back to article Fly to Africa. Survive helicopter death flight to oil rig. Do no work for three weeks. Repeat

Welcome again to On-Call, our end-of-week wander through readers' reminiscences of being asked to do dumb things in nasty places and unsociable hours. This week, meet “Ashley”, who wrote to tell us of the time he was asked to install some kit on an oil rig off the coast of Africa. Ashley and his colleagues built and tested …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Been there and done that, but in far nicer circumstances

    Only difference was the country was a perfectly friendly Benin, and we (there were two of us) had a two week, expenses paid holiday in a lovely hotel*.

    * I do recommend the Maison Rouge, in Cotonou, if you can get a room (oil money has moved in since I was out there).

    Anon, to protect the reputation of my customer who promised tomorrow every day.

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Been there and done that, but in far nicer circumstances

      In the late '90s I was lucky enough to work out in the Rhineland with a friendly German whose knowledge of IT stopped with the HP3000. What he lacked in computer skills he made up for in viticulture. Got very squiffy on Dornfelder and Konigsberg vodka (separate glasses). What should have been four days work took the better part of August. On the plus side I can now pronounce zwo-hundert-zwo-und-zwanzig even when my blood alcohol is stratospheric.

    2. Crazy Operations Guy Silver badge

      Re: Been there and done that, but in far nicer circumstances

      I too had a similar experience., but this was for oceanographic research facility out on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific. The equipment I was setting up came in two pieces about 45 pounds each. The company I worked for decided that to save money, rather than shipping the equipment, I would stow it in my check bags (I was carrying 2 checked bags, a stuffed-to-the-gills duffle bag for my own stuff, and my backpack for my electronics and toiletries). They paid for the extra bag fees and then a little extra.

      The flight schedule was horrific, though: I was stationed in Hawaii at the time, and had to go to an island ~100 kms from Guam, yet the flew my the most indirect way possible (The direct Honolulu-Guam flights were fully booked). My flight ended up being HON-> LAX -> ICN -> GUM and then onto a small seaplane to take me to the research station. All-in-all, I figured that the round-trip was close to 4 times the distance as it would have been if I had a direct Hawaii to the station flight (got First Class seats the whole way, so that made up for the time in the air)...

  2. scottyman

    Nothing anywhere near as dramatic (or as long) but was on my way down to visit a customer with a demo artist and marketing exec - we were flying to NZ from the UK the long way around, and with about 4 hours left in the flight, we noticed we had taken a bit of a dog leg towards Fiji - we were grounded for about 5 hours until the airports in NZ reopened - and given the opportunity to offload in Fiji to enjoy the weekend, or carry onto midwinter in NZ. As we had received shipping notification that our kit had been successfully loaded onto a cargo plane in HK - we elected to carry on to NZ (under protest of course)

    Turns out that within minutes of boarding the flight to NZ, a minor correction came through on the shipping notification - that was the kit we needed for the demo had in fact, been OFFLOADED in HK, where it would remain for another 5 days.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Many years ago the UK Government gave a mainframe system to a Far East educational establishment. A team was dispatched to await its arrival, commission it, and train the local staff to support it.

    The equipment arrived on time - and then there was a protracted wrangle with Customs demanding a high rate of import tax on this gift. That was eventually resolved and the equipment was delivered to the newly built computer building. The boxes were unloaded into the computer room but couldn't be unpacked as there was one essential not yet installed - the air conditioning.

    The question of "When will the air conditioning be finished?" - was answered with "Three weeks".

    In fact "three weeks" was always the regular answer for the remainder of the team's scheduled stay. When they left aft the end of 12 months the equipment was still in its shipping cases waiting for the air conditioning.

    The team had an enjoyable year's holiday and set their sights on a lower achievement. "We couldn't make the local staff efficient - but we at least tried to teach them what the word means."

  4. SkippyBing Silver badge

    A long long time ago I somehow found myself working in gas exploration in Bangladesh. The company had a Far East base in Singapore, because it's civilised with a decent customs and immigration service. Bangladesh however had a similar process to the one the author describes where kit could be held up for weeks awaiting clearance, to get round this an awful lot of equipment was disassembled and taken as personal luggage. Quite what Singapore Airlines thought when charging people ~£1000 for excess baggage before loading what was clearly a rack mounted computer system on the aircraft I have no idea.

    Certainly put your back out carrying it through customs though.

    1. Mayhem

      Individual servers in boxes are probably ok, but I have a lot of sympathy for the poor bastard checking in the rack!

      1. Knewbie

        So it was HIM !

        Sometimes, last century, when was younger and needed a summer job, I became that poor sod that loads the luggages.

        So I definetly hate, despise and/or mock the people that use a passenger plane with :

        Fridges (full, of course)

        Gas stoves (the one with the oven at the bottom)

        Empty diving air bottles

        1970s Samsonites (plastic handles of doom...rips your hands or rips itself apart...)

        Crates... (guys... We are NOT equipped with crate moving hardware)

        Anyone putting 50kg in one bag (that extra heavy sticker they put on it is just to make us despise you in advance of moving the thing)

        My two favorites in a looong summer :

        Guitar in a soft cover. Life expectancy: not until arrival

        The pole vaulting team poles...fits just right in a 737 hold. Took us 2 hours to remove them...

        Bonus : the poor sod that took a nap in the hold while waiting for the luggage cart, was missed by the guy closing the door and disappeared for the day before being flown back and fired the next day ^^

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Mum went to visit friends in Khartoum. Her luggage consisted of two suitcases barely containing the lightest Summer clothing she had. A couple of books. A bunch of cauliflower, leeks and apples packed amongst the clothes, them being the fresh veg her friends desperately wanted to eat. Marmite, chocolate and peanut butter. A 20kg container of tools for a car mechanic. Her luggage came to 80kg (about 15kg of it hers) - and her excess baggage charge came to nothing. People flying to Africa travel heavy. Those same friends subsequently moved to Nigeria - and on one trip took a washing machine as luggage - Ian managed to talk his way out of the excess baggage charge - as usual.

      Watching him pack was amazing. He had scales and various pilles of stuff for family and friends to be whittled down. Then each case would be packed in priority order, so he knew what to give up when the airline finally decided he was taking the piss. Those items would go back with whoever gave him a lift to the airport, and taken on subsequent trips, or by visitors.

    3. lybad

      I suspect they're used to it - I remember that in the mid 1990's a couple of times that Damon Hill and others used to take F1 engines as hand luggage.... (or maybe travelling companions)

      1. anothercynic Silver badge


        Still happens today with off-road motorcycles... suspension goes as personal sports equipment, as sometimes do engines (suitably cleaned). There was a time where luggage smelling faintly of race fuel was pretty much de rigeur between LA and Heathrow. Unfortunately the redesign of LAX has put paid to much of that because the TSA freak out when there's even a whiff of the stuff in the luggage and the scanners go ape. :-)

        1. x 7

          Re: @lybad

          "smelling faintly of race fuel "

          if the fuel had nitrate additives it would really freak the sensors

    4. mark adrian bell

      Re : Excess baggage.

      Reminds me of the English language text books that I used to carry on flights into Phnom Penh in the 90s.

  5. small and stupid

    Oh dear, has the art of facilitation payments been lost with our industrial heritage? Kids today, etc.

    1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Exactly what I thought - a little baksheesh would have helped a lot!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      In simple terms, you can go to jail. That makes competitors from the likes of <cough>China</cough>, who have no such qualms, that little bit more competitive.

      1. Cameron Colley

        It's called "bribery".

        As the AC above point out it can mean prison time for anyone aware of it. As far as the UK government is concerned if you are aware that somebody even suggested that they pay a foreign official anything but what is explicitly declared by law it's bribery and, if your company has a UK office and you visit, it it can mean prison time whether not not you work for the UK office or are a UK citizen.

        The above is regardless of whether the country in question considers it bribery or not or whether it's legal there or not or whether their courts would even consider looking into it or not, unless it's explicitly stated in their law that the payment is legal the UK government say you are guilty of bribery.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: It's called "bribery".

          A former employer of mine, a large multinational with a number of offices in Britain, had a whole section of its financial policy dedicated to this subject. It included details such as how much each rank were allowed to bribe and who was supposed to approve what if going above that. I did claim small amounts of money (went in as "facilitation expenses" in the spreadsheet, no receipt) on occasions on it was imperative, from a health and physical integrity point of view, that I leave a particular country, whether or not I was in possession of my passport.

          I've also heard of large bribes being returned when the promised services could not be provided, following an untimely "regime change". The reasoning apparently was that you would not do business with this gentlemen again if he'd just took your bribe and ran away.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Isn't it called "paying for priority service"

      To make the distinction between paying for customs official to turn blind eye to the import, and paying to make sure the customs official comes into work and actually checks the import rather than catching up on the footy on his TV in the office

    4. DropBear Silver badge

      There's an art to knowing when to "lace" your passport with some money for facilitation and when you'll end up jailed for trying. It's not a game I'd be willing to play today...

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dream job

    Meanwhile, I'm stuck in concrete jungle with a meaningless "do everything, but this at once and why isn't this done yet?" full-stack-"sysadmin" job (and I mean fully stack, changing from wiring up phones to coding in Groovy via widdling the firewall? Yes I can!)

    Books to read? Muscle building? I WISH!

    Gotta go now...

  7. Stevie Silver badge


    "Oil Rig" and "Africa" didn't sound warning claxons at deafening levels?

    Must've been some payout involved.

    I don't suppose it dawned on anyone to arrange the necessary customs payment sooner?

    Of course. British Industry doesn't do that sort of thing.

  8. JeffyPoooh Silver badge

    How to Ship 101

    1) Obtain the contact information of somebody at the final destination

    2) Send it to their attention

    3) Include a secret keyword in the shipment, one per item

    4) Don't leave home until they've confirmed receipt thus...

    "Packages 'flamingo' and 'aardvark' have been delivered."

  9. cosmo the enlightened

    Oh well...

    Anyone who has been in the Oil & Gas game long enough knows what it takes to work in Africa. I have managed IT services into several African countries in my time. Everything takes time. Everything takes grease in the gears.... EVERYTHING.

  10. Tazbert

    Aaaah, African Customs...

    Reminds me of my time flying out through an African country.

    At the heliport things were rather falling apart, but we were told there were some nice new hangars for the helicopters in customs - should be with us any day now...

    18 months later they were still in Customs - apparently they had classed them as 'Garden Furniture' to get more import tax...

  11. Daedalus Silver badge

    Take a dip

    "Dipping" is just putting a "chaw" of tobacco and maybe something else like gum in your mouth and letting Nick O'Tien have his way with your nervous system. The real mainliners "dip" into a small can of finely cut snuff tobacco and hold it inside the lower lip. Spitting out the resulting goo is frequent and necessary. Clearly the rig workers didn't have the option of spittin' to loo'ard, as the old sea dog said.

    I shared a house with a "dipper". Once you got used to finding cups of brown glop scattered around the place it was OK.

    1. Tikimon Silver badge

      Re: Take a dip

      I'm a native of the American South, and the product of two farm families. Smoking was (and is) most common among my extended family, but we had several smokeless tobacco users as well. When you grow up with anything it seems perfectly natural, but in retrospect the "spit cups" were pretty gross. However, they were an improvement over aiming a stream of brown juice at a spittoon across the room like in older times. Inspired by their example, I never touched tobacco.

      I can still see my great aunt Lottie digging into her little can of Bruton snuff. At this point it's a sentimental memory tinged with a bit of "ew" factor.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Take a dip

        I had a teacher who took snuff. He smoked a foul pipe in his own classroom, and we just had to put up with it. But other teachers wouldn't allow him to smoke in there's, so he resorted to the snuff.

        We had a game, which was to ask him questions that required him to write on the blackboard, just as he took the snuffbox out. Thus he'd put it away and get busy with the chalk. We once managed to get his hands shaking so much from lack of nicotine, that he dropped his snuffbox.

        I've just realised, that I might sound a bit old. Chalk, blackboard, smoking in class, snuff. Does it help that he was my latin teacher? No?

        He subsequently wrote a not bad comic novel about a latin professor unappreciated by his not very bright students. It's just possible that I may have helped inspire that...

        1. John Gamble

          Re: Take a dip

          "He subsequently wrote a not bad comic novel about a latin professor unappreciated by his not very bright students."

          That actually sounds interesting. Any chance you remember the title?

    2. Pirate Dave Silver badge

      Re: Take a dip

      I am a dipper, have been for 35 years now. I think it's a by-product of growing up on a farm in the Deep South (US) in the '70's and '80's. There aren't many of us in the IT world. Not a nice, civilized habit for the Corporate world, to be sure, but the gentle touch of nicotine keeps the internal bastard at bay so I seem like a super nice guy with a level head. I've read that dipping and chewing are much worse as far as addiction and nicotine levels than smoking - I dunno, never smoked. At least for me, dipping is a jealous mistress and kept me away from drugs and (heavy) drinking in my younger days.

      Spitcups are just accidents waiting to happen anywhere but in the workshop (shed). Better to use a coke can, or better still, a plastic bottle with a cap. And bonus points if the bottle is opaque. The wife will really appreciate that. Spittons and the rest are just nasty things that have to be cleaned out at some point and are really a last resort. IMHO.

  12. x 7

    friend of mine was a consultant on power station contracts in Africa. He said the hold-up at customs was a standard con used to make the contract run over schedule and so force penalty payments from the contractors.

    He said that on more than one contract things became so desperate that they employed teams of people flying in and back out on a daily basis, with their personal baggage consisting entirely of simple steel pipes sawed to around 2 feet in length. It was cheaper to do that than pay the overrun penalties.

    He claimed Nigeria was the worst for this, but other African nations weren't averse to the scam.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If only it were just African nations. This is SOP for many nations, several considered "first world", unfortunately. Corruption? We don't have there here ....

  13. ARGO

    Some kit we were due to install for the USAF was held up at customs in Colorado Springs.

    The Major overseeing our contract took a squad and retrieved it.

    If only all customers were that helpful.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A long time ago ...

    Many, many years ago I worked for a year for a company that makes flight simulators. They had a contract to build a new simulator for the Indian army - I think it was for helicopters, but don't quote me on that. While the simulator was being built the Indian army constructed a nice new building to house the simulator.

    This is where it got interesting.

    The Indian army got the Indian air force to ship the simulator out in a Hercules, flying it into the army base (which had a runway) that would be the future home of the simulator. This the air force did very happily. When they arrived at the base, they taxied to the end of the runway, opened the boot and shoved the simulator (in its transport cases) out the back, then left PDQ before the screams of outrage started (note: this was in the monsoon season, so it was just a touch damp out there).

    Once sanity had been restored and the simulator moved under cover, the company I worked for had to assemble the thing in its nice new building. Everything went well until the time came to mount the cab on the simulator frame, at which point they discovered that the steel covers on the cable ducts sunk into the floor where not strong enough to take the weight of the cab + huge fork-lift that was carrying it.

    Queue even more bad language!

    1. x 7

      Re: A long time ago ...

      at a guess a Sea King sim?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A long time ago ...

        Almost certainly. Anon, for reasons.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A long time ago ...

      "Queue even more bad language!"

      That's not just a developing world problem. Back in 1970 our new in-house computer room was built by a novel method. They assembled the machine on the false floor that was part of the factory mainframe commissioning hall. Then they boarded off the area from the rest of the factory - and built a separate small office block and entrance for the operations staff on the end of the building.

      Then the state-of-the-art 600MB disk unit*** arrived at a weekend. Not sure if the staff entrance was big enough for it to go through - it would have been a tight squeeze. There was a rumour about a hole in the roof and a large crane. It was deposited on its shipping wheels on the central concrete runway inside the hall. As it was rolled onto the false floor there was the horror of the floor tile supports buckling. A retreat just in the nick of time saved the day until a reinforced floor could be arranged.

      *** my mind's eye says the unit was about 2m long, 2m high, 1m wide - and was very heavy. Two stacks of platters approaching a metre in diameter - each holding 300MB. (An internet comment suggests they were contra-rotating). The substantial head actuators for both sets were interconnected so that the reaction forces cancelled out as the synchronised heads moved in and out. A head crash, which happened quite often initially, produced a neat silver band about 2cms wide. The bearings were water cooled. If the mains pressure dropped there would be a groaning sound as the unit started to power down. This then turned into a slow oscillation as the pressure recovered - only to fall again as the unit came back to its required flow.

      1. DropBear Silver badge

        Re: A long time ago ...

        My word, man! Didn't you know to park your heads before shutting down?!?

      2. ricardian

        Re: A long time ago ...

        5MB storage in 1956:

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This wasn't me

    But on a project I was involved with in Canada there were a lot of servers that needed to go from the US to Canada. Fortunately a couple years before 9/11. For whatever reason they didn't want to deal with customs, so they had one of the consultants drive them across in a truck, in multiple trips. The consultant happened to be Indian, not a US or Canadian citizen.

    So the first time he went across he got some busybody border guy who gave him a lot of grief, but somehow through a combination of fast talking and getting someone on the phone who could do the same, he got permission to go through after several hours of hassle for both the border guy and him. The main reason it worked was because that first load was just racks, not the millions of dollars worth of servers, storage, etc. that would be coming in subsequent trips. For the remaining trips he stopped short and eyeballed where the border guy he'd dealt with before was and went into his line. Each time the guy saw him, grimaced, and just waved him through without checking!

  16. Brian Allan 1

    Sounds about right for work in Africa, although I'm surprised the equipment didn't go missing "somewhere", never to be found again (except maybe on the black market?).

  17. Mr_Pitiful

    Try Sri Lanka

    If you fancy doing networking job there, there are serious restrictions...... If you tell anyone

    I went out with a friend on 'Holiday' to fix a network issue on a mountain (Southern Sri Lanka)

    My luggage consisted of a few pairs of Shorts, Tee-shirts, Trainers & toiletries

    But also contained 2 x Boxes of CAT5 cable, Switches & sockets. all of which cost a bloody fortune out there.

    Import tax is 100% of the value, if they pick up on it and I had about £2k of equipment in my suitcase

    Arrived and just strolled through 'nothing to declare' never saw a single official, picked up outside by limo & driven directly to a hotel for dinner, then onwards to said mountain!

    4 Hours later, sitting by pool swigging a beer, awaiting local 'labour' to come and run the cables via the coconut trees.

    Cabling took 3 days, terminating took 30 mins, connecting & configuring 2 hours, and there were great pool parties every night I had my own villa with servants, 24 hour driver as required and access to the casino next door with spending money. All in all I think it was a good relaxing holiday.

  18. HarryBl

    I once sat on a ship in Port Phillip Bay for 11 weeks waiting for the boss to fly out from London with a banker's draft to pay Esso for the $300,000 we owed them for bunkers.

  19. kain preacher Silver badge

    Not my story but I was told this one. In this god forsake country in Africa they need oil works and it paid double then at home. SO my friend too the job. So far noting uneventful till the landed. The let all the black people off and when the white started to get off the made them stay. After 30 minutes they were let off the plane and made to carry their check luggage at gun point . The guards to the white people you are the n***gers. He only lasted 2 days.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      RIP English

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