Occasionally we’d get a day off to relax around the base camp. Some of us would congregate in the mess tent and shoot the breeze or tell lies to pass the time. I’ve always been interested in what people will do to make a living, so I got into a conversation with one of the young Pakistanis employed on the Conoco contract.
The funniest thing I heard during that bit of story-telling was that the Brits on the job were being paid $300 a month. Given my attitude about the Brits and their work ethic on this job, I thought there was some justice to that. The Pakistani kid was getting $500 a month and sending it all home to his family. When we all went on an R&R, he would remain in camp in order to save his money.
I never mentioned what I was getting paid for fear of starting a riot. In fact, one of the pilots-who-wasn’t started quite a brouhaha by taking it upon himself to pay a couple of the locals more than the others.
Our days off were not always spent in camp.
Jean-Pierre Jacquard, a French national, was a renowned geologist and consultant hired by Conoco for this contract. He had recently conducted a study of U.S. gold reserves, and although he had signed a confidentiality agreement, he would sometimes let slip little nuggets of non-technical information just to pique our curiosity.
Jean-Pierre would round up the helicopters and load them with engineers, locals and himself and point us in the direction of the fantastic sand beaches that were 80 or 90 miles away to the east. We’d fly along the coast until we found a likely spot for the afternoon, then circle and land. During the over-water part of the flight, I noticed sharks swimming to the surface, and often wondered if it was the high-pitched sound made by the tail rotor that drew them into the shallow waters.
On one beach sojourn near Gabbac, Nugaal, we chose to land not far from a well-used camp on the beach that a Somali had constructed for his family. He had a fire pit and his shelter set up, and his wooden boat was drawn up on shore. If you look closely at the fire pit in the picture, you’ll see that he has a wind break around his fire constructed entirely from huge tortoise shells. He even had a couple of wooden pallets leaning against his shelter that he had rescued from the ocean.
It was an apparent rarity to see such a setup, since Somalis considered fishing to be beneath their dignity. In the middle of the worst drought in their (at that time) history, I found this aversion to fishing rather sad.