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.

Mhor 84, at Lochearnhead

I arrived at Mallaig off McBrayne’s ferry Loch Nevis, about 5.30pm on a hot sunny evening. I bought such things as I might need were I to have to camp, and set off south at ten past six.  Lovely motoring through delicate evening light – or perhaps late afternoon sunshine.  It would have been nice to stop, but I couldn’t really spare the time.  I was hampered in places by motorists “pootling”, particularly on the Mallaig to Fort William section, in Glen Coe, and on Rannoch Moor.  The practice of pootling is deplorable.  It is the practice of not driving as fast as the road will safely allow,  and not a mile an hour slower.  That this may be faster than the national speed limit is neither here nor there.  As an aside to the once delightful road across Rannoch Moor, I can see the authorities have found a very cost-effective way of restricting the speed of motorists on that stretch:  Failing to maintain the road.  A road that as recently as ten years ago was quite safe to take at 90 or even 100 mph is now so rutted and pot-holed as to be literally – not metaphorically – a white-knuckle ride at 75mph.

I got to Crianlarich at 8.15pm and I had every intent of staying in the Crianlarich Hotel, which I know had rooms available.  The restaurant was heaving with the Grey Pound, but the reception desk was abandoned.  I rang the bell. I waited. I left. Distinctly unimpressed, I pushed on down the Stirling road towards Lochearnhead.  I’d never driven this road, and it is over thirty years since I was taken along it in a minibus.  Lochearnhead itself has no licensed premises or hostelries of any form whatsoever. Slightly further on, and growing a little edgy as evening wore on, I saw and drove past “Mhor 84”. I stopped, three-pointed and came back.  It was 8.45p.m – the edge of the reasonable time for supper.  I could have ended up in some Travel Lodge in Stirling, or camping rough in the lowlands in some farmer’s field – this is not the wilderness of the Great Glen.

Mine host – a pleasant mannered and rounded Antipodean lady – said she had a room, for which the booked clients had not yet turned up.  On the basis that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, she promised the room to me, even as I stood before her.  Somewhat relieved, I went into dinner, and started a much-needed pint.  This meant that I wasn’t driving any further even if the Australian lady wasn’t good for her word.  But she was.

The room was small and white, with Venetian blinds which at this time of year at this latitude are not a lot of use. There were some great vintage signs on the walls – an RAC sign on one wall, and a training display of the Norwegian alphabet on another.  Some antlers had been salvaged from elsewhere.  I loved the fact that they had been wrenched by main force from a wall panel of that now lost building.  A little scrap of panel remained on the white wall.  A nice touch, was a flask of fresh milk to make tea in the morning.

In the morning I sat down for breakfast and it became clear to me that I had not paid £90 for B&B, only for the bed.  They wanted another £12 or so for my breakfast. I left on the instant, perhaps not with the greatest grace, and checked out.  Nice place, arguably over-priced.

Ten miles down the road in Callander I stopped in a little cafe – the Deli Ecosse – for a first rate Full Scottish with coffee, for a little over £6. Lovely atmosphere, great service.  That’s why I love the free market.

A visit to Rum

I made a short stop at Bellabeg, to the west of Aberdeen, and with eager anticipation, bought a “locally sourced” Scotch Egg. I thought, that’ll do me. I chatted with the affable English shopkeeper, who waxed lyrical about his local Scotch Eggs. But then he ruined the moment by telling me that his Alford-based local butcher had sent him a Scotch Egg with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg inside. “FFS” is the politest response to that!

I crossed Lecht, did not stop in Tomintoul, and went on through Nethy Bridge, and onto the long, long pull through the central Highlands to Spean Bridge. Lovely motoring; the weather was kind, not a cloud in the sky. I refueled opposite the Ben Nevis Distillery, with the snow-spattered majesty of Nevis behind, against the blue sky of late afternoon. I say late afternoon: it was 8.30pm. At this latitude, in late May, it doesn’t get dark until almost midnight.

I camped wild not far from the shore of Loch Eilt. Apart from midges, which were, to be honest, a bit out of order, it was all I could have wished for. Dry, quiet, beautiful scenery. A lovely gloaming. At one point, a train clattered along the Mallaig Extension, which ran along the other side of the Loch. As soon as my tent was up, I lit a fire, and also got my trusty 35 year old Trangia stove going. Camping, whether wild or no, should not mean roughing it. I had Fillet steak, mushrooms, courgettes and fried potatoes, with tomato and avacado. A bottle of Badger beer to wash away the dust of the road, and a bottle of Malbec with dinner. I sat outside until 11.30pm and even then it wasn’t fully dark. It was a moonlit night. As I prepared for bed, I was casting a shadow in the silent, silvery moonlight.

In the morning, the midges were biting. I flung the tent into the back of the car, and made a swift, itchy escape. I arrived in Mallaig before 8am, and had a full cooked breakfast in the Seaman’s Mission, served by a cheery Polish lady. The Mission here in Mallaig has a remarkable second-hand bookshop. I picked up a little book of photographs of Derbyshire railways (I was brought up in Derby) and Jeremy Bowen’s account of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Later, I sat with coffee as the terrace of the Tea Garden Café. A very expensive latte at £3.40, but worth it to be able to sit outside in this glorious sunshine. Sitting watching the people go by, it was interesting to be able to spot the tourists. Generally older, thinner, English, German. And the songbirds here are tame.

MacBrayne’s ferry “Loch Nevis” sailed at 12.30p.m. Crossing to Rum and Canna, my fellow passengers were young families on holiday, older and younger sea-canoeists, mountaineers, and quite a few hard-drinking holidaymakers.

On the first evening, we took a stroll and walked into a First Response drama. A lady hillwalker had fallen ill, and advice was sought from the mainland. Modern mobile telephony can make these outlying islands much less remote and difficult to access than they formerly were.

The Air Ambulance was dispatched from Inverness. From far-off Inverness, realistically almost a day’s journey from here by ferry and road, in 45 minutes. The chopper swooped in and took the poorly lady off to hospital. It later transpired that she had a brain aneurysm. Whilst this drama was unfolding, we got talking with a gentleman I’d seen on the ferry – one of the hard-drinking holidaymakers. Turned out my sister knew him; a local electrician who had helped build the Rum Bunkhouse. A very friendly and helpful fellow with a strong Skye accent.

Next day, by Jeep over mountain roads to a beautiful and deserted beach, for a picnic. Pale sand, blue sky, hot sunshine. In the distance, the Black Cuillin of Skye could be seen. The sea listlessly gathered itself into miniscule ripples. Even in a full wetsuit, the water temperature could best be described as “Baltic”.

Someone noted of “island life” here, that there was not a glimpse of reality in any direction. Just this morning for a run out through the woods on the south side of the bay. There, for all to see, is a hidden village. Here is a complete village, concealed from view by trees planted some time during the 1950’s. The village is deserted, I’m thinking, since the Highland Clearances. People once lived here: hidden in the woods, are derelict houses, even a complete street facing the shore. Long overgrown, they are a testimony to an almost unwritten history of sadness and pain.

Rum was never a wilderness, even if it is a “national nature reserve”. As someone with strong ideological views myself, the hidden village acts as a reminder how far from reality, how far from the needs of real people, you can drift when you have the means to put your ideas before reality.

On the way back from visiting the woods, I passed the new wooden bunkhouse. A man was sat outside at the morning sunshine. He was nursing a beer. It was not yet 7.30a.m. We finish where we started: not a glimpse of reality in any direction.

A ride on a mountain bike, over a mountain pass, through rocky countryside oddly reminiscent of the macabre fiction of H.P Lovecraft.

Everything seems to be arid and brown, yet this is no desert – there’s plenty of water around. I went to a place called Harris, to see the “mausoleum” built by the previous owners of the island.

Deer appear everywhere, even in the garden, and particularly at night and in the early morning. These are huge creatures, not at all like the tiny Muntjac and Roe deer seen in Surrey. In recent years, the deer fence surrounding the village of Kinloch has fallen into disrepair. It is a big deal, and would be expensive to repair. It is pointless to keep any kind of garden here. Any growing fruit or veg they will consume. Once resplendent bluebell woods have been eaten up. On the plus side, there are no foxes on Rum: the chickens roam free. They can safely go where they please. It makes for tasty egg yolks – if you can find where they were laid.

I visited my sister Fliss Fraser, who runs Ivy Cottage guesthouse on the Isle of Rum.

A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark

Delicately, beautifully written.  Rather like Wilfred Thesiger, she draws attention to an Arabia that no longer exists, an Arabia she may have, however inadvertently, contributed  to the end of.  She writes of hidden pools hardly visited by anyone but Bedu shepherds, of strange castles on the dusty, arid, windswept plateau of what is now Yemen.  Of villages where few if any of the villagers have seen a European.  Of casual vendetta and war continued through generations, brought to a fragile and not entirely permanant stop by the “English peace”.  She writes of men with great vices and great virtues, of small men capable of much when tried; of big men who do mean and small deeds.

She is eminently quotable and copyable for inspiration in one’s own thoughts.  She writes, inter alia, “the fear of disturbing the peace tended to limit our plans more than the wars of the old days, when a casualty more or less could make no odds”

The point here being, war tends to collectivize us and dehumanize us, strip away our importance as individuals.  In war, the individual, at least ostensibly, matters less and less.  “One casualty more or less”, one more or one less dead person. But people do matter; individuals do matter.  One person dying matters.  “Jesus wept” – John 11:36.

Freya has a subtelty, a delicacy of tone, reminding me of the sky at dusk, that pastel shade that is so fragile and short-lived. She writes of Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, “a patient and pleasant people, not roused to petulance by the want of supper or by the fact that they had only a cotton shawl between them and the rigours of the night”.

How challenging for us in the west, to me, right now. In this respect for the bedouin she is also like Wilfred Thesiger, who acknowledged in the bedu true and deep nobility and greatness, to which he could not aspire.

Off the map, by John Harrison

John Harrison’s “Off the map”, is an account of an eccentric Englishman on an Amazonian journey.  I am never in the mood for English eccentrics, particularly when they are – as they do tend to be – not really eccentric at all, but just opinionated un-original anti-American lefties.

In Deorla Murphy’s foreword to Harrison’s “Off the Map” she writes “the Harrisons wanted to remain in touch with…life as it was lived…before technology rendered our survival skills redundant”.
This is the purest nonsense.  Technology has not rendered our survival skills redundant; it has only changed what those survival skills are. These people would reduce us to hunter-gatherers, and they should be stamped on from a great height!

Harrison writes of garampeiros (gold prospectors) “they are a different breed from the Brazilians who opt to stay at home. They are sharper, harder working, more adventurous and less tolerant of hierarchies and bureaucrats” [there is more.] This is a profound and powerful truth. It goes to the heart of what R.A Heinlein writes, that those who emigrate are inherently cleverer and more able than those who remain behind.  This description of the Brazilian Amazon frontier is most instructive.

Harrison can surely write the most excellent English, but he comes across as someone I’d not want to meet.

The Glenavon Hotel, Tomintoul

My third burger in a row is long gone.  This one was average, though the chips were splendid.  I’m halfway down a bottle of “Trade Winds”, that fine ale from Cairngorm Brewery which has brought me such pleasure the last two nights.  I didn’t know they had it – I had a false start of a pint of some form of horse-piss from Tennants, thinking it was all they had.

It is Halloween Rock Night. Eighties rock music at about 7 or 8 out of 10 on the volume scale – Guns n Roses, later Whitesnake, that kind of thing.  Even a little Bon Jovi.  The locals are in Halloween costume.  The bar is brown; all pine woodwork the colour of a sauna.  It may have been cleaned since smoking indoors was banned, but I couldn’t swear to it.

Here is a corner, like someone’s living room, with a flat-screen TV, a fireplace with a lit and nicely crackling fire, and the skull of a deer on the wall. Sofas are drawn up around the fire.  The rest of the bar is a tad linoleum rough – my kind of place – and the music only adds to the atmosphere.

Some ladies dressed as nuns have just walked in.  The eighties MTV rock has been replaced by Queen’s “Fat bottomed girls” at high volume as a band starts to set up.  As Paul Hogan said in the Fosters’ advert, “looks like it’s going to be a good night”.

Later, out into the night air to once again appreciate the holy silence. Nearly full moon and it is very cold tonight at this highest village in Scotland.  Me and Tomintoul go back a long way.  I first came here in 1996, stopping for tea after crossing Lecht for the first time, on the way to visit my sister on the West coast.  Now, as then, I was in Aberdeen at my employer’s expense and took time off for a short break.

I am drawn to Tomintoul, though as a work colleague from Aberdeen notes, somewhat unkindly, “there’s nothing there”.  It does not matter.  This place is woven into the fabric of times of leisure in my life this last twenty years, that have meant much to me.

More Scottish travels

At the Duke of Gordon Hotel in Kingussie, a brassy and friendly Scots lady presides over the buffet breakfast. She is the queen of ’em all, having a nice word for all comers and a likeable banter. She is everybody’s friend.

Later, I drive past the ruins of Ruthen Barracks, built on a commanding ancient mound much used for castles over the centuries. John Comyn was here in the time of the Wars of Independence. But these barracks remind us of a much more recent conflict. Here in the Highlands, a blunt and brutal reminder of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 does not sit well to this day.

Past the Insh Marshes, which to my eye as someone who studied geology, is the bed of a huge dried up ribbon lake. Only Loch Insh remains, and the Spey meandering through, rather like the ruined barracks, a misfit in this landscape.

To the top of Cairn Gorm, Britain’s second highest mountain. The little funicular train discounted to £5 return during November. Cheap at three times the price. It is a spectacular mountain railway, but I found it oddly saddening to go be able to go so easily to the summit of a 1200m mountain. All I have written only yesterday about the wild, pure heart of the Cairngorms is arguably undone, at least to a degree, by this development. Yet, it is not crass, not evil, not insensitive. Or at least not too insensitive.

At the top, a sprinkling of early Autumn snow can be seen in the distance. Grey squalls are chasing across the mountains, splashing rain and hail. Far below, Loch Morlich changes in an instant from welcoming cobalt blue to a menacing slate grey, as the rain clouds sweep in. A violently coloured rainbow stops everyone, and everyone peers out, phones ready for that picture. We ought not under-estimate the capricious nature of the weather in these mountains.

Reflections on old coaching inns – II

Southward over the brown hills, under grey skies, to Pitlochry, where there was light drizzle, and picturesque clouds drifting across the mountainsides.  After lunch in a little cafe, onwards again along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch.  Why? Because I can.

Brown and gold, red and orange, the leaves of Autumn.  Mountain and lake vista, and the peace of the empty road through the woods.  The changing scenery: woods of birch and glorious splash of autumn colour, then avenues of oak trees on either side of the road, then English-looking farm land with cows and farmhouses.  Still more lakeside and rolling hills and then still later on, the land rises.  There’s that beautiful, sooth, deep and rich brown of late Autumn, lovely under blue skies or grey.  The winding road climbs up onto the Moor of Rannoch.  I arrived at Rannoch Station in drizzle. Worth the journey just to see this most remote of British railway stations. Here, Fort William is barely 35 miles away by rail – but by road,  more than a hundred.

On the run back I stopped by a B&B whose website said “www.middleofnowhere.com”. I wanted to stay but there were no vacancies. Seems everyone wants to be in the middle of nowhere. I popped into the Kinloch Rannoch Hotel, a grandiose spa hotel, but they wanted £213 for a room.  I left, giggling.  If you need to know how much it costs, you can’t afford it – never a truer word.

Tiring now, I motored back to the A9 and joined the treadmill at 57mph over the Pass of Drumochter.  Pedestrian motoring; no fun at all.  A twenty mile passage more tiring than all the country lane driving of the day so far. And on to Kingussie, another one of those compact Scottish small towns with a neat grey high street.  And I stopped in the first place I went into – the Duke of Gordon Hotel.  A lady called Fran sold me a single room for £40.

So I’ve journeyed along the silver ribbon of highways through the fading glory of Autumn gold.  But it’s not the road that has been important this time:  this November, it is the silence, the holy silence.