My 29th birthday concluded with a warm beer on a hot night in rural Zambia eating tough eggs that likely went bad a couple of days before. I should say that it was a pretty crumby birthday, but anyone in the exploration business knows that you sign up for all of the highs and lows.
The day had started promptly at 6am. I downed some coffee, one of my last few Clif bars, and I headed out the door of the Mumbwa guest house to do some sampling. At the time, First Quantum Minerals was trying out hydrogeochemical sampling. The idea was to get the metal signature of an area with fewer samples and less effort than a large campaign of soils. The project I was working on was in Zambia... rural Zambia. My work for the last month had consisted of finding the least offensive guest house in an area (plus or minus running water) to base ourselves out of, and then driving to rural villages we had discerned from Google Earth images to sample their locally-constructed water holes. The work was tedious and repetitive, often laboriously chatting with Bimba-speaking farmers who were obviously trying to figure out whether I was a boy or a girl. My field partner, Rob, like to make matters worse by sometimes telling the farmers I was unmarried in order to see how many goats he could barter for me.
This morning, though, was particularly trying because the power had shut off the night before and had not yet come back online. The biggest problem with water sampling in Zambia is that, of course, you have to keep the samples cool. In order to keep your samples cool, you need to have electricity to power the portable cooler, or you need a superfluous amount of ice. Unfortunately for us, the Zambian government had recently instigated daily rolling blackouts, and furthermore, the rural areas were receiving the fewest hours of power of any part of the country. We decided to pick up some ice on the way out town.
Without any luck in the local village, we decided to head to nearest town with a grocery store – 50 miles away. Checked the large grocery store, no ice. Checked all of the petrol stations, no ice! I put my hands up in the air and let out a heavy sigh, and one of the fuel attendants came out to greet me. He pointed to a collection of rickety shanties tucked away behind the main buildings of the street, and told me that if I ventured in I would definitely find some ice. I looked at Rob, who was sitting in the driver’s seat shaking his head as if to say, “no way in hell”. The problem was, if we didn’t find some ice, our sampling program would be shot – not just for today, but possibly for the previous few days as well since the samples back at the guest house were rapidly warming up in the unpowered refrigerator. With an abundance of trepidation, I headed into the marketplace. Eyes were on me immediately. Aside from being the only mizungu (light-skinned person), I was also aimlessly wandering through the windy pathways looking for what?! I guess a neon sign that flashed, “ICE!” Twenty minutes passed, I had still not found what I was looking for, and I was definitely lost. A Zambian man wearing a Playboy bunny t-shirt approached me and told me that he would take me to the shop with ice. Any normal westerner would have seen the red flags in this situation, but instead I simply nodded and followed him. Around the corner, through an ally, deep into the heart of the marketplace... and to a hair dresser. I raised my hands as if to say, “what is this?”, but he motioned me inside. After a brief conversation, she went into the back and came back bearing two 5 gallon buckets frozen over – ICE!
She successfully ripped me off with a deal of 100 Kwacha (~9USD) for the two buckets. I energetically agreed, took the buckets, and left. Thankfully, my guide showed me the way back out of the marketplace – I left him with a generous 50 Kwacha tip, to thank him, but mostly because he remains to this day the most pleasant person wearing a Playboy bunny t-shirt I have ever encountered.
Rob, who had been keeping himself cool in the air conditioned truck, got out and helped me load up the ice into a couple of coolers, then we headed out to collect the days’ samples. It wasn’t until the end of day, as we were driving back to the guest house, that I remembered it was my birthday. It may not have been a typical birthday, but at least I had had an adventure.
I finished working in southern Africa in December of 2015 in an effort to break into the Great Basin scene. After a little bit of downtime and a lot of effort, I am now doing exploration work with Pershing Gold Corporation in the Relief Canyon area. Nevada is beautiful country, and I am having so much fun! I am sure there are more adventures out there waiting to happen, and I plan to be a part of as many as I can.
John Winton Erwin*
Erin L. Hart
Greg T. Hill
Joseph Kizis, Jr
Brooke J Miller
Justin and Ajeet Milliard
Mia (Cowgill) O'Neal
Shea Clark Smith
Roger C Steininger