Dark Tourism & Mining

This is another theme post, and again not the result of a poll but half promised in the previous blog post and then requested in a comment in response to that post. So here we go.

In terms of dark tourism, one of the prime places associated with mining has to be Butte in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, USA. It became a boom town in the 18th and 19th century thanks to its rich deposits of, in particular, copper, gold and silver. While the extraction industry’s leading figures became incredibly rich, the life of the common miners was much, much harder. There were strikes and violent clashes including fatalities. And there were also accidents. The very worst disaster in the whole history of hard rock mining in the USA happened here when a fire broke out underground at the Granite Mountain/Spectator Hill Mine that killed 168 miners. A monument in Butte commemorates that dark day. The whole landscape around this place has a dystopian look, as seen in this photo:


dystopian mining ‘moonscape’ and old headframes at Butte, Montana


Butte is also the location of the infamous Berkley Pit. This was begun in the 1950s and became one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the country, a mile in diameter and 1800 feet deep. After it was closed in 1982 the empty pit slowly filled with water mixed with dissolved minerals that turned it into a toxic chemical cocktail that threatened to pollute the local aquifers and at times had a surreal reddish colour (some extremophile micro-organisms manage to survive in this poisonous soup!). The water level is now being managed and the site has become an unlikely tourist attraction. A tunnel has been drilled into the side that leads to an observation platform above the water from where you can get this view:


part of the vast Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana


These days the biggest copper-mining operations are to be found in Chile in South America. When I took a domestic flight from Santiago de Chile to the Atacama Desert in the north my plane flew over this cluster of gigantic deep holes in the barren ground, the “Centinela” mining complex:


gigantic copper mines in the Atacama, Chile


At that time (at the end of 2011) the very largest such open-pit copper mine was Chuquicamata, in fact one of the world’s largest human-made holes, three miles across and half a mile deep. The on-site copper smelters and all the pollution that comes with this industry give the site an otherworldly, dystopian Sci-Fi-like look. I was actually supposed to go one of the free tours of the mine that the mining company offers at Chuquicamata. But when I turned up at the starting point I found out that because of some staff induction day or something, the tour was cancelled. And since I had to move on to my next port of call that day I was unable to come back and try again another time. So I only managed this photo from a distance, in which the big hole isn’t visible. Only the huge tailings heaps (called “torta” locally, or ‘cakes’) give an indication of the scales involved:


Chuquicamata copper mine and smelter near Calama, northern Chile


Before copper became Chile’s main export commodity, it was something else that had led to an earlier mining boom: nitrate (or saltpetre), a natural fertilizer. In several locations in the Atacama whole mining towns around nitrate extraction and processing sites (called ‘oficinas’) sprung up from the second half of the 19th century and by the early 20th century this was the country’s key industry. But it was doomed. After demand shrunk, mainly thanks to the discovery of synthetic nitrate production, the mining towns were abandoned one after the other. Today, several ghost-town relics of these can be explored in the desert. The most significant of these, especially from a dark-tourism perspective, is Chacabuco. Here’s a photo of the abandoned nitrate processing plant:


abandoned Chacabuco nitrate mine and processing plant


But what makes Chacabuco so significant for dark tourism is not so much its (immense) ghost-town appeal but a phase in its later history, namely when in 1973-74 the place became a concentration camp for political prisoners in the wake of the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. After the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, two former inmates returned to Chacabuco as caretakers, and over the years some restoration work and commodification for visiting tourists have taken place. For me it was one of the top highlights of that trip back in 2011/12.

Another one was visiting the largest salt pan in the world, Uyuni in the Alto Plano in the Andes, in neighbouring Bolivia. Some mining takes place here too, namely mining salt. I spotted this salt truck by some cones of salt ready for transport:


salt mining at the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia


This is small-scale, private mining. But at one time Bolivia had high hopes of becoming a major exporter of lithium, a prized commodity for making car batteries. So with the increasing electrification of automobility rich lithium deposits could spark a new “gold rush” of sorts. However, it has meanwhile become clear that the lithium deposits inside Uyuni are not of the grade required by the car-battery manufacturers and it is now other salt pans in Chile and Argentina that profit from this new boom. And so Bolivia loses out, as it has so often in its history (not least due to ruthless foreign exploitation). Thus it remains the poorest nation in South America.

I’ve witnessed salt mining also in another spectacular landscape, namely in the Danakil Depression in the Afar region in northern Ethiopia – now a total no-go area due to the current civil war in the country (as has featured on this blog several times already). When I was there, in January 2020, it was still relatively peaceful (though tensions were palpable). This is a harsh environment, the hottest place on Earth, and even at night in winter the temperature rarely drops below 30 degrees Celsius (86F) and in summer daytime temperatures exceed 55C (131F). Yet the Afar make a precarious living out of this deadly landscape, not least through salt mining. For foreign tourists the main reason for visiting the Danakil Depression are/were the colourful sulphurous fumaroles of Dallol and the lava lake at Erta Ale volcano (when it’s active), but tours usually included a short stop at the salt-mining operations too. That’s when I took this photo:


salt-mining in the Danakil Depression, Afar, Ethiopia


But back to large-scale mining. The world’s largest iron ore mine is at Kiruna in Sweden. In 2012 I took a train from Narvik, the important iron ore port on Norway’s west coast (where much of Kiruna’s ore is transported to by train and shipped from there worldwide), en route to Boden. And this train went past Kiruna, so I was able to take this photo from the train:


Kiruna iron ore mine, northern Sweden


On the same trip in 2012 that took me mostly to Norway I saw another iron ore mine, namely Bjørnevatn near the far northern town of Kirkenes. You couldn’t get access to the mine as such, but from the edge I could, for instance, witness one of those giant mining dump trucks depositing its load of spoils on to the heaps to the side of the mine:


Bjørnevatn iron ore mine, near Kirkenes, northern Norway

By the roadside approaching the Bjørnevatn mine, I spotted this bus shelter and found it quite funny:

Bjørnevatn bus stop fashioned from an old mining shovel


In order to turn iron ore into iron and steel, large amounts of another mining product are needed: coal. This is the substance that has been in the media the most for environmental reasons, as the burning of this fossil fuel is one of the main drivers of climate change. Hence efforts are being made to cut back and eventually hopefully shut down coal mining altogether. How to make steel without coal, however, remains a challenge (which is being tackled, though, if so far only at prototype level; see e.g. this article – external link, opens in a new window).

In that sense, then, there is something inherently dark about coal mines, in addition to their often literally dark and dirty look. The most extremely located coal mine I’ve ever seen was at Pyramiden a former Soviet (now Russian) coal mine and mining settlement on Norway’s High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The main appeal of Pyramiden is that it provides a chance for “time travel” to the USSR, thanks to all the Soviet-era relics left there. The remnants of the long-closed coal mine also provide a dramatic backdrop. And that is mainly because, unusually, the coal was not mined deep underground but was extracted from a seam high up the mountain that gave the settlement its name. Here’s a photo taken from ground level:


Pyramiden coal mine up and inside a mountain, Spitsbergen, Svalbard


I also witnessed more spoil heap depositing in the anthracite coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, USA, namely next to the ghost town of Centralia from where I took this photo:


strip-mining near Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA


The best experience related to coal mining that I’ve ever had was a long time ago in the mid-1990s when I went to a party in the far east of Germany near Senftenberg, and before the evening a group of locals showed me round the area. And at one point we just drove down into one of the region’s vast lignite-coal strip-mining pits. We even managed to get up close to one of those humongous diggers used at such sites before a security guard finally spotted us and asked us to leave (we just drove round a corner out of view of the security guy, who didn’t follow us, and continued our explorations elsewhere). Back up at ground level we also wandered around a doomed and abandoned village slated for demolition to make space for strip-mining. That was a bit of time travel back to the GDR-era. Unfortunately I didn’t take a camera (I hadn’t expected such an adventure) and thus have no photographic evidence of that trip.

Many years later, however, when I visited the border memorial of Hötensleben, I stayed in the nearby village of Schöningen, which also gives its name to the adjacent lignite strip-mining pit I saw en route to/from Hötensleben. Here’s a photo I took from a viewpoint to the south:


Braunkohle-Tagebau Schöningen, Germany, before its closure


Today, this pit is closed and the big diggers you can make out in the photo above have long gone (except one museum piece that is an open-air exhibit by the viewpoint). Also gone is the big power station you can see in the background of the photo. This was demolished not long after my visit.

The very largest mine of any kind I have ever seen was in Kazakhstan, namely the mind-bogglingly enormous anthracite coal open-cast mine of Bogatyr near Ekibastuz. In this photo you see only a part of the whole moonscape stretching to the horizon. There is no lens wide enough to get the whole thing into a single frame.


the gigantic open-pit coal mine of Bogatyr near Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan


Anthracite coal is often mined in underground mines, though. And those are by their very nature far less visitable. An exception is the old Pioneer Tunnel near Ashland back in Pennsylvania, USA, which was already mentioned on the side in the previous blog post. Now I can give you a couple of photos from inside that mine that can be visited on tours, the first photo being the same as the featured image at the top of this post:


going into a former underground coal mine at Ashland, Pennsylvania


You first get on to a mining train that takes visitors some 800m (2000 feet) into the mountain. Then you disembark and the guide takes you round on a walking tour, until you come to a place where the tunnel ahead of you has collapsed:


collapsed coal mine tunnel, Ashland, Pennsylvania

As if that wasn’t enough to trigger a little fear factor, at one point the guide also turned off the electric light and let the group stand in total pitch-black darkness for a moment. Also a little unnerving – and quite (even literally!) dark.

But enough of coal. And on to the UK. Mining in Britain has a very long history going back to the Bronze Age. This was primarily for metals, especially lead, copper, silver and tin. Like coal mining, the metal-ore-mining sector has decreased sharply in recent decades in Britain. But mining left its mark on the landscape such as in those famous remnants of tin mining in Cornwall. Most of these ancient mines closed over a century ago, and some, such as the Botallack Mine engine houses dramatically perched on low sea cliff ledges have become protected sites run by the National Trust and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. The very last tin mine in the same area (the St Just Mining District) that closed down, as late as 1990, is the Geevor Tin Mine. The above-ground facilities at Geevor can be seen in this photo:


Geevor Tin Mine in Cornwall, England

The site is now a museum, and it even offers guided tours underground (with hard hats provided). When I was there I was unaware of that chance and timed it wrong, so couldn’t go on such a tour. But I’d be keen to give it a go when I’m next in the region.

But now on to mining of a rather special metal: uranium. Mining of uranium began on a large scale only after WWII, with the advent of the Cold War and the forming of large nuclear weapons arsenals as well as the beginning of the civilian nuclear energy sector, both of which require uranium as its natural base material. The uranium for the very first atomic bombs made by the Manhattan Project came mainly from then Belgian Congo and also from the US itself. Today, the main uranium suppliers are Kazakhstan, Australia and Canada, but uranium mining also forms an important proportion of the export economy of Namibia with its giant Rössing open-pit uranium mine. There are even tours of this mine, and this was part of my original itinerary for my Namibia trip planned for 2020. This, obviously, had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, and postponed again in the summer of this year (because at the time Namibia had its biggest outbreak of Covid and became “red-listed”). Tours of Rössing Mine have been suspended during the pandemic but I do hope that they resume when/if I finally make it to Namibia next year (third time lucky, maybe?). So I cannot give you any photos from there yet.

However, I did once visit a site that was also associated with uranium mining, namely in the Czech Republic near the central Bohemian town of Příbram: the Vojna memorial. This is a preserved and partly reconstructed former forced labour camp, originally set up by German POWs in the late 1940s. Once all Germans had been expelled from the ČSSR at the end of the 1940s (for that part of dark history see e.g. here), the site became a political prison camp following the seizure of power by the communists in 1948. Forced labour had to be done in the adjacent uranium mines. Here’s a photo from Vojna showing a miners’ train, a watchtower, part of the outer camp fence and one of the mine’s spoil heaps in the background, now partially reforested:


Czech uranium mine and prison camp at Vojna


Uranium mining is as such something “dark” not only because of the association with nuclear weapons and power, but also because the mining itself poses severe health risks. These come less from radiation, but rather from the effects of the gas radon that uranium ore emits (this is especially a problem in underground mines, naturally). Inhalation of this gas can cause serious lung cancer, as became clear in the 1950s. And since then various efforts have been made to reduce exposure to radon in the mining process. But the forced labourers of Vojna had no such protection. Vojna later became a “re-education camp” but closed in 1961. After that the camp grounds were used by the military but following the Velvet Revolution and the Czechs’ return to democracy the historical importance of the Vojna site was recognized. It was declared a cultural heritage site in 2001 and the present memorial opened in 2005.

Back to uranium and the nuclear industry. One problem, and thus a dark aspect, associated with this is operational safety (which, when it went wrong, gave us the accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima). Another is the question of what to do with nuclear waste, i.e. where to store this safely for thousands of years. So far there have mostly been only intermediate “solutions”. And one of these is storage in former underground mines. An example of this is the Asse II former potash and rock-salt mine near Salzgitter in Germany. This mine, which had begun operations in 1908 and closed for good in 1965, was subsequently used for the storage of low- to medium-level radioactive waste. Some 125,000 barrels were dumped here by 1978. However, it became clear that the site wasn’t as safe as had been assumed and in the 2000s it emerged that there were cracks in the rock and breaches of groundwater that could potentially be corroding the metal barrels. It soon became apparent that the nuclear waste would have to be retrieved in its entirety and stored elsewhere. This is a massive undertaking and will take many years to come. Here’s a photo of the topside of the main shaft at Asse:


main shaft at the Asse mine and nuclear waste repository


Now you would think that such a place could hardly be a tourist site, but it is, in its own way. And given the context that would have to be seen as dark tourism too. Indeed, not only is there a visitor centre with an exhibition about the history of the site and an overview of the current retrieval operations, you can even sign up for an underground tour of the facility! I tried to arrange such a tour but failed due to time constraints and changes of plans both on my part and on Asse’s. But I did go and see the visitor centre – whose staff were immensely welcoming and open about the whole subject matter (a rare thing in this otherwise rather secretive industry). Maybe one day I will also manage to go on one of their underground tours.

These aren’t a walk in the park, though. You have to register and provide personal details months in advance, then on the day you are equipped with special clothing, boots, hard hats and a 5kg emergency pack that you have to schlep around with you all the way. Moreover it’s very warm down there (over 30 degrees Celsius), so rather uncomfortable in that special clothing. And you have to do a fair bit of walking too. So one has to be reasonably fit and healthy for this. But, amazingly, it’s all free of charge!

Finally, let’s look at a form of mining that may be smaller scale but can still have devastating effects on the environment. And in this case that is one of the most pristine environments there are still left on Planet Earth: the primeval Amazonian rainforest of Guyana. I travelled to this ex-British colony in the north-east of South America as part of my 2019 “Three Guianas” trip (the other two being neighbouring Suriname and French Guiana); and one major dark part of this was the pilgrimage to the site of the 1978 Jonestown massacre. This also required a domestic flight by small plane to the airstrip at Port Kaituma, and on the approach descent I took this aerial photo:


environmental impact of gold mining in the jungle of Guyana


This is what gold mining in the rainforest looks like. Not only does it involve some deforestation, more importantly it comes with chemical pollution, in particular through the toxic substance that is mercury. This is left behind saturated in water ponds and all too often seeps into the groundwater and rivers.

After my return home I asked if these were illegal gold mines, but my travel organizers in Georgetown (Guyana’s capital and only city) assured me that these particular mines were officially sanctioned and inspected regularly by officials. But there are also illegal gold mines in these forests. Brazil is most affected by this problem, but it also plagues French Guiana and to a lesser extent Suriname and Guyana. Yet all three Guianas still retain old-growth rainforest that covers around 80% of their territories, much of it uncharted. So it’s less threatened here than in Brazil, but still. The global greed for gold makes its impact here as well.

Gold is in fact a commodity that you could almost compare to the “blood diamonds” of West Africa or the “blood minerals” mined in North Kivu, DR Congo, to supply e.g. much of the smartphone manufacturing industry. The problem with the gold trade is that its origin is rarely marked clearly enough for customers to be able to infer where it’s come from. That’s why there is now a niche market for “fair trade gold” jewellery, where the origin from an environmentally sound and ethically acceptable source is certified.

But so much for mining and all the various dark aspects the subject touches upon and the dark-tourism potential it offers.

This is most likely the last blog post for this year – unless I manage to squeeze one more in just before New Year. But I can’t make any promises. Let’s hope that 2022 will be better, finally, than 2020 was and than 2021 has been so far.


2 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for the mining blog. Great photos and incredible history !!! I’ve done lots of traveling over the years but you have been to some incredible places. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year !!

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