Monday, 12 November 2007

Sinai fieldwork diary, October/November 2007

I've just spent the last three weeks in Sinai, Egypt, doing LiDAR-based fieldwork mainly. This is how it went. I'm now taking a well-deserved week off...

LiDAR is a laser-based system for collecting what are essentially high-resolution DEMs of rock outcrops (it's actually designed for architecture and surveying work, but it works pretty well for us too). It's heavy and cumbersome, and we have to carry it around the desert. But we do get to look at some pretty fantastic geology too...

Monday 22nd October

Safely back in Moon Beach, although there were some shenanigans on the way. Dave Hodgetts had all the all equipment at his house, and by the time he brought it in to work Paul Woodman had already left. Oliver and myself have to take all the equipment between us. I’ve had a stressful week, with an interview at Birmingham; a seminar for the entire School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences; and a meeting with the industry sponsors of my project. I’m also coming down with my standard shitty head cold. What I really want to do is lie down for a bit, but instead I have to travel to Sinai for three weeks of fieldwork.

Despite having an enormous quantity of gear, the trip to Cairo goes OK. It takes a while to get past customs with the LiDAR. I tell them it’s a large 3D camera, and they look over it with suspicion. Eventually they decide it’s OK, but they stamp my passport to say that I have to take it back it out with me when we leave. Fine by me, so we get a bus from Abanoub travel to take us to the Cairo airport Novotel. By this time it’s nearly 2am, and Oliver and I have had enough, but the Novotel has somehow lost one of the room reservations that I had made online. I have a print-out that clearly shows that we have 2 rooms, but to be fair the hotel receptionist has a print-out that says I only have one room. Egypt probably isn’t set up that well for e-commerce. Ultimately, we sort this out, but we have to wait while they get another room ready. We get to bed before three, which is still pretty good going.

The next day we’re supposed to meet the Abanoub driver at 12 noon, but confusion sets in between Paul Woodman, Sayed and Abanoub. Eventually Gamal shows up at about 12:30, and we lash the spare tires to the roof of Gamal’s red Jeep so we can fit all the stuff inside. We crawl through the mid-afternoon Cairo traffic, and meet Paul, Sayed and the Abanoub driver at the MacDonald’s on Maadi’s road 9. Paul takes us for a burger at a small Egyptian restaurant, where we pay the equivalent of £12 for three meals with drinks. Then we hit the road to Sinai.

It’s hotter than the hubs of hell and I’m losing my voice, the air in Cairo is irritating my throat even further, and I’m just about fed up. Still, the drive is about as uneventful as it could be, driving three and a half hours in Egypt. Although a Lada in front of us catches fire near Ayun Musa…we pull up a safe distance away, even though all the car passengers seem happy to get as close as possible to the burning vehicle. Flames start to shoot out of the engine compartment. A northbound truck screeches to a halt, and the driver leaps out with a fire extinguisher, sprints across the road, and fills the car with carbon dioxide. That’s that sorted, then. We keep driving south, and 20 minutes later see a fire engine driving north, even though a fire station at Ayun Musa is much closer and the fire is out anyway. It gets dark before we reach Moon Beach, worst luck, so we’re subjected to the Egyptian use of headlights. In Egypt, you don’t use your headlights until you’re almost level with a car coming the other way, at which point you jam on your full beams. Also, oncoming buses or trucks might put on their left-hand indicator, giving us Brits the impression that we’re about to die. It’s a wonder that there aren’t even more accidents than there are. We get to Moon Beach in one piece about 6pm.

I get to eat some of the famous Moon Beach koftas, and turn in. I’m knackered, full of cold, and sleep fitfully. I look like death at 7:30 when we get breakfast. Luckily, we’re not doing too much today. We go to South Gushea, universally known as Mike’s delta, after a PhD student of Rob’s who worked on it. This is a spectacular clastic delta situated at the linkage point between two fault segments, and you can see delta foresets prograding across the shallow marine rocks below. We scope out a few scan stations. Sayed goes to Abu Zenima to get bread and tape measures. When he gets back he has two Imperial students in the Jeep. One of them is ill, so Sayed is taking them back to Moon Beach. There’s nothing worse than being ill in the field, especially when it’s so hot, and I feel sorry for them. We keep going, but finish what we want to do by 2:30. We’re back at Moon Beach by 3pm, so we sort out all the LiDAR gear for tomorrow, and have a beer on the beach as the sun goes down over Wadi Araba. Hard work, this. Into it properly tomorrow.

Tuesday 23rd October

Today is a bit of a disaster. Instead of bringing batteries from England, we’ve decided to save weight by purchasing batteries in Egypt. This was never going to be a good idea. Still, Sayed gets us two leaky 12V motorcycle batteries that should, in theory, do the trick. So, we drive to South Gushea and set up for our first LiDAR scan station. We connect up the batteries, plug them into the LiDAR, and…’feesh! Nothing. We pratt around with different battery configurations for a while, even try to use the battery in Sayed’s Jeep. Nothing. It turns out that we’ve blown all the fuses in the LiDAR instrument. Prudently, we carry spares, so we replace them all and try with one battery. This works OK, but not for long. We do a couple of scans and as the voltage gets too low, the scanner shuts off. Meanwhile, we can’t get the GPS system to work properly, and then both the batteries we’re carrying for it run out. We end up not getting a GPS position for the station. I use the second LiDAR battery to finish off the scans we need, and we pack the kit up and have lunch. By now the heat is murderous, and we’re struggling for motivation, quite apart from the LiDAR mess we’re in. I start to mix up words and lose concentration (not a good sign even on a Friday night in Manchester), so drink two bottles of water right away. It’s too hot to eat, and I can barely finish two of Sayed and Gamal’s famous sandwiches. In the afternoon we build a cairn at the LiDAR station with the intention of getting a position later when everything is working, and go log a section. The section is not that interesting, as all the rocks here have been chewed up by the critters that lived here in the Miocene, so almost no original sedimentary structures are left. There is a neat ramp-flat fault, and we do find some very large cobble/boulder size clasts in the section, which is interesting. As the sun starts to go down, it gets cooler and we get happier, and I finish relatively happy at what we’ve done, at least in the afternoon. The LiDAR problems are a bit of a worry though, since that’s the main reason I’m here.

We get to Moon Beach just after sunset. I try out the GPS in my room, and within two minutes easily get a reading with the same battery we used in the field. It just about sums up the day, but it’s time to get a cold beer and eat some food. Tomorrow we’re ditching the LiDAR and going to Paul Woodman’s area.

Wednesday 24th October

Today is OK, as it happens. A battery charger arrives from Cairo, and we get advice on battery usage from Frank and Dave via text message. Of course, I can’t help worrying about it, but today we go to part of Paul Woodman’s area. I should probably keep quiet about where it is, because it’s a big marijuana growing area and the Egyptian army is prone to going out and shooting Bedouin bango growers. Sure enough, we have company, with a couple of Bedouin hanging out with the Jeeps, and coming to check out what we’re doing as we look at rocks. They seem unimpressed, which is fair enough I suppose. One of the Bedouin has a fancy watch, but he still lives in a tarpaper shack in the desert (albeit probably one with satellite TV). They don’t really bother us, but it is annoying having people follow you around. Eventually they get bored and go hassle Sayed and Gamal for water and bread from the Jeeps.

This is an interesting area, and we do some logging of syn-rift sediments. The syn-rift onlaps the pre-rift here, and a couple of faults chop up the section. I find a fault that offsets a Quaternary gravel terrace, which excites me greatly as it suggests that faulting remained active until then. The section is almost like a slimmed down version of Wadi Nukhul, as we start with palaeosols and fluvial deposits and move up into tidally influenced marine sediments. It’s relatively easy to log, and we collect some palaeocurrents on Paul’s behalf.

A straightforward enough day, but I can’t help thinking that tomorrow is going to be testing. At least I get to speak to Jolan, who is in Sheffield.

Friday 26th October

I now think that this trip has a reasonable chance of success, thought that was not what I thought yesterday morning. Sayed charged the batteries for the LiDAR, and we set off for Wadi Wasit, north of Mike’s delta for some scanning. We get set up, do a panorama scan, collect the photos, and start a fine scan. About five minutes later, the LiDAR cuts out because the battery is flat. We try with the other battery, and that too cuts out halfway through a scan. Gamal insists that the fuses will blow if we try to attach both batteries in series, and he’s an electrician (although we normally run it from two batteries in series). Frankly I’m not sure what to do, and it’s hard to communicate exactly what we need to Gamal. Sayed has gone to Abu Zenima for bread, so we wait for him to come back. Paul and I discuss all kinds of possible solutions, including sending Frank out to Sharm el Sheikh with the batteries we normally use.

The solution is simple, as it turns out, but cumbersome. We can connect our motorcycle battery in parallel with the battery in Sayed’s Jeep. We need to set up right in front of the Jeep, but it will allow us to get a few stations in that are near tracks. This works handily, and in the end we get 4 stations done before we get home.

Today, we decide to go to Paul’s area again. Oliver has tonsils the size of golf balls, and decides to stay in Moon Beach today. We send Sayed to Ras Sudr for a car battery we can use for further LiDAR work, and head off.

It’s another quite interesting area of Paul’s, with a thick section of mud containing large channel sandbodies close to the main fault. There are minor faults here too, and we map them in as we walk around the outcrop. We walk up one wadi and down another, and as we get back close to the road again I here voices. I look up and catch a flash of white (Galabier?) as it disappears behind a fallen block. Paul has heard something too, so we stick around for a while. Sure enough, a Bedouin appears around the side of the block, so we shout “Sabah il khayr!” (morning of the goodness). Two Bedouin come down to find out what we’re up to. Paul asks them if there’s a problem us being here and walking around, and one of them says “Kulu mish mushkella” (no problem anywhere). We shake hands, and the Bedouin walk along the wadi out towards the main road. The wadi is narrow and bounded by cliffs, and Paul and I scramble up one side of it to get a better view of the geology. I see what the Bedouin are doing here. There’s an enormous field of bango (marijuana) at the wadi entrance, hidden behind an earth berm no more than 150 m from the main road between Suez and Sharm. You have to admire the sheer effrontery of the Bedouin. Police and army drive up and down the main road every day, and anyone in a helicopter flying over the area would easily pick up the green field against yellow desert.

We do a bit more work, and walk out of the wadi (past the plantation) back to the Jeeps. I wouldn’t have done this myself, but when I had to deal with this sort of problem it was in Quebec where plantations can be booby-trapped. This is a much lower-key operation, and Paul knows the ropes. We decide to work in the other wadi (sans plantation) in the afternoon, putting in a couple of logs, but we go up to a high point to get a view across the area. We can just see the edge of the plantation, and as we take pictures and sketch, we see a man run into the plantation wadi from the main road. Perhaps the Bedouin have used a mobile phone to call in reinforcements.

We log in the afternoon, and it’s clear that the wadi we’re in has had plantations in the past. There are three or four areas of furrowed ground with a few scraggy plants needing water, but the main activity is clearly in the next wadi. Even so, nobody bothers us for the rest of the day and we get back to Moon Beach about 4:30. It’s Friday night, and the place is packed out.

Tomorrow, LiDAR again…

Monday 29th October

We’re beginning to run out of ways in which the trip could get worse (although you never quite run out…). Oliver’s tonsillitis has failed to respond to antibiotics, so we’ve sent him back to Manchester. There’s no point having him here being miserable, and he probably needs to get some British medical attention. It cost me the entire morning to sort out a flight for him. First off, we’re 2 hours ahead of Britain, so the UK office of KLM didn’t open until 10am Moon Beach time. Then it took me an hour of phoning bad numbers, going through phone trees, and listening to portentous classical music while on hold, before I could get a new reservation. Hopefully that is now sorted. In any case, Ollie is now in Cairo, in the ‘executive suite’ of some hotel near the airport, waiting for home. The KLM flight is at 4:15 in the morning, so not exactly fun, but it should get him home before 11am. As long as nothing else goes wrong…

Once we get everything sorted about 11:30, we head out with LiDAR in tow. The plan is to drive to Abu Zenima for supplies, and then back to Mike’s delta to collect some data. We manage to get a couple of scan stations done, amidst constant battery problems, and we end up running the LiDAR from the Jeep battery for the second station.

Sayed’s son Bilal is coming to replace Ollie and help me with LiDAR gear, which is great, except that we have more battery problems and I’m not entirely sure that we’re going to get much more work done anyway. It’s preying on my mind now, and I want nothing more than to get home and forget all about this trip. Not much more I can do other than hope for a better few days ahead. Tomorrow is the halfway point of the trip, and I’m certain I haven’t done anywhere near half the work I need.

Tuesday 30th October

Maybe the trip will go OK…

Paul got a text from Ollie to say that he was safely checked in on last night’s KLM flight, so we assume he got back to Manchester in one piece. If so, I’ve actually managed to achieve something on this damned trip.

On the way to the field in the morning, we get behind a truck full of bricks struggling up one of the inclines on the main road to Sharm. Naturally, the load isn’t secure, and bricks are periodically falling off the back and bouncing down the road, with Sayed having to lurch out of the way several times. Sayed flashes his lights and sounds his horn, but the truck driver refuses to stop. There’s nothing for us to do but get past, and avoid a brick through the windscreen. As we pass we see that the truck is leaking diesel all over the road as well. That’s Egypt for you.

We get to the field area in one piece, and today goes OK. I get 4 huge stations done, but fighting batteries all the way. Basically, the batteries we have are not enough for a days work. We’re running them until the LiDAR cuts out, and then charging them from the Jeeps. This is keeping us going, but it’s time consuming. Especially when we’re working some distance from the Jeeps and we have to carry batteries there and back. But, four stations is OK, and they involved some carrying. If we can keep this up, it’ll get done, just about. The only problem is that Paul needs to work in is own area, so it will be me and Bilal. This is OK, it just means that I have to do all the setting up, which makes everything a little more time consuming again. But, it seems at least possible now, and for just about the first time I get back to Moon Beach with a sense of a days work well done.

Wednesday 31st October

Maybe the trip will work out OK, but it seems as if nothing is going to be easy. What else could go wrong, you might wonder. Just off the top of my head, I could have battery problems that wipe out the entire morning. I could spill battery acid all over myself, and ruin a perfectly good pair of trousers. Bilal could fall and hurt his leg. Naturally enough, these things all happen. Eventually I get two scan stations done. Still, this is better than it sounds because they’re difficult ones, a long way from Jeep access and high up. I don’t have to do them again, and they bring me close to the top of the hill. Maybe another half dozen scan stations close to the road would see me right, or at least give us enough data to work with. But who knows if that many stations will be possible? Ideally I need to finish with scanning by Sunday so I can do some logs (that is, actually look at some geology).

Not for the first time I feel that I’m going to kiss the tarmac at Manchester airport when I get home. I usually enjoy the better part of my trips to Sinai, but all I’ve done since I’ve got here is worry about stuff, primarily batteries and ill field assistants. It feels like three weeks I’ll never get back.

Friday 2nd November

I break the back of the trip today. I smash each individual vertebra with a mallet, and then I kneel on the fucker’s windpipe to be certain. It’s been a relatively trouble-free day, although we did have a run-in with a Bedouin and his bango plantation. Actually, the Bedouin seemed happy enough. He told Bilal and Gamal all about his plantation. Sayed dropped by to bring us water and bread from Abu Zenima, and the Bedouin told Sayed all about it too. The Bedouin is happy for us to wander all around his plantation, collecting data with a large instrument mounted on a surveyor’s tripod. There is one man looking after two large fields, and there must be little danger from the army or police.

Anyway, I get 7 stations today, to add to 5 yesterday, and even if I don’t get any more it will probably be enough to do something useful. Two friends of Paul’s from Cairo are here for the weekend, and we’re going to take them to Wadi Baba and Wadi Nukhul tomorrow. Rob has asked to me do a scan station at Baba, and I’m supposed to get photographs and palaeocurrent measurements from Nukhul. Such is my state of mind that this seems like a day off, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Sunday 4th November

Today was the last day of LiDAR data collection, hamd'ullah. It went OK too, although I had some battery issues towards the end. Anyway, I think I’ve got the data I need. We finished scanning about 3pm, and I went to look at some faults for the last hour or so. It’s a totally different fault style to what you see at Wadi Nukhul. The faults here show ramp-flat geometry as they sole into mud horizons, whereas the Nukhul faults are generally very planar with little deviation between rock units.

Now I need some logs, so that’s what I’m mostly going to be doing for the next four days.

In the morning near Mike’s delta I see two Chinook-style army helicopters flying west over the area, and think no more of it. As ever, Paul has the best problems. The same helicopters were later to be seen circling over the Wadi Gharandal and Wadi Silfa areas, right where Paul was wanting to visit some outcrops. Possibly there’s going to be an army raid on the marijuana growers within the next day or so. The Bedouin have entirely disappeared from the area, and it’s probably not smart to be wandering around there just now. After being practically buzzed by the helicopters later in the afternoon, close to a known marijuana plantation, Paul decided to come back to Moon Beach, and I don’t blame him. The priority is always to get home in one piece.

Monday 5th November

At last, I actually get to go and look at some of the geology of this area I’ve spent two weeks scanning. I go to an area just by Wadi Wasit where there are faults exposed, and sketch in the faults on a photopan. Then I put in a log. The logging here is not that interesting, as the sediments are all highly bioturbated and there’s nary a sedimentary structure to be seen. On the other hand, it’s good to actually get some idea of what I’ve been looking at. I also find a fish tooth in the very first unit of my log, which cheers me up a bit.

It’s not an easy area to work in. There’s a big cliff at the back, and then incised wadi systems in the front. Most of the rocks are poorly cemented, but there are laterally extensive hardgrounds that form waterfalls. To get around you have to climb across from one wadi to the next, often up soft scree banks. The area is eerily quiet, and all I hear most of the day is the buzzing of flies, and sometimes not even that. It’s hotter than the hubs of hell, and I eventually burn out about 3pm. I’ve been working quite close to cliff faces where there’s no breeze and no shade, and it’s just too much, even though I’ve drunk a good 4 litres of water. I have to go and sit in the shade and drink yet more water. I’m all in, so I decide to pack in for the day, and get back to Moon Beach for 4pm.

Thursday 8th November

Well folks, that’s that. I’m back in Moon Beach, having completed my last day of fieldwork. Tomorrow we’re off to Cairo. At least I think we are. Paul seems to have gone to Sharm el Sheikh by East Delta bus in search of dollars to pay Sayed. I brought about $3000 dollars with me, and Paul was going to do the same, but the bank decided that him trying to get money in Cairo was dodgy, and suspended his card. This despite Paul having lived in Cairo for a year. Various other money-getting schemes involving the Cairo ex-pat community have failed, and we now owe Sayed about $3,500, without having any clear way of getting it. We’ll figure it out somehow. I think.

I’ve been doing a bit of logging, and a bit of LiDAR in Paul’s area. The logging is not particularly exciting, and today I basically take a hike in the desert. I go up some of the hills in my area, and get an overview of the geology, as well as getting some great views of the desert. I spot a bango plantation from way up high, but there seems to be no-one around today.

On the way back to Moon Beach, I see a Chinook-style helicopter flying north along the coast. We pass the place in Paul’s area where there’s a bango plantation right next to the main road. There’s an armoured personnel carrier (with a blue light on top: perhaps the police borrow it for protests) on the back of a truck at the very place, with a bunch of army guys stood around it. Not a Bedouin to be seen, and I suspect the bango is going to be burnt in the near future. I hope Paul wasn’t anywhere in there today. This probably helps explain why there was not a Bedouin to be seen at Mike's delta today.

If we avoid any more problems, I should be home in 45 hours or so.


George Walks said...

Nice to hear you're not dead, yet.

Never mind Egypt, get accepting that music blog invite...

Paul Wilson said...

Hey George

My area is much, much safer than Paul Woodman's...

Invitation accepted, though I'm not likely to have anything to write for it in the near future...