Alkane lessons

THESE days advancing the business of exploration is dominated by discussion of techniques, technologies and other wonders of the digital age, however, sometimes the old ways are best.

David Upton
Alkane lessons

Alkane Resources' 10.1 million-ounce-gold-equivalent discovery at Boda in NSW shows the crucial factors behind great discoveries never change. It is also no coincidence the discovery was led by a veteran exploration geologist who understands these factors better than younger generations of his peers.

The man at the centre of the Boda discovery story is Alkane technical director Ian Chalmers, who joined the company in 1986 and was managing director from 2006 to 2017.

He is the first one to point out Boda was a team effort and to praise the skills of the exploration team he has built over many years.

Chalmers also somewhat deflects attention from himself by saying it is all about following the science.

However, looking from the outside, it is easy to see many qualities of his leadership and expertise that led to Boda and multiple other discoveries, including Tomingley (more than 2 million ounces of gold), McPhillamys (+3 Moz gold), Toongi (the Dubbo rare earths project, now spun out to Australian Strategic Materials) and Nullagine iron ore (spun out into BC Iron).

Rock knowledge

The first lesson from Alkane's success goes to the truism that the best geologists are the ones who have seen the most rocks.

Chalmers started his career in the middle of the nickel boom in 1970, working for Kennecott. The US mining giant was a porphyry copper specialist but was pulled in by the boom and hired Chalmers and others to explore for nickel sulphides in the Yilgarn.

He did find a nickel deposit near Leinster and also gained amazing experience in porphyry copper deposits.

"Every now and again Kennecott would bring teams of guys out from their technical headquarters in Salt Lake City or New York, and we had week-long sessions," Chalmers said.

"So I picked up a lot of early porphyry copper expertise without ever actually working on them."

After five or six years at Kennecott, Chalmers left to spend 18 months on a masters' degree at Leicester University in the UK.

This was followed by another five or six years working for Shell Minerals in Australia, exploring for nickel sulphide in Western Australia's Eastern Goldfields and the South West and volcanogenic hosted massive sulphide and Mississippi Valley Type deposits on the Lennard Shelf in the Kimberley region.

This unusually broad background was vital when Chalmers visited NSW for the first time in 1986 to look at projects held by a struggling junior called Alkane Exploration.

Friends made through joint venture projects asked him to take a look after they gained a controlling stake in an Alkane in a deal with Robert Champion De Crespigny.

"When I came back to WA, I said to the guys ‘This is amazing'," Chalmers recounted.

"There were vast tracts of central NSW with so many gold targets. It was like the Eastern Goldfields back in the early 1980s, just before the gold boom but after the nickel boom."


One of the key reasons for Alkane's success is the company's ability to consistently fund exploration over the many years.

That means becoming a producer and/or having supportive shareholders. 

Chalmers said that when he made the leap from global majors to the junior sector, he learnt very quickly that running a junior company was all about having funds.

"You can have the greatest ideas known to mankind but you can't do anything without the money," he said.

The company had a shaky start, with the 1987 market crash occurring just months after Chalmers arrived, however, it scraped through after raising the princely sum of $500,000 from European connections.

The next critical lifeline came with a decision to develop a small gold deposit it already owned, called Peak Hill, as a low-cost, heap leach operation in the second half of the 1990s. It managed to fund the development with minimal borrowings, thus avoiding the risks that wiped out so many companies making the risky transition to producer.

Peak Hill, which has grown to more than 500,000 ounces in production and resources funded the discovery and development of the 60,000 to 70,000 ounces per annum Tomingley gold mine.

Another noteworthy aspect of Alkane's pragmatism under Chalmers has been its openness to any commodity and deposit style.

The company's backyard is the Macquarie Arc, where most explorers since Newcrest's Cadia discovery in 1992 have focused on porphyry copper.

Chalmers said Alkane set its sights on orogenic gold because he knew it well from his days in the Eastern Goldfields and, as a junior company, Alkane would be unlikely to have the tens of millions of dollars needed to drill out a bulk tonnage porphyry copper-gold deposit, if it found one.


The equation changed once Tomingley was up and running in 2014, however, back in 2004, when Alkane bought a package of tenements from Rio Tinto where Boda would be discovered, Chalmers was still thinking about orogenic gold.

"The reason we picked up what was then called the Bodangora area was an old gold mine that operated back in the 1890s or early 1900s, which graded at perhaps 15 grams per tonne underground and where they mined 200,000oz over 10 years," he said.

"I looked at that and thought ‘Hang on, here's an opportunity'. It just happened to sit inside the Rio tenements.

"They were obviously looking for Cadia lookalikes or North Parkes lookalikes, but we picked up the ground and we focused initially on that quartz vein deposit, the old Mitchell Creek mine.

"Unfortunately, or perhaps not unfortunately in retrospect, we found virtually nothing. It was probably the most disappointing drill program I had ever been involved with.

"But in doing that, we then started to pull together all the data - there was a fairly large database we inherited from Rio.

"It kept saying to us there's a lot of porphyry copper-style alteration and mineralisation in this province, and it is a province - it's a fairly big area.

"So we focused on the bleeding obvious to start with, which is what you usually do in exploration. We got some nice hits but the market took no notice of us in those days and then we slowly compiled all the data that focused on a tiny historical copper-gold mine called Kaiser, which was mined in the 1890s.

"We looked at that and thought this is really a large alteration system."

Of course, getting the discovery was neither quick nor easy. Some 15 years passed between acquiring the ground and drilling the discovery hole in 2019.

It was then another three years to drill out what appeared to be a higher grade core within a 3km-long belt of mineralisation to deliver the maiden resource estimate of 10.5Moz of gold equivalent in May.

Fifteen years is longer than the life of most junior explorers, and is an epic tale of persistence by any standards.

There were even 18 wasted months when drilling could not proceed because a wind farm operator built turbines right on top of where the discovery hole would later be located.

Chalmers said persistence was certainly a key, however, a big part of staying motivated was following the science and not straying because of a fixation on any particular deposit model.

"The discovery hole demonstrated to us once again the importance of persistence, but even more it was about putting the science into the discovery - looking at very subtle features, the alteration features, the mineralisation vector features. And again, not being too fixated with models.

"You can get fixated with a North Parkes model or a Cadia model, which are good models by the way, but we weren't quite seeing exactly the same thing at Boda so it would have been easy to walk away.

"We kept saying to ourselves, every time we drilled a hole we learned something new, we realised the system was getting bigger all the time, which is where it has led to today."

Board backing

Digging into the reasons for Alkane's success would not be complete without acknowledging the unstinting support of shareholders and the board, led by chairman Ian Gandel since 2006.

One of the main reasons Western Mining was a legendary exploration success was the faith of directors in the company's exploration leaders. Alkane's story is remarkably similar.

Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the success of Australian Strategic Materials, which Alkane spun off in 2020 to develop the Dubbo zirconium, niobium, hafnium and rare earths deposit.

It is one of the most unusual deposits in Australia and a real mixed bag of commodities. It would struggle for love by anyone other than Alkane. The lessons once again are about persistence and being open to multiple commodities.

Chalmers has plenty of other stories too, including the one about Northern Star Resources, where he was a founding director and shareholder.

Despite more than 50 years as a mineral explorer, he is still creating bigger and better stories for the history books.

At the top of the list is Boda, where we are still just starting to understand its full potential.

David Upton is a geology graduate-turned-journalist, specialising in mineral exploration. He is the author of The Olympic Dam Story and publisher of Precompetitive-review.com.

A growing series of reports, each focused on a key discussion point for the mining sector, brought to you by the Mining Monthly Intelligence team.

A growing series of reports, each focused on a key discussion point for the mining sector, brought to you by the Mining Monthly Intelligence team.


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