Dave Tapsell

Written 19 July 2017

Before I first arrived in Australia I had never even heard of Tennant Creek, it all came about more or less by chance. In 1968, as a 25 year old draughtsman, I left London and travelled overland to Australia; the journey took 7 weeks and cost me more money than I’d anticipated, so that when I arrived in Darwin I had just 2 dollars left. Unable to find work in Darwin I hitch-hiked down the Stuart Highway as far as Tennant Creek, where I’d heard that you could get a job at one of the mines around the town. I was able to leave my rucksack in a cafe (known as Jimmy the Greek’s, on the opposite side of Paterson Street to the Goldfields Hotel) and hitched out to Peko, where I reported to the main office and explained my position. I was given an application form to fill in and asked to wait. Fortunately, the building was air-conditioned – I was finding it hard to adjust to the heat and flies of the Northern Territory. After about half an hour I was then told that the chief engineer would like to see me; this was Fred Soars. He interviewed me at some length before then telling me that the resident draughtsman had given in his notice (this was a staff job) and the Company had been unable to replace him. I was offered the job there and then – this was an unbelievable stroke of luck for me. I had been prepared to do anything to earn some money – at that time all I wanted to do was somehow raise enough money to buy a plane ticket back to England. All that negative thinking evaporated immediately when I accepted the job offer.
Then I was driven back into town, in a ute, to collect my rucksack from the cafe; back at Peko I was given the key to a hut, including bedding and cutlery, etc. This was to be my new home, for the time being. First thing was to find my way about; then have a much needed shower, eat proper food in the mess hall, have a cold beer in the clubhouse – my new boss had lent me a few dollars until I got paid.
Mr Soars was an interesting man who I got on well with; when I left he gave me an excellent reference. This helped me to get another interesting job with an engineering company when I got down to Sydney. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have done so without what I’d learnt at Peko.
In my job as the Engineering Draughtsman at the Peko Mine I could go to most places, on the surface and underground, so I got to know my way around the mine. I found the whole place extremely interesting, it was so different to the work I’d been doing in England, so I learned a lot during my time there. Although that period wasn’t all that long it had whet my appetite enough to return to Tennant Creek in my second trip to Australia in 1973.
In 1973 I was back in Australia and working as a cartographic draughtsman at the Nobles Nob mine, only four miles from Peko. My job at the ‘Nob’ entailed preparing maps and drawings of the exploration results for the geologists who were searching for evidence of mineralisation on the leases that were held by Australian Development.
But, the job wasn’t really interesting enough for me so I gave one month’s notice of leaving the company. Although I didn’t wish to return to any of the cities, I had no other job to go to. However, Jan, the wife of my old boss at Peko worked in the office at Nobles Nob and she had told her husband, Fred Soars, that I was leaving. The next day Fred phoned me at work and asked me if I’d go and work with him again – but this time at the Warrego Mine. Without much hesitation I agreed, and on my last day at Nobles Nob Fred had sent a car to collect me and take me out to Warrego.
The Warrego operation had come a long way since I’d last been to the mine in 1969; it was like a larger version of Peko, but everything was new. It was also a deeper mine: in 1973 I went down to look at some equipment being used by the shaft sinkers, and they were working below the 2,000 foot level.
When I worked for Fred again, at Warrego in 1973, he was building a steel-hulled yacht in the garden of the company house that he and his family lived in. All this was done in his spare time. which wasn’t much as we worked a six-day week. About ten years ago I was contacted by an ex-underground superintendent of Peko (after my time there) and he told me that Fred died in the 1980s of a massive heart attack. Apparently, before he died, the boat was taken by truck to the coast and launched in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
I recently learned (via the internet) that the Tennant Creek Uniting Church had been initiated by Fred Soars in 1966 when he submitted drawings of his proposal for the A-frame structure of the building to the Rev. John O’Reilly. A link to that story is below:—
Both Peko and Warrego mines used to regularly publish a newletter; they were the Peko Clarion and the Warrego Explorer. I still have two copies of the Clarion and one Explorer.
In 1968 the Peko mine manager was Ray White, Henry Broadbent was the chief process engineer, Fred Soars was chief mechanical engineer, Ian MaCrae was the chief Geopeko surveyor; and finally, Tom Peters was the transport manager. Ray White left (or retired) in early 1969, to be replaced by an ex–Mt. Isa man called Ted Davies, who was in charge of the five mines the Company had in the Tennant Creek district.
In 1973 I spent a Saturday morning being given an underground tour of the Orlando Mine by the manager, Arthur. This mine was a really interesting gold and copper operation that now appears to have ended up as an open-cut mine – or so I’m led to believe by Googling “Orlando Mine”. Whether it was originally an underground mine that collapsed in a similar manner to Nobles Nob in 1967; I don’t really know.
I do hope this is of some interest to you; just writing this has stirred up memories of living and working on those mining sites; especially the food – in England I had only heard of a T-bone steak but had never even seen such an exotic item. In a mine mess you could eat as much of anything you like – including T-bones.
Dave Tapsell