From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek
The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder
Chapter 3: Down, Dirty and Sidewinders
Chapter 3: Down, Dirty and Sidewinders
My pre-teenage time was dominated almost exclusively by all things football or occasionally exploring around my home locality. I did, however, indulge in what I considered as my winter and wet weather hobby of Philately. Foreign stamps with their often brilliant artwork and exotic scenes were a mini-window into the far off places I so much wanted to visit. They were, for me, a microcosm of the countries and people illustrated on them and stung my curiosity into wondering, where in the world were Sarawak, Tristan De Cunha and the Trucial States, etc.
After my first, near-disastrous foray overseas, I adopted a positive frame of mind and wrote off the previous experience as a salutary lesson learned. Six months after my return from KSA, I signed up for a job in oil field construction, in remote desert locations. This time, however, I did my due diligence before heading out.
It also ticked another box, by clarifying where the Trucial States where, as I was now bound for Abu Dhabi, in the newly formed United Arab Emirates.
I was met at the airport at sunrise on a clear Friday morning in early February. The airport was on the outer edge of the island city of Abu Dhabi and all the traffic signs indicated a right turn to get there. However, my driver turned left, crossed the nearby Muqtar Bridge that marked the city limits and headed the pick-up along the empty asphalt road towards the open desert. I was not to get even a glimpse of the city for the next four months.
It took several hours of driving on the blacktop, until we reached the derelict former British Army camp at Tarif and turning off-road onto desert tracks, to reach the way station at Habshan. After a short water break at an old camp there, we changed to a 4WD vehicle and a local Bedouin drove me for the two-hour crossing of pristine desert to my final destination in the Asab oil field.
The vista from Habshan towards Asab – 1970’s
This was obviously not going to be an easy environment to work in, but I was met on arrival with a welcoming cold beer and provided with a well-furnished, air-conditioned cabin, both of which boded well with me.
The technics required to build monolithic structures directly onto desert sand – it was a new and interesting experience for me, but my workmates were helpful and good-humoured and I soon happily adapted to the work. We had the added benefit of any overtime being paid weekly in cash on site. This was more than adequate to cover our single personal expense – the subsidised beer in the camp bar.
At the start of the major part of the project, construction of a large gas-fired power station, we had an internal crisis when our civil engineering team of seven senior staff was reduced to just three. Family crisis, inability to adjust to the conditions and plain homesickness shredded the crew. This, in the era before the internet and mobile phones and a telex machine, was considered high-tech, made recruiting and processing new staff in the short term, the stuff of nightmares. The threat to the programme was glaring.
The three of us that remained, had a chat over a beer and brain-stormed the possibilities. Brain-storming and beer in the same sentence, maybe an oxymoron, but we did manage to engineer a proposal to put in front of the Project Director. To manage the impasse, Roger Fullbrooke, the most experienced of us in desert construction, was to be Engineer-in-Charge while Chako, our Indian Land Surveyor and myself, would rotate in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week and organise the onsite work.
The trade-off would be for us to command a higher overtime rate in consideration of the cost and time savings to the company and mitigation of inevitable delays.
The Project Director took little time considering our proposition, as the equation was easy to calculate. We were afforded full management backing and helped by the offer of a bonus payment scheme, based on production, to all our workers. With supervision now minimal, but with quality still to be maintained, it was time to for us to literally get hands-on and get a bit dirty.
Getting down and dirty
Roger and his desert truck
In deference to the tough work conditions, the company provided an R&R break in Abu Dhabi City, usually about mid-term of the four-month tour. With the schedule we had committed to, I was obliged to wait until just a week shy of my due leave date, to avail myself of this concession. Happily, we had completed the wicked workload to schedule and I had the opportunity to take the short break and visit the city to do a little gift shopping.
The following week, I left for home leave and dispelled the concerns my family had, following my bad experience on my initial excursion to the Gulf. I flew home, a fitter from the physical effort, good food and regular sleep, then I had been for a long time and in good spirit from the whole experience.
After an enjoyable and relaxing leave, I returned to Abu Dhabi and reported back to the desert site office for work instructions.
Two hours’ drive from our base at Asab was the smaller oil field of Sahil where we were contracted to install new equipment at this unmanned, automated collection and pumping facility. I was dispatched there with a few others, to set up camp and get on with the project. Although relatively close, the route to Sahil was torturous in the summer heat and not recommended as a daily drive, especially in trucks without air-conditioning, as ours invariably where.
Route to Sahil
The safest routine to Sahil was to follow the incoming oil pipeline to where it cranks about 30 degrees at Carlsberg Corner, and then head for Heineken Hill, a massive dune that could only to be climbed in low gear. Both landmarks earned their names from the accumulation of beer cans, deposited there by work crews who occasionally used the locations as transit rest stations.
Sahil was possibly the wildest place I had ever encountered. Despite the remoteness and unrelenting heat, the uncomfortable humidity served to warn us of the proximity to our natural neighbours. The sand was always damp for a period each morning until the rising sun evaporated the moisture off. These conditions highlighted tracks left by geckos, beetles, scorpions, camel spiders and snakes and identified which creatures had visited us overnight. Importantly, the tell-tail side-winder markings of the Saw Scaled Viper indicated where they had headed to sleep in the heat of the day. When they settled under our equipment crates even lifting one could be a hazardous move, given that this snake packed a powerful venom and needed to be avoided. Our first job each morning was always to seek out the snakes and ensure we made the area safe.
The Saw Scaled Viper
As difficult as the remote conditions were, the camaraderie was exceptional, and everyone looked out for and supported their colleagues and pals at all times.
It had become an established tradition that anyone who celebrated his birthday while onsite, was obliged to pay for the beer for everyone in the company bar. The most unusual and bizarre situation surfaced when my birthday arrived while stationed at Sahil and the obligation fell to me. The camp was small and so the dining room and tiny bar shared a space, essentially no more than the size of two storage containers. I was the second man in for dinner that evening and dually put my cash on the bar and announced the special occasion. Frank Hay, an affable Glaswegian who had preceded me, pushed my money back and declared that I was too late, as it was his birthday also. We had barely stopped laughing at the situation when two more of our colleagues arrived, one of whom insisted the drinks were on him, as it was his birthday. Incredibly, with just five of us in this remote and isolated spot, three of us celebrated the same birthday that day. What odds, I often wonder, could have got with Ladbroke’s for such an amazing coincidence
Working outside in high summer was not much fun, so sensibly we adopted a three-hour extended break at the hottest part of the day and rested in our cabins until the heat levels decreased. Our accommodation consisted of three cabins, each divided into two separate units. One was maintained exclusively for the random site visit of the client’s oil company representative.
On one of these infrequent visits, the rep (whom I will refer to as Charles) – a smart, well-respected Cambridge educated engineer, finished his lunch and was first to leave the dining room, declaring he was going to rest for an hour or two. He returned seconds later, stating in his wonderfully plummy voice, “I say, there is an old Arab chap sleeping in my bed”. Without deflecting from his reading, our lead engineer, retorted, “Of course Charles that’s why they are referred to as Bedouins”. We fell about laughing as Charles stood open-mouthed until someone kindly volunteered the use of his a cabin for our client’s comfort.
Apparently, the elderly local tribesman we employed in the nominal role of a watchman, had noticed that one room was never occupied and didn’t see the logic of suffering outside, when a perfectly good air-conditioned room, with a comfortable bed, was going to waste.
Ready for work with my skinny pal Ken
This is the third in a series of blogs narrating the life of an Expat – from childhood years to his ascend as a veteran of the Travel and Construction industry.