Just another boring Decca Day
I got up, - a bit earlier than usual. The cook made me breakfast and I had a couple of cups of coffee. I put a container of water and a jerry-can of petrol in the back of our almost new Landrover and set off. For a start it was soft sand with double tyre tracks worn into it all the way to the village of Abu Dhabi. Behind the Roman Catholic Church. Behind the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company's new residential site that was being built by Albert Abela and which was nearly finished. Behind Sheikh Shakbut's palace and then a right turn onto the subkha track leading South East to the Muqta Crossing onto the mainland.
From here it was a direct track past the subkha strip and the few buildings that marked the first "Airport". I stopped at the Police and Customs Post where Abu Dhabi Island ended and the Arabian Peninsula began and got my passport stamped. From here I followed the track that seemed to be going directly North West, which was the direction that I knew would take me to Dubai if I followed it long enough. It was still early and the sun rising in the east was a bit to my left rear so I reckoned I was OK. At least if I kept to the coast I could hardly miss Dubai. It was necessary to keep a fair way from the sea to avoid the soft subkha.
It was 1966 and I was the Station Engineer of the Purple South Decca Navigator Station. We had an idyllic location on the beach only a few yards from high water mark, along what would become the Corniche between the Roman Catholic Church and the future Hilton Hotel. There is now, a big Radio mast which, (for the sake of preserving a landmark that was shown on all the early maps as "Radio Mast"), replaced the Decca triangular, slender, guyed mast in about 1973 when the Decca Station was moved. There was a staff of 2 Engineers on the Station. Its purpose was to provide Decca Navigator Coverage in the Southern Gulf, together with other Stations on Das Island, in Doha and on a little island that we called Sheikh Shuaib, but which is now called Lavan Island. This was off the South Western coast of Iran. Another "Chain" consisting of only 3 Stations, provided the Northern Gulf with its Navigation. Decca was used by most of the tankers travelling the oil route up and down the Gulf.
We had to maintain transmission 100% non-stop, all the year round, with only very short planned maintenance cuts in our signal to allow for essential maintenance, An Aerial Rigger had to jump onto our 300 ft. mast in the few seconds we were allowed off the air, without sending warning signals to all the users in the Gulf. It was the only thing that was not duplicated or even triplicated. He had to inspect the rigging and change any light bulbs that had blown. There were lots.
If anything went wrong, the automatic system sensed this and hopefully cured the fault by changing over to another piece of equipment. We, (the two Engineers on duty 24 hours a day - one on one off), were informed by an alarm system which we lived with day and night that something had gone wrong and we had to rectify this. It was understood that we would work until everything was once more 100%. Most of the time this was a most tranquil life, but every now and again we had to earn our money!
We had a two-year contract, with no leave and actually, were on duty for twenty-four hours followed by - in theory 24 hours off. We could sleep, of course as there was a box that plugged in the bedroom and was guaranteed to wake even the most tired Engineer. These two years were followed by several months leave anywhere we chose. The Stations were Batchelor only and so we did not have the problems of wives and children. We had a cook, a houseboy and a coolie to look after us. Life was pleasant, - most of the time.
Even in those days Abu Dhabi was looked upon as the best Station and compared with the 4 in Iran it certainly was. Qatar was not bad and Das Island had all the facilities of the big oil company of ADMA Ltd. to make life more bearable. Das, however was the "master" Station and had 4 Engineers who had to monitor the operation of the Southern Chain and that meant taking recordings of signal strength etc. every so often. Every so often too, our Area Manager who lived in Abadan, would come round to check the Stations and to make sure we were all still sane. There was a British expatriate population of about 70 or so, in Abu Dhabi and we had a nice life. Our sanity was not in question. On two of the Stations however there were no other persons to talk to except the other Engineer and sometimes things got a bit tense.
It was after one such visit, when the Manager suggested that there might be a few people in Dubai who were unaware of the Company's presence and might use our services if they did know about it, that I found myself heading for Dubai to "Sell Decca".
Before the Landrover, our Company Transport had been a huge Dodge Fargo Power Wagon. What a wonderful machine this was. When we got the Landrover there was talk of retiring it - after all, it had been hard used for all the decade since the Stations had been built. I talked the Company into keeping it, as we still had to collect our own water and Diesel fuel, for the generators that ran continuously powering the equipment and our domestic requirements. I adored this Truck. It had huge tyres and a very large selection of gears and ratios. If you let the balloon tyres down to a few PSI it would go anywhere. Big tyres and low pressure are THE answer to travelling in soft sand.
I kept a small dhow on the beach and after a few weeks in the sea this became thoroughly waterlogged and if it looked as if the wind was going to get up and there was going to be a patch of bad weather, I would hitch up the Power Wagon to my boat and, using the lowest ratio, would set it off pulling up the beach and walk with it, - as it had a hand throttle, until the boat had been pulled up the beach through the soft sand. Then I would get in again, stop it and unhitch it all.
The Landrover was quite nice to drive and I had to admit that taking the Dodge to Dubai was not a viable option. Neither had air conditioning, but we were used to this, I don't know of anyone who had it. The Landrover was hardy run in so I was taking it easy and there was a blast of hot air coming in the front vents below the windscreen. It was the first long run anyone had taken in it.
The journey was going OK. I stopped again at the Abu Dhabi / Dubai border and had my passport examined again. They checked my belongings, but as I only had my overnight bag and some Decca Publicity material, there was no problem there. After about three hours of travelling on these tracks I saw what had to be, the outskirts of Dubai and soon was driving on a real tarmac road. This was the first since leaving Abadan about a year previously, when I first arrived in the Gulf, in August 1964. There was not very much to Dubai and I had been told where to go by someone who travelled regularly. I found my way to the bridge over the creek and turned left at the Clock Tower standing in splendid isolation just beyond the bridge. I headed towards where I had been told, was the Souk and found the Carlton Hotel that had been recommended to me. It was about 5 stories high, quite a landmark in those days. I had made a reservation so I booked in, had a shower to get rid of all the dust of the trip and had lunch.
Later that afternoon, I went out to see all the people that we had identified as potential customers. I was an Engineer, not a salesman and I must admit that my heart was not in it. However I did try and gave them all glossy handouts and told them about how wonderful our service was and how we never, (hardly ever) had any breaks in our transmissions. I really did believe that our system. I remember how impressed I was during my training in Brixham in Devon, when we went for a trip in the Company boat up the River Dart for a demonstration. The needles that showed the decoded information on our position were swaying to and fro. The position of the boat was changing, how could this be? Then I noticed that it coincided with the gentle roll of the boat in the swell and the mast on which the Decca Aerial was fitted. It was only moving a few feet, but this was enough to register. However, it was with a feeling of mental exhaustion that I went back to the hotel when I had seen the last of those who were there.
Back at the Carlton, at a loss for something to do, as it was too early for dinner, I went up on the roof and admired the view. There were a few Dhows moored in the creek, but it was a really quiet and peaceful backwater. There was an unrestricted view all round as it was about 3 or 4 stories high. I could see the clock tower up the creek and the bridge over which I had come and, towards the sea there were a few Abras plying their trade across the creek. I could see behind the hotel towards the sea a small mosque with its minaret poking up to about the height of the Carlton. I had my camera full if film so I took snaps all round. These would have to be sent off to Austria for processing when I got back to Abu Dhabi, as they were colour slides.
Next day after a relaxed evening and an early night, there was not very much to do! I went to see the customer who had said come back tomorrow and, - glad really to be going, topped up the tank, checked the oil and water which was a bit low, and set off along the road towards Abu Dhabi. It was a bit later than the day before, the sun was higher and hotter and did not provide the same navigation information. It was harder to see the tracks with no shadows, but I pressed on. I passed through the border. They were not very interested in me.
I watched the temperature gauge. It was much higher than yesterday. The problem was that the engine was new, not really run in and its tightness was causing it to overheat. I stopped, let it cool down and topped it up with my drinking water. It took quite a lot. I had to stop again as the day got hotter. I started to wonder if there would be any extra water anywhere. I had not seen any other traffic at all and although I was quite sure that I was going in the right direction, there were so many little used tracks that I began to wonder.
There were so many tracks, I could have been travelling on one and another vehicle could have been going along another and I would not have seen them, because of the low dunes and hummocks of dried up vegetation.
I thought I recognised a low rock where I had turned slightly and made a point of remembering this. I turned down a track that petered out after a few kilometres. I retraced my route and stopped. It was very hot and I was sweating not only from the heat.
It was dead silent; all I could hear was the ticking of the cooling engine. I drank a bit of my remaining water, - there was not really that much left. I wished I had brought more, but what I had would have been ample if I had not had to put so much in the perishing engine. I got on the roof of the car and looked around. It all looked the same. I had a compass, fixed to the dash and started to wonder if it had been affected by the electrics of the car.
The day wore on and I started to go a lot slower to save the engine from boiling my water away. I was getting low on petrol so I stopped again to cool down and top it up from my 5-gallon Jerrican. I have never experienced a sinking feeling like I felt as soon as I touched the Jerrican. It was not heavy and full at all. I unstrapped it but I knew it was empty. There was a smell of petrol in the open back of the Landrover, but that was all. It had been rubbing against a sharp corner where I had fixed it. I could see it now. All of it had gone, some time ago. It was there in the morning, but it was not now.
The sweat that started to dribble down my face was now less to do with the heat and humidity. What a stupid, stupid thing to do. I was angry with myself. There was certainly no one else to blame. I had heard of cases like this where people were found weeks later all desiccated like mummies huddled under their vehicles or fallen in the sand when they finally decided to try and walk out.
I remembered the poor dried up lizards that we used to find in the cupboards in Singapore when they had been accidentally locked in during a move. Tales of people trying to drink petrol or antifreeze, (not that I had any of that!) I had not seen anyone since leaving Dubai. That might mean that I was on the wrong track and heading out into the Empty Quarter. I was a fool. That was the only conclusion that I, or anyone else for that matter, could draw from this situation. Here I was, - alone, thirsty and hot almost in the middle of nowhere, with a Landrover and very little petrol or water. I was only 24. It was not fair, there was so much I wanted to do! Think George. You have been a bit silly, but now it is time to stop and get a grip.
OK. Let's think. I knew I only had about 10 or 20 Km. Worth of petrol left. I was not out of water, - I had about a pint or so left. I even had my Decca Survival Guide with me. It was a little booklet in DayGlow Orange so it could be used as a signal. I knew it backwards and the main thing was to stay with the vehicle. It would provide shade and it is a lot easier to see a vehicle than a person (body!)
There were mirrors that I could use, but where I was, was not good. I moved the Landrover to the highest piece of ground I could see.
Even from the roof, I still could not see anything except sand and scrub, the tracks did not seem to be as well used as they looked before, but at least I could be seen a bit better. Nobody else. Nothing Else. Pity it was a Limestone colour Landrover. It would have been better if it were all DayGlow Orange!
It was very quiet. I listened hard. Was that an engine or not? I could not be sure. No - maybe not. About an hour later I thought I heard another, - but no. If one did come by I needed some thing dramatic to signal it with. They would not hear the horn far away. They might see smoke. Set fire to the Landrover! Yes! Hang on, - it was brand new and cost a lot more than I expected to earn. Never mind the cost. This was my life we were talking about. I had a lighter as I smoked in those days. I looked around for something with which to start a fire. There were a lot of twigs, but nothing that would provide a lot of smoke. I gathered a pile of twigs and it looked a bit pitiful. Maybe the seats, they were filled with foam I expect. Now that was more like it. I could produce quite a lot of smoke at short notice. I was thinking that this might be better than trying to set fire to the car, when I thought I heard an engine. I jumped onto the roof again. I did hear an engine and I could see a cloud of dust. My heart was bumping. It was coming towards me. There was no doubt about it. It was a pickup, I soon saw. I suddenly felt embarrassed. I jumped down, put the seats back inside and kicked away the pathetic twigs. How could I have considered such things?
I waved to the driver to stop and of course he did. I don't know what nationality they were but they understood a bit of English. There were two and a pickup full of cardboard boxes. " I've run out of petrol." I said, indicating the empty, punctured Jerrican. There were signs of regret and sympathy. "I don't have much water either." They had both in abundance like the sensible people they were. Money changed hands and I found that they were going to Abu Dhabi. I was on the right track, after all. I followed them, as far as the Muqta crossing, then, I put my foot down. In the cooler afternoon breeze I waved to them and was soon home. " How did it go?" I was asked. " Oh, OK. No problem." I did not mention anything to anyone, after all it was just another boring Decca Day.