The Gambia - Part I
This was one of the most complicated jobs I ever got involved in. The engineering was quite complex, the working conditions were pretty extreme at times, and, not least, when the rainy season arrived, so did malaria.
A young engineer by the name of Tim Higgins flew out to Gambia with me on a plane full of package tourists. We assumed that we were heading to darkest Africa as usual with Marconi at that time, so the presence of all these gaily-dressed tourists took us by surprise.
Finally we arrived at Banjul International Airport (formerly known as Yundum) and, with the rest of the package tourists, piled into a bus for the capital, Banjul, about 15 miles distant. Darkness had fallen while we were up in the sky. Strange sounds filled the night, and a scented breeze blew through the bus windows.
Once in town, the bus drove along the coast road, dropping off package tourists at one or another of the hotels that hug the beaches. Ours was almost the last hotel:African Village.
Photo courtesy of The Gambia Experience
I had chosen it back in Chelmsford, when finalising the site finance with the Marconi bean counters.
Unfortunately I found myself unable to resist playing a practical joke on some member of staff that happened by while I was signing a thick wad of traveller’s cheques, finance for the first couple of months for Tim and I.
The guy must have been one of the middle managers because he stood there in a suit waiting patiently, probably to claim some Ex’s, (Expenses) while I stood there signing cheque after cheque and wondering if my signature would hold out until I had finished.
I became aware of the guy and an evil thought crossed my mind. Flexing my hand as if with writer’s cramp, I remarked, "I’ll just be a minute. It’s a bit embarrassing, what they’re paying us in installations, and it’s a holiday resort too." Or some such words. He turned a satisfying pink colour. The cashier grinned and shook her head reprovingly.
The bus pulled up at the gates and the driver unloaded our luggage.
Photo: The Gambia Experience
Two very dark lads sprang into action and lugged the cases along winding paths
heavily festooned with bougainvillea and all sorts of flowering shrubs.
After checking in it was nearly ten at night and so we decided to call it a day. We walked down the jungly, scented paths.
Tim said, "Hey, this is all right."
I was thinking ‘wow this is a nice hotel’, but the best was yet to come: the hotel didn’t have very many guests and they’d given me a split-level room with a verandah on top of a low cliff, literally hanging over the beach.
I walked out there and listened to the waves breaking gently on the sand, about 100 metres away.
It was low tide. A full moon made a delta of light on the Atlantic ocean and palm trees waved in the cool sea breeze. Paradise.
In the morning I found the breakfast service excellent, the staff attentive, and noted that the hotel had a superb pool, as if having the Atlantic on my back doorstep wasn’t enough.
Photo courtesy of The Gambia Experience
Somehow or other, one of these strange 'African coincidences' happened while I was there, and the bar served at an extremely reasonable price, half-bottles of vintage French Merlot white wine. Who knows how they arrived there? Perhaps a French chef or restaurant manager had once worked at the hotel for a season. Africa is simply unfathomable; as the Nigerians say, 'no condition is permanent'.
After dining we set off in a taxi and had the first of many meetings with the head of Gambia Broadcasting, a jovial fellow by the name of Amu Jobe.
Our job called for the following:
First, unpack and install two new 10 KW medium-wave (AM) transmitters, in an existing building that already held a pair of the same transmitters. This new pair were to operate, combined, on a separate frequency, thus giving Gambia two frequencies.
We also had to install a new coaxial feeder from transmitters to antenna, install two combiner-rejector cabinets, and set up the antenna system.
Secondly, we had to travel 250 miles into ‘the bush’, due east along the River Gambia, to a small town called Basse. There, we would clean and recondition an existing transmitting station with two 1 KW transmitters, and install two more, as a lower-powered version of the main station. We also had to install a receiver system with some elaborate filters to receive and relay the main broadcast, for this was a relay station only.
Tim and I travelled into town by taxi and arranged a long-term car rental from a local businessman. It was a 1.4L Brazilian-built Chevette, nothing like the much larger US model; this was more like a FWD rally car with beefed-up suspension. It was a tough little cookie and I recall it with some fondness. Sometimes at the weekend, I would hire a Suzuki 4-WD, a lightweight little jeep, and take to the sand dunes and beaches where no tourists ever ventured.
The main site, Bonto transmitting station, had been in operation for several years. The building held a pair of functioning Marconi 10KW AM transmitters. These were basically, modulated 500 watt exciters with a tetrode valve linear amplifier, and the total efficiency wasn’t much better than 30%. But they were reasonably bomb-proof. More on that, later . . .
Tim and I drove out to Bonto to inspect the site and inventory the packing cases. (The first thing you do as an installation engineer, is to inventory the delivered cases of equipment. This involves unpacking, counting, and loosely repacking everything.)
Leaving Tim to go over the crates, checking to see none were badly damaged, I wandered out the back of the building into the antenna field, out of curiosity to see this new Marconi ‘folded umbrella’ aerial, or antenna, I’d been briefed on.
The ‘folded umbrella’ had several unique advantages:
First, it was short, only a tenth-wavelength in height, versus a quarter-wave or more for conventional aerials.
Secondly, it required no matching network, since it could be adjusted physically to be the correct impedance, 50 ohms.
Third, the entire structure was firmly bonded to earth. The folded umbrella is probably the most lightning-resistant of any MF antenna, and we usually didn’t bother with spark gaps.
The aerial field turned out to be full of chest-high grass. However the chief engineer had kindly arranged for machete-wielding locals to clear lanes through it, from the building to the masts, of which there were two.
I walked down the lane of hay to the first antenna, inspected it, then went to the second antenna. It had some kind of bramble growing up it. I noted that it would have to be cleared away, and began to walk back, when to my dismay a large diamond-shaped head attached to a long, thick, muscular body rustled out of the long grass and reared up so that it gazed straight at me from a distance of about a metre.
Not being an expert on the toxic capability, strangle capacity, or other features of Gambian snakelife I started backing slowly away, all the time keeping my eyes fixed on it.
The damn thing began swaying gently back and forth, making me wish I had taken the opportunity of using the toilet in the transmitter building.
I continued to walk slowly backwards, hoping I wasn’t inadvertently backing into the grass and who knew what other creatures that might be lurking there. After a couple or three metres I started feeling a compulsion to turn and run like hell, but then, I thought, who knows how fast those things can go?
Finally it slithered back into the grass. I watched the moving stems as it moved off, and legged it back to the transmitter building as soon as I could. Amu Jobe stood there smiling. "You’ll have to cut all the grass," I said. "I need to be able to find the ground anchors, for starters."
"Ah, yes. And it will be safer."
The following day Tim got started on the unpacking while I went back into the newly-cleared aerial field, but now keeping an eye out for serpents. I walked over to the main (driven) antenna – this was a dual-antenna set-up, the one behind was a ‘reflector’ designed to put most of the power upriver, in the direction of Basse. One of the local techies came with me.
Immediately I noticed a ring of green on the steel lattice aerial mast, about one metre above the ground. "What’s this?" I asked.
"That be the high water mark."
"High water mark?" Baffled, I remembered the briefing back at New Street, Chelmsford. The project manager, Albert Gent, hadn’t mentioned anything about high water.
"Yes sah. Every monsoon season, de river flood. That why this green mark. It left by de water."
That old familiar phrase, ‘Oh, shit.’ drifted into my head. We had to install two whopping big aluminium cabinets next to the aerial, and here we were facing a monsoon flood.
I would have to install (picture above) a reliable foundation to raise the combiner/rejector cabinets above ground by an additional metre or so. I was standing in a swamp in the dry season, but it would soon become very wet indeed.
I went back in and began to help unpack, and said to Tim, "We’d better complete this end first, before the monsoon begins."
* * *
We soon settled into life in Gambia. The capital, Banjul, held little attraction for us and we spent most of our time at one or another of the tourist hotels on ‘the strip’, defined by some two or three miles of coast road that petered into scrub and dunes at its southernmost extremity. In one new hotel just being finished we installed a telephone system in, I think it was the Sunwing Hotel.
We set out to explore each hotel in turn. We began, logically, with our own. Despite being by far and away the nicest, seeming to be part of the setting rather than an intrusion, African Village didn’t manage to attract too many guests. Deciding to use it as a base, we expored further afield.
The next hotel down from Africa Village was quite interesting. Tim and I spent quite a lot of time theredancing in the disco-bar to the Bee Gees and other such musical confetti. The people who went there weren’t so much tourists, rather, those staying for longer periods.
Of those, I best remember a ravishingly pretty British girl, far too young for me and also a bit too young for Tim. Then there was Gilda the Windsurfer Girl, of which more, later. Perhaps Graham would pop in; he represented Benson & Hedges in the Gambia and was forever giving out free packs to the locals.
Every time I saw him the music of Steppenwolf’s song ‘The Pusher’ came into my head. When Graham visited the bar, he never brought his snooty British girlfriend.
Perhaps Kemal, the Lebanese owner of yet another hotel, would drop by, or the Irish nurse who lived at the top of the strip. And of course, during the tourist season at least, there’d be a bunch of tourists dancing away, too.
Neither Tim nor I ever got anywhere with any of the females we found at that bar. And most especially not with blue-eyed, curvy, athletic, blonde, Gilda the Windsurfer Girl.
all material is © Clive Warner unless otherwise noted.