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Rough Science 3 New Zealand: Mike Leahy's diaries: Treasure hunt

Updated Tuesday 27th February 2007

A bout of 'Possum flu' and a lack of science makes things glum for Mike Leahy on the treasure hunt challenge

Mike Leahy and Mike Bullivant Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 26 - Rest Day
Breaking Rocks

Although it is a rest day/prep day I have a meeting with Steve in the morning to sort out sourcing some bits and pieces. Then in the afternoon I am offered the opportunity to walk up Okarito trig point.

I love Okarito, and there are meant to be wicked views of the West Coast and Southern Alps from the trig point. The climb is pretty aerobic even though I'm only carrying part of the camera tripod.

By the time I get to the top I'm sweating and my chest is burning. I'm amazed at the view. It blows me away. We film some GVs (general views).

Clouds obscure Mt. Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain at something like three thousand seven hundred metres, but they eventually clear, giving us enough time to film the mountain before returning to the beach.

Okarito village is tiny now but back in the nineteenth century it was a boomtown. I find it very evocative. In stark contrast to the tranquillity at the sawmill, the sea is rough - very rough - a legacy from winds out in the Tasman Sea. Breakers smash down way out to sea and along the beach as far as the eye can see. The horizon is misty from all the spray but we wait to film the sunset. It is worth the wait.

Day 27 - Extracting Gold
I'm working with Mikey B. today, which is cool. We have to break up the rock that we collected on Mount Rangitoto and chemically extract gold from the powder.
It takes half an hour to film me breaking a rock with a sledgehammer, largely because I can't hit it when wearing safety glasses. I take them off just as Martin calls for 'action' and hit the rock first time. He doesn't notice that I'm not wearing them.

I start making stuff - which, in all fairness, is later re-built by Derek and John. I'm a biologist who was once a mechanic. I can mend things but making things out of wood and rope is difficult for me.

I can weld though, so persuade the powers that be to allow me use of a MIG welder. I've soon constructed a 'hammer/pounder' and a 'bash plate/container' in which to hit the rocks. While welding up the 'hammer' (made out of a broken tow bar and an old bulldozer idler wheel) I have to repeat many bits for the camera. To compound my problems I didn't have time to clean the metal up properly. Any mechanic would wince as they watch me weld on TV.

Finally I finish and begin to crush rocks. The assembly works really well and the rocks in the collection pot soon become small fragments and dust. It doesn't last long, however. First the welds start to break, and then a fraying rope causes a pulley to fall from the roof beams, narrowly missing Derek and his forty thousand pound camera. Whoops!

I spend the rest of the day crushing rocks with a sledgehammer and a pair of broken Toyota Landcruiser half shafts. I suspect that most of the next day will be the same. Crushing rocks by hand really isn't that interesting.

In five programmes I have done next to no science and absolutely no biology. I'm more than a little perplexed. Breaking rocks is also very hard work: prison chain gangs do this kind of stuff, as do unfortunate Indian children as I had found out in Himachel Pradesh earlier in the year but I'm not used to it.

After a couple of hours my gloves are ripped to shreds and my hands are blistered. I have broken up half a sack of quartz rock. Five and a half to go.

By mid-afternoon the other scientists are back. What I am doing is very noisy. I have to stop regularly to allow filming to progress. I'm pleased - I need the rest because I'm still feeling very ill. Anyway an early day will do no harm.

We are back at the huts fairly early and go for a sauna.

Day 28 - Extracting Gold Day two is usually my favourite day because I can get on and do things but it starts badly. I've been feeling really nauseous and vomited the previous night, perhaps due to the difficulty I have in breathing because of a series of asthma attacks.

It's raining; all I have to look forward to is another day of rock crushing and worse of all by far, I meet Mikey to find that he has been involved in a car accident. He is bruised and has quite a few nasty lacerations on his head.

There could be worse injuries hidden away so he must go to the doctor. Needless to say, the programme will be difficult to make with Mikey in hospital but the show has to go on.

Martin points out that he thinks there is so little gold in the ore we are using that I will have to powder the remaining five and a half sacks of rock by later that afternoon.

Angie, Derek, John and Kate come to help. Kate takes the sledgehammer and breaks some rock for the camera. It's a tiny six-pound specimen, which is just the right size for her but very frustrating for me to use. She makes it hard for herself because she doesn't know how to use it properly but ten out of ten for effort.

With all the extra help, the rocks are soon broken down to useable sizes. The next step is to pound the small rocks with one of the heavy half-shafts. It's very labour intensive. The dust gets stuck in my throat and goes down into my lungs. I have another asthma attack but can't find my inhaler. It is difficult to breath, let alone talk.

Without Mikey around the afternoon was plain sailing because little could be filmed. I really didn't have much to do, so made tea for the others and slept. I needed the rest anyway.

It's difficult being away from home for so long but I'm pretty sure that it's harder for those at home. I wish that they could come to visit, or at least that they could see how we live. I increasingly treat Rough Science as a job. It's a nice job, but quite a hard one and isn't always fun.

Day 29 - Extracting Gold
For the third day running the weather is just like in the UK, but more so. It is very grey and very, very wet - miserable. Added to this, just about everybody is ill.

Jonathan, Kathy, John, Sophie, Drew and I have all got a weird bug. Mikey is back but feeling very rough after his accident. So many of us are tired it's untrue. Franz Josef is wonderful but I'm ready to go home and brave the bills and junk mail. Somehow I think that I'll feel different when the sun comes out.

We brave the 'Possum Flu' or whatever it is that we are suffering from and press on. The ore that has been ground to powder is combined with the mercury that Mikey has made in a glass vessel. We mix it around under water to avoid the poisonous fumes then recover the mercury, some of which should have dissolved any gold present using a spoon.

We then take the mercury/gold/ore mixture and filter it through a piece of chamois leather. It's very hard forcing the mercury through the leather but it doesn't take very long before any mercury with no dissolved metals is forced through and drops into a dish. What is left in the chamois should be mercury/gold amalgam. There is a fair bit, which is encouraging.

Kathy's wonderful sluice is also coming up trumps and she is separating loads of fine gold from the black sand that she collected at the beach. There has only been one mishap - the material that she lined the sluice with is man-made and when she attempts to burn it to salvage the last of the gold it just melts. Bummer!

Our next step also includes an element of burning. The amalgam from the leather has to be placed in a potato of all things, which is then heated on a fire. The theory is that the mercury will evaporate off and diffuse into the spud leaving some relatively pure gold in the pan. It works. We get a little nugget. Cool! Time to finish the programme and get back to the huts before celebrating in the pub. Mikey has been doing really well. He has been working hard regardless of the pain but is now totally knackered. The rest days will hopefully help but he is in a pretty bad way.

The night is a good one. I know loads of locals now and we have a great chilled out evening playing pool.


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