have regard for the geophysics – the geophysical imprint, the geophysical image of this little copper deposit? It was very clear that there was a substantial magnetic anomaly at the copper deposit and a substantial gravity anomaly as well.
Hugh studied all the maps of magnetics and gravity of the surrounding area and, lo and behold, there were much bigger and many more magnetic anomalies and gravity anomalies further north. The only named location was the Andamooka opal field, so we called the project the Andamooka copper project in those early days.
Am I correct in saying that the combination of magnetic and gravity anomalies would immediately suggest the possibility of basalts?
Absolutely. So, what Hugh recommended was consistent with Douglas’s theory that we ought to go and find source rocks if we wanted to find a big copper deposit. That was the theory which we embraced.
So we were all a very happy team. Douglas was happy that this was a good idea and Hugh was happy. I then moved two very good geologists into the team. Dan Evans, we made Officer-in-Charge of all our work in South Australia, because we could see that we were getting involved in a major project in a very remote area; and he received support from another very experienced geologist, Jim Lalor, who was based in Melbourne, where Hugh Rutter was also based. So here was our team – well, almost!
The first ‘target’ for copper at Olympic Dam
You were certainly building up a good, effective team. What was still missing?
What was missing was a structural geologist. Structure is very important in ore deposit formation, because it is all very well to have an ore-forming solution, but those solutions have to be channelled and moved through some sort of plumbing system into an environment where they can really form an ore deposit. Dr Tim O’Driscoll had done some quite famous work in Broken Hill before the Second World War, but especially after that war, and was, in my opinion, a most outstanding structural geologist. So Tim, who was working with me in Kalgoorlie and had done some wonderful work on the structural location of nickel deposits in Western Australia, was asked to move to Adelaide and join the team. Tim had demonstrated his ability to identify deep structures – I mean ‘deep’: the structures that could be fracturing the Earth down one, two, three, five, perhaps 10 kilometres or more. His PhD research work had shown that these structures can have very subtle expressions at the surface. Their expression at the surface may be anything but a simple, straight-line fault!
Anything but obvious, yes.
Obvious if you know what to look for and how to look, but not otherwise! That was the basis of Tim’s brilliance.
He did a lot of work on the structural setting of the copper deposit at Mt Gunson, which had been the focus of Hugh Rutter’s geophysical studies. He showed beyond all doubt that underneath the Mt Gunson copper deposit was a very distinct major, regional, west-north-west striking, deep-buried structure, intersected at Mt Gunson by a strong north-north-east structure. It was at a structural intersection, a good place for a good plumbing system! You didn’t have to be too brilliant, shall we say [laugh], in order to think, ‘If here’s a small copper deposit, a gravity anomaly, and a magnetic anomaly and a structural intersection, let’s go and look where Hugh Rutter has all these other magnetic and gravity anomalies and see if there are strong structures there as well.’
Tim identified a small number of what he called ‘tectonic targets’: structural targets, coincident with the magnetic and gravity features, which could be and maybe were due to the sort of basic lava rocks or igneous rocks that Douglas thought would be the best source rocks. The first target we drilled was very close to a cattle watering hole dug out by a pastoralist to catch rainwater to water his cattle. He had excavated that dam at the same time as the world Olympic Games were being held in Melbourne, so he called it the ‘Olympic Dam’. And so this project, the testing of this structural feature coincident with magnetics and gravity anomalies, was called the Olympic Dam target. (The small dam was the only feature in the desert to identify it!)
As we drilled, beneath 300 metres of barren sediment the drill intersected a most astonishing rock full of iron oxide, hematitic, highly fractured – a breccia. Here was rock we’d never ever seen the likes of before. The interesting funny story is that Douglas said, ‘Hooray, here we are! We’ve got a fractured basic “source-rock” that’s been now leached of copper because it’s full of hematite. Let’s send it away for assay to show how much it’s been leached of copper.’ Douglas wanted to see a basic rock; he needed to see it, that is what he wanted to see and that is what he saw. But we couldn’t identify what this rock really was.
Anyway, back came the assay. The rock wasn’t leached of copper, it contained 1% copper. Initially, we couldn’t see any copper sulphides as they were very fine-grained, but we went back to the core and, lo and behold, we found the copper mineral bornite – which is not easy to see in a hematite matrix, being almost the same colour.
Persistence pays off, with uranium as a bonus
Your first drilling target seems to have presented you with something of a conundrum.
It did. Well, what to do next? We drilled some more holes. We’re now out in the desert [laugh], over a hundred kilometres from any known copper mineralisation, drilling expensive holes which cost at least $100,000 each, following up copper mineralisation of a type that neither we nor anyone else in the world had ever seen before, in a strange hematite-rich rock which we subsequently recognised as brecciated granite.
Tim and Hugh had agreed on a second target some distance away, so we drilled that. We found nothing. We came back to the location where we did get that ‘sniff’ of copper in the first hole, RD1; we drilled a second hole, and we found nothing. We drilled a third hole and found nothing. Now, I tell you: in many companies, at this stage the managing director would have phoned up and said, ‘You guys, stop wasting my money drilling holes out in the desert and finding nothing, thank you very much. It may be scientifically interesting, but I’ve got shareholders to satisfy.’ But we persisted! We drilled a fourth hole and found nothing. We drilled the fifth hole and we got a similar intersection to the first hole, a ‘sniff’. Well!
This is where the confidence of the management – the WMC Board and the Managing Director and, especially, the Chairman – became so important. They never once questioned our desire to keep drilling. Why did we keep drilling? Well, we’d found an unusual copper mineralisation. Sure, it wasn’t economic, it was sub-ore grade. And we had drilled a lot of barren holes that didn’t find anything. But here was the most astonishingly fractured rock, a place where perhaps a great orebody might have formed, so we kept going. Hole No. 6 found nothing. No. 7 found nothing.
This is, by ordinary standards, almost perverse persistence, isn’t it?
Yes. We now know that some of those drill holes went quite close to very high-grade ore and we were just unlucky. But I am sure that many, many people and many, many companies have been in this situation looking for an orebody, having spent a lot of money, and have then walked away after drill hole No. 9! When do you stop? We kept going because of these exciting-looking rocks. Then we drilled RD10 and we intersected over 200 metres of 2% copper. And – what a bonus! – it also had a significant gold content and a significant uranium content.
Copper and gold are commonly associated; if you were getting the copper values, it was natural to look for gold. But what made you look for uranium?
That’s a good question that I’m finding hard to answer, because it was back in 1976. Why did we look for uranium? That’s a good question: why?
Of course, there is a lot of uranium mineralisation in South Australia, such as at Radium Hill, so that state would have been uranium conscious. Perhaps it was almost a standard thing, almost automatic to look for it there.
I can tell you this: it was not because we could see the uranium mineral. We now know that the uranium minerals – and there are three in the ore – are very fine-grained. Why did we put a scintillometer over the core? Well, we did! Maybe we were just much better researchers back then than we gave ourselves credit for. [laugh]
Another person that was very important to this team was our research petrologist, Geoffrey Hudson. It was Geoff who had said, ‘I’m sorry, Douglas, this is not a hematite-altered basalt or dolerite; this is a brecciated granite!’ I would suspect that it was Geoff who put the scintillometer over the core, just to check it out.
All I know is that all the Western Mining Board, including the Managing Director, wanted to visit this desert place called Olympic Dam. We subsequently had a little airstrip constructed but at this stage, in the early days, we flew in to Woomera, which had an airstrip, and then drove out to the desert to have a look at this core – very exciting stuff.
Where has the Olympic Dam mineralisation come from?
Once you had recognised that the mineralisation occurred not in a basalt but in this highly fractured granite, it was far from obvious where the copper, uranium and gold might have come from. What were the thoughts concerning the source of the ore minerals and metals?
When we saw the core from RD10, we didn’t care ‘two hoots’ where the copper came from; we didn’t even think about it. Now, though, we know that this is at least an 8 billion tonne ore deposit in which there are very large quantities of copper, sulphur, iron – about 30% to 40% iron – uranium, gold. Where does all this vast amount of metal and mineral come from? The source has to be a giant one. The ore deposit is the fourth largest copper deposit found anywhere in the world, it’s the fifth largest gold deposit found anywhere in the world and it’s the world’s largest uranium deposit, by a country mile. Nothing comes anywhere near it for size. So we have this remote part of South Australia, where cubic kilometres of granite have been fractured by some dynamic earth-force; where has this astonishing concentration of copper, gold, uranium, sulphur and iron come from? We don’t yet know the answer. It’s a great question for the next generation or two of earth scientists to worry about.
I believe it’s likely that Douglas will one day be proved to have been right, because maybe down at great depth there is a big basic magmatic pile, just as in the environment there are large outpourings of lava of the same age. Maybe there’s a huge occurrence of dolerite rock or gabbro down there – but it has not been found! Who knows? We don’t know where the copper came from. We don’t know where the gold came from. We don’t know where the iron came from.
I suspect that the energy that has caused this enormous amount of fracturing and formed this huge volcanic feature has come from very deep in the Earth. When I look at the Earth, I see that it’s not very stable. The crust, we know, is not stable and moves around. We don’t know much about the next layer, the mantle, but that is not necessarily stable either; people talk about plumes of molten rock moving through it. But if you go below the mantle, just before you reach the Earth’s core you come to what the seismologists call the ‘D layer’. This is the boundary between the mantle and the core. It’s the core-mantle boundary and it’s the most unstable zone in the whole Earth. If I’m looking for a great energy source, that’s where I’d look. When I say that, I then think, ‘Well, what’s in the core? Much of the Earth’s iron and possibly much sulphur!’ So I leave the question unanswered.
Leave it to future generations?
Leave it to them. It’s of fundamental importance to whether the next generation of explorers will be better than we are. We often don’t know where ore metals come from, but if we did know, we’d be better able to use better science in our exploration strategy. Scientific research of the type that found the Olympic Dam orebody is expensive and will always remain so, even in the future, when we have even better science to guide the exploration. Finding the Olympic Dam orebody cost tens of millions of dollar.
I suppose you and others have yourselves been able to use better science than the preceding generation.
Yes, thanks to Chuck Meyer, Ed Wisser, Rex Prider at the University of Western Australia, the University of California, and the English-Speaking Union who gave me a scholarship – those dear ladies!
You would probably like to say a few words about the gold exploration which followed the Olympic Dam discovery.
Yes! The price of gold increased dramatically in the early 1980s. That coincided with the work by our Chief Geochemist, Richard Mazzucchelli, who with his analytical team developed a method whereby we could detect perhaps five or 10 parts per billion – an incredibly small amount – of gold in weathered rock.
We now realised that the goldfields of Western Australia were deeply weathered. They’d probably been weathered in the Cretaceous, in the Tertiary, in the present time – a long period of cycles of weathering. To our astonishment, we found that under those conditions gold is not as stable as you would think. In these weathered zones, especially where there is salinity, gold is leached-out of the surface and the outcrops. You can look at an outcrop and find no visible gold; there will be no gold by assay either. If you then use a very detailed geochemical technique like the one we had now developed and find 10 parts per billion gold, that’s anomalous! So we started to drill beneath these weakly anomalous gold occurrences and we found a whole swag of gold deposits – also in the same area [laugh] where we were finding all the nickel deposits.
Then we became involved in exploration in Fiji, where we found the million-ounce Prince William flatmake orebody. We were visited by people from China who thought that the people who could find Olympic Dam and so much gold ought to come to China and do some exploration. They asked us first to come, if we would, and talk to them about gold exploration. So I put together a multidisciplinary team – a mining engineer, a metallurgist, a geophysicist and geologists – and we wrote a manual and went over to China for a month. They treated us like angels. We travelled the country lecturing on how to look for gold and what to do when you had found it. We were hoping that we’d get invited back to look for gold in China and expand our gold business into China. But this was 1980 and we were just too early. Business sense in China had not evolved to the stage where they could mentally accept the idea of a foreign company coming in and having an exploration tenement and a right to mine what they found.
We were also invited to Brazil by Alcoa of America, who were very active in Brazil. They paid our exploration budget there for about three years, but then they decided there were other priorities and we had to fund the exploration ourselves. Although we found a couple of very nice high-grade gold deposits, unfortunately the company abandoned the Brazilian project – in my opinion, before giving persistence a chance to pay off. We were just starting to really understand the geology of an area of that country, which is bigger than Australia and has enormous potential. To get to know the areas and the rocks takes time. But that was Brazil. We did, however, establish a very important gold division for the company.
We also found some additional gold deposits at Norseman, which that famous Australian geologist Haddon King couldn’t find: they were under a salt lake and we needed the new ultra-sensitive geochemical technique to track them down. That was the Harlequin gold system, which is still in production.
A sally into petroleum exploration
Could you say a word now about your sally into petroleum?
After so much gold exploration I was then asked by the Managing Director, who was by now Arvi Parbo (later, Sir Arvi), ‘Why don’t we form a petroleum division?’ The response was, in effect, ‘You ask, you get! But first give me the money and we’ll do!’ And we did! We found natural gas in South Australia. We looked for oil offshore Western Australia and we found seven oilfields. Probably our most significant discovery, though, was the East Spar oil-condensate field, which now supplies most of the mining districts in Western Australia with natural gas. So that was very successful.
Next, due to contacts we had with the petroleum industry in the United States, we realised that there was an opportunity to buy oilfields which were perhaps discovered in the 1930s and the 1940s and which, though still in production, were barely producing anything at all. The opportunity was to buy those oilfields quite cheaply and put in new geology, new geophysics, new down-hole logging techniques, new petroleum engineering technology. But how do you do this without any staff? Well, the bright idea came to the team (I don’t think it was my idea) that a lot of very talented American petroleum geologists, petroleum geophysicists and petroleum engineers had retired because they were tired of the big-company syndrome – you know, ‘tired of working for Exxon’ or for Mobil, for example – but were still a bundle of enthusiasm. So we went around, hired all these guys and formed a team of some of the most talented petroleum explorers and production people that had ever been assembled; and we started buying under-performing oilfields and gas fields, thanks to the support of the Board.
We did very, very well. We formed a company called Greenhill Petroleum Corporation, named after Greenhill Road, where our Adelaide office was [laugh], and we built up a very successful US-based petroleum division. When all was going so well, WMC decided to sell ‘Greenhill’. They sold it when oil was probably $20 a barrel; it is now $100 a barrel. Those oilfields which we rehabilitated are still in production. We had a wonderful time, in the sense that we had the real pleasure of financing and working with some of the elite petroleum technologists and scientists in the United States. I won’t mention the names of those people, but they were famous in their time in those big companies and they just loved the idea of a little Australian company coming in and allowing them to do what they loved doing: finding oil and gas. So that was our US petroleum adventure.
It was a lot of fun. We found a lot of oil and gas and we made a lot of money for WMC. The business is in other people’s hands now and producing wealth for Americans!
I chose to go looking for ore deposits and oilfields because I wanted to make a difference and help people to be more prosperous. We succeeded in the United States as well as in Australia.
The outsider might gain the impression that the great far-sightedness shown earlier by the company was lessening and people were not taking quite the long-term view that they had in your nickel days.
Motivation, confidence and mutual support
By the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, you and your team had become extraordinarily skilled at finding new gold and nickel deposits. Western Mining, under your direction, became a great force in the development of truly scientific mineral exploration and showed how new deposits could be discovered with an efficiency never before achieved. Why?
Really, it starts with the people. For one thing, I would never delegate recruitment. As you know, I visited universities perpetually. I used to offer to give a talk, to make sure that I was welcome when I came and spent time there; but I always found out where the good students were, and those I recruited. They came to work for me not because we offered the best salary or big bonuses but because we promised that they would have the best chance of being discoverers. We wanted to use the best science and to do that we had to have the best scientists, and they had to remain top scientists. Thus, they knew they had a fair chance of being granted study leave after a period of time with us. Over my 40 years of running the program, 30 or 40 of my staff went to universities all over the world on study leave – sometimes just for a year; sometimes for a full doctorate study – to make sure that they kept up to date and that they brought back new ideas all the time.
It was a very enlightened policy. It gave your people something to work for, and they came back refreshed. Probably, you had an intellectual energy in your group that no other group in Australia had.
There was certainly a lot of intellectual energy. They were a pretty tough group of individuals to manage at times. [laugh]
I was talking about their creative energy, not their combative energy.
Oh, yes, they were very creative!
In hindsight, what do you regard as your greatest triumphs in your work, and what are some of the things that you think aided you in achieving them? Also, could you enlighten us a little concerning your relations with your Board, your Chairman, senior managers and particularly, I suppose, your money men in the Melbourne head office? Management by this time must have become a very complex and demanding task.
Well, the fortunate opportunity I had was to grow the company. We started off with perhaps 20 geologists and geophysicists, and I finished up with 250. But it was gradual and it was controlled. By controlling and doing a lot of the recruitment myself, I knew there were always talented people to whom I could delegate and in whom I could have confidence. That’s the beginning of the answer to your question: recruitment of talented people who stay with you because you treat them properly, you give them every opportunity to remain at the cutting-edge of their own technology so that they have the joy of being the best geologist or geophysicist they are ever going to be, because they work for us – for me. That is No. 1.
I must not forget my wife, Barbara. She stuck with me through all of this. Often, in some of those early days, I’d be away three months at a time and not see her. Later, she would often travel with me. When we were visiting some of the exploration people in remote areas, perhaps there was a young mother with kiddies, so, while I was in the office looking at the geology or the exploration results, Barbara would be in the home of the young wife with the two little babies, offering encouragement. This did a tremendous amount to help maintain staff and staff morale. She is as much an owner of many of those discoveries as anybody.
She’s a remarkable woman and together we produced a lovely family of 10 children. That’s a bit unusual these days, but we knew we could afford to house them, clothe them, feed them, educate them and love them.
We’ve given Australia three engineers, a doctor, a very talented botanist, two wonderful mothers, and a young lady and two other sons who are very talented in the world of finance and business.
From difficult beginnings in the 1930s, you have had a most successful family life and professional life. Not only have you contributed enormously in a purely material way but you have been able to contribute a very great deal to geological science – a successful life.
And that too has been a joy. One thing I must not forget to mention is the importance of the chain of confidence that we were able to maintain between the most lowly field assistant and the Board. The field assistant had confidence in the team manager and in the district manager. He or she knew that they would be treated well, that they would be looked after. The district managers knew that their regional managers were concerned about them and their family life; if they needed to be transferred so that education for the kids would be easier, for example, that was taken into account. The regional managers had confidence in my leadership, so very few of our staff ever left; and I had the confidence of the Board. The chain of confidence was kept healthy because there was also a chain of respect. The Board had confidence in me and I respected the Board. I had confidence in the people under me and they respected me, and so on. That was fundamental.
Barbara and I have been married 53 years, so we set an example of longevity and long associations of happiness. We had some really superb parties in our Exploration Division. Once a year I would bring in as many as I could to a central place where we would have a technical conference and compare and share a few ideas, and have whiz-bang parties. Mind you, some of our best parties were turned on for us by the Americans, who so loved us!
I think Western Mining, during your time, was well known for all these things. It was regarded as an outstanding company, certainly on the geological exploration side, both from the scientific and the technical point of view and from the point of view of the wellbeing of all the people who worked for it, and this was largely due to you.
Well, we certainly made a difference. Western Mining became a great company and it was built on exploration success.
The other thing that I am proud of – if being proud is not something we have to look down on – is the fact that we insisted that any geological work we did on the mines must be of the highest scientific standard, because as you mine an orebody you destroy it. The environment is there, but the orebody itself is taken away. We insisted that we leave behind the most accurate scientific record of those orebodies that could be made using the equipment and analytical facilities available at the time. That legacy, I think, is very significant.
All in all, my career spanned a very happy 40 years. Barbara and I remember every year with a great deal of satisfaction and joy.
Yours is a most interesting story of great success, from more than one point of view. Thank you very much for relating it.
Thank you, Dick, for those kind words. It’s been a pleasure to be interviewed by you. I know that you have taken a lot of time to study the historical record of my career and to encourage me. Thank you for your effort and for your willingness to conduct this interview. I hope that it can be of value to the Academy of Science in its efforts to encourage other young Australians to take up science and make a contribution to this wonderful country.
© 2023 Australian Academy of Science