While the New South Wales town of Cobar sleeps, Snowy Rogers is digging deep underground.

Story By Nick Cook

The sun has just disappeared behind the horizon and the western sky is filled with the spectacular band of colours that are unique to the outback dusk. Across the Cobar district men are knocking off for the evening, but at Peak Gold Mine the day is just beginning for Greg “Snowy” Rogers as he joins the stream of men and women in identical orange overalls heading towards the shaft.
Like an office worker in a high-rise building Snowy has to squeeze into a lift to get to his place of employment. Only this lift is little more than a steel cage, no bigger than an average wardrobe, and instead of going up it plunges down, dropping into the earth at about three metres per second. Openings that lead to different levels whoosh past, some well-lit and others dark and silent. Snowy uses them to count out the depth. “That’s 400 metres…that’s 500,” he says. The drop is so deep and fast that the change in air pressure causes ears to pop.
The lift comes to rest at the main level, around 630m below the surface. It is an entirely different world, with dark tunnels stretching away into the distance. The ground is muddy underfoot and the echo of running water can be heard nearby. Around a corner in the crib room the miners are getting ready for the start of another shift. In this subterranean workplace they sit around in chairs, talking and laughing as they wait to receive their instructions for the night. Lockers line the wall, drink flasks sit on steel tables and a large fridge holds sandwiches and other snacks brought from home. It could be the staff room at any one of a thousand businesses – if it wasn’t for the rough earthen walls and complete absence of natural light.
This is not where Snowy works. To get there he climbs into a worn ute, not unlike the typical workhorse to be found on any farm, and drives further into the mine. One stretch of tunnel looks exactly like another but he navigates it flawlessly, taking one seemingly random turn after another. The green light on the roof creates an eerie glow as it flashes across the dark walls. The monotony of the tunnel is broken by side passages and occasional alcoves – this one leads to the stopes where the gold ore is blasted out, that one holds a water-pumping station, and so on.
Everywhere there are constant reminders of the potential danger in the form of safety devices such as refuge chambers and escape ladders. At one point Snowy stops to pin his identification tag to a board, which will let the rescuers know where to look for him if anything goes wrong.

This story excerpt is from Issue #56

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2008