Solo Notes: Surveying in the Outback
As a young boy, John A. Jamieson, LS, says his family migrated to Australia from Scotland. Since he was the oldest, he was expected to help his parents by becoming self-supportive. Jamieson says, starting at age 12, he developed skills cutting up fallen trees for use as firewood.
He describes one of his clients as an elderly man who had retired from a career as a civil and structural engineer, Mr. Charles Tubman. Tubman introduced Jamieson to what engineers did, shared his old reference books and encouraged him to focus on excelling in math, science, technical and architectural drawing, the humanities, English, and other support subjects in high school.
Another one of Jamieson’s clients, Mr. John F. Morgan, was a licensed surveyor who asked him what he was thinking of doing upon completing his university entrance exams. Jamieson told Morgan that Mr. Tubman thought he would make a good engineer. Morgan, who became Western Australia’s surveyor general a few years later, suggested he seriously consider becoming a professional surveyor.
“He reasoned that without very good initial surveying work being carried out, subsequent town planning and civil engineering construction designs could end up being faulty,” Jamieson says. “This made me really stop and think. Then I made the decision to try and combine all three of these skills in my future career. I got where I am today because I received excellent advice early on when at high school, followed by being mentored and taught by some of the very best surveyors, engineers, town planners, cartographers and photogrammetric engineers that I could talk with.”
From 1961 through 1964, he completed training and studies for registration as a licenced surveyor. Since 1965, Jamieson has been working as a professional surveyor engaged in all facets of land, mining, engineering, photogrammetric and hydrographic surveying throughout Australia, the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa and Middle Eastern countries.
Currently, as senior partner with Western Australia-based Albany Mapping & Surveying Services, he mostly serves clients in Western Australia and conducts some offshore work in more northern areas.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
JAMIESON: Interaction with the community who often have pre-conceived ideas of what a “surveyor” actually does. Often, they will only see a completed new plan and not be a party to how it was derived. Sometimes they will see a wonderful new town created with great facilities, sports grounds, shopping centers and schools, but have little idea of the fact that it was a survey team that collected all the raw information on which to design the new town’s facilities; that a town planner had identified how the raw data could be turned into a design that offered a sustainable life for a new community; that a team of engineers had looked at all the services and utilities required in this town; and how at the end of each construction period it was yet another team of surveyors and geographic information systems (GIS) people who had collated, stored and filed away inventories of each and every item that was built for that new town or redevelopment of an existing piece of land.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
JAMIESON: A great many over the years, starting from a young lad on my first outing as a survey assistant in 1961 to this week in 2016. Sometimes I wonder which job in the field or project I’ve worked on is the “most memorable,” as to me each and every one has its own unique aspects. Many people have suggested that I have what is called “a photographic memory” and I can usually do a quick scan back over the years and picture the events and characters just as they happened.
In my early years as a contract surveyor to state and federal government departments, it was expected that I’d have to work “out at the back of beyond” in Western Australia. In the 1960s, there were a few scattered towns from the capital city of Perth all the way to the far northeast, almost 3,000 kilometers away and about 1,000 kilometers to the South Australian border in the southeast. This was all four-wheel-drive country almost all the time, with very few all-weather roads and very few places to get provisions and fuel. I was still working as a field technician/surveying assistant when we took on a job doing extensive engineering surveys and high-quality leveling traverses to a locality approximately 1,500 kilometers northeast of Perth, on the edge of the desert. We had a four-wheel-drive, heavy-duty Land Rover with a diesel engine, my one-ton pickup 6-cylinder petrol-engine utility vehicle, a caravan and all the basic surveying equipment. The team was a licensed surveyor as party chief, a very experienced ex-WW2 survey assistant/trade assistant and myself as the second surveyor.
We had to be self-sufficient in fuel, water and provisions for a three-month expedition, with the job starting at the Carnarvon port tide gauge on the west coast of Western Australia and heading inland through a “one horse town” called Gascoyne Junction, then further out another 270 kilometers to a place named Landor. This place was on the edge of the desert and was a 1 million-acre cattle station (you call them “ranches” in the U.S.). Once we had completed all the field work, we packed up and headed back to Gascoyne Junction to collect some fuel and a few provisions. The party chief thought it would be a good idea to “take the short cut” back south from Gascoyne Junction instead of back through Carnarvon “to save a couple of hundred kilometers” in travel. This was what some would call “a goat track” suitable for only four-wheel-drive vehicles at best, and simply went through outback cattle stations or sheep stations that varied in size from half a million to about 2 million acres in size.
About 50 kilometres south of Gascoyne Junction there was a large bang from the engine of the Land Rover, which had been towing the caravan whilst I trailed behind in my two-wheel-drive utility carrying provisions, the drums of fuel and water. A close inspection gave us the bad news, a broken crankshaft. What could be done: carry on to the nearest station homestead at Byro, about 30 kilometers south, and see what help was available; leave the Land Rover where it sat; or try and tow the caravan back to Gascoyne Junction? The party chief owned the caravan and Land Rover, so wanted to take the caravan on to Byro, leave it there, then return and tow the broken down four-wheel-drive to the nearest service station in the small “two horse” town of Mullewa, about 200 kilometres south of Byro. Quite an undertaking for my two-wheel-drive vehicle, but I agreed to do the tow job.
Halfway to Mullewa, my vehicle’s engine started making strange noises and I saw steam escaping from under the bonnet. As I slowed down and pulled off the track, there was a loud “thump” and the engine cut out. Lifting the bonnet, I saw that the engine mountings had all disintegrated, the engine had slid forward and was starting to cut into the radiator, puncturing it in several places — that’s why I saw steam coming out. Several hours later, we had managed to reposition the engine using some survey pegs and fencing wire with an old tire cut up to use as engine mounts. The radiator was patched up with some chewing gum, pieces of rubber tire and some Araldite and we were ready to continue south at a very modest 15 to 25 kilometers per hour. Eventually, Mullewa was reached on a Sunday afternoon and there was no sign of life, other than at the small hotel. The hotel was open for what was known as the “Sunday session” from 12 noon to 2 p.m., so we managed to get some pies to eat and met the local service station/gas station owner who had an agency to support my type of vehicle, but not diesel Land Rovers. He told us to hang around until after 2 p.m. and he would see what he could do.
By 3 p.m. he’d located a set of new engine mountings and brackets, a radiator repair kit, and a good tow rope. This enabled us to get my vehicle operational again and by around 5 p.m. we were heading to Perth with about 400 kilometers to go, towing the Land Rover. I had a full fuel tank plus a 44-gallon drum of fuel in the back of my pickup and headed south traveling at over 60 miles an hour on what became a reasonably good road about 40 kilometers south of Mullewa. By 2:30 a.m. the following morning, we were at the party chief’s house. Then I dropped off the assistant at his home on the way back out to my parent’s home about 30 kilometers east of Perth. As I pulled into their yard at 4 a.m., the dogs started barking and woke the family, making me none too popular. Almost 72 hours on the road with almost no sleep left me pretty stuffed, but when my father heard the story, his anger dissipated quickly. When you are 18 or 19 years of age, you always felt “bullet proof” and capable of emulating Superman.
The most interesting projects I have worked on are hard to isolate, as all have been very interesting, sometimes tough to look back on. Surveying the offshore areas of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time charting an area that had last been visited by Captain James Cook in the late 1770s, before Australia was settled by the British. Doing a port investigation on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, Nigeria was another tough assignment, out from a village known as “Lekki,” where I was the first white person the villagers had ever seen in the flesh. It frightened all the women and children. On further investigation, I found out that this was where the Portugese and Spanish had taken tens of thousands of indigenous Africans as slaves to South America in the late 1400s and 1500s to establish their colonies like Brazil. Working on the construction of huge concrete gravity structures for extracting gas and oil from the North Sea, off Scotland and Norway, was another one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects at the cutting-edge of offshore construction, where I was always being challenged. Projects in central Australia from an office in Alice Springs were also very interesting and rewarding. As a land-based surveyor, it offered me an opportunity to help establish oil and gas pipelines and road corridors in areas of great significance to the original Australian aboriginal inhabitants.
Taking many of the roads less traveled during my career has been the driving influence. Looking at history, it is obvious to me that it is the individual who makes things happen in every field of endeavor. In many respects, trying to preserve one’s independence in pursuit of what one sees as his or her life journey is what keeps one alive and switched on with the retention of one’s integrity. It can make people such as myself rather hard to live with at times, but I believe we all must try to pursue life in an ethical and honorable way, treating each and every other human being in exactly the same manner in which you wished to be treated. I’ve been greatly influenced by many great mentors and by the writings of many great scholars and philosophers.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
JAMIESON: Keeping up to date with societal and technological change. Extending the benefits of my experience into regional areas of Australia, where we have a total population of just over 24 million — about the same population as the city of Shanghai in China — centered in a handful of cities that form the principal settlements in each state. The federal capital of Australia is in Canberra, 4,000 kilometers from where most of the real action is located. It should have been put right in the middle of Australia, where Alice Springs is located.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
JAMIESON: Reading widely, using the Internet and regularly attending CPD (continuous professional development) seminars and workshops. Also employing young people, both male and female, who have attained good and relevant levels of education, so I can keep abreast of change. They usually have an academic level superior to mine, but don’t have my 50-plus years of real-world experience. Technology and the social environments change; underlying fundamental principles never change.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
JAMIESON: Ask yourself what is it that attracts you to a life that requires a good level of physical fitness, the capacity of dealing with all levels of society from the least well-off to the multi-millionaires, the imposts of many layers of bureaucracy, the rapid advances in technology and having the capacity of often being judge and jury in matters pertaining to property in land and resources. Then read, understand and try to apply the underlying philosophy of that famous American, Henry George. Until we can become sufficiently educated to implement his underlying philosophy, as espoused in his classic “Progress and Poverty,” our so-called “advanced western democracies” will go the way of the Roman Empire and every other empire that has existed since the times of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
JAMIESON: I see it as having been hijacked by big corporations that dominate the advances in technology. In my youth, entering the surveying profession, there were restrictions in forming corporate entities in order to practice as professional surveyors. Each individual was expected to adhere to a very strict ethical standard of applying his training and experience in support of landed property and resources. Several times I rejected being bought by people who wanted me to modify my interpretation of property boundaries to land and mineral resources, so that their companies could make claim to a resource which I considered they had no right to being granted. Today I see instances where corporations are actually buying governments in the so-called “democratic western democracies.”
John A. Jamieson, LS, is senior partner with Western Australia-based Albany Mapping & Surveying Services. He has been working as a professional surveyor since 1965 and can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.