Marine seismic in the Tropics – 1989

Getting up for work at 11.30p.m, I’m happy, because I know this is the last shift of the trip. At midnight I join my colleagues on the gun deck and help the mechanics with recovery of the starboard side seismic guns. For me this is mainly a business of pulling in towing strops, and fixing the hook of a “concertina winch” in certain places on the gun array to bunch the array up or “concertina” it. The gun deck of this old vessel is too short to fit the seven gun array when spread out to its full length.

By 12.30a.m the booms are raised, the big Norwegian buoys are stowed out of the way, and the towing strops have been tightened to pull the slack loops out of the sea to avoid them being caught in our propellor. Shortly, we will recover the seismic cable, and for that, the vessel must be driven backwards.

In a flat calm the single short cable is recovered swiftly. Mostly just a matter of pushing and shoving to keep it neat on the winch drum, which is driven hydraulically. Newer seismic vessels have fairleads and winches which can be used as ways to mechanise this pushing and shoving, but not the Seismariner. What can take hours of potentially hazardous and unpleasant grafting in cold and wind of the North Sea, is forty minutes of tedious work in a flat calm in the overbearing heat of equatorial Africa.

Cable recovered, the ship starts to steam towards Mayumba in the Congo, where we will off sub-contract navigation radio receivers by ship’s boat. (This was a couple of years before differential GPS navigation equipment became commercially available). We all adjourn to the crew mess for a well-earned pot of tea. An hour later, work restarts, and I join the mechanic Eric down in his domain in the guts of the ship. Starting at 3.a.m, I help him strip down and replace the big end bearings in four huge water pumps – 12 bearings in all. It takes three and a half hours and two pots of tea to finish the job.

By now it’s 6.30a.m and it is pouring with rain. This is quite usual at this time of year in this part of the world. Our FRB (Fast Rescue Boat) is made ready to transfer the navigation equipment. The sub-contractors gear – receivers, cables, antennas etc – is made ready on the foredeck. The rain stops, but oppressive clouds remain. The jungle close by is steaming and looks threatening. A short break for what we call “breakfast” (though working nights, it is the main meal of the day), and then the crew is ready. It is an assistant observer (myself), the mechanic (the late Eric Gray), and the Assistant Party Chief (Mick).

We lower the boat, and Eric takes her round to the boarding ladder. I climb in along with our client’s representative, the Texan Dave, and we’re off. The ship grows smaller in the distance as we move inshore. We can discern – with eyes, ears and nose – more detail of the jungle and the beach ahead. As the seabed slopes up to the shore, a huge swell develops, white rollers crashing onto a sandbar. We search without success for a way into the lagoon beyond, passing as we do so, the wreck of a coaster bigger than Seismariner. Her rusted bridge is all that remains above the sand and water. We know that getting into the lagoon will be easy – but getting the boat out again through the immense surf will be impossible.

It’s exciting stuff for a young man: the small boat, the sea, the strangeness of the African jungle close by. We can see people waiting for us ashore, but defeated for the present, we head back to the mother ship. On the way the outboard engine stops, and Eric toils to fix it in heavy, pregnant silence, except for the slopping of wavelets against the gunwhale. The four of us in the boat breath a sigh of relief when the engine whizzes into life; we make it safely back home, and are lifted out of the water.

A while later, a second attempt is made at a slightly different location, and all the equipment and the client rep. are safely dropped ashore. It takes three separate trips to move everything, but all is complete by 10.30a.m. The FRB is recovered once again, and we leave the bay at once, steaming for Pont Noire in the Congo, some ten hours journey away at 12 knots.

After another brief tea break, I spend the final 45 minutes of my shift conducting electrical tests on cabling removed from the gun arrays. My results recorded on a scrap of paper, it’s time once again for “Swarfega” at the close of my 63rd consecutive twelve hour shift – and the last one.

My journey home was instructive. I had no ticket for the last part of the journey (from Paris to my home) and more cash to cover this was offered. I was counselled by my colleagues to refuse this offer as the actual ticket would cost more than the cash being offered by the company administrator. Several of us were taken to the airport and flew in an antique 737 with Lina Congo, to Brazzaville. They did not even pressurize the 737 and it flew at 6000′ the whole way. As it was only the 4th or 5th time in my life I had been in an aircraft at all, this passed me by. Those who knew better were petrified. At Brazzaville we changed onto a 747-combi (half passenger, half freight) of UTA. This was in fact the first long-haul flight I ever took. The flight was to Paris via Doula in Cameroon, and Marseille. All was well until we landed at Marseille at 6a.m the next day, and that’s where we stayed. Owing to fog in Paris, we remained on the tarmac at Marseille for four hours, with neither refreshments nor breakfast served. We eventually arrived at De Gaulle early afternoon. It was February in Paris – foggy.

I spent the rest of the day trying without success to get a flight to England – anywhere – Heathrow, Birmingham, East Midlands. Late in the evening I gave up and took train into central Paris, and secured myself a train ticket to London via the Bologne-Dover ferry. This was 1989 – LONG before the Channel Tunnel. I remember several things about that journey. One of them, is buying a Croque Monsieur from a vendor near Gare St Lazaire, and the second, is sitting in a compartment on the train (that dates this story – compartments??) with a number of men – clearly pilots and aircrew – who claimed to be from Mauritius but who were clearly Scythe Ifrican. This was in the days of apartheid when everything and anyone remotely white South African was considered rather bad form in liberal society. These gentlemen, it must be said, were perfectly upright and pleasant fellows.

We took train from Gare St Lazaire (the first and only time I’ve ever been to that particular station in Paris), crossed the channel, and then on a cold winter’s morning, more trains, from Dover to Victoria and on home. I arrived home on 3rd February 1989, having left on 27th November the previous year. A good trip.

By train to Euston

The train hisses through anonymous railway stations and anonymous towns. The stations fly past to quickly for me to catch their names. The towns? Houses and streets, industrial units, perhaps the odd ancient church standing out through the early morning mist.

Across the heartland the train goes, through the very essence of middle England. You don’t need to know what the names of the towns are, to know what they are like. The rails shine with use; the electrical wires and their supporting posts flash by. In the distance, green fields and hills under an early morning sky of pale blue. The molten sunshine of not long after dawn washes everything clean. It all looks idyllic. Frost-covered green fields, patches of ground mist.

Waverley station

One of my favourite places to be “outdoors” is the concourse of a big city railway station.  To have coffee, or better yet, to be at beer, is an added bonus.

After an excellent breakfast at a little deli in Callander, I drove on southwards.  It was interesting to see clouds form over the central valley.  Coming into Edinburgh, there was heavy fog and drizzle, though it remained warm.

On the way down, I happened across an #Engineering #Marvel, and went out of way to go and see it.  Many years ago, touring with a friend of mine, on two occasions, we’d found ourselves at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon, and visited – quite by chance, as it were – engineering marvels.  One was a certain “nuclear installation” on the coast of Cumbria; the other, a radio telescope in Cheshire.  To pass within a few miles of the Falkirk Wheel, and not pay a visit, would be crass.  And I speak as someone who can allow the Flying Scotsman to steam unseen past the end of my garden at 5a.m on a working day, whilst I lie in bed.

I allowed myself the luxury of complete dependence on the Google sat nav to get me to my final destination, with only one or two cursory glances at it to ensure that it knew what it was doing.  There’s no call when using sat nav to switch off your common sense or your sense of direction.  At one point I drove past Fettes College.

But back to the great railway stations: I love big stations.  Victoria, St Pancras. Glasgow Central.  The destinations boards, the bustle and hustle, the romance.  Better still – possibly – in the days of steam, with whistles, steam heating, clatter and bang.  I remember steam heated trains from my youth.

And what of the journey, the pilgrimage, the embracing of change, the understanding that things must change? Steam has gone, but most everything changes.  Tomorrow will be different.  The journey never ends. We must take nourishment from all aspects of it: the good, the bad.  From the  rest and the rush.  From the pleasure and the pain.

On a journey, we may do things differently at the end, than at the beginning.  On a journey we must adapt and learn, most especially from our mistakes.

China by train

From Guangxhou to Guilin by bullet train

Arriving at Guangxhou South Railway Station, I am quite literally stupified by the size of the place.  It is a Terminal 5 amongst railway stations.  It is hardly distinguishable inside from a large international airport.  It is over three floors – like an airport, departures and arrivals are on separate floors.

IMG_1302
IMG_1304

This is a through station, not a terminal. Coming in by taxi, I counted at least 12 separate tracks coming out from under the canopy, all grey concrete on stilts.  The  floor is granodiorite tiles; the passengers are everywhere.  There are shops, booths, queues, scanners. It does not smell of decay and weak air-conditioning, as do so many large municipal buildings in hot climates.

IMG_1302

It is to my eye, no St Pancras: it is not built to last, and I suspect that, rather like Terminal 5, it may look distinctly jaded by 2050.

All must go through luggage scanners merely to get into the building. This is common enough at municipal buildings in China and increasingly so in the West. That said, the people doing the scanning and body pat-down work showed little interest – the scanning process is not strict.  Once inside, you then find what train you are on, and go through the ticket check to go “trainside” as it were.  Chinese high speed train tickets are not usable by any bearer, as train tickets are in the UK and elsewhere in the world – they are specific to you, as well as to a given seat in a given carriage.  Indeed. ours had our passport numbers on them in addition to our names.  But once through the ticket check, no-one was interested in our ID.  Once “trainside” and upstairs, it just felt like the airside of an big international airport. And the other similarity is, access to the platform is tightly controlled – no trainspotters welcome here.  We weren’t allowed onto the platform until only a few minutes before departure,  The train had already swept in.

The station is only a few years old. It speaks of tremendous economic growth, this outpouring of concrete: Bill Bryson once wrote something to the effect that half of all buildings in the United States had been built since 1980, and fully 90% of all American buildings, since 1945.  A similar thing is happening in China.  Natalie Merchant sings, in her song “Motherland”

Where in hell can you go
Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete
That keeps crawling its way
About 1,000 miles a day?

It is applicable here in China, at this time of expansion, as viaducts arc across whole cities, as 150mph bullet trains flash through tunnels so expensive as to defy understanding.  How do they do it? The growth of high speed rail in China today is rather like the development of the Interstate network in the USA of Eisenhower’s time.  And just as the Interstate highways changed America beyond recognition, high speed rail is changing China.  The old China is still visible, but it is disappearing. Go there and see it while it still exists. The old ladies brushing the street with straw brooms.  The scooter riders with no helmet but an umbrella. The little stalls selling foodstuffs. The little motorcycles converted into vans, burdened under seemingly impossible loads.

Off we go and there are almost continuous announcements in Mandarin.  Once through the suburbs, the train perceptibly speeds up and shoots along at 150 mph.  The acceleration is noticeable, and audible, an indistinct and distant hum rather like the sound of the original Starship Enterprise at Warp Factor 10.

We plunge through misty green forests and mountains, brown rivers, farms and rice paddies. There are endless tunnels. Some long, some short. Billions of dollars have gone into building this railway – and it is only one of many.

We arrived at Guilin Bey (North) Railway Station at 12,30pm on a hot and humid afternoon.  We  got off the bullet train, along with myriad Chinese, and followed them down the stairs into the underpass. Chattering, walking, kids laughing, suitcases on wheels rumbling along. The Chinese experience is to be surrounded by people.

IMG_1578

To Liuzhou and on to Zhiangziajie

Onwards: another city, another railway station.  This one is different; older, more prosaic.  The first two, at Guangxhou and at Guilin North, were grandiose to the point of being ridiculous.  This one is more intimate, more obviously a railway station rather than a palace, and very much older, dating from the 1970’s or even older.

In the huge waiting room (a departure lounge really) we’re enjoying massage chairs at Y4 (about 40p) for 10 minutes.  I say “enjoying”.  My wife and daughter think they are great, and had two goes each.  I found the massage a bit heavy handed.

cof

By bullet train from Guilin to a city called Liuzhou, from whence we will take sleeper train to another city called Zhiangziajie. So many cities I have never heard of.  Here is a train with a front like an aircraft, like a TGV, based in fact on a Japanese Shinkansen train, and the “dwell time” at this station (the time spent stationary in the platform) has been over five minutes.  That said, the train did arrive early.  As a commuter in the Home Counties, I’m accustomed to “dwell times” of less than a minute – in and out, quick quick quick…

Liuzhou is a city of over three million people. I’d never heard of it, and it is just one of hundreds of cities of this size in China.  Here is the railway station:

IMG_1640

We walked a little away from the station, having to run some light interference from taxi drivers, in order to be far enough away from the station to find somewhere to hail a “Didi” (the Chinese equivalent of Uber) where it might safely and legally stop.  We took the taxi to a second railway station, called Liujiang, located in in an area of the city called Labao – a good 40 minutes by taxi.  The driver was an affable fellow; himself a Chinese teacher, and he took our photo when he dropped us off.  The second station, whence we arrived at dusk, was something of a disappointment.  More in the “Inter-Railing” style of railway station – just a single track, a single waiting room.  Outside, some shops and little cafes where we found something to eat.  Though not without some stress and difficulty in establishing what we might eat: no pictures, and of course no English menu.

The waiting room was stressful, to a degree: by now we were tired and the train was late.  “Do not lie down” the signs said. People laid down.  Our  tiresome wait was enlivened by the sign above the door for the “Security” people, where the proof-reading had failed.  The “r” and the “i” had blurred into an “n”. This slightly rude sign cheered us up as eventually the train roared in, and everyone got on.

Victoria

I sat in the bar on the mezzanine level, looking down at the jostling throng. There were crowds of people, rivers of humanity, rushing streams and babbling brooks of concerns: work, life, holiday, family, health. The people flowed back and forth across the concourse, each intent on their own business.

And it seemed to me as I sat in the bar, nursing my beer, that amongst the swirling crowds, that sea of people, just a few of them stood out. Across space and time, I saw a handful of people crossing this station concourse.

A man – two men – in morning suits appeared as from the pages of history. It was 1957. Britain was only slowly recovering from the austerity of rationing. There was a greyness, a grim and drab feel to the station. These two young men were rushing, desperate to catch their train to Dorking. For it was a special day for them both. One was a Best Man; the other, the Groom. They had been in what seemed like an endless queue, and somehow, they had convinced the staff of the railway company to let them jump the queue and get on. Now, at least, they were almost on the platform and on their way.

I took a pull at my pint, and when I looked down again, the scene had changed. Soldiers streamed across the station. Orderly ranks, serried columns. Rifles, rucsacs, the harsh shouts of sergeants. These men were entraining for Dover, bound for Flanders field. The hopes and fears of a generation of young men are hidden on a thousand faces. Here is a young subaltern, pink of voice and cheek, bravely concealing his worry, doing his best, biting his lip. His men may have to depend on him being strong.

Back in the present, I see a young lady, a refugee from war, crossing the station carrying everything she owns in one immense suitcase. Three young children accompany her, silent, scared, intimidated by the noise and crowds. Their mother knows only a few words of the language; she holds little or no currency. But she and her kids are in a better place by far than where they were before. .

Here is a youth in his eary twenties, visiting the big city for the first time. perhaps. He’s crossed by tube from one of the great northern terminii, and must now make his way to a small town in Kent, for a job interview. Days before, a mighty storm leveled trees all aross the south of England. He will soon travel by bus through all that chaos of fallen branches and broken limbs, from a town whose very name has been rendered a lie by the storm.

The scene changes again and I see a man carrying a small grip crossing the station. The crowds have all disappeared and the grey light of early morning can be seen in the glass roof. He has come up from the underground to find it pouring with rain. He pauses for a moment to take in the scene. Rain cascades from the gutters. The tarmac gleams wet in the reflected street lights. He crosses the forecourt, taking in the calm of early morning. The rain, the sound of the rain, calming his nerves, as he makes his way to the airport train and the other side of the world.