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Surfing Uni Student Transformation

15 August 2013 4 comments

As a reckless and carefree nineteen year old Uni student I didn't appreciate the consequences of missing the re-enrollment day at Curtin University where I was studying a Bachelor of Applied Science in Surveying and Mapping. I had completed my first two years of my degree and was surfing during the day and partying at night during my summer break. When the last day came around to re-enroll I thought it'd be fine if I simply did it the next day. Turns out it wasn't fine! There was no way around it. I had to take a year off my studies. Bugger! The following day, with a sinking feeling in my stomach, I knew I had to face the fact that I'd stuffed up and now had to make the most of it. And that's just what I did!

For the first two years whilst studying at Uni I lived with my grandfather then later a couple of fellow students. I drove a 1961 Kombi van, painted blue with house paint and a brush. My close friend Avdo and I went half shares in it. Prior to the summer holidays I'd been working two part time jobs as a kitchen hand (washing pots and dishes) in two different restaurants in order to pay my way through Uni.

Survey assistant at Argyle as a 19 year oldSurvey assistant at Argyle as a 19 year old

In standard uni student fashion I wasn't interested in studying too hard during my first two years, but I managed to pass all my units (although my mediocre grades were nothing to brag about). I earned enough money to get by. I partied a lot and life was good. Then of course reality hit me when I missed the re-enrollment deadline. A few days later I applied for a job as a survey assistant up at Argyle diamond mine in the north of Western Australia. I remember coming home and telling my girlfriend at the time I'd applied for the job. She cried and insisted I was going to get the job. The following day I received the good news (although not so good for the girlfriend) and a week later in January I flew to Kununurra and drove the +200 kilometres to Argyle.

I dubbed Argyle "Club Med Argyle". Nothing could be further from the truth! I was staying in the construction camp (not the camp for the miners). We stayed in dongas (sounds like something I sell plenty of today but they're actually mobile living quarters). The dongas back then were about 5 foot wide by about 9 foot long. We had a common toilet and shower block close by. There was a wet mess (a donga converted into a rudimentary bar that sold four or five different types of cans of beer (referred to by their colour and nothing else) and there was a mess that served food. All very basic and a rude shock for a city slicker like me!

At the job interview the chief surveyor told me the average stay on site at Argyle was only six weeks. I made a commitment at the interview that if I was lucky enough (I decided later that the use of the term 'lucky' wasn't appropriate) to get the job that I'd stay for the full length of the project of thirteen months. The project was the construction of a road through the bush from the main highway to the mine-site and also the construction of a small airport.

As a surveyors assistant I was banging pegs in all day to mark levels and positions for road-works through the virgin bush. My first two days nearly killed me! I remember the temperature was in the high 40's C (+115 F for Americans) and the humidity was an unbearable +90%. Because of the heat I took my shirt off on the first day. I also drank a few gallons of water. By the end of the day I had sun burn, blisters on my shoulders from the sun, blisters on my hands from banging in hundreds of pegs, blisters on my feet from the new work boots and I was nauseous and sick from drinking too much water and I obviously had sun stroke. I came close to requesting an early exit back home after the first day. The next day was far worse! I remember arguing with myself and eventually realising that I really had little choice given my stupidity in missing the re-enrollment deadline.

Within a couple of weeks I settled in, albeit reluctantly. The huge weekly pay checks assisted me getting over the helplessness of my situation. Staying in a single men's camp (yep there were no women at all) meant there was nothing to spend my wages on, other than a few beers some nights. Most nights after work I did a workout by doing push ups between chairs, sit-ups and chin-ups on a tree branch I'd put on the roof between two dongas. This stopped me going to the bar every night and obviously helped me save my cash. I wasn't up there for the sunshine!

Two weeks after my arrival in Argyle the chief surveyor told me I had to step up to the position of a surveyor due to the excessive workload. He recruited another two survey assistants and before I knew it I was working as a surveyor doing often quite complex survey tasks. Six weeks into my first stint (back then we did twelve weeks on site before flying home for a week) I had two major shakeups. My girlfriend ended our relationship and the chief surveyor resigned as he found out his wife was having an affair.

I'd been with my girlfriend for about six months before I accepted the job at Argyle, I remember I was hoping the thirteen month commitment I'd made to the job wouldn't interfere with our relationship, but it did. Nightly phone calls by me from the camp pay phone weren't enough to keep her interested in me. With her going to bars and night clubs most weekends whilst I was away certainly created some angst for me, so we often argued. At the age of nineteen having my girlfriend pull the pin on our relationship whilst I was living in a camp in the bush miles away was utterly devastating for me, and she told me she'd met someone else. Turned out he was a band member so no wonder she loved hanging out in bars whilst I was away. I remember playing certain songs over and over in my donga at night trying to come to terms with her leaving me.

In the same week the chief surveyor (who was much older than me) came to my donga crying one night with a six pack of beer telling me how he'd just spoken to his wife on the camp phone where she told him she was having an affair. It was all a bit too much for me to digest. I was seriously disenchanted, to say the least, with long distance relationships!

The next day the chief surveyor flew home leaving me in charge until a replacement was found. A few days later I received a call from head office telling me they were sending another senior surveyor up and because I had some experience up there they were making me chief surveyor for an interim period (actually it lasted until the end of the project). Within a few weeks we then had another two surveyors and also two survey assistants arrive on site. Dealing with the loss of my girlfriend, being 'thrown into the deep end' as chief surveyor with enormous responsibility, living in a single men's camp in the bush surrounded by older guys who were either drunks or divorcees (in most cases both) and missing the cruisey life of a Uni student, introduced me to the real meaning of stress! Oh how I yearned to be back laying under the trees again at Uni, smoking pot and dreaming of perfect six foot high wave sets down at Margaret River.

Bitumen road construction through the bush is quite complex. There are many different machinery crews from the bull dozers who push their way through the tress and scrub, to the graders who start molding the road, to the large scrapers who transport bulk material from hill cuts and drop it into lower areas (fill). Then there are many other crews of machinery that do many tasks. All need survey pegs to define the centerline of the road, the perimeters and levels (cut or fill). All machinery had radios to communicate with the surveyors and of course me as chief surveyor. I often had to turn the radio off to be able to think straight and prioritise what activities were critical ie. where to bang in pegs next. There's nothing like being 'thrown into the deep end' to learn how to cope with stress and how to prioritise!

I quickly worked out after arriving in Argyle that if I worked over fifteen hours a day (so I did fifteen and a half hours) then after the first day of the week on standard pay the next six days were all double time. I was banking a small fortune (for a student) every week. We knocked off early Sunday afternoons to go fishing for Barramundi in local rivers other than that it was fifteen and a half hour days for me. To clock up such long hours I joined the service mechanic after dinner each night to service the heavy road construction machinery. At nineteen I had plenty of energy so was able to keep this pace up for thirteen months until the end of the job. I did have to keep reminding myself that I wasn't up there for the sunshine!

After my first twelve weeks I arrived back at Perth airport for my one week break, to be greeted by my mum, brother and ex girlfriend. That night my girlfriend and I quickly made up. After twelve weeks in a single men's camp I would have told her anything to appease her and get her into the bedroom!

I made it through the thirteen months at Argyle and arrived back in Perth a different person. I had a huge bank balance, especially considering I was officially a student. I'd worked as a surveyor's assistant, then a surveyor and finally the chief surveyor on two large engineering projects. This gave me the experience my fellow Uni student's could have only dreamed of. And the experience I'd gained wasn't just in surveying but also more importantly in management (including dealing with the associated stress).

As boring as it sounds I'm happy to report that my final year but at Uni was in stark contrast to the first two years. Apart from the occasional partying I knuckled down and studied hard. I'd matured in my year away. What we were being taught at Uni seemed easy as I'd been part of the practical application. I'd been offered a job as soon as I finished my degree by the company that employed me at Argyle. This gave me a deeper sense of purpose in my final year. The fact that I had saved a lot of money whilst away meant that I didn't need to continue with the part time work washing pots and dishes in restaurants. I had more time to study! As a result I excelled in my final year blitzing my exam results.

My girlfriend and I only lasted a few months after I returned from Argyle. I found it hard to fully forgive her for abandoning me (and running off with a band member for those few weeks).

Looking back today I now realize that missing the re-enrollment deadline was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. What did I learn from this life changing event?

  • It's probably one of the reasons I'm such an optimist today.
  • People need a wake-up call in life sometimes.
  • To learn how to deal with stress you need to put yourself in a stressful environment where you need to make decisions (and critical ones). The sooner you do this in the life the better! The age old adage 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' rings true I believe.
  • Long distance relationships are tough for most people. The only way I managed to cope was realizing I'd committed to a fixed time period of thirteen months.
  • Working in the bush, and living in a single men's camp, is shocking for ones sex life...but great for their bank account.
  • Dealing with the fallout from an affair (the original chief surveyor and his wife) was tough for me as a nineteen year old. It then haunted me for 2 years after I finished my final year at uni whist I was again working back out in the bush (mostly doing exploration surveys and living in 2 man tents with no water or power for 4-6 weeks at a time. I'll save those stories for another time). I didn't want to end up a drunk or a divorcee working long term in single men's camps.
  • When I arrived home and after buying a car, and putting aside enough money to get me through my last year at uni, I invested in a family food business and the rest I invested in the stock market. The food business went belly up and I promptly lost nearly all of the money in the stock market. This was an unpalatable lesson at the time but it did instill in me the need for a more cautious approach to investments.
  • I now live in a penthouse in Kings Park that I developed. No more single men's camps for me. Having setbacks, failures or simply tough times in life really help you appreciate when things are going well. And right now life's good!

Most fly in fly out workers these days do far shorter periods away than the twelve weeks I endured. Today it's more like nine days on and five days off or eighteen days on and ten off. These rosters still pose challenges to relationships though. Of course these day's things have also changed somewhat regarding living and working remotely. The accommodation camps are far more salubrious, have gyms, entertainment, better food and they have Internet. This means it's easier to communicate with not only family and friends but also girlfriends or loved ones. And Skype means you can even engage in sex (actually exhibitionism is probably the right term) with your partner.

As always I'd love to hear your feedback on this week's post.

Delivering passion and pleasure (and some of my personal history).


Eyvonne 15 August 2013 at 3:25 pm
I thoroughly enjoyed your blog this week Mr Day.I to am in a FIFO relationship. My partner does 4n1s and it is very hard on our relationship at times.I believe having a set goal of how long youll be doing it for and why your there helps BIG time :)Our goals are to save enough for a house and car, then later on get married and start a family.We've both worked out that working away now before lil ones come along is a much better idea and much easier in the long term.Looking at the BIGGER picture helps in times of dispair.Remembering that this is only for a short period of time and to ensure that our future is Bright :PAnd yes SKYPE is very helpful in all ways of communication hahaAlways a good read Mr day!
Elizabeth Roughan 16 August 2013 at 8:45 am
Mike & I have been together for 6.5 years and until recently all of it has been on FIFO terms. Four months ago I moved from Perth to Brissy so we are married "full time" now. Our TOP 4 points for managing our FIFO relationship over time were: 1.STRUCTURES - we trialled different lengths of rosters, ie 2 on 2 off, 3 on 3 off, commuting weekly, etc to see which one worked best for us both. My favourite was Mike commuting home weekly (for the weekend) but for him there was too much travelling and he was tired all weekend! 2 on 2 off was great too - I had my life for 2 weeks then OUR life for 2 weeks when he was home. What I found hard to manage was not putting MY life on hold for 2 weeks to focus on OUR life, ie seeing friends, doing jobs around the house, going on dates together. Mike also needed some "MIKE" time (without me) which took some getting used to but was the key to unlocking the FIFO mystery!!! When I learned to continue doing the things I do when Mike is away (ie work, coffee with girlfriends, etc) EVEN WHEN HE WAS HOME and encouraged him to have some "time out" on his own, ie riding his Harley, visiting his daughter, having a beer with a mate, etc, AND agreed to not overcommit us to too many social things (rule is 1 per day for us) then it all fell into place. And the BONUS was the more freedom I gave him to chill on his own, the more time he actually wanted to spend with me!!!! 2.AGREEMENT - unless you both at least consider that FIFO might work for you, it won't. We know couples where 1 party is keen but the other is not. Not even a little bit optimistic about what a FIFO life can provide. We agreed to make it work no matter what! We always looked for the positive aspects of the life we were creating together (even though we were geographically apart) like money, date night when Mike came home, etc. 3.COMMITMENT - after we agreed to make it work, we committed to certain things ie speaking for 5-10 minutes every night, always ending the call with "I love you" even if we had an argument (because I am a hothead sometimes I had to call back after an argument to apologise for hanging up the phone, to keep to my promise of saying "I love you" on every call). I committed to not making Mike homesick and worried while away so if something bugged me, I vented to my girlfriends! They were awesome and saved many arguments by having me look at things from his point of view. 4.TRUST - giving each other permission to shine. I was careful not to put myself in situations that could cause gossip, like going out clubbing, and to provide whatever support I could daily so Mike accomplished his job magnificently. That included trusting his choices, "championing" him if he felt out of his depth, joking with him on the phone that I was on my way out clubbing (when he could actually hear the telly in the background) and sharing silly snippets of daily life at home. Good luck!!
Jean Varischetti 20 August 2013 at 7:58 pm
Thanks Malcolm, needed a pick me up and you delivered. Cheers your cuz Jeanie xx
Shiona Herbert 3 November 2013 at 8:37 am
Really enjoyed reading this Malcolm. Honest narrative and thought provoking reflections. Cheers, Shiona.
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