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Brazil

Day 45: Ouro Preto

 
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A big wheel in Minas. These Caterpillar dump trucks bring the earth to the surface, 150 tonnes at a time.
Michael Palin - BrazilAnd all the time I hear echoes of a conversation I had with Flick in her mountain cabin in the Serra do Cipó. The man who was the head of Vale before it was privatized was a man called Eliezer Batista. His son Eike became fabulously wealthy and now heads the EXB group, a big energy and mining conglomerate which owns, among many other things, the new port at Vitória and the projected pipeline through which the iron ore from Minas will be flushed. Eike Batista is now said to be the richest man in Brazil.

I'm not sure if our hosts at Vale are being deliberately evasive or just saving the best for last, but it is not until the afternoon that we are finally taken to see what we really came to see – an iron ore mine at work. It's another half-hour drive through slumbering countryside. Up and over the hills until we burst out onto the rim of a massive, gaping hole. Where there was once a mountain there is now a monstrous gash in the earth, thousands of metres across. It has been mined in concentric terraces. I count fifteen of them, tapering down to a murky white lake nearly 300 metres below me. Long-armed diggers, little more than Dinky Toys from up here, are at work, scraping away the rock and tipping it into equally tiny yellow dump trucks. The whole thing is timed to precision so that a digger is never left without a truck to fill. As the tiny trucks climb laboriously up towards us we can see that they are enormous. The wheels alone are three metres high and the driver's cab is a full six metres off the ground. And the load each one has hauled up from the depths is close to 150 tonnes.

The sliced mountain is rather beautiful. The revealed stone surfaces reflect every nuance of the changing light. From black to deep burgundy to terracotta, ochre, white and blue. The work may be little less than demolition of a landscape but the new landscape it has created is not without its own beauty.

I'm allowed up into the cab of one of the big Caterpillar dump trucks. I imagine the driver will be some macho redneck, but he's a quiet, rather slight young man called Dagmar. Once we're up there, over six metres above the people below, I feel as if I'm on the bridge of a ship. The cab is set to one side, with the offside wing mirror over two metres away. Air exhaust pipes mushroom out beside me. There are two computer screens in the cab, one controlling load levels and the other scanning for obstructions that it might be difficult to see from these Olympian heights. It all combines to create a sense of sublime detachment. I feel that Dagmar and I are in a world of our own, and not for the first time I curse my inability to master Portuguese. Like so many Brazilians I have met, he's absolutely dying to talk, I feel. And I'm dying to know what it's like driving one of the biggest trucks in the world.

I get a short ride and Nigel, our cameraman, gets to join Dagmar right down into the bowels of the earth and back again. Then it's time to go. As we hand back our helmets and high-visibility jackets I notice a work gang in a long line up near the top of a gently sloping hill. I'm told they're landscaping what we in Sheffield used to call slag heaps, and which here they call 'tailings' – the huge amount of material rejected during the processing of iron ore. A little further down the hill and closer to us, a horse is quietly grazing on the newly laid turf. Our hosts at Vale have been helpful and attentive, but as we shake hands for the last time, beside the mountain they've half destroyed, I can't help wondering if the horse was put there just for us.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 45: Ouro Preto
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Ouro Preto
  • Book page no: 188

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