A Travellerspoint blog

Back In The Sud

sunny 38 °C

There is something rather unsettling about walking about in minefields. It’s that whole your next step could be your last one on two legs, or even alive, kind of feeling. You know the one. It’s the kind of feeling you get after you have just sat down at the cinema to watch “The Return Of The King” or some other epic 3 day long movie, and you start to wonder if you locked the front door or not. You’re sure you did, you always do after all, but then again you can’t quite be 100% certain on that. It’s the kind of annoying feeling that makes you give up, go home, and check.


PMN Landmine uncovered and ready for demolition.

Now my job is to see to the effective and safe clearance of this kind of thing, but for me the feeling never goes away. For those who don’t yet know, I don’t clear the land myself, that would take forever. The minefield I am working in at the moment is some 19 million square meters (or 19 square kilometers which doesn’t sound nearly as impressive) and that would take me a very long time indeed. By a rough estimation I could get this cleared in about 1,000 years working non stop. Now while I am a big fan of full time employment, even I have my limits. So we employ locals to do the finding part, for economic and other reasons. People like myself are employed to plan and oversee the execution of the plan, and then deal with the items that are found. The downside of that is we have to trust that the locals are doing their jobs correctly, and sometimes all I can really trust them to do is pick their nose.

This may seem a little unfair, and for some it could be a rather mean generalisation. They are not all obsessive nose pickers after all. Some days I liken it to working with 5 year olds. They seem to have the attention span of a goldfish, the work ethic of a career local council stop/go sign holder, the resolve of the French Army in the 1900’s and the intelligence of Baldrick from Blackadder Goes Forth. These are the people I am relying on to clear the ground, the people I am relying on to keep each other safe, and the people I am relying on to find everything that has been planted in this area. Can you see where that feeling is coming from now?? Add to this the fact that the SAF seemed to be from the school of random minefield plantings, and it could make you really really nervous. As a rule when Armies are planting defensive land mines they tend to do it in an organised fashion, so you don't take out your own people which, I am reliably informed, is rather frowned upon. So lines on mines will be planted in strategic positions and diligently mapped out in order to provide safe access for those in the know, and a rather surprising time for those who you wish to keep out. The SAF and the SPLA however, tended to just scatter them randomly around the area like they were setting up for an Easter Egg hunt. There is no rhyme or reason to the laying of these fields. Some places will have a large number of mines in a small area, and others will have just one in a big field. I guess it depended on how energetic the team of planters were feeling when they went out with their box of mines. I could almost guarantee that the areas around the largest trees will be heavily contaminated, as they will have slept there all day and then quickly emptied their supply before heading back to see what is on for tea.


Spot the Landmine - There is more than one in this photo.

I am back in Sudan and it is good to be here for a few reasons. Firstly when we were in Iraq myself, Gaz and Miss Fire would reminisce about how good it was to work here. (Yes that’s how frustrating the Iraqi’s were, the Sudanese seemed positively brilliant in comparison.) So it was nice to get back here and remember just how frustrating it can be. However there was one main reason I was excited to get back. It wasn't for the beans, random meat and rice. It wasn't for the dust. It wasn't for the rubbish and random people shitting everywhere. It was because I was positively looking forward to getting a video of children breaking rocks to sell for gravel out the front of the UNICEF building in Juba. The UN is not my favourite organisation and I certainly don’t hide my opinions about them. They seem to excel at …………... well nothing really. The fact that UNICEF had children working outside their office was a great example of this. All talk and no action, that’s the UN. So I drove down to the spot and got out of the car ready to take my video and become an overnight YouTube success (and no doubt argue with the locals with regard to appearance fees) when I had to stop. For you see it seems that in this case the UN had taken some action to remedy the problem. I was impressed to say the least; maybe they are not so bad after all.

The children are still there, they certainly haven't gone away, and they are still breaking rocks to sell for gravel. The UNICEF building however had moved down the road and around the corner.

Now if that doesn’t tell you what the UN is really like then nothing will.

Posted by Dangermouse 11:42 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

For my Narnain friend

sunny 36 °C

Leave a mark that can't erase,
Neither space nor time.

So when the director yells "cut"
I'll be fine.
I'm forever young.

I did have a few stories written for this blog, I have after all neglected to update it for a few months now. Not all through my own laziness you understand, though I do think I was suffering a bit of writers fatigue, as the last one was a bit sub standard. That coupled with the fact I had been working for 5 months straight and a rather surprising internet block in Basra, and it all adds up. 5 months straight I hear you ask, yep 5 months of 6 day weeks and at least 12 hour work days. It gets a bit tiring after a while. Luckily I got a chance to head home for a break and see my lovely wife and had a wonderful 3 weeks with her, doing nothing much more than having fun.

Life however, hardly ever goes according to plan, just ask Molly Ringwald. One minute you are well on top of things with everything running smoothly, and the next nobody has the faintest idea who you are. For me that came in the form of two messages. The first was an email I received the morning I was due to leave on a plane back to Iraq, telling me my services were no longer able to be financially supported, and the second was a message I received over Facebook from my friend Fabrice.

This post may not convey the same tone as others, as while I have a very defined view on life, it is still a bit of a shock when someone you know checks out. For me that came last week with the news that my good friend Kaido was killed in Misratah Libya while working there clearing up the UXO left over after the rebellion. The type 84 Chinese sub-munition he was working on functioned and killed him. We can only hope it was quick.

Kaido was one of the truly good blokes of the world. His death was a shock to everyone who knew him and he will be truly missed by those of us that are left. It has hit some harder than others, and these things always do. I had the fortune to be picked up for some work in South Sudan again so I was unable to attend his funeral. Luckily other close friends of his from the industry were able to go and represent those of us who wished we were there.

He was buried today in his home town in Estonia. He was 31.


So Kaido this post is for you mate.
I know you will be looking down on all this with a bit of bemusement and telling us all to stop carrying on.
I am glad I had the chance to call you a friend and, till we meet again, rest easy pal.

Posted by Dangermouse 07:16 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

On this day in history

sunny 12 °C

I have had a little time on my hands lately so thought I would start off todays post with a brief lesson. After conducting a quick Google search (how did we ever do things before this?? I seem to recall a big building with lots of books in it but I could be mistaken), I have discovered the following events that happened on this day in history, December 18th.
In 1406 Anton van Bourgondies became duke of Brabant;
In 1716 Thomas Fleet published "Mother Goose's Melodies For Children";
In 1892 Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet "Nutcracker Suite," premiered;
In 1917 the Soviet regiment (Stalin/Lenin) declared Finland Independent,
In 1930 Bradman scored 258 for NSW against SA in only 289 minutes;
In 1941 Japanese troops landed on Hong Kong;
In 1956 an Israeli flag was hoisted on Mount Sinai;
In 1969 Britain abolishes death penalty;
In 1974 my parents gave birth to me (well actually my mother did all the actual birthing. Dad got to smoke cigars and drink whiskey with his mates in the waiting lounge if movies and images of the 1970’s have taught me anything). Yaaay happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me etc etc.
It is quite interesting to see just what happened on your special day. I am sure that any of these events would have been equally important had they happened on any other day (unless of course you were scheduled to be executed in Britain on say the 18th Dec and it was abolished on the 19th) but they were all gathered together on this one, my one, and so I claim them as mine.

I have been feeling a little old lately, though I am not old by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just that I have reached the point in my life where things that were once my field are starting to be left to the younger and more capable among us. There are no professional sportsmen running around at my age for example, or at least not in any sport that requires a level of speed, strength, reflexes or stamina. There are a few exceptions of course, and a few who should have retired but refuse to let go (do you read this Ricky??), but for the great majority it is now up to the younger lads as we are left to pursue golf, darts, snooker and lawn bowls like the rest of the aging brigade. It seems I will never now open the batting for Australia and that to me is a little sad, though I honestly couldn't be any worse than Phil Hughes. It was always a possibility before, albeit extremely remote, but now will never happen. Other indicators are are that injuries seem to linger, hangovers can apparently last for a week (another reason I am glad I gave up drinking) and I have started to really really hate young people. I finally get now what my father was on about for all those years. Young people are really starting to bug me, like a persistent fly that really wants to taste the inside of your nostril but is quick enough that you can't ever kill the bastard and instead spend a lot of time slapping yourself in the face and swearing. Just like that. I do believe the next step is to buy a cane so I can hit out at them and call them bloody kids before wandering off and muttering to myself about how nobody has any respect any more. There are upsides to getting older after all.

I have been working in Iraq now for a few weeks and, one flu and a bout of food poisoning later, I feel that it is time to put some thoughts down on paper. It has been, as is often the case, an eye opening experience and not in the “hope my will is up to date this is really going to hurt and I really wouldn’t look good in an orange jumpsuit thanks all the same” kind of way. I have been pleasantly surprised by Iraq. The people are for the most part friendly, welcoming and display a great sense of humour once you get to know them. Sure I have been issued body armour and weapons, I live in a secure compound guarded by men with guns 24 hours a day and I travel around in a seriously beefed up armoured car, so I wouldn’t recommend coming here for the casual tourist just yet. This can still be a very dangerous place and if it gets serious it gets very serious, but for now I have had nothing but good experiences.

I have security details that are assigned to me and they are a really good bunch of blokes. They are starting to warm up to me now, I am able to joke with them a little bit and I am getting more of a chance to see what they are really like. One of them, Ali (most of the population seem to be called Ali or Mohammed) does a seemingly hilarious impersonation of Saddam Hussein (he has the moustache for it I must admit) and will put on a beret, strut about waving his arms and barking orders while the rest of the group roll around laughing. It is by all accounts a rather good impression. The rest of the lads (I have dubbed them Ze Boys. This is an obscure reference I will admit and if it helps my nickname is Dogs) are just like men the world over. They kid around with each other, share jokes and cigarettes, light a fire and then spend an awful lot of time poking and rearranging it while everyone else comments on how to do it better, simple everyday things that everyone else does with their mates. They just do it in body armour and AK-47’s. They also sit down to morning tea every day and always invite me in. At first I didn’t want to impose and wished to leave them to enjoy their food. At least until it was pointed out to me by my interpreter (also called Ali) that the tradition in this part of Iraq is to share your food and be hospitable to your fellow man. To refuse would mean that I; didn’t like them, didn’t want to sit down with them or didn’t like their food. This is a traditional thing and really quite nice when you think about it, at least up until I got food poisoning from it. The food is delicious (don’t eat the fish) communal and plentiful. It has become the highlight of my mornings and I hope to learn enough Arabic to convey how much I appreciate it to them.


Me and Ze Boys. Have a guess who does Saddam.

I brought my contribution to the mat today in the form of a jar of Vegemite, claiming that it was an Australian delicacy and I would like them to try it. So I placed down the jar, bread was eagerly broken, black grease was spread and mouthfuls were taken. As I looked around I could see expressions changing quite dramatically as the crowd were desperately trying to figure out exactly how they could get this stuff out of their mouths and still make it look like it was tasty. I always enjoy this part, and it is a true test of just how polite people are. This is, in fact, a popular pastime for Australians – watching the rest of the world eat Vegemite. Vegemite, for those of you who have not tried this awesome foodstuff yet, is a malty yeasty black paste with a taste that has to be tried to be appreciated. It is a taste that you really have to grow up with and even then, a lot of people just can’t stand it. There is no middle ground with Vegemite. If the whole reason behind World War II was to decide whether Vegemite was an edible foodstuff even Switzerland would have joined the Germans, it’s that divisive. It would be the rest of the world against us, and maybe the Poms who eat Marmite (which is really not the same thing I don’t care how many people say so). Anyway after a few moments I explained that they didn’t have to pretend to like it, I would understand and not be upset.

To a man they all said it was very nice and thank you for bringing it along, but it really wasn’t necessary in the future as they always have plenty of food. I offered the jar around again and it was quietly passed from hand to hand before ending back up in my lap. Funnily enough, nobody went for seconds, but they all did it with a smile. I am going to like it here.

Posted by Dangermouse 08:44 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)

Not the Rolex

Everything in Dubai seems to be attached in one way or another to a shopping mall. I am not exactly sure why this may be the case (though I can hazard a fairly good guess) but it seems to be the way things are heading in this town. They don’t really seem to be building a modern city, they are building a business and shopping mecca.

Todays adventure took me into another shoppers paradise, well if you can afford the labels it is. My wallet was having minor palpitations just thinking about trying to cover the bill should I take it out in a moment of madness and purchase something from one of the many expensive brand name stores. Fortunately for my wallet, and bank account, I was there for another reason. Skiing, yes that’s right, skiing, or to be more precise, snowboarding. The Emirates Mall in Dubai boasts an indoor skiing area, so naturally being a big fan of snowboarding; I felt it would be almost criminal for me not to at least check this out. I was expecting a small sloping area big enough for a couple of seconds thrill ride on a toboggan or something similar. I was however wrong, very wrong, as this thing boasts a black run.


The Ski area in the Mall of the Emirates - Dubai

It is an extremely well set up enterprise. The cost is quite reasonable, all the equipment you could need is available, and it even includes a lift, a proper ski lift. I was so impressed I don’t think you could have wiped the smile off my face with 100 grit sandpaper. So I laid down my money, put my valuables in a locker and proceeded to the equipment section. Here was where I encountered my first problem, for you see I have rather large feet. Freakishly large actually and the nice young man who was assisting me was having a little trouble finding me something to wear. (Oh and to clear up an old myth, yes it is true what they say about people with big feet. We do wear big shoes.) So I finally had to squeeze myself into something a couple of sizes too small and proceeded out into the frigid air of the indoor run. The snow is not that soft to be perfectly honest, more like shaved ice. But still this is skiing in Dubai so who am I to complain about the lack of 3 foot deep powder.

This was where I encountered my second problem; for my snowboarding ability is hampered by one fatal flaw……I am not very good at it, in fact if I am being brutally honest I would have to say that I am quite poor. Now this has never been a hindrance in the past. I have never been asked to provide any credentials when visiting the many snowfields in Australia. In fact just owning equipment seems to be enough to qualify me to take on whatever run I feel like. What’s more, you generally have the whole mountainside in which to operate. Sure there are areas that are quite a bit more hazardous than others (trees for example are not a lot of fun) but the area is spacious enough for all to share equally. In this situation I am able to hide my inabilities quite adequately, and generally progress up and down the mountainside at my leisure without doing too much damage. The slope in the Emirates mall however, is quite narrow, and surprisingly steep. So my first few runs were spent annoying possibly everyone else who was within 10m of me. I believe I was sworn at in Dutch, German, Arabic, Italian and at least another 2 dialects that I didn’t recognise. Still I was having fun and gradually getting the hang of things again. I did have 2 hours to spend after all, and I was determined to make the most of it. This was when I encountered my 3rd problem, I became confident.

Have you ever heard the phrase “He just ran out of talent”?? Well that is exactly what happened to me. I had managed to build up a bit of speed, rounded a corner over a rise and tried to do a little jump, and then everything went a just a little askew. I managed to not only fall in the most ungraceful manner imaginable, (picture starfish on my belly and that would be pretty close) but to go tearing through a safety barrier, scatter a rather startled group of children that were learning the basics of skiing, hit every tender area on my body at least three times each, and finally came to a rather quick halt against a hut type structure. Realising this may have been against the many rules governing the use of the ski slope, I felt that it was time to turn on the charm. So I stood up, ignored the crying children and staring parents, look casually at my watch, exclaimed “Goodness me is that the time” and bade skiing Dubai goodbye before making a hasty exit. Of my allotted 2 hours I had used only 30 minutes, but I have always maintained that you have to know when to quit. Generally it’s when people start looking at you like they would like to kill you.

So after skiing I decided to get something to eat, preferably next to a window so I could hopefully watch somebody else hurt themselves in an overtly embarrassing nature. (Unfortunately this did not happen.) Whilst looking for a suitable establishment I noticed a big sign that advertised a place called TGI Fridays. “I’ve heard of that” I thought to myself, “Let’s give that a go”. This was my fourth mistake. TGI Fridays would have to be the most bland, disgusting food I have encountered since my time in the DRC. In fact I think they could improve things by employing some Congolese cooks. I have never in my life ordered lamb that came out with NO TASTE WHATSOEVER. On the side was a coleslaw type substance that actually made me gag and spit it out. It takes a lot to make me do that, trust me. However this was not the worst thing about TGI Fridays. It was in fact the Jalapeno Poppers. These are advertised as hollowed out chillies with cheese filling, coated in crumbs and lightly fried. Sounded good, so I got some. My first bite was my last, as the entire cheese filling made a dash for freedom from its jalapeno prison and sprayed itself all over my lap. Searing hot, extremely oily, disgusting American cheese on my crotch, which wasted no time at all in not only creating a permanent stain that made it look like I had pissed myself, but in transferring all its heat onto what is quite possibly the most tender region of my entire body. All in all I would say that whatever you do, stay out of TGI Fridays. My waitress offered me a 20% discount on my next visit; I explained that she would have to pay me to come back.

After calming myself down with some ice cream (God bless whoever thought of ice cream) I decided to stroll for a while around the mall. It was the kind of mindless wandering I am capable of in shopping precincts, and wound me up in the front of the Rolex shop. I have always thought it would be nice to one day own a Rolex, but nothing too flashy of course. I always figured it could be something nice to congratulate myself for reaching 50 with for example. So I had a look at the wares in the window and proceeded to the door to ask if I could have a quick look around. Now these places are the kind of shop where you get buzzed in by the employee. So I knocked on the glass door to get his attention, gave him a big smile and pointed at the door. The young, extremely well dressed gentleman inside looked up, got out of his chair, came over to the door, casually unlocked it, gave me a sneer and a look of pure contempt and said;
“Go away.”
I was just dumbfounded. Go away?? Even the man at the Tag Huer store had let me have a nose around (I told him from the start that I wasn’t going to buy, but he was happy to show me everything anyway), so I naturally started saying something in response to this obvious slight, however I was unable to get anything out at all. I don’t know if it was the sports shirt and thongs, or the apparent large urine stain on the front of my shorts, but he didn’t let me get a word out. He had decided that not only was I not welcome inside the store, but that I was better off not soiling the front of it either; as he started moving me on by shooing me away in the manner that pigeons are chased away from a picnic. It was so surreal that I could do little but smile. I considered teaching him a lesson but I could not come up with an idea that didn’t involve a brick and a short stay in prison. So I just laughed it off and decided that I really shouldn’t spend any more time in the Mall of the Emirates, got into a taxi and retreated to my hotel to cool my poor burnt privates in the pool.

So my advice from all this is as follows;
Try the skiing in Dubai, you won’t get to do it again (well I won’t anyway for at least a couple of years).
If any of you are considering buying a luxury watch in the near future, turn up dressed like an average person. If Rolex doesn’t let you in you can always go see the nice people at Tag Huer.

And please, for the love of God, stay out of TGI Fridays.

Posted by Dangermouse 10:45 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

It's a long way to the top

sunny 28 °C

The problem with tall buildings is that, well they are tall, extremely tall in some instances. Whilst this revelation may not come as a shock to many of you, it does present some challenges. For example the problem with being so tall is that you can see them from a very long way off. The Burj Khalifa is one such example. This monstrous marvel of modern engineering can be seen for up to 50km in all directions.


Why is this a problem?? Well I could see the building from my hotel balcony and felt it would be an interesting place to attempt to walk to today. That’s why. Because after a couple of hours random walking the damn thing didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I’m sure it was, but things that are a long way off tend to keep looking that way until you get rather close. Add to this the fact that those crazy Arabs like building residential areas with dead end streets, and the trip becomes all the more challenging. On more than one occasion I wandered down a road only to find it ending abruptly. I even gauged one possible tentative foray by the volume of traffic preceding me down it. I figured that a vast number of vehicles going down a road was a decent indication that it went somewhere. Right?? All I can surmise is that someone in that particular complex must have been having a party, or that everyone was going home for lunch at the same time.


Burj at sunset from near my hotel.

I can be quite stubborn when it comes to matters like this, quite stubborn indeed. It turns into a challenge between the city and me, and I’ll be damned if I was going to let the city win. The downside to this style of thinking is that Dubai is in fact not an evil omnipotent force out to make my life as trying as possible, and has no idea of either my struggles or growing hatred. It wouldn't actually care at all if I caught a taxi the rest of the way. This is actually quite counter productive to only myself, but there you go. So after wearing a decent sized hole in my foot (why do I continue to wear these things if they always give me blisters??), lots of swearing and mild questioning of my personal sanity, I made it to the tower. It turns out that it was only 6km as the crow flies, though I figure that I covered 10-12 on my meandering path. The Burj Khalifa is an impressive thing to witness up close. It was completed in 2010 and stands at over 828 meters tall. (This was from the official website and reads like someone who owns something large and spectacular but doesn’t want to give too much away. “So how tall is your building??” “Oh somewhere near 828m, one doesn’t like to brag you know”). Either way it is quite amazing to look at.

Now after half a days random march, there was no way I was not going to get to the top of this thing to have a look around. That is after all the whole point of tall buildings. So I entered the attached shopping mall (of course) and spent a maddening hour trying to find out where you had to go in order to gain access to the big building. (For those who care you need to go the LG level, sacrifice a chicken, click your heels three times and say “Take me to the bloody tower lift or I am going to hurt someone” to the nearest mall employee.) Once I arrived at the lift I was quite dismayed to find that you need to book tickets in advance, days in advance it seems. There was an electronic board near the front desk which relayed the dates and times that one could purchase tickets for a trip to the top. Today was sold out, as was tomorrow and the next day. Time, I felt, to turn on the charm. (This by the way has never yet worked out in my favour, but as I said I can be quite stubborn).

So I approached the nice young lady at the front desk, gave her my best smile and asked politely if there was a chance that she could sneak me in on a trip today.
“Of course” she replied with a smile “You can buy an immediate ticket and go up right now.”
“That’s excellent” I said quite happily, so there is a first time for everything after all.
“That will be 450AED” came the response.
“I’m sorry did you say 450??” I inquired, rather a little shocked. The price on the board was for 100AED, this was over 4 times the cost.
“Yes of course, the cost for a pre-booked ticket is 100. For an immediate ticket you pay 450.” She said quite happily, in the manner of a policeman who is giving you a rather expensive ticket for something quite innocuous before wishing you a nice day.
“Ahh” I replied, once again realising that charm does really not work for me. Still I am not one to let something like cost get in the way (did I mention stubborn??) so I handed over the money, retrieved my ticket and headed through the turnstiles.

Firstly I have to say the staff on hand are quite friendly, and the lifts are the most amazing things I have been in. Most lifts that go any higher than 10 floors tend to do so with the kind of urgency that leaves you a little queasy and descend at such a rate that they leave you with the feeling that you are really only a hairs breath away from the speed of an actual free fall. These lifts not only went over 120 floors in one go, but did so in such a refined manner that at no time did I even feel like I was moving. This is quite a feat and really deserves more attention than they get. As for the view, well at first I was a little disappointed that we were not at the actual top, but still it is impressive. After all how often do you get to be this high up without the need of a parachute?? I challenge anyone to go to the top of this thing and not think “Holy crap that is high”.


Not quite at the top

IMG_1269.jpg IMG_1271.jpg

Views from the top of the Burj Khalifa

So I stayed on the viewing deck for a period, enjoying the view and taking note of the type of people who visit Dubai. For a start this place oozes money, it just unfortunately didn’t ooze any my way. I have not seen this many well-dressed people in one place ever, and the last time I saw this much Louis Vuitton gear I was in a market in Thailand (though I think some of that was maybe fake). In fact, everywhere I look in Dubai the people are the same. I am way out of my depth here when it comes to fashion. But then again this seems to be where the rich come to show off. So after walking around for a while, admiring Dubai from above, I ended my time on the viewing deck and descended back to ground level. Was it worth the money, of course it was. For starters I had invested the best part of a day and a bit of blood, sweat and creative vulgarity in getting to this thing. I have paid more to walk over the Harbour Bridge in Sydney and have wasted more money on big nights out than this cost me. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to the top (almost) of the worlds highest building and highly recommend it to anyone that finds themselves in Dubai for a period.

This is of course completely relative. For the more organised amongst you, I recommend maybe booking in advance. You get the same experience for a lot less money. Otherwise don’t get discouraged by the sold out signs, a little charm and a lot of cash will get you to the top anyway, and it is definitely worth it.

Posted by Dangermouse 11:17 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

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