Czech coal safari offers excavators instead of giraffes

GMT 09:19 2015 Friday ,07 August

Arab Today, arab today Czech coal safari offers excavators instead of giraffes

Tourists on a coal safari
Most - AFP

It is a safari with a twist: two private Czech mining companies have joined forces to take tourists on trips to see long-necked excavators and coal beds, instead of giraffes and lush wilderness.

"We are standing at the edge of a mine that was opened in 1901," guide and former miner Josef Gerthner told a group as they snapped pictures of monster excavators in the distance on a hot summer day.

Wearing protective helmets, the 18 adventurers toured the sprawling surface brown-coal mines in an off-road truck during the 4.5-hour "coal safari" in the northern city of Most.

Offered by the Vrsanska Uhelna and Severni Energeticka companies, the bumpy safari ride has drawn 16,500 people representing every continent except Antarctica since it was launched in 2009.

Its three routes are typically sold out at least two months in advance. The admission fee of 150 koruna (5.5 euros, $6) goes toward the upkeep of a local mining museum.

"It's fantastic to be able to come up so close," Prague computer programmer Premysl Maly said while standing under an excavator that is 160 metres (525 feet) long and 52 metres high and weighs 4,300 tonnes.

Instead of collecting photographs of lions or buffalo, tourists can fill plastic bags with souvenir lumps of coal under the guide's watchful eye.

The companies want to "allow the public to take a closer look at coal-mining technology but also at landscape renewal after mining", according to the safari website.

The tour covers former mines turned into lakes and an overview of former spoil banks -- artificial hills formed by waste removed from the mines -- that have come to serve as building plots.

Most of the coal goes to state-run power producer CEZ, Europe's second largest power exporter after France's electricity giant EDF. The Czech firm still relies on coal for about half of its output and continues to build new coal-fired units.

The flames are fed by the Czech Republic's four brown-coal mining companies, which extracted 40.6 million tonnes of coal in 2013. That number is down about seven percent from 2012, according to data from the Energostat association monitoring the Czech energy sector.

Vrsanska Uhelna and Severoceska Energeticka contributed a total of 10.2 million tonnes.

- City built on mines -

Gerthner, the guide, pointed in the direction of a nearby village, Horni Jiretin. It stands on 750 million tonnes of coal -- enough to keep the miners going for another 100 years.

But a plan to expand the mine by flattening the village has angered environmentalists, while conservationists are concerned that landslides caused by mining might endanger a nearby castle.

"I'm glad I got a chance to see it all. I've heard a lot about the castle," said Marta Galiova, visiting from the country's eastern mining region that is grappling with heavy pollution.

"I know what smog is like. I suppose there are cleaner kinds of energy," she told AFP.

Coal mining is a hot issue in the EU member nation of 10.5 million people owing to a 1991 government resolution that set mine border limits. Industry lobbies would like to see them lifted.

The centre-left Czech government says it will make a final decision later this year. One option it is mulling is to only lift the limit on a single mine that is far from inhabited areas.

The history of brown coal mining in the Most region dates back to the early 15th century.

To make way for mining in 1975, the city moved its church by 841 metres (half a mile), earning an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest object ever transferred by rail.

The city boasts large artificial lakes located on former mines. The local airport, motor racing track, shooting range and cemetery all stand on former spoil banks.

The same is true of a horse track opened in 1997, where horses gallop on 237 million cubic metres (8.4 billion cubic feet) of spoil piled up over 40 years.

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