Here we are at the start of another exploration field season in Western Australia’s remote Fraser Range, home to the 2012 Nova nickel-copper discovery by Sirius Resources, now a producing mine and part of Independence (ASX:IGO) after its $1 billion cash and shares takeover in 2015.
Because of its similarities to mining camps in Canada, where the rich mix of nickel and copper occur in clusters of deposits, it has long been the expectation that at some point, another Nova (and the Bollinger deposit 200 metres to the east) would be found.
More than 20 companies have drilled 80 or so valid targets in the Fraser Range since the Nova discovery hoping to find the next big one. But no such luck. Plenty of smoke, but nothing to fire up the imagination like the discovery hole at Nova (4 metres of 3.8 per cent nickel and 1.42 per cent copper from 191 metres).
Having said that, there has been some industry speculation that Mark Creasy, the king of the Fraser Range belt and Australia’s richest “prospector”, might just have snagged something interesting on his privately held ground on the western side of the central portion of the belt. Nothing to add there but jeez, wouldn’t it be fun if he has?
What is known is that as time has marched on, the debate among the alumni of WA’s earth scientists on whether the vast stretch of prospective rocks in the Fraser Range is hiding another Nova yield has become polarised. There are as many sitting on one side of the table saying it isn’t as there are sitting on the other side of the table saying it is.
With a bit of luck, and some serious high-tech exploration nous thrown in, the heavy rain-delayed 2017 field season might just prove the doubters wrong, not unlike when Sandfire (ASX:SFR) in 2015, after six years of looking, was able to add the Monty deposit to its DeGrussa inventory in WA’s Bryah Basin.
There are five main players along the Fraser range belt: Independence, Creasy (in both a private capacity, his 18 per cent stake in IGO and other equity positions and carried joint venture interests), Legend Mining (ASX:LEG), in which Creasy is a 28 per cent shareholder and a 30 per cent carried joint venture partner, the MMG/Segue (ASX:SEG) joint venture, and the increasingly South African zinc-copper focussed Orion Gold (ASX:ORN).
Today’s interest is in the two that offer up extreme leverage to the broader 2017 field season coming up trumps, Legend and Segue, the latter because of its joint venture with the Chinese-owned and Australian managed MMG, a fairly recent arrival to the Fraser Range after inspecting all of the available drill core from the region sitting in the WA Geological Survey’s core sheds.
The leverage is there if they make their own discovery or if the other bigger players come up with something interesting – which half of the boffins sitting at the earth scientists’ table continue to bet will be the case. And somewhat ironically, their leverage to a discovery has become more extreme than it was because so far at least, and failing confirmation of a private-interest discovery by Creasy, there has been nothing other than Nova to get excited about as the years have rolled by.
Both Legend, trading at 1.1c for a market capitalisation of $23 million, and Segue, trading at a princely 0.2c for a market cap of $8m, have provided recent updates on their planned Fraser Range activities for 2017.
Thanks to the cash kicker from a well-timed exit from Cameroon iron ore in 2014, Legend is well-funded for the planned work program as at last count, it was holding some $11m in cash and receivables. It has earmarked $3m for its 2017 program and it is worth noting that its recently expanded tenement portfolio includes ground near where the whisperers have Creasy coming up with something interesting.
As an aside, it is estimated that Creasy’s private spend this year on exploration in the Fraser Range could be as much as $10m. And why not? The Fraser Range has rewarded him amply (18 per cent of IGO as a result of his 30 per cent carried interest in Nova in the original joint venture with Sirius, plus all the other bits and pieces) for his pluck in picking up ground in the region when others weren’t interested back in 1979 after looking for debris from the crash to earth of the US space station Skylab.
Legend told the market earlier this week that initial activity this year will involve electromagnetic surveys and broad spaced aircore drilling to get to the fun part – the RC/diamond drilling of resultant drill targets. The fun stuff could start as early as the June quarter.
Segue told the market that MMG has ordered up an airborne EM survey for next month as a precursor to the drilling of the highest-ranked targets in July/August. As a reminder, MMG can earn an initial 51 per cent interest in the Segue ground by funding $6.5m of exploration. If there is enough encouragement, MMG could move to a 70 per cent interest by funding an additional $7.5m of exploration.
Silver lining in coming third
It is said that it’s only ever the third owner of a casino that makes the money. That could also apply to the Wonawinta silver mine south of Cobar in NSW.
In recent years the thing has gone bust not once but twice, with the original developer, Cobar Consolidated, once having a market capitalisation of $300m when the silver price was particularly hot.
So much for the history of the place. Wonawinta has since been renamed Manuka and underpins the eventual listing of Manuka Resources after a $10m initial public offering, with the ability to take in $13m.
It is being brought to the market by private equity resources group ResCap Investments, which will also be the biggest shareholder. It is in pre-IPO mode at the moment and the word back is that as the only near-term pure silver producer to be listed on the ASX, the offer is likely to open and close reasonably quickly.
That may well be to do with the silver focus (Manuka also has a lead/zinc sulphide leg to the story). But it could be a widget producer for all it matters given what look likes to be robust economics, faith in which can be strong given the production history.
Assume a cash cost of production of $US12 an ounce and the margin on the current sliver price of $US17.20 an ounce over likely annual production of 1.5 million ounces – based on an initial six year mine life – is enough in itself to generate interest.
Manuka won’t be dragging the chain either. The staged approach to getting the thing back into production actually starts with a likely cash injection of $3m from the toll treatment of gold for the private owners of the Mount Boppy gold mine.
Then the plan is to dedicate the plant (it cost $60m to establish by previous owners) to treating stockpiled oxide silver ore from January and then resume open cut mining on the known resource from August/September next year.
One of Australia’s leading business journalists, Barry FitzGerald, highlights the issues, opportunities and challenges for small and mid-cap resources stocks, and most recently penned his column for The Australian newspaper.