By ERWIN CHLANDA
The tungsten mine and mill at Molyhil, 350 kms north-east of Alice Springs in the deepest outback, cobbled together 40 years ago by legendary road train inventor Kurt Johannsen from scrap steel and 44 gallon drums, were buffeted by world events such as the Great Tangshan earthquake in China, became the subject of feverish wheeling and dealing by Australian mining interests and may soon be reborn in a $70m venture by listed company Thor.
Its Executive Chairman Mick Billing says it may take six months to raise the money.
He can’t say how much is in the kitty so far: “I’d have to tell the stock exchange and I’m not ready to do that.”
But a feasibility study just released claims a project payback period of 18 months after payment of royalties and taxation, and a six year mine life.
It all started in 1969 when Kurt’s son, Lindsay, discovered a deposit of scheelite at Molyhil.
As the ore contained only half a percent of tungsten it made sense to mill it on site.
In typical Johannsen fashion, nothing was bought that they could build, as I discovered when I visited Molyhil in early 1975, having arrived in The Centre only a few months earlier.
On the way to the mine we came across a man filling a tanker truck from a bore.
“We’re looking for Kurt Johannsen,” I told the man.
“Never heard of him,” he said.
We found the mill, no worries, and soon the man in his tanker rolled in as well. It was Kurt, all right. Welcome to the bush.
The camp consisted of a few dongas where the Johannsens and two staff lived, some vehicles, a crusher and a concentrating plant.
The centrepiece was a shaking table, designed and built by Kurt and Lindsay.
It was the size of a big dining table, set at an angle, and with parallel ribs fixed to the top.
The crusher was driven by a diesel engine which also produced power for the shaking table.
The crushed ore was tipped on the top of the table and was washed down with water, separating the heavier tungsten from the lighter milled rock.
It was not dissimilar to a prospector’s gold pan being gently moved in a circular motion – the sand washes over the top, the gold stays on the bottom.
“It’s very simple – crush it to about sugar size and run it over the shaking table,” says Lindsay.
A 44 gallon drum – 200 litres – filled with tungsten weighed a tonne.
The Johnannsens produced about 50 tonnes and the top price received was $12,000 a tonne – enough to be a player.
But the winds of change were blowing briskly.
The Johnannsens had borrowed money against future production.
At the time the Chinese were the world’s biggest producers and controlled the international market. And they were playing their own games, manipulating the world price by flooding or starving the market to suit their ends.
The Johannsens were a small pawn in that game.
Then the Great Tangshan earthquake struck China on July 28, 1976. It is believed to have been the largest earthquake of the 20th century by death toll – thought to have numbered 650,000.
It wiped out much of the tungsten production there. The price went up.
Then significant scheelite discoveries were made on the sea floor off King Island, in Austria and in northern Canada.
Down went the price.
Petrocarb, under new ownership, bought out Molyhil but the sale price covered little more than what the Johannsens had borrowed.
Kurt went back to focus on his self-tracking road trains, revolutionising the road transport industry in the Territory.
Lindsay returned to his homestead, 50 kms away from the mine at Bonya, where his wife Joan had earlier started a general store to provision a growing Aboriginal community.
Meanwhile Thor says it expects earnings of A$201m before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation.
It expects production costs of US$112 per metric tonnes unit (mtu) and a revenue of US$358 per mtu.
The release says it would be a “simple open cut mining operation followed by standard mineral processing techniques.
“The operation is substantially permitted” by regulatory and native title bodies, having been granted a mining lease and a mining license.
PHOTOS (from top): The Molyhil mill 40 years ago: A primitive but very effective treatment plant (Photos courtesy Graeme Mudge) • Bush miner Lindsay Johannsen with a lead glass window he created for the Alice Springs Catholic Church • Scheelite, the ore from which tungsten is gained • A modern shaking table, this one from the Jiangxi Jinshibao Mining Machinery Manufacturing Co • Devastation from the Great Tangshan Earthquake • Part of the open-cut mine (left) and the crushing plant (right), 40 years ago •