Drilling for Dreams

The life of an exploration driller comes with a lot of challenges, but the rewards can be immense. Hall Core Drilling has been navigating the African continent for over 10 years with great success and as interest in Africa’s resources continues to boom, further opportunities for this company are just waiting to be discovered.

While speaking to Jayson Robbertse, CEO of Hall Core Drilling, about his exploration drilling company and all the remote locations he’s had the opportunity to investigate, one can’t help but imagine a lifestyle reminiscent of Indiana Jones and a team of adventurers-for-hire, dressed in khakis, ankle boots and brown fedoras, traveling from deserts to rainforests and encountering all sorts of unchartered territories in between.

When I mention that the life of an exploration driller has a sense of romanticism to it, one can almost hear Robbertse smiling over the phone. “A lot of people talk about Africa as the next frontier. There are real discoveries to be made in Africa,” he says. “Exploration and drilling companies, they’re living it. You have to buy into that lifestyle, of exploring and discovering. It comes with massive challenges, but it is very rewarding too.”

Started in 2000 by an ex-driller who bought one machine and simply began operating it for a specific drilling discipline, Hall Core Drilling now employs about 250 people and has worked in over 14 African countries. The current owners bought the business about five years ago and were initially only operating within two provinces in South Africa, working mainly in gold and platinum. The company has since migrated into the rest of Africa and are offering exploration and drilling services for a much wider range of commodities, which seems very well-timed considering the steady rise of interest in Africa’s mining potential by foreign investors far outside of  Africa’s borders.

Breaking new grounds first

As far as exploration drilling goes, part of the thrill next to traveling to remote places and discovering new mineral deposits, is getting to be one of the first to “break new ground,” so to speak. Hall Core Drilling is proud to say it was one of the first companies to take equipment into the mountains of Rwanda and was also one of the first to start drilling in Mauritania’s Sahara desert.

“We’ve seen some massive opportunities in very remote places of the continent, I’m thinking specifically of the boom we’re currently experiencing North of the Cahora Basa dam in Mozambique in the coal fields that are being discovered, where we are doing a lot of work at the moment,” says Robbertse.

West African Minerals Corporation, an iron ore exploration group with interests in Cameroon and Sierra Leone, recently rewarded its Phase 2 exploration program to Hall Core Drilling in August, which comprises of 400 to 500 shallow holes, averaging 45 metres, for approximately 18,000 to 22,500 metres. Hall Core will be verifying the targets identified by Phase 1 geophysics in Cameroon with plans to complete the program by November 2012.

“The exciting thing about our business is you get there right at the beginning and you are a part of and witness to this whole boom happening right in front of your eyes. The iron ore in the Congo basin, coal fields in Mozambique, and gold and iron ore in North-western Africa in the Sahara desert – it’s all unchartered territory, and it’s what drives my business partner and me. That’s what we find exciting.”

All this reminiscing about Hall Core’s milestones prompts Robbertse to raise another aspect that makes the life of an exploration driller exciting for him: “The diversity of the people you do business with, from the Arab culture in the Western Sahara Desert, to rural people in Kenya who live in the rainforests, to conservative land owners in places like South Africa, doing business with such a wide range of people is very rewarding in itself.“

Adaptability promises success

Working in an industry that has seen quite a lot of growth since the early 2000s, Hall Core’s compact team and ability to adapt quickly to fluid changes in the business has turned out to be some of the greatest assets for the company.

“It may sound a bit clichéd, but at the end of the day, the short chain of command at Hall Core has proven to be successful for us,” explains Robbertse. He says he is in constant communications with all the clients and people working in the field, providing a very personal touch to the business. Hall Core seems to have that balance figured out between being big enough to meet the expectations of big players when it comes to delivering on large-scale exploration projects, but small enough to not get caught up in the bureaucracy and remain efficient.

The industry has also gone through some significant changes since Hall Core Drilling began, starting with accountability. “When we began it was a case of us operating a drill rig in the bush somewhere, and no one paid much attention to what was happening out there. There has been a massive change in attitude.

As drilling companies we now find ourselves in the spotlight, which is a good thing, we take safety and the environment very seriously.”

Safety is another area where Robbertse has seen a lot of transformation, which has been reflected in providing more specific management of the people around the rig as well as making sure the people are safe in these remote locations.

With growing pressure for companies to be more cognitive of the environment around them, Hall Core has also been working to run their business in a more responsible way, buying into the green initiative.

“The big challenge for exploration and drilling companies is that we are a big user of diesel because of the machinery we use. At present there are no other options, but the world wants to see more tier 2 and 3 engines being used in machinery, as these are better for the environment. We fully support this movement and work with some of the major suppliers of equipment who are at the forefront of this new technology,” says Robberste. “At every site we strive to leave as little a footprint as possible. If we can, and it’s not always the case, we use smaller man-portable equipment, as this has a far lesser impact on environment. We are very aware how we leave a project and we strive to rehabilitate the area to the same state as it was before we started working there.”

Looking to the future

Hall Core Drilling is still quite young, but has come a long way over the last decade and has a lot to be proud of. Although there is immense interest in Africa’s prospective resources, as well as a more aggressive push by African governments recently to tout their unexplored mineral deposits and court potential foreign investors, the increased pressure on the financial market, especially in Europe, has been taking its toll on clients trying to raise money to do exploration.

Robbertse believes it’s in these challenging times that strong leaders and people with initiative will be the ones to lead discoveries and tap into new opportunities.

“We will continue to look for other investment and growth opportunities in Africa,” says Robbertse. “We will continue to expand into Africa, going to those places where no one has been, explore those countries where no exploration has happened. Doing this brings opportunities of discovering the next mineral resource, we bring opportunity of a potential mine for our clients. We also bring a lot of experience to table, and that helps when you’re doing business in Africa.”