Tim Treadgold: Apollo Minerals gets on its tungsten-hardened mountain bike for a ride in the Pyrenees
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Mining and Europe has been a combination with the same repellent qualities for investors as oil and water for much of the past 50 years, but a small Australian explorer might have found a solution — with a touch of sport to flavour the mix.
Apollo Minerals (ASX: AON), which has attracted minimal interest in Australia, is starting to catch the eye of well-heeled Europeans who like its ambitious hunt for gold and tungsten in the remote and rugged Pyrenees mountains which separate France and Spain.
The same mountains which contain the mineralisation that Apollo is seeking are familiar to cycling enthusiasts and television viewers around the world because they invariably feature in several stages of the annual Tour de France cycle race which starts on July 6.
Included in this year’s tour is a 185km section scheduled to be covered on July 21 from Limoux to Foix. It includes four mountain stages that are just a few kilometres from where Apollo hopes to restart a once prominent French mine.
The primary asset which Apollo owns is the Couflens project which was a source of high-grade wolfram, an ore of tungsten, with high-grade gold samples noted by geologists working for the French Government’s geological survey, BRGM, but never pursued as steel-hardening tungsten was the target.
Apollo has no connection to another Australian-listed stock with a similar name, Apollo Consolidated, which is exploring for gold in Western Australia and was mentioned on Stockhead last month.
The European-focussed Apollo, which trades on the ASX under the code AON, has a long way to go before it will know whether it can resurrect Couflens which has at its heart the Salau mine which was mothballed in 1986 after 15 years of production.
Not a big mine by any measure, Salau has one significant advantage; quality.
At an average wolfram grade of 1.5% (and some material assaying 2.5%) its ore is more than three times richer than most other tungsten projects and a whopping eight-times richer than the Hemerdon (or Drakelands) mine in the south-west of Britain on which ASX-listed Wolf Minerals spent a fortune only to see it closed late last year after failing to post a profit.
Hemerdon’s grade is around 0.2% wolfram. Other projects trying to find a way into a market dominated by Chinese production include the Molyhil prospect near Alice Springs of Thor Mining which grades 0.28% wolfram, and the once-famous Dolphin mine on King Island off the north coast of Tasmania which has reserves grading 0.9% wolfram, and which King Island Scheelite is planning to resurrect.
Early field work in the tenements held by Apollo in the 42 square km of the Couflens project area has returned grades up 8.25% wolfram and rock-chip samples of gold up to 24.5 grams a tonne.
Apart from the attraction of the wolfram grades at Salau there is encouragement from the French Government which is keen to regenerate local mineral production after decades of discouragement – a process which has left it exposed to Chinese suppliers for several critical elements.
Apollo’s executive director, Hugo Schumann, said last month that Salau had the potential to not only create jobs in the region but to provide “a strategic supply of tungsten to French industrial companies which currently rely on China for most of their supply of this critical raw material”.
It’s the mix of location, grade and local support which has seen some of the investment world’s biggest named appear high on the Apollo share register, including BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment company with a 9.5% stake, and London-based fund managers Old Mutual and M&G.
Why investment companies which usually restrict themselves to positions valued in the millions of dollars (or tens of millions) would expose themselves to a business the size of Apollo with its $16.8 million stock-market value is a pointer to something interesting happening.
Apollo has a long way to go before it will know whether it has the ore and all necessary government approvals to restart mining at Salau, and even longer before it knows whether its land-holding on either side of the France/Spain border contains payable gold.
Recent events and the backing of big-name investors point to Apollo being able to generate significant news flow over the next few years which should help revive a rather sick share price which has fallen by over the past 12 months by more than 60% from 27c to 10c.
Apollo’s management team, led by serial mining-company director, Ian Middlemas, has been able to do little with Salau over the past year apart review historic production and drilling data.
That that should change soon after the receipt last month of government approval to install new air-ventilation equipment in the old workings which plunge deep inside a mountain similar to those that will soon challenge Tour de France competitors.
Other basic steps are also scheduled to be taken over the next few months before starting a program of underground drilling and sampling across a number of tungsten and gold targets on the French tenements and on the Aurenere project which is immediately adjacent on the Spanish side of the border.
Not a stock that is likely to suddenly accelerate away in the short term, Apollo is worth watching for its exposure to an important metal in a region which has woken to the threat of Chinese dominance of raw material supply lines – which is precisely why some of the world’s biggest investors are along for the ride.