Ok Tedi (pronounced “Ock Teddy”) is a river (ok) in the Western Provinces of Papua New Guinea (PNG) near the border with Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The river runs through the most remote part of the country. I worked at Ok Tedi for most of 1982 as the field Project Manager for a large geotechnical engineering services project performed by Dames & Moore Consultants, which before it was eaten by URS, was a well-known, prestigious international firm specializing in the applied geosciences. Our client was a Joint Venture between Bechtel and Morrison-Knudsen, who were the designers-builders of the ambitious infrastructure required for this world-class gold/copper mine: a port site at Kiunga on the Fly River; several hundred km of road; a mine site; a town site and airport at Tabubil, and various dams – all had to be built before the mine could start operating. Our project was to provide all the necessary geotechnical and geological engineering investigations and data for the design of the infrastructure. My supervisor was based in Sydney, Australia. But because the project was so remote, I had much of the responsibility for running the project in Papua New Guinea – I was free to make mistakes and fix them.
The project budget was about $5 million which was an enormous amount for a geotechnical engineering contract at that time. In fact the project was the largest that Dames & Moore had that year. The project scope was to provide the geological and geotechnical engineering data for Bechtel to design the roads, mine site, dams and so on in extremely rugged and saturated rain forest where there was little infrastructure other than footpaths and simple bridges made of plaited boughs. The designers were based in San Francisco and Melbourne and through the Bechtel engineering manager at the site, they told us where they wanted to drill, to what depth, what samples to test and so on. The sole communication was one telephone and telex (a sort of archaic fax) which Bechtel controlled, and was the sole link to the outside world.
The contractual arrangement limiting us to data gatherers was frustrating. Dames & Moore was an excellent consultant firm, a world-leader at the time, and we were well used to commissioning geotechnical investigations and using our geological/geotechnical/geophysical engineering experience and training in interpreting basic data to develop recommendations to our clients. But at Ok Tedi our opinions were neither sought nor desired by the San Francisco and Melbourne engineers. They got our opinions anyway: some geological conditions were unsuitable for the proposed construction. At one location, the Ok Ma tailings dam, we identified weak ground due to an old landslide in the locale of the future dam. The tailings dam would impound cyanide-laden slimes and fine particles from the mining operation piped into the Ok Ma river. We advised that the dam not be built where considered. A few years later, a landslide was reactivated that damaged the construction and ended the concept of a tailings dam on the Ok Ma. Instead the tailings were discharged into local rivers.
Working under the direction of remote designers was a pain, particularly when it came to site selection and characterization for dam sites. Some of the best looking sites for dams were deep narrow gorges, like that on the Ok Ninga. But it is a geological truth that the best looking sites (flat locales in otherwise mountainous terrain; or narrow gorges just where you want to build a dam) are that way because there is some geological evil lurking underground. In the case of the Ok Ninga sites, it was that the same limestone rock that had allowed the river to slice a cleft through it was also full of holes, caverns, buried rivers, collapsed sinkholes and similar evils that would allow unacceptable water leakage and foundation/abutment failures. The uselessness some sites for were obvious to us in the field but the remote designers worked hard at making their ideas work by asking us to drill here, drill there, drill here some more. Oh look, here;s a nice location where you can drill a short hole – but it was short because it was located at the bottom of a sinkhole.
My crew was composed of about 25 geologists and geotechnical engineers from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom; about 10 drillers from Australia, and about 30 men from Papua New Guinea who were drilling crew, cooks, handymen and other support staff. We had our own camp at Tabubil, separate from the camps of Bechtel-MK and the owner, the Ok Tedi Mining Company, Ltd.
We were proud of our camp, it was neat, well organized and cheerful. When they were in Tabubil, staff only had to double up in their rooms, rather than be four in a room as in other camps. I was only semi-strict about staff not painting crude graffiti on the walls of the rooms; after all – boys will be boys even in their 20’s. Alcohol and cigarettes were available in abundance. Saturday night we hosted parties, to which folk came from other camps. To cure hangovers, on Sunday mornings we had beer and pizza for lunch. The guy who made the pizza was a rescue case. When I got to the project, this shy, awkward, reticent man had been the butt of verbal abuse and I was told that he should be fired. I was told that by the forward, smartass men of my crew who, being Australians of that particular provocative persuasion, had an uncanny knack for creative swearing and goading of the innocent. I resisted the goads, by protecting him and helping him in his solid, good work in the soils laboratory. He eventually became confident enough to volunteer to make the Sunday pizzas. His creative pizzas ensured that be became one of the lads.
We were often visited by local people, mostly men, who generally wore only penis sheaths (hollowed gourds slipped over the penis and tied by string), perhaps a bow, with some bamboo arrows in a woven quiver, and maybe a hat. Despite their apparent simplicity, the people of Papua New Guinea are boundlessly fascinating in their complexity. Margaret Mead counted over a thousand cultures; and there are over 700 languages. Consequently, there are three National languages ; English, Melanasian Pidgin and Police Motu. And the unifying cultural threads in the disparate cultures include the concepts of wontok (one-talk), or tight bonding to your village and people; and payback, or do unto me and I shall do unto you – or: if you or your wontok damages me in some way, I can repay you or your wontok. Fighting is frequent and can be ritualistic or real and fierce. It is only in the mid 1900’s that cannibalism seems to have ended. Since the main camp had over a couple of thousand people from around Papua New Guinea, there were constant stories of fights and attempted murders between men. And yet at Tabubil, there were wonderful sing sings, tribal celebrations and dances, performed by local people and folk from all over the country. It was a true multi-cultural community.
The bulk of our work was drilled geological exploration. There were between 5 and 7 drills, with crews and support staff, accompanied by a geologist or engineer. The crews had to be flown from site to site, and lived in very rough fly camps – crude but adequate structures of wood and canvas and mosquito netting. Communication was by radio. Much of my job seemed to be helicopter organization since everything had to be flown in and out. Living in the bush was not easy for the young geologists and engineers, but some thrived on the challenges and I encouraged their resilience having been a prospector living roughly in Canada a decade earlier. But others seemed to survive by complaining – or whingeing,as the Aussies called it. And those often were the Brits (known to Aussies as “Poms”). Hence the common Australian insult “whingeing Pommie bastard” had a lot of meaning to me, given the amount of time I had to listen to whingeing.
The effort required to drill and move 7 drill crews around was staggering, and I staggered. Everything had to be flown in and out of the ” fly camps”. And Bechtel owned and managed the helicopters and so we had a small window in the morning to do the heavy work like lifting drill rigs and moving camps. Some rig moves were scary: lowering a rig into steep sided sinkholes was tricky for the pilots, for the folk underneath he choppers, and for me, looking down on the operation from the rim of the sinkholes. The danger of such drill sites prompted strong words from myself and equally insistent strong words from the designers. But we fortunately had no accidents.
The drillers worked directly for me. When I got to the site there were a number of troubling issues with the drilling contractor. As a new broom I swept clean: within a few days I took the rigs “off-hire”, shutting the job down. That action got immediate attention form the drilling company. It also got immediate attention form our client and my supervisors: not only the drilling contractor made out money based on days of drilling – so did we. From the flurry of attention came a lot of mutual respect and eventual partnership. I can’t say that I planned such – but that was the way it tuned out. I had much liking for the drillers and their crews – it was hard, hard work in horrible conditions ; wet, and often cold; malaria-bearing mosquitoes; poisonous snakes; crocodiles; so-so food; and tortured rock masses to drill in. The very best driller was an alcoholic. He was at his most productive when happy and he was happy when he had a supply of brown stubbies (beer). He even reportedly traveled home on leave with a brief case full of bottles to sustain him in his traveling.
For many of the engineering and geological staff the project was the first extended period from home. Some had wives and children. One of my roles was to be Uncle Ed: I spent a lot of time counseling and listening to tearful tales of misery and loneliness. Being sometimes lonely and missing home myself, I was empathetic. I tried to bring the fly-camp crews in at least every other weekend for “attitude adjustments” or, as Dames & Moore people liked to call them: “prayer meetings”. There were some very wild parties and all in all great benefits. I was most proud of the fact that all the staff (except for one miserable, whingeing Brit) renewed their 6 month contracts. I imagine that those once-young men may now treasure the experiences they had at Ok Tedi.
I also had the need for occasional relief from the job. I worked 12 to 14 hours a day for 7 days each week. Since I had sub-contractors based elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, I was able to visit some small towns like Lae and Madang for diving and dancing; or visit the Sydney office to enjoy more polite society for a few days at a time. I grew to love Papua New Guinea – it is one of my favorite countries of all those I have visited in my travels.
But the wear and tear for the year I was at Ok Tedi did damage. Although the job was a professional zenith, it was a personal nadir. Returning to Hawaii in early 1983, I was the owner of serious, coffee, alcohol, smoking and marriage problems. With a few months, I owned none of the problems or a job, due to a bewildering lay-off because a slack economy flattened my work prospects in the Honolulu office. But such are the oscillations of a life – from the peak of the Ok Tedi wave I tumbled into the surf, floundering and trying to float. But that is another story…