Joanne had reluctantly done as she was told. Pack, Jason had said. What the heck did she need to pack for Africa? It was going to be bloody hot and could be bloody wet when the rains came. She spent the afternoon shopping for essentials. First stop the pharmacy for Imodium tablets among others, bug spray, sun block and of course ‘in case’ pads. She’d gone to an outdoor supplier and picked up a new rain cape and some good quality walking boots, not that she figured she’d do much walking but boots were going to be an essential in the bush. She’d also chosen a couple of pairs of lightweight walking trousers, outdoor shirts and to top it all a hat. That had been a difficult one, something that would keep both sun and rain off her and yet not look like she came out of the ark.
In the end she accepted that she would have to put up with looking like she was on Safari in order to get anything practical and plumped for what the shop assistant described as a slouch hat.
All but the hat got stuffed into the only suitcase she had, one that had previously made it only as far as Brighton. She’d not thought about it much, but in leaving text for Mike as once again he was off in some far corner of the world, she wondered briefly why it was that they had never used his flight privileges and gone further for the few and far between weekends away they had. It was too late to worry about it as her phone beeped, the text reporting that the airport Taxi was outside already.
A night in Paris is not what it could be when you’re on your own and have a morning flight. Having eaten in London before the Cityjet connection to Paris, Joanne was not hungry and with the hour time difference only got as far as the hotel bar for a glass of vodka and tonic. “We got you a room at the Paris Residence.” Felicity had told her. Huh! What Felicity neglected to mention was that is was a hotel at the airport, not in the city centre. Despite the hotel foyer being busy with an almost constant flow of people in and out, the bar was all but deserted. A couple of guys sat round a table poring over a presentation and a pair of barflies clearly into maybe a third or fourth round was it. None of them gave Joanne a second glance. Joanne gave it an hour and second vodka before she gave up and turned in.
Into the Heat
The bedside telephone woke her, an incessant buzzing demanding her attention. Of course it was the early call she had logged the previous evening. That was irrelevant. Her befuddled mind accepted and at the same instant aggrieved the intrusion to sleep.
Joanne had not slept well and got up grudgingly and grumpy and with a headache. The shower helped and finally attired for the journey she made her way down to a skimpy breakfast of fruit and cereal with coffee. She had tried the tea but predictably it was gruesome. It was always going to be at best a rushed meal. Joanne had the choice of eating a cooked meal or missing the transfer bus. It was a tempting conundrum but she resisted. This might be an adventure after all and at any rate would be a learning experience. The first experience was the flight itself and not such a good one. Crammed into economy class along with every conceivable race and nationality Joanne remembered why Mike had opted not to spend any of their time together flying. For him it would be a huge come down from the flight deck to literally rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi.
Other than being a long and boring flight with the reading material all in French Joanne could not complain. She watched a movie that she’d only seen five times before so knew the script without reading the subtitles and then listened to some music in between the plastic pack quasi nouvelle cuisine offerings. At least the coffee was good.
Customs and immigration was farcical if it were not for the blatant attempts to solicit bribes to ease the protracted process. What wasn’t farcical was leaving the terminal. Joanne had been to Africa before; it was after all where Occidental Prospect Limited did most of their business. That one time she’d been part of a team presenting an exploration proposal to the Nigerian Government. That time she’d flown into Lagos with the guys and had been in air-conditioned cars, stayed in an air-conditioned Hotel and been there to answer questions in the air-conditioned conference centre. Stepping through doors from a semi air-conditioned building into an oven, maybe a Turkish bath would be a more apt description. It was hot, seriously hot and seriously sticky.
In the info pack Felicity had printed up for her it had included a stack of US dollars, a universal cash currency to pay for taxis and sundry meals. It had also informed her that someone from the survey team who would fly with her on the twice-weekly plane into the jungle would meet her the following morning. What it didn’t say was that the hotel in a downtown masquerading as provincial France that the taxi delivered her to was not going to be the Hilton. Nor did it say that Pete Swanson or most of the other five guys who introduced themselves over a continental breakfast of coffee and croissants in the clean but downbeat little hotel Felicity had booked her into were going to be roughnecks.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, and Joanne was certainly no snob but that these guys were grubby and unshaven before they got to site was at best, disconcerting.
Joanne had been checking her mail, coffee beside her on the little breakfast table as Pete sidled over and introduced himself. He told her he was the guy supposed to look after her and pointed out his colleagues as they came down for breakfast, their bags with them and ready for check out.
Another man joined them, dressed much to Joanne’s relief in slacks and an ironed shirt. At least someone here wasn’t a drong. He too however had brought down his bags.
“Good morning Mrs. Fletcher.” He greeted, a lot more politely than Pete had. “Ready for the jungle?”
“It’s Miss.” Joanne returned. “And I hope so but you would probably think not, Mr?”
“Brown, Derek Brown.” Derek told her.
“Joanne.” Joanne said. “I’m sorry, I should have returned your greeting.”
“It’s alright.” Derek responded. “Everyone gets a bit tetchy first morning back.” He nodded to Joanne’s laptop. “You got Wi-Fi alright?”
“Surprisingly fast.” She answered. “Will I get it at the base camp?”
“Via satellite.” Derek answered, “So not too fast, and don’t think about it in the evenings. That’s data transfer time.”
“Like now is go to the airport time.” Pete interjected.
“Not exactly a meal to prepare for a long day is it?” He grumbled, referring to the third croissant as he devoured it. “Hardly worth the effort.” A pause then, “Taxi is booked for ten minutes but will be more like twenty.” The last a statement phrased with that slight rising inflection, almost like it gave Joanne a choice.
Joanne had been ready, bag packed and was duly checked out in time to be out front and into the ramshackle vehicle that transported her and three of the men back to the airport. Not for them the international terminal with at least a patina of modernism. This time they waited on plastic chairs in a pale blue paint on cracked plaster walled room pretending to be a general aviation departure lounge. There were six others already waiting there sweating under the antiquated and ineffective ceiling fan. Two of the Europeans who had been in the hotel that morning, three local black people and a guy she hadn’t been introduced to. He stood as she, Pete, Derek and George entered. Stepping up to Derek, who had been eyeballed out by the two Occidental guys already in the waiting room, although as the only tidily attired man there it was a giveaway which of them was the manager, Rob introduced himself. His left eyebrow had risen in question at seeing Joanne. These places were not where you saw white women.
“Rob Greggson.” He opened, his hand outstretched. “Forward Oil.”
“Derek Brown.” Derek took the hand and shook it. “You’re new here.”
“Just got in yesterday.” Rob told him. “From Paris. Saw your girl on the plane, never thought she was coming here.”
“She’s from the office.” Derek said. “Come to audit.”
Rob raised his eyebrow again. “Anything in particular?”
“Performance I suppose.” Derek answered. “Much like you.”
All of them were left to sweat, waiting for the aircraft to be ready.
Mid day came and went, her frustration growing Joanne harangued the one person who had checked them in and then unadvisedly reappeared to face Joanne’s wrath. The unfortunate withered, but imparted the information that the airplane had a fault, and he had no idea how long the delay would be.
“All these bloody air taxis are death traps.” Pete growled as Joanne sat back down to sweat some more. “I’m sick of crappy planes and incompetent drunk pilots. Why the hell,” Pete grumbled on, his question half directed to Joanne in the mistaken belief that she had influence back at the office, “don’t the company get in some proper transport instead of these bloody cowboys who always overload the planes and then go off flying no matter the weather.”
“It can’t be that bad.” Joanne mollified.
“No?” Pete returned, “Just wait ‘till you get to fly in the rain or when it gets really windy.”
“Oh come on.” Joanne returned. “A bit of wind and rain aren’t much.”
“They are here, thunderstorms are common as muck on this coast. Bad enough in an Airbus; doesn’t bear thinking about in a Cessna. It doesn’t seem to matter to these guys that we get battered and bruised so long as they get their buck. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a flight here that didn’t have me wanting to puke all the way to when the wheels touch down on some godforsaken dirt strip masquerading as a landing field.”
Derek leaned over. “Good one Pete. Let’s make the lady more nervous shall we?”
Pete shut up and stayed that way for the next hour.
Finally released from incarceration and onto the tarmac Joanne came face to face with the craft that would transport her into the jungle. Her first thought was that no way were they going to get ten people in this thing, but one by one in they climbed.
In her once only previous trip to Nigeria she had taken the trip out to a well site in the bush. That had been with half a dozen of the more seasoned staff and they had, like now taken what seemed to her as a rickety excuse for an aircraft on a hell ride over the jungle. Back then it had seemed like an adventure, the guys whooping it up at every jolt.
This time no one in the packed single engine boneshaker was whooping it up. The first time it had been scary, but kind of fun, the guys making light of perceived inadequacies. This time the plane had been of the same marque but even more decrepit.
“You’re in the front.” Pete had told her as she got closer. Standing by the door Joanne noted the near bald tires, scarred paintwork and oil dribbles on the cowlings. Nervous already, she acquired a real sense of foreboding as she realized that there was more than a degree of truth in Pete’s grumblings. That the ‘plane had clearly seen a hard life was even more evident in the shabby interior. Even the taxi from the hotel, overcrowded as it was, was better. No padded seats awaited her here, but canvas bucket chairs, ten sweating men and an aisle stacked with sacks. The pilot had an air that could easily have been interpreted as the disassociation of inebriation, not even acknowledging his passengers as he slid into the only slightly better upholstered flight seat. His hands were all business, no evidence of shaking as he set the controls and deliberately clicked over the starter switch. A sound halfway between a scream and a whine accompanied by the accelerated rotation of the single propeller precipitated the actual ignition of the engine and the ear splitting din as the propeller blurred to invisibility. Even with the front seat headphones firmly set over her ears the noise permeated every fibre of Joanne’s being.
The engine howl lowered in pitch and Joanne, unable to wrest her eyes from both the view ahead and the actions of the pilot was forced to note the latter as he twisted a lever and the craft broke the bond acquired on hot tarmac to lumber forward. The craft trundled ungainly on a hot, uncomfortable and seemingly interminable journey along a taxiway system that led inexorably via a series of radio calls to the end of the runway, their airplane turning with only feet to spare on the tarmac. Joanne heard the pilot laconically gain clearance to take off and the engine took on an unbelievable body shaking pitch, the aircraft vibrating incredibly as painfully slowly it gained speed. Yard by yard, meter by meter the runway slipped behind them, the end looming large with the plane still hard on the ground. Joanne had never before been in the front seat of an aircraft but even she could see it was going to be close if they made it at all. Until the last second when the tarmac disappeared beneath them and they didn’t crash she had become convinced of her impending demise, and even as grudgingly the ground receded away the sense of doom did not leave her. The plane may be off the ground but a wall of trees was still directly ahead of it. Just in time the wheels cleared treetops, Joanne would have sworn that they actually hit the leaves, and as these too were left below the bucking began. An hour and bloody half of it. A jarring, bruising, brain hurting thumping motion. Up, down, left and right in random order and violence only relieved in part as finally the ‘plane descended until the tree tops seemed alarmingly close and whipping below at a worrying rate. Out of no-where a river flashed underneath them and the pilot banked the plane hard and turned to follow it, getting lower by the second, the jungle a wall of green rushing by on both sides. Suddenly ahead as the river curved, a line of cleared jungle appeared and finally and thankfully the wheels thumped down onto packed dirt.
Even on the ground Joanne’s ordeal knew no end. Disembarking from the machine, still pinking as the engine cooled, Joanne had difficulty retaining her balance on legs gone wobbly, let alone walk to the waiting truck. Her erstwhile companions were busy unloading the baggage and supplies from the plane and transferring the bags and sacks into the back of the canvas topped vehicle that had pulled up close to the plane. Her own case was dumped on the dirt by the aircraft wheel. She was compos mentis enough to realize there were going to be no white knights here. Not that she needed or would have wanted one, but the least she had expected was for one of the guys she had breakfasted with to have said something.
They had all seemed friendly enough that morning and wilfully put her case first into the taxi and then at the back of the plane. Either the flight or that they were seriously beyond civilization had changed that. Her suitcase had come out of the plane all right but that was as far as it was going without her efforts. In the shelter of the hut serving as a departure lounge before the flight, she had been hot. Here in the direct sun and surrounded by sweltering jungle she baked. The case, more suited to a week in Malaga was already suffering, the exterior dented and the little airport friendly wheels instantly useless on the packed dirt. Dragging it was just too much and Joanne was forced into carrying the thing. By god, it was bloody heavy. The temptation to right then go through and discard half of what she had packed was strong. She resisted, somehow porting the bag to the truck where a local black guy took it from her and tossed it like a plaything onto the truck bed. Following Pete, she climbed up and found a place on the opposing bench. At least the truck bed was bigger than the plane interior so the bags and sacks didn’t fill the entire bed, but they still spread enough to make it hard to find a comfortable place for feet.
They waited, sweltering while the plane loaded with passengers and fired up again, ran, it seemed lightly this time right down to the river, turned and sped back toward the truck, trailing dust until it leapt into the air in a blast of noise. Only then did the truck lurch off on its journey into the waiting jungle. Joanne had heard that the jungle always wins. Stop cutting it down and it quickly grows back. That this track was well used was without question, but the jungle wasn’t going to take that lying down. Branches and tendrils pushed into the open sides of the truck as it replicated the actions of the aircraft, the side-to-side motion exaggerated the up and down less so. In the front seat of the plane she’d worn a five-point harness, in the back of the truck there was nothing. The dozen guys who shared the bench seats were every bit as affected by the jarring motion, all jerking and swaying as the truck lurched its way along the track. Some half an hour later the track took a sharp turn and opened out to a wider path that stretched straight as a die as far as the eye could see in opposite directions and only half of which had wheel tracks. To the uninitiated it would have been a confusion but to Joanne it was clearly a survey line, half used by service vehicles half laid with geophones. Some three or so miles up this line they began to come across the tail of the trail, with teams of black workers picking up blocks of the geophones and loading them onto a waiting truck. That truck would take the geophones up to the head of the line where a second team would lay them. It was normal to have around seven miles of ‘phones laid with only the central five collecting data. In a continuous process the first mile was constantly being laid and the last picked up, then at half mile intervals the explosion pits were dug. When each pit in turn became the centre point of the line everything would stop as a quarter of a ton of TNT sent shock waves down into the earth for the geophones to listen and record the echoes. The quality of these echoes, or more precisely the lack of quality was the reason Joanne had been brought to Africa.
No expert on terrain, geophone patterns or explosive techniques Joanna was however skilled in interpreting the data this process produced. She took note however as they lurched along the line of survey. In among the half cut and half cleared undergrowth the linking cables made a jumbled pattern that quite disguised the sequencing of the phones themselves that in turn were mainly hidden by low lying flora. Another mile up the line and at last the base camp hove into view, a tented encampment set back into a larger semi cleared forest glade. The truck pulled to a stop and the sore and tired passengers disembarked. Even before Joanne had got to the back of the truck a small army of locals were engaged on unloading the sacks and bags. From the nearest tent a guy who had every appearance in attire and bearing of being either still in or recently removed from military life strode out to the truck.
“Miss Fletcher I presume?” He enquired as Joanne gained terra firma.
Joanne Fletcher was grumpy and she knew it. To be honest she didn’t care if anyone else knew it either. “It is.” She rounded on him. “And you are?”
The only sign he gave that he recognized her aggression was a slight raising of one eyebrow. “David Isaacs.” He responded. “Operations manager.”
Picking up her bag she addressed him directly. “Right, I need a place to dump this and get cleaned up, then I want to get to the receiver station and that needs to happen today.”
“Hmm.” He mused, gently touching her elbow and leading her to one side. “That might not be possible.”
Joanne worked in a high-pressure environment and was not used to being rebuffed without explanation by someone in what she considered to be an inferior position. “It had better be.” She told him. “I’m not here for a holiday, and don’t want to spend a minute more than I have to in this bloody place. I just want to sort the problem and get back to the real world.”
“I’m afraid, Miss Fletcher, this is the real world and no amount of verbal abuse makes anything happen other than when it should. You won’t be going up line today because we’re live.”
“Live for firing.” He returned. “Only out of clearly misplaced courtesy to you am I here. I should be up at the west edge of the safety zone making sure no idiot strays into our firing line.”
“When’s that due?” She asked.
“Ten minutes.” He answered. “You’ll hear it, don’t you worry.”
“How far away?” Joanne queried.
“Just over a mile.” He answered. “And before you ask, the answer is no. This is as close as you’re going to get.”
“You just said.” She started.
“I said you.” He responded. “The zone extends one kilometre in every direction and even then only essential personnel are permitted that close. You are certainly not essential personnel.”
“It’s bloody essential that I see what the hell is happening here.” She snapped back. “Unless you all of a sudden know what the hell is buggering up this project.”
“Buggering up?” He bridled, his voice deliberately lowered and his glance across to where Derek Brown was chaperoning the new Forward Representative. “This prospect is not buggered up young lady. Just because a few bloody minded money grubbers in London don’t like what they’re seeing doesn’t make this project ‘buggered up’.”
“Look, Mister high and mighty bloody Isaacs,” Joanne returned, “the data coming out of this project, and only this project is crap. Unless I can find out what any of it actually means, we have but two choices. Close this all down or go back and do it all again. At around a quarter of a million pounds Sterling a mile, that’s not an easy option, and I can tell you for nothing that no-one on the ground here will be a part of that option.”
“Threatening will get you no-where.” Isaacs returned. “Facts are facts. The receiver station is beyond the explosion site and you cannot go past there tonight.”
“Tonight?” Joanne queried. “It’s only five o’clock by my watch.”
“We’ll blow at five sharp, then it will take the explosion team an hour or so to check the pit and give the all clear. By then it will be too close to dark to be out and about.”
“No-one goes out after dark?”
“This is equatorial jungle Miss Fletcher. Three steps off of a cleared path and you’re lost. Trust me, you don’t want to be lost in this mess and particularly not in the dark.”
Joanne looked at him and saw no deceit in his eyes. Reluctantly she conceded the point and shrugged her acceptance. Picking up her bag she allowed, “Better show me where I’m sleeping then.”
As Isaacs led her to a large trailer segregated into ten sections each with steps up to a door, whistles blew and everyone in camp stopped. “Ten second countdown.” Isaacs told her. Ten seconds went by, eleven, twelve, thirteen and the shock wave hit. The ground jumped beneath her and the air shook as the percussive roar battered her ears.
“Bloody hell!” She cursed, covering her ears too late.
“You’ll get used to it.” Isaacs told her as her ushered her to the end cubicle of the trailer unit. “This is yours.” He said. “There’s a female shower and toilet tent round the back. Can I leave you for a bit while I go do my job?”
“Yes.” Joanne answered, still a little dazed from the shockwave. “I’ll manage.”
“Mrs Jones will help if you need it.” Isaacs said as he turned away. “I’ve already asked her to keep an eye on you.”
Joanne fumed inwardly at the intimation she should need a chaperone and would have made something of it but Isaacs was gone. Clumping up the stairs she pulled open the door to find a tiny room complete with a bed, a fold down table cum desk, storage cupboards under the bed and minus its wheels, her bag. The first job was going to be unpack, at least enough to find her toiletries and the towel she had packed in the expectation that here there would be none. In that aspect she was wrong, for on the bed lay clean sheets, a blanket and though questionable in its quality, a serviceable towel. With towel and toiletries in hand she set out in search of the wash tent reputedly ‘around the back’.
Around the back it was, albeit a good fifty yards away. And fifty yards it needed to be for housed in with the single shower was a single toilet and the small tent backed onto a larger version that from the smell must have housed the male toilets.
Isaacs had been right. Joanne put it down to fatigue that she had not noted the swiftness of the onset of night the previous evening, and swift it was. The sun appeared to plummet from the sky, turning bright daylight to pitch dark in less than an hour.
True to Isaac’s word Mrs Jones, actually a very attractive Hispanic featured lady, introduced herself as Joanne was drying herself from the shower.
“Hello.” She had said, her looks confirmed by the Latino trace in her accent. “David he asked me to make sure you find all the things you need. I stay here with my husband, he is very good and makes the detonation.”
“Hello.” Joanne returned. “I’m Joanne.”
“Rebecca.” Rebecca returned. “Is it all OK?”
“So far, thanks.” Joanne told her. “So what do you do?”
“Do?” Rebecca queried.
“Yes, do. What’s your job?”
“I look after Philip.”
“Your husband.” Joanne stated as an implicit question.
“Yes.” Rebecca answered. “I stay with Phillip.”
“You really live here. In a tent?”
“This time, four month. This country, one year.”
“Nigeria, two years, Burma two years, before that Venezuela.”
“And you’re Venezuelan?”
“Have you been back there?”
“No.” Rebecca told her. “My place is with my husband.”
“In a tent.” The statement once again an implicit question.
“For four years?”
“Yes.” The response had a tone that questioned the rationale of the question.
“So you have no home, no family in Venezuela?”
“No.” Rebecca answered, a finality in her tone.
Joanne heard it and let it go. “So.” She said. “I haven’t eaten in ages. Where’s the restaurant?”
“M’bana will have something special just for you I am sure.” Rebecca responded. “We normally eat around seven.”
“Sounds good. Jamies’ is it?”
“Jamies.” Rebecca queried, clearly not making a connection.
“Restaurant.” Joanne extrapolated.
“Oh no. Just the messing area.” Rebecca responded, twisting her body and reaching out to indicate a partially exposed series of fold up tables and benches.
“Right.” Joanne acceded. “I’ll get dressed and see you?”
“Good. I will come.” Rebecca told her, once again closure in her voice and demeanour.
The evening meal introduced Joanne to more of the team, the white team. Drillers, explosive setters, phone layers, administrators and most importantly for her, data collectors. She was not going to remember every single one of the twenty-five predominantly Europeans that comprised the core of the survey team here. She recognised Tom Williams’ name from the data that landed on her desk in London and took care to note the six man team he introduced. The three seismic technicians Alan, Mark and Pete with whom she would work closely, plus Mike Davies his chief surveyor with his men, Martin and Neil. She had already met Martin Baker and Mark Nuttal at the airport though not knowing their respective roles as surveyor and seismic technician.
Of the others, Phil Jones she could not forget as Rebecca had so proudly shown her man off to the ‘Lady from London’. Pete Swanson indelibly, plus surnames for Mike, George and Derek who had survived the hell ride with her that afternoon. Chris Hill who had given up his cabin for her and Brian Osbourne head of catering.
She also met Ngoko M’bana and Ntusi Zanu-zanu who actually did the cooking.
It struck her as odd, that although freely walking the entire encampment, the local all-black labour force all inhabited a completely separate little tented camp.
As was her norm, Joanne woke early, the sky still dark outside her cabin. Momentarily disorientated she disentangled herself from the mosquito net over her cot and fumbled for the light switch and flicked it on. The reality of her surroundings flooded in. She was in a trailer in the middle of the bloody African Jungle. Christ, it was all very well having this cabin but it had nothing but a bed and a fold down table. She would still have to go outside to wash up and complete her toilet. Even in the bloody half rate downtown hotel she hadn’t had to do that. Resignedly Joanne pulled on trousers and a sweat top, gathered her wash bag and towel then set off to the wash tent.
Right through the night the jungle hadn’t been quiet but as dawn broke it woke to a cacophony. The previous evening Joanne had been surprised at the speed of transition from day to night. No lengthy twilight existed here, the sun dropping from the sky like a falling comet. She had up till this point been insulated from the physicality of the equatorial dusk by the interior of hotels, and the reverse event of dawn with the fiery orb climbing into the sky like a moon rocket left her just as intrigued.
By the time she had made herself presentable and gone to breakfast the mess tent was full, the only space being on the same bench she had eaten at the night previously. The choice she was presented with was fruit or bacon and eggs. Joanna took the fruit, as had Rebecca. All the men opted for the bacon. As it was Rebecca’s table, the men were the explosives team of Phil Jones and George Addams together with the drill team of Sean Montgomery and Trevor Gibbons. This morning, the technical seismic team did not join them.