Big Cats, Remote Deserts: Adventures in Exploration Drilling
Any time we drill in an unfamiliar area or geology, it can be considered exploration drilling, but if others have drilled there, it’s not exactly exploration. True exploration drilling is when a driller goes into an area that nobody has drilled before. The drilling methods, formation temperature, minerology and geology make this an interesting challenge.
I have been involved with some true exploration projects over the years, and thought I’d share some of my experiences.
We were in Namibia, on the edge of the Namib Desert — one of the emptiest and least explored places on Earth. The customer hired us to look for Kimberlite, the source rock for diamonds. Commonly known as “bluestone” to drillers, it occurs rarely — the result of upswelling from the mantle. When it can be found at reasonable depths, commercial mining can be done. Our target area was very isolated and had never been drilled. The nearest drilled well was over 93 miles (150 kilometers) away. The locations were marked on a map by longitude and latitude, that’s all. We didn’t have GPS in those days. We didn’t know if the formations would require mud, air or magic fairy dust to drill, so we rigged up and took it all with us!
It made for quite the convoy, just to support an old Gardner-Denver 1500. We also took our own living quarters, mobile kitchen and everything we could think of to do the job — talk about living off the grid. We had about 15 vehicles in our little convoy. We also had an antelope scout car, which is a South African vehicle for protection because we had heard that there were guerillas or bandits in the area. We later found out that they were mostly interested in the food we had in the chow truck. Turns out, we did almost all of our drilling with air, so we sent our mud system, mud supplies and one of the water trucks back to town. We kept the better water truck, steamed it out, and used it for our camp water supply. We installed an outside shower on it so we could shower when needed. You should have seen the natives staring at us. Having enough water to take a shower was apparently a novelty to them. When we were near the small groups of natives, we always had to post a guard because, as I said, they wanted our food.
When we got to the coordinates on the map, we would select a good location to set up and drill. It didn’t seem to make much difference how close we were to the actual coordinates, because we were all pretty sure that a blind geologist in a dark room threw darts at a map. We did, however, occasionally find some “bluestone.” This got everybody excited, and we would switch over to coring to recover full cores for analysis in town. The coring in those days wasn’t as modern as today. We would run a 6-meter core barrel in the hole and drill ’til it was full, then trip out, clean up the hole and run another one. It took forever when we were deep. A helicopter would come for the cores, and bring us food and fuel, and we had to send our own water truck to town for our water. Nobody ever saw a diamond, in spite of looking pretty closely. I guess that’s why they are so rare. I don’t know if the customer ever commercialized any of our finds — most of them were over 500 feet to the top of the “bluestone” — but we all got paid.
Another time, I was in Belize. A major oil company had the concession for the entire country, including a large block offshore. They drilled the offshore wells with conventional jack-up rigs, but they were interested in a block of land in the northern part of the country. The logistics looked like a nightmare, until the government made the oil company pave the road from the port to near our area. It was their way of getting a road out of the deal, even if we didn’t find anything.
The drilling went pretty well. It was coastal plains-type of formation, similar to the Gulf Coast, so most of us Texas boys were up to speed with no major surprises. The one very memorable story came from when we moved the rig back to the port after completing the job. The toolpusher and I had shared a 30-foot travel trailer on location, so it fell to us to move it to town. We were the last to leave. He had a big pickup, so no problem. The first 15 or so miles of the road was a dirt trail in the jungle. We left kind of late in the day, and by about 10 miles out, we had a flat on the trailer. No problem. Just change it, right? Wrong. No spare. We couldn’t leave the trailer there or it wouldn’t be there when we got back, so we flipped a coin. The pusher got to stay while I went to town for a tire. I got three, just in case.
When I got back in the morning, that toolpusher was so glad to see me I thought he was going to kiss me! He had heard noises all night outside the trailer. I laughed at him until we found many big cat tracks all the way around the trailer. Panther, jaguar, monster — we never found out. He stayed in all night with the doors locked and our unauthorized shotgun at the ready. It looked like that cat had been continuously circling, looking for a way to get in.
There have been other adventures in places like Australia and Cambodia, but they will have to wait for another day.
For more Wayne Nash columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/wayne.