Or less succinctly – “The whole reason behind the fact that I am in Mali in the first place and sitting out in the sticks”. No, it’s not just for the fun of it…
Just so you get a flavour of what it is that keeps us busy in these here parts I figured that I ought to share with you some of the basic routine during a drilling campaign. Obviously I can’t include too many details as I’m sure the company wouldn’t be too chuffed to have any such information plastered over the internet, but for most of you it just wouldn’t be that interesting anyway!
The typical daily routine for field work in this particular programme consists of getting up before the sun, and setting off at around 6am to be on site by 7am. Drilling ought to commence around about then, but any amount of mechanical tinkering by the drilling crew can delay matters indefinitely. The other day they were faffing around until nearly 11am! Once the rig is operational there is a frenzy of activity and regular dust storms. To explain – the rig we are using this time around is referred to as an Air-Core Rig (= AC drilling). It has a blade on it – much like an auger, which twists around at high-speed through the top soil and overburden until it hits fresh rock. We’re basically sampling the oxidised, weathered zone in what we like to call a “very deep soil sample”.
Attached to the auger blade are long cylindrical steel rods. Each one is about 6m long and they screw into each other to make a longer “tube” as you progress deeper into the ground. They are in fact two rods, one is inside the other. Compressed air is forced down in the gap between the double tube and all the ground material that is being drilled through (and is now pulverised chips/dust) is effectively blasted up through the centre of the inner tube. A large hose is attached to the top of the drill rods in order to transfer the material into a metal cyclone, which sort of looks like a small cement mixer where it “settles down”. The dust and chips then fall out of a hole in the bottom of the cyclone and, all going well, gets collected in large plastic sacks.
Every meter is collected separately to be logged and sampled. Not all the material makes it up through the hose though and there is an overflow tube which funnels the high pressure dust out to the side of the rig. You do not want to be standing on that side of the rig when that thing starts pumping!
This process is then repeated over and over and over again… It is every bit as monotonous as you would think not to mention terrible for the sinuses, with or without dust masks on.
The bonus bit of the day is the fact that there is always some down-time, when the machine is being tinkered with and then when the crew takes a lunch break, where I get to wander around and take loads of non-work related photographs. Definitely the best part of my day! Rigs are for boys.
First thing in the morning is best as there are fewer flies and bugs to deal with and there is a nice breeze, which is relatively cool. As things start warming up there is a little black fly that appears. They are the most persistent little critters and try to crawl into your eyes, nose and ears in search of moisture. In Southern Africa we know them as Mopani bees – but you would be forgiven for mistaking them for flies. They are no larger than about 4mm long. The only way to actually not be driven absolutely crazy by these bees is to wear a headscarf, which covers everything… leaving only a pair of sunglasses visible to anyone. Then the bees will focus on anything else that is exposed – so long sleeves and long trousers are essential for general comfort – if not to keep the bees off you but to keep the sun off you as well!
By mid-afternoon, the breeze is more like something out of an oven and the bees are relentless. I know in Scandinavia they have a similar black fly, but at least there you can buy a “head-net” which you fit over a hat, preferably one with a decent brim, and tuck your shirt collar up into. Nobody said being a geologist was a “fashionable” profession. In fact, I think we all have appalling dress sense. Vanity is for the birds!
I’d like to stress at this point that we leave it entirely up to the drilling crew and our sampling crew to decide on when they want to start working in the day – bearing in mind a target production that we need to achieve. Obviously the mornings are cooler – then they can finish up sooner in the day and avoid the mid-afternoon scorch… but some days they just feel like starting late… so they must work until late to catch up. I think they’re trying to prove to us how tough they are and can handle this heat. Why can’t we?!