Backfill: Waltzing Matilda

Two years ago, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl's birth, which coincided with the 'Africa Down Under' conference in Perth. Despite appeals to investors to seek out opportunities in Africa, Australia remains the BFG of mining exploration.

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This 'Backfill' column was originally published in September 2016 by SNL Financial (now part of S&P Global Market Intelligence) and is reprinted with permission.

On Tuesday, September 13, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl's birth. Surely the greatest author of children's stories, Dahl had a rich experience on which to draw. Named after a Norwegian polar explorer (Amundsen) and educated at two British boarding schools, he spent five years working for Shell in Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania), was a decorated World War II fighter pilot and spent the last few years of the war supplying intelligence from the US to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales, on September 13, 1916, and died 74 years later having penned some of Britain's greatest tales for children. These included James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, The Twits and George's Marvellous Medicine. These books, which have sold over 250 million copies, are known for their macabre, often darkly comic story lines, usually featuring villainous adults.

In a 2012 survey by School Library Journal, a monthly publication with a primarily US audience, Dahl had more stories in the 'Top 100 Books' list than any other writer. Of the four stories — Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and The BFG — the highest rated was Matilda, ranked 30th.

Published in 1988, Matilda tells the story of a young girl of unusual precocity and intellectual abilities. Matilda subsequently develops telekinetic powers, and uses it to trick her tyrannical teacher, Agatha Trunchbull.

The name of Dahl's heroine is currently out of favour but Matilda has a proud history. In the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor's Lament included the name Mæohilde, which is the pre-Latinized form of Matilda. In Germany, the wife of King Henry I, the Fowler, was Saint Matilda (895-968), taken from Mahthildis, meaning 'strength in battle'.

In its current form, the Normans introduced Matilda to the English-speaking world in the 11th century through William the Conqueror's wife, Queen Matilda of Flanders (1031-1083) and by his granddaughter, known as Maud.

Indeed, Matilda was a popular name in England until the 15th century, usually in the vernacular Maud. Both forms were revived in the 19th century, with Matilda appearing in Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby and featuring in the Australian folk song 'Waltzing Matilda'. The latter was written in 1895, and was first published as sheet music in 1903, although Matilda refers not to a person but to knapsacks that swing, or waltz, on the backs of itinerant Australian laborers.

Africa Down Under

Perhaps not quite swinging, but Perth in Australia is this week hosting the popular Africa Down Under conference, September 7-9. In promoting the event, Bill Repard, the chairman of the organizer, Paydirt Media Ltd, wrote that in the 14 years the company has been hosting the conference, there has been "a surge in the growth rates of nearly all African countries, largely driven by the unparalleled demand for commodities from China". Repard added, "This ancient land mass of Africa is without question the world's greatest treasure trove – and has yet to be comprehensively explored using modern techniques."

That much is true. However, Repard also wrote, "Countries in Africa previously considered no-go areas have attracted a new wave of international investors, explorers and miners," and "action across the continent is taking place hard and fast". This is not the scenario painted by the latest data from SNL Metals & Mining.

In the three months to end-June, as reported in SNL's Quarterly Industry Monitor, Africa accounted for only 10% of the 289 projects where exploration drilling activity had been announced. This compares with 15% in the March quarter and 12% in the year-earlier period. In contrast, fully 36% of the exploration announcements during the June quarter were in the Asia-Pacific region, the bulk of those being in Australia.

Ranked by grade x intersection, there were no African projects in the top eight copper assays during the June quarter. Moreover, there was only one African project in the top ten gold assays, whereas Australia scored three.

According to SNL Metals & Mining, there were no African projects in the top five initial resources, measured by the contained metal value, announced during the quarter. Australia boasted two, with the other three top-ranked initial resources being in North America. The business, and mining, environment in Africa is certainly improving but the industry's big friendly giant remains Australia.

Chris Hinde

Chief Commentator, Mining Beacon

Previously editorial director of Mining Journal, and more recently head of S&P Global Market Intelligence's metals and mining team, Chris is now Mining Beacon's editor-in-chief and lead commentator. He posts two blogs every week, one on Monday reviewing market conditions over the prior week, and a second on Thursday looking at issues on the global mining scene. There is also a quarterly blog on business opportunities in the sector.