In 2007 I worked as a site engineer on 2 coal port expansion projects in northern Queensland. The 2nd project was at a place called Dalrymple Bay, where a coal loading wharf was to be expanded from 3 to 4 shipping berths, and the 3.8km jetty out to the wharf was to be widened. The place was a few hundred kilometres north of the tropic line, so the days were hazy and humid. Our offices were initially on-shore, and to get out to the off-shore office was, to use local vernacular, a bit of a mission. Back in the 1980s, a bus full of workers had accidentally driven over the edge of the jetty and a few had drowned.
[Caption: The 3.8km jetty connecting the wharf and the shore, at Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal (DBCT).]
Part of the main structural job was to weld steel piles and float them out into the harbour, and then hammer them into the sea bed using a hydraulic hammer. This work involved welding over the sea, but as Dalrymple Bay was in the tropics, salt water crocodiles and sharks lurked in the waters of the bay. In fact, during a life saving drill on the wharf, a dummy was thrown into the water to see how quickly rescue boats could respond. After many hours, the boats still couldn't find the dummy. It was found a few days later washed up onto the shore, completely mangled by sharks. The good thing about working off-shore however, was that sometimes you got to see whales swimming into the harbour in the morning, and also if it was a Saturday or Sunday and no-one was around, you could do a spot of fishing.
[Caption: Our safety office says, "If a man falls in the drink, press this button and throw him a life ring. DO NOT GO IN THE WATER."]
Another thing about working off-shore was that you got to meet some of the sailors. They led a pretty hard life, staying months at sea at a time. One day I noticed that a car was driving out along the jetty to the wharf, and it wasn't a site vehicle. It looked private.
-- "That's a prostie", said an old hand.
-- "A prostitute?"
-- "Yeah, they come out to service the ships."
-- "What? All of them?! That's crazy!"
-- "Yep. Happens. Pretty good money I reckon."
My previous project was also a port expansion, in Gladstone. Between Gladstone's RG Tanna terminal and the one's at Dalrymple Bay and Hay Point, the majority of the coal which is dug up in Queensland are loaded onto ships from the Bahamas, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, and Panama. The demand was so huge that on some days you can see dozens of carriers waiting offshore for their turn to be loaded. Sometimes as many as 100 ships can lie in wait off the Dalrymple Bay terminal, most of them from Panama.
Apart from the massive coal port, Gladstone also has a coal-fired power plant, aluminium and nickel processing plants, a cement processing plant, and possibly a new natural gas plant. In the old days, there used to be a small hill near the center of town where you could take in a view of the place, but the hill had been eroded over the years by acid rain. For these reasons some people refered to Gladstone as "arsehole by the sea", where the actual arsehole of Australia was probably Mt. Isa, a mining town in the middle of the desert. Offshore from Gladstone lay the Bunker group of islands, of which the southernmost, Lady Musgrave Island, marked the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Gladstone is also famous for being the finish line of the annual Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race, once won in the 1960s by the media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
[Caption: View from the top of Shiploader 3, at RG Tanna Coal Terminal, Gladstone. On the left are coal conveyor belts, and directly in front are Shiploaders 1 and 2.]
One evening, after our shift, a few of us sat outside one of the many pubs found in Gladstone. [Incidentally, the local beer in Queensland is called "XXXX" and so there are many many signs with "XXXX" written on them. An innocent colleague from Indonesia thought they were all brothels! According to New Zealanders, South Africans, and Englishmen, the beer is called "XXXX" because we can't spell "beer", but stuff'em.] So we were sitting outside having a xxxx when a van pulls up in front of us, filled with perhaps 7-8 Russian sailors. One of them says something to us in Russian but we just look at him blankly. Then he says something like "Sex! Strippers!"
We nod then and point down the hill.
-- "You'll want the Port Curtis Hotel. It's just down there, 2nd left."
The slide door of the van slammed shut pretty loudly and there might have been some screeching of tyres as they drove off. It all happened in about 10 seconds. I once went inside the Port Curtis, to see what it was like. It was the seediest little joint, packed full of sailors mostly from the Philippines. It was dark inside and the floors were sticky. A topless girl behind the bar served the dozens of glass-eyed customers, and when a show started a crowd gathered below the stage and stared in silence with glazed faces as a naked girl came out into the lights to gyrate against a pole. There was polite clapping at the end.
For a period of time I was on night shift on the terminal shiploader. Sometimes I stood right out on the end of the boom, staring into the tropical night. Now and then a ship would sidle into the moonlit harbour, pulling the surface of the still waters like a piece of black silk, its dark mass accompanied by two or three tiny tugboats. I wanted to be a sailor when I was a kid, thinking it sounded romantic, but it wasn't looking so appealing anymore.
[Caption: Sailors receiving rations (left). DBCT harbour in the morning (right). A typical workday began at 5am and finished at 5pm.]
### Barcelona, Spain ###
I arrived in Barcelona on a Friday or Saturday evening, there to visit K. who was taking a semester of courses at the University. When we finally managed to find each other it was about 11pm and he was already a little tipsy.
-- "Daniel! How are ya!? Is that all your luggage?! Come on! I'll show you a bit of the town!!"
And so we visited all the sights of Barcelona by night, stopping by at a few local pubs near each place because we couldn't really see anything. Being both football fans (K. supports Liverpool the poor fellow) we decided it would be a good idea to see Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona Football Club TM. Who knows, maybe the guard would even let us in for a peek of the hallowed grounds. So 2am found us both wandering down towards the Camp Nou, slightly drunk and excited to see the famous stadium.
As we walked down the dark lane, we noticed a shadow sitting by the curb. It was a chubby looking girl, by herself. "Odd", I thought. And as we walked further there was another shadow, and then a car drove past very slowly, "crawled" you could say. Finally the clincher: two figures suddenly appeared out of the shadows. They had satin skirts and sequined tops.
-- "Hey Chinka! Wanna play?"
We sobered up pretty quickly.
Rewind an hour and we were at the basilica 'Sagrada Familia', or rather, we were at an Irish pub just underneath the basilica's spires. The Sagrada Familia is Gaudi's masterpiece, and Gaudi, my guide tells me, was a virgin at 60. It is due for completion in 2026, passing the midpoint in 2010, and was begun in 1882. The Irish pub was packed full of locals. A rockabilly band was playing in the corner and the singer had hair like Elvis. A group of girls were next to us swaying to the beat of the band and making eyes. Suddenly my friend's face lights up:
-- "Hey! Let's go to Camp Nou!"
I think this is a smashing idea, and we both finish our beers and start jumping and happily singing "We're going to Camp Nou! We're going to Camp Nou!" and we wore happy faces that night as we marched out of the pub and onto the street. In my memory (or my imagination), the girls looked at us with bemusement and horror.
### Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ###
(taken from an earlier post)
-- "You can stay at my dad's hotel, it's very cheap."
-- "It's right in the heart of town, but it's a little run down."
-- "At night there are fat prostitutes soliciting, they're really ugly and they only come out at night."
-- "And it's a dangerous area, there are lots of pickpockets and thieves around so watch yourself."
-- "And don't go out after 8pm, there are motorcycle gangs and drug addicts who will bash you up and rob you."
-- "er ... OK"
Footnote: I stayed in a hotel opposite the southern entrance of Petaling street. There are quite a lot of these cheap hotels in the area, and at night, at the entrance of each hotel there invariably stood a rather plump lady with horrible make-up in a thin top and a skirt. Sometimes they would just sit in the lobby and eyeball anyone who passed by, but there was always just the one for each hotel.
TO BE CONTINUED ...