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Character building

22 August 2013 3 comments

My 21st birthday party marked the end of my final year at Uni. I had completed a Bachelor of Applied Science in Surveying and Mapping. Now I was back out in the 'real world'. I'd had a taste of this a year prior when I was working at Argyle (having taken a forced year off my studies). Most Uni students don't have a guaranteed job when they finish their studies however I had been offered a job by my previous employer. Again the job required working in remote north Western Australia on engineering projects like road and airport construction. I decided however that I’d had enough of working in the bush!

Whilst working in the bush and living in single men's camps was great for my bank account, it was shocking for my sex life...and there was no surf! I passed up on the opportunity my previous employer had offered me. Instead I thought a better career move would be to obtain my cadastral license. This would allow me to legally do property boundary surveys in Western Australia. Becoming a Licensed Surveyor (in contrast to an engineering surveyor) was seen as more prestigious and they were generally better paid. To become a Licensed Surveyor in Western Australia one must first complete the Uni degree I'd done. The next requirement is to complete a two year cadetship working under the tutelage of a Licensed Surveyor. And finally a cadet must complete and pass the entrance exams set by the Land Surveyors Licensing Board of Western Australia.

Theodolite in my officeTheodolite in my office

Immediately after completing my Uni degree I was accepted as a cadet with Survey West under the tutelage of Bob Lengkeek. Bob was an excellent tutor and mentor for those 2 years of my cadetship. I often quote Bob today particularly his absolute requirement for checking everything over and over again. Back then it used to drive me bananas. In the first couple of months of my cadetship I'd accompany Bob on cadastral surveys where we'd mark out property boundaries prior to houses or buildings being constructed. We'd also mark out property and road boundaries in new land subdivisions. Bob would continuously check measurements again and again. And he was constantly checking the plans. As a cadet it took me a while to understand the importance of this. Not long after I started with the company one of the other surveyors made a huge mistake that resulted in wrongly located concrete foundations and ground floors of a large group of new apartments. This could have been avoided with more checking. Bob constantly drummed this into me. And it was Bob's resounding advice that assisted me in later years when I worked on the construction of high rise buildings. Being totally responsible for the set out of components within high rise structures, I'd have groups of formwork carpenters and concrete workers sometimes cringe upon seeing me stride towards them with rolls of architectural and engineering plans under my arms knowing that I was about to check measurements 'again'. Obviously with the construction of high rise buildings, and in fact most buildings, there isn't any scope for errors.

After a few months of assisting Bob with property boundary surveys, and having done my own with a survey assistant, Bob insisted I needed to do some work in the bush. My first few trips were only a week or two in length so they weren't too hard to deal with. In subsequent trips they were normally three to six weeks in length and with only a few days in between. These trips away had me sleeping in a two man tent with a survey assistant. We'd take a four wheel drive vehicle many kilometres from the closest town or main road. Most of the trips were to the remote and arid north west goldfields in Western Australia. I was back in the bush again! Unfortunately whilst doing a two year surveying cadetship I was at the mercy of my tutor (Bob) as to where I'd work or what type of work I'd be doing. Sometimes the bush trips were to conduct open pit mine surveys (to determine the amount of ore mined), but most of the bush trips I embarked upon were for exploration surveys. I preferred the open pit surveys as I generally was able to stay in the mining camp rather than in tents.

Because the trips were to remote areas I relied upon maps, a compass and the odometer in the vehicle (for measuring long distances) to navigate where I was going. I then used sun and star observations using specialized equipment, like a theodolite (looks like a camera on a tripod), to determine latitude and longitude. These day’s surveyors use GPS to determine position when doing exploration surveys in remote areas.

Bob wasn't interested in hearing me complain about working in the bush. He often chuckled and told me it was character building. I knew I was stuck until my cadetship was complete so I made the most of it. I worked 7 days a week from sun up to sun down and made very good money (which I saved to buy my first house at the age of 23). In fact after sun down my assistant and I would usually sit around a camp fire writing up coordinates on the survey stakes we planned to use the following day. Exploration surveys normally meant surveying, from a defined start point, a long base line of 5-10 kilometers on a certain azimuth (similar to compass bearing but it’s an exact direction as it takes into account magnetic declination). We'd bang into the ground 1.2 metre high survey stakes along the line usually every 100-200 metres. Note that we'd use a theodolite to enable us to stay on the line. The line needed to be a clear line of sight so we'd have to chop down all trees and vegetation on the line. Sometimes we were able to go around large trees but it made it a lot more work and less accurate. To this day I still have calluses on both my hands from chopping down trees in the goldfields. Unfortunately regular weight training at the gym has kept my calluses.

After the base line is complete we'd survey the cross lines which are at 90 degrees to the base line. Normally the survey stakes were every 50-100 metres on these. Again as we'd need a clear line of sight down the line any trees, shrubs or vegetation needed to be chopped down with an axe. I treasured my Kelly axe and often used to hone it to almost razor sharp at night by the camp fire.

Short trips of a week or so away weren't too bad. The longer three to six week trips were tough! Whilst camping on the weekends is fun, it's no fun when it's for such long periods of working away from home. Noting we'd take away meat with ice that'd last a couple of days. After that we'd be eating tinned food, root vegetables, pasta and rice for the next few weeks. The four wheel drive vehicles I took away on these survey trips would have two 44 gallon drums of water on the back. We drank the water from one of the drums and the other drum’s water was used to bathe in and to re-fill the vehicles radiator (a big problem in summer). Bathing consisted of lathering up in a small foot high bucket then pouring a few cups of water over the body. This we did every few nights (men working in the bush are hopeless). And there was never any washing of clothes; consequently living in a 2 man tent with a survey assistant a few weeks was quite disgusting. Its funny how I often used to wish I was at least back at Argyle in the single man’s camp where that was truly a Club Med experience compared to camping in tents.

At the time I couldn’t wait until my 2 year cadetship was over but looking back nowadays I know that working for most of that period in the bush and living in tents taught me a lot! Whilst I was never lost in the bush there were many times I had to sit down with maps and a compass to try and work out exactly where I was. I had zero communication with anyone other than my survey assistant (sometimes I took two assistants). We had many vehicle problems, mini medical emergencies, logistical issues, survey problems and situations that required logical and rational thinking. My earlier work experience at Argyle often assisted me in these situations.

I have many bush survey expedition stories to tell but for now I'll tell you one to give you an idea of some of issues I had. I always found it hard to recruit survey assistants for such trips. I suppose chopping down trees with an axe and banging in survey stakes all day in the remote outback (often in very inhospitable conditions), mending car tyres all day, eating 'tinned muck', hardly washing, sleeping on the ground in a two man tent and being incommunicado with the outside world doesn't sound that appealing after all. Anyway for one particular long bush trip I recruited a survey assistant who was an engineering Uni student on his summer vacation. He had absolutely no survey experience but I was hoping it didn’t matter. On the first day in the sweltering heat in the northern goldfields I told him the 3 golden rules:

  1. Stay well away from me when clearing the line with the axe (we both chopped trees and shrubs all day);
  2. When retrieving the vehicle (we'd bring it forward every kilometre or so) don't drive over the cleared line;
  3. Drink plenty of water during the day.

So on the first day after a few hours of chopping and banging in survey stakes along the baseline I sent the new recruit to bring up the vehicle. After an hour or so I realised something was wrong so walked down the line and over a hill to find him sitting in the vehicle crying. Each of the 4 tyres was slashed and flat. As he'd driven over the line he'd obviously run over the base of the trees and shrubs we'd chopped (and they were pointy and sharp hence the slashed tyres). The 200 metre metal measuring tape (called a chain) was only 5 millimetres wide and 2 millimetres thick. It broke easily (if driven over when the ground was rocky) as the new recruit found out the hard way. For the next few hours we painstakingly removed all 4 wheels on the vehicle, mended the tyres and replaced them. We also mended the broken chain. To mend the chain we needed to start a fire to heat up the soldering iron. Oh and we also needed to take the radiator out and repair it as he'd ruptured it by driving over another base of a tree that we'd chopped down.

A few hours later I was chopping down a dense Mulga tree and I could hear him chopping the other side. I told him a few times to stay back before ‘bang’ his axe hit me in the hand slashing it and causing a quite serious injury that I had to immediately dress and strap up. I still have the faint scar today! By the afternoon he was vomiting and shaking. He had heat stroke and exhaustion from not drinking enough water. I had to lay him under a tree and place damp cloths on his head as we were a few days drive from the closest town and hospital. I had to hang wet hessian bags in the trees with tins of fruit and cloths to cool them down (we had no fridges with us). The wind blowing through the trees had quite a good cooling effect on anything in the hessian bags.

So on the first day he'd broken my three golden rules and was feeling very sorry for himself. Luckily for both of us he was a fast learner and never made any of the same mistakes during the next few weeks away. I'm sure it's an experience he'll never forget as it's certainly one that's etched in my mind.

For one trip Bob recruited a survey assistant, to work with him on a remote survey trip, who turned out to be a nudist who never spent any time clothed. This would have been tough for me to handle back then (note no females ever applied for the position of a survey assistant).

After my two years cadetship finished I sat the board exams, passed and became a Licensed Surveyor. It was then that I sat down with Bob and told him that bush life wasn't for me and “it wasn't the character I wanted to build anymore”.

Whilst I was doing my cadetship for the few months I lived in Perth I shared a house with an older surveying buddy and his brother. At the time Graeme was working on construction sites as an engineering surveyor and he was making great money. Within a few weeks of becoming a Licensed Surveyor I set up my first company Development and Construction Surveys Pty Ltd. I'd managed to convince a building company (they built the main structure of many high rises buildings in Perth back then) to employ me as an engineering surveyor. I couldn’t read the architectural or engineering plans at the time. I do remember pondering how the heck I'd managed to bluff myself into the role. Every night I took the plans home to learn to read and understand them. Bob's insistence on checking measurements over and over again helped me. I didn't make any mistakes. I was now 23 years old and had begun my career working in the construction of high rise buildings. I went on to become a project manager on various projects and eventually a Senior Civil Engineer employed by Leighton working on the construction of a large sub-sea oil structure that was built from concrete and steel. I'll write about this period of my life another time.

As for Bob well he's still doing various surveys. Last year I employed him to do a boundary survey of The Court hotel that I still co-own.

What did I personally gain from nearly 2 years of exploration and mining surveys in remote Western Australia?

  • It helped me save a substantial deposit to buy my first house.
  • I’m able to combat stress quite well today.
  • By putting me in often difficult situations all those years ago, where I was forced to think logically and rationally, this has given me the foundations to assist me in business today.
  • Reflecting back helps me appreciate the great life I have today (I'm typing this up whilst on a plane returning home from a short holiday in Bali).
  • I don't like four wheel driving in the bush today nor do I particularly like camping in tents.
  • I appreciate good healthy fresh food...nothing from a can!

As always I'd love to hear what you think of this week’s post.

Delivering passion and pleasure.


Dale Tiernan 22 August 2013 at 2:55 pm
Terrific post. Great stories. I'm with you on the camping thing for sure.
SexToysTips 22 August 2013 at 5:07 pm
It's amazing how life take us to a different dimension in our careers. I have never the opportunity to see the outback and I wish things could be different for me. I still remember when I first started as a personal trainer in Brazil. It was hard been away in different places, missing out other great opportunities. I feel lucky because I have accomplished many things and I believe that I can accomplish more in the near future. I love reading your blogs as it gives me a sense of leadership towards my new business ventures. Great stuff!
Tasha 22 August 2013 at 9:54 pm
What a great early life experience. I wish more young people had the initiative that you had. Thanks for sharing. Tasha
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