Little did I believe that my application as a learner surveyor to one of the major construction companies in South Africa, Concor Construction (Pty) Ltd, would bear fruit. They flew me to Johannesburg for an interview, subsequently accepting me, but said I would not be going to technical college. I would be trained on site. It was too good an opportunity to miss out on, despite having to move back to the Transvaal. I returned to give my notice as fencing foreman to Imprefed.
At the beginning of May, 1981, I was picked up from their head-office in Church St Extention, Crown Industria by the site paymaster, Rob Toop, and taken to site in the West Rand near Carletonville on the Western Deep Levels (South) Gold Mine.
The contract involved all the surface works for the new ultra-deep shaft which included two concrete headgears, winder houses, pipelines, conveyor plinths, pump-houses, offices etc. When I arrived, the headgear for the main shaft was almost complete. The company had taken it on themselves to raise the height by one metre above design to make it the tallest concrete headgear in the world. It was built by a method called sliding where concrete is poured non-stop with alternate twelve-hour shifts into a complete shutter which is jacked up on the newly poured section. It started several metres underground and kept rising until its completed height was, in this case, a hundred and six metres high. The tower crane grew in sections alongside the structure.
The surveyor under whom I would work and be trained was one Rodney Smith, an ex-Rhodesian. When he arrived at the office and Rob had introduced us, Rodney took me to the headgear tower and asked if I was afraid of heights.
I said, not particularly. Rodney said, right!
He signalled the crane driver to bring down his concrete bucket which thudded to the ground beside us. Rodney told me to get into the bucket, passed in a level, tripod and staff, climbed in beside me and signalled to the driver who whisked the steel bucket into the sky. He was swinging the crane as we went so the bucket also swung, and I knew Rodney was testing me!
Of course I had to appear unfazed, but it was pretty hair-raising. We were deposited on the roof shuttering to put in the levels for the roof slab, which we did, then, once more in the bucket, were whisked down again.
Rodney admitted that he would never have got into that bucket cold turkey, like I had! He got used to the height slowly, as the crane and tower grew, day by day.
In the three weeks that followed, Rodney taught me to calculate co-ordinates and set out survey points using a Wild Electronic Distancing Machine and theodolite, as well as levels. How to do traverses, off-sets, profiles, use boning rods and a lot of other vital survey stuff. One day, talking, we discovered that we had actually met at the country club in Glendale, Rhodesia back in 1966 when I had visited my cousins, the Arkell family. His family were neighbours of theirs!
Then the senior surveyor, Klaus Stiefel, came back to site from another short job that he had completed, to fire me.
He said that he and Rodney were snowed under with more work than they could handle, which was the reason that he had requested head office to find him another surveyor. They certainly did not have time to train a newbe!
I begged and wheedled and tried to think of reasons how I could be of some use without actually working for nothing.
He eventually angrily said that he didn’t know what to do with me; I was so damned keen! And he allowed me to stay. Phew! Career-wise, this was the luckiest break I have ever had.
Today, at 3,749 m, Western Deep Levels is one of the world’s deepest mines.