From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek
The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder
Chapter 4: Cool Guys and Numpties
Chapter 4: Cool Guys and Numpties
For an expat with children, returning home is always looked forward to, but never more so than at Christmas and so it was, at the end of my first full year away.
Traveling on leave with Big Bill Taylor, a larger-than-life character whose stature prompted his nickname, we stayed overnight in Abu Dhabi, to ensure we didn’t miss our early morning flight. There were very few, non-oil related people in the city in that era, but our quiet evening beer at our hotel was interrupted by one who could only be described as a tin-tack salesman. Distinguished by his slick suit, he bored at Olympic level, with his well-rehearsed sales pitch and assailed us with how smart he was, before eventually enquiring what we did for a living.
Big Bill’s Doppelgänger
Bill, a man of few words, sporting a huge bushy beard and always dressed in a plaid shirt, gruffly announced that we were lumberjacks. Intrigued, the guy queried where we did our business. With a growl of annoyance, Bill told him that we worked in the desert. Following a few moments of hesitancy, our uninvited visitor, raised his voice a few octaves to retort, with a large dose of incredulity, “But, there are no trees in the desert”, only to be told in more annoyed tones, “Well, there are none NOW, we’ve been here a year, you know”. The sarcasm worked and we were soon left alone.
By early next spring, I was dispatched to a near deserted and rundown construction camp, to refurbish and make it ready for the influx of staff and workers due there to undertake the next major works.
With my own hand selected team of tradesmen and with the mainly indoor scope entirely at my discretion, it initially appeared to be an easy, comfortable posting. My assessment was reviewed later, however, when unexpected delays to the start of the project redirected my work focus onto more serious survival related tasks. Although the camp had not been used for at least a couple of years and was a bit shabby, it was essentially sound and so repairs and upgrading to making it decent and livable, moved ahead relatively smoothly.
Part of my work entailed manning the hand cranked radio phone to monitor the company’s daily mail trucks, which traveled between Abu Dhabi-Habshan-Asab and to cater for the occasional staff, moving each way. As the only westerner living within several hundred square miles, the upside was having first choice of the latest newspapers brought in by colleagues passing through. With no TV and poor radio reception, fresh reading was always welcome, and I even got quite proficient with crossword puzzles.
Early one morning a battered old pick-up truck drove into my compound with the driver looking for water to fill his jerry-cans. This was Doug Stevenson, a rangy, weather-beaten Australian desert veteran and all round extraordinary man.
A former communications officer in the Royal Australian Navy Submarine Service and telecoms expert, Doug’s job entailed installing radio phones in the empty quarter, for the military to call in the accuracy, or otherwise, of artillery practice firing. He literally fixed phones on posts and then drove back to his workstation, located under a towering communications aerial, a mile from my compound. From there, he engineered the electronic links that hooked the phones up to the Arabsat satellite to enable them to function.
Desert communications tower
He became an occasional but welcome visitor and I was always appreciated his company for dinner and hearing his great stories. He was the go-to man, when the really difficult projects had to be undertaken and had previously worked in the inhospitable and less accessible areas of Borneo, Southeast Asia and Africa.
Doug politely declined my offer for him to use a comfortable bed in one of the cabins, as he didn’t relate too easily to soft options. He was as tough as nails and slept under his truck, lived on corned beef and crackers in the field, drank mostly local well water from metal jerry cans and never used ice. We swapped beer however, as both of us had a free case from our respective companies periodically and he preferred my brand and me his, the only cold drinks I ever saw him take.
Doug being a tall guy, prompted me to enquire how he managed in submarines, knowing the bulkhead were restrictive. He dryly responded that because he had damaged his head so often in subs, he now probably had fewer brain cells left than anyone else in the company and so was more qualified for his current job. Undoubtedly, his hardiness stemmed from living in the bush of Western Australia, 900 miles and 2 days drive from Perth. Here he had a sizable sheep station there, managed in his absence by his sister. Doubtless she was unique character also.
As referred to previously, my camp served as a sort of latter-day Wells Fargo relay station. Vehicles from the city swopped their passengers, mail and luggage to a 4WD truck, more suited to desert terrain and vice-versa. Safety was paramount and included delaying travel at the hottest part of the day. Despite safeguards, my mechanics and I were called out more often as the unforgiving summer conditions set in. My role then changed to search and recovery mode.
One occasion in particular stands out, when we were called out as a result of basic safety rules being ignored and which could have had very serious consequences.
A newly recruited rigger, hired on the recommendation of one of our established team, arrived. The fellow had not previously worked overseas or even flown before. He pre-visualised the whole experience mainly as a working vacation and preceded his debut flight by visiting his regular bar. He used a good portion of the generous kit allowance, provided by the company, to ply himself and everyone there with celebratory drinks. He carried on imbibing with complimentary drinks on the flight to Heathrow and again on the onward overnight flight to Abu Dhabi. It was high summer and he struggled mightily with the hot and humid conditions, which he was totally unprepared for upon disembarking in the early morning. Undoubtedly, the four-hour drive in a pick-up truck, devoid of air-con, did little to alleviate his discomfort and he was in a ragged state when the driver deposited him at my station, around midday.
As it was Friday and a rest day for all of us, but his pal and mentor drove two hours across the desert unannounced, to persuade him not to wait for the regular 4WD vehicle, which would leave only after the heat diminished. He proposed instead that they both return to Asab immediately.
Against standing rules, they left in a 4WD Nissan and headed out in extreme heat. Notice that they had not arrived at the destination within two hours, was radioed in, so we loaded up our reliable old Land Rover and set out to find them. Their truck was spotted, after about an hour near a small agro-experimental plantation. Having stopped to consume yet more beer, they had failed to get the overheated truck restarted. The driver had employed correct tactics and used the only shade available, by getting under the truck, knowing we would eventually come looking for them. The rookie, on the other hand was quickly dehydrating and obviously feeling the effects of the drink and heat combination. He was walking aimlessly around the vehicle, muttering as his rapidly shrinking brain baked.
We supplied the pair with water and rehydration solution and the mechanics soon got the pick-up running. The new recruit, however, refused to go on and insisted on going back to my camp and then out of the desert.
It was about 5pm when I raised my company manager at his home, to advise him of the situation. It was obvious the man was totally unsuitable for the work environment, so I was instructed to drive him to Abu Dhabi airport, to be met and supplied with a ticket for an outward-bound flight.
Having left his luggage in his friend’s truck, he arrived back in UK, still dressed like an aficionado of cheap package holidays, in his badly fitted shorts, beer-stained tee-shirt and the trainers he favoured for his aborted desert trip.
After leaving his drinking friends mid-afternoon on Thursday, he had flown to the Middle East, been stranded and rescued from the desert, flown back over Friday night (and as I later learned) staggered back into his regular drinking den on Saturday afternoon, just 48 hours after leaving. He was disheveled, blistered and burned a glowing bubblegum pink, but apparently determined to tell his adventurous tale of daring-do to anyone who cared to listen. His unlikely story was swiftly dismissed as just another fanciful, delusional tale, beloved of drunks.
Organising a desert camp compound
This is the fourth 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.