A Walk Down Memory Lane: The Walking Dragline – the machine that saved Zambia
The year is 1965 and the newly formed Republic of Zambia, still brimming with confidence after the successful push for independence, is looking to find her feet in the global economy. Operating on a Transitional Development Plan (TNDP), Government’s early development strategy focused mainly on mining, agriculture, and manufacturing. Mining, specifically copper mining, was the main export sector generating revenue required to support the country’s ambitious economic goals.
This growth plan would soon hit an early snag, however, when the United Nations (UN) placed sanctions on the then Southern Rhodesia following its unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965.
The sanctions prohibited all trade between the former British colony and the Commonwealth and UN member states. This meant that Zambia could no longer rely on coal imports from Wankie (now Hwange) Collieries in Southern Rhodesia to fuel its growing copper mining industry.
In a bid to save the local mining sector, and by extension the national economy, Government, through the National Coal Board of Zambia (which would later be replaced by Maamba Collieries Ltd) the following year resorted to developing its own coal deposits in present-day Sinazongwe district, Southern Province.
The demand for coal in the newly established sector grew in tandem with the economy and the country’s energy needs rose as the economy expanded. By the late 1960s the country’s only coal mine was struggling to meet the Copperbelt’s insatiable appetite for coal, threatening to retard the momentum of the young country’s growth trajectory.
A drastic solution was needed, and fast.
Enter the Bucyrus Erie 1260-W Walking Dragline, a state-of-the-art heavy-duty mining machine found in only three countries in the world at the time.
All Hail the Queen
Standing 90 meters long and weighing about 1,500 metric tonnes, with a bucket boasting a 30-tonne lift capacity, the iron behemoth took nearly two years to assemble – becoming the largest single piece of mining equipment in Zambia.
Such was the dragline’s importance to the national economy that it was officially commissioned and christened ‘The Zambian Queen’ by the then Republican President, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, in 1971.
The pride of the local mining industry was embellished with the national coat of arms on either side of its massive frame and proudly flew the Zambian flag at the tip of its boom.
Draglines are a cost-effective tool employed in strip coal mining operations. They are used to remove overburden waste on top of relatively flat coal seams and dump it in adjacent, already worked out strips.
“The Zambian Queen came at a time when demand for coal from the Copperbelt was at an all-time high of about 100,000 tonnes a month. We simply did not have the equipment to keep up with the demand,” narrates MCL’s Senior Manager Mining Mr. Scott Phiri.
Mr. Phiri explained: “The dragline came as a lifesaver to the copper mining industry, which was the backbone of the country’s economy. The Queen was able to meet and surpass the country’s appetite for coal, which immediately made it an essential cog in Zambia’s development machine.”
“All eyes were on Maamba coal and the dragline, because of the role it played in Government’s economic growth plans,” he added.
The dragline initially worked at Maamba Collieries Ltd’s Kanzinze pit, but later in the mid-1990s was moved to Izuma “A” where the coal deposit was relatively shallow.
A Game Changer
“Looking at the Zambian Queen today, all these years later, I still get an overwhelming sense of pride for all that she has done for our country,” says Gideon Banda, Mining Team Leader at Maamba Collieries Limited.
Mr. Banda was privileged to be the first Zambian to operate the enormous contraption and he noted that the Queen was the most efficient piece of machinery in the local mining sector, adding that it changed the face of Zambian mining forever.
“Despite the size, the machine could be operated by one person, thus saving the mine countless man hours each day,” recalls Mr. Banda.
“It could rip from a bench height of 40 metres, excavating around 900 tonnes an hour without the use of dump trucks. This meant that we were able to meet the entire country’s monthly coal demand in about two weeks, working only from morning to sunset each day. If you think about it, Zambia’s mining sector, and indeed the economy, was built on the Queen’s toils at Maamba Collieries.”
“On top of this, it ran on electricity and not fossil fuels, thereby eliminating the need for refuelling breaks. It was so big that any time I turned it on, all overhead lights throughout Maamba would slightly dim, such was the Zambian Queen’s power usage.”
“I am proud to be one of only a handful of people to have operated this iconic machine. Every day behind the controls was a mix of excitement, pride, mixed with sheer anxiety. Sitting in the cockpit, you could see the national flag which served as a constant reminder of the machine’s significance, not only to the mine, but the entire nation. People would travel from all provinces just to catch a glimpse of the Queen in action, adding to the pressure.”
“It felt like the whole country had its eyes on me. And due to its immense power and size, any mistake would result in massive damage, not only to the Queen, but to surrounding equipment as well. Being in the cockpit was certainly not for the faint hearted.”
Mr. Banda expressed gratitude to management at Maamba Collieries for entrusting him with the huge responsibility of operating the iconic machine, thus writing his name in Zambian mining folklore.
“Being the Zambian Queen’s operator made me somewhat of a local celebrity, which was a big confidence boost. I am filled with so much respect for the Queen for what she has done for the country, yet a little sad to see her so long past her prime. This machine will always hold a special place in my heart, a weird place where it feels like my daughter and mother all at the same time,” notes a teary-eyed Banda.
A Legend Retires
In all the Queen served Zambia for over 30 years before she was finally retired in 2005.
Her retirement was necessitated by a scarcity of spare parts and the emergence of new technology which rendered her obsolete.
Mr. Banda operated the Zambian Queen for three years from 2002 to 2005 and holds the honour of being the last operator to drive her and put her to rest at her final home at the top bench of Izuma ‘A’ for a well-earned retirement.
While old age and the changes in technology forced the iconic Zambian Queen into retirement, the national economy is still surviving off her legacy.
She single-handedly kept the coal mining industry alive, which was critical to the survival of the copper mining sector and in turn supported the national economy.
Maamba Collieries Ltd has plans to turn the Zambian Queen into a museum after the National Museum Board announced their intention to declare the old dragline a national monument.
“We will be mining around it and leave it standing at its current resting place overlooking Izuma A Pit’”, says Mr. Phiri. “We plan to restore it and provide access to it as a museum from our offices after the pit is no longer in use.”
For her contribution to build, not only the coal sector, but also provide the energy needed to build the national economy, the Zambian Queen could hardly have found a more fitting final resting place, perched high atop a bustling mine pit, majestically looking on as several high-tech machines scramble to do what she pulled off on her lonesome all those years ago.
Her awesome form overlooking a busy mine gives her the appearance of a proud parent, long in years and wizened by decades of dutiful service to her country, proudly watching her children following in her footsteps and keeping her legacy alive.