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  • dane25

Horizontal Directional Drilling in Southern Africa: Not for the Faint-Hearted

I would like to share one of my favourite experiences and projects in my career. The project had the most interesting challenges that we had to overcome, but despite many odds, we prevailed.

Project Details:

  • Area: Mohembo, Botswana – Okavango River

  • Purpose: To provide a telecommunications client with sleeves for fibre to be provided to a village on the opposite side of the river.

  • Length of Crossing: 350 meters

  • Sleeves Required: 4 x 110mm sleeves

As the Operations Manager for a Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) company, I was approached by a Botswana-based company that requested our participation in a tender to drill underneath the Okavango River. This project aimed to install sleeves for fibre cables to serve a village across the river in Mohembo. It was the first project outside South Africa for our company, requiring extensive research, numerous meetings, and calculated risks before we finally submitted our proposal.

Shortly after submitting our proposal, we were delighted to receive notification of its acceptance. We were then requested to meet with our local partner and the telecommunications company that initiated the proposal. The meeting was successful, and it was time to start planning how to transport all our equipment nearly 1500km to the site in another country. Overcoming various obstacles and learning curves, we finally set a date for our departure.

Before the full establishment, our drill manager and I visited the site to prepare for the team's and equipment's arrival. We embarked on our journey in the early hours of the morning, enduring a tiring drive to Maun, complicated by the need to cross the border, which can be time-consuming. By the time we reached Maun, it was already getting dark. Normally, driving the last few hundred kilometres would have been a tall order due to fatigue, but fatigue was not an option in this case. The road we travelled was narrow and full of potholes, some so large that the community would drive on the shoulder to avoid them. We also had to stay vigilant for animals on the road due to the absence of fences. I was watching one side of the road and the drill manager the other, but to my surprise, he missed a huge elephant standing on the edge of the road. Fortunately, we reached our destination safely and found our accommodation to be a dream holiday destination, a pleasant end to a very long drive.

With all planning and preparation complete, the team and equipment were finally established on-site. This lengthy process required setting up the equipment on the opposite side of the river, and without a bridge, we had to transport the equipment bit by bit using a small ferry. We were finally ready to start drilling, and it was exciting for about a week until everything came to a sudden halt. Despite clear weather on our side, heavy rainfall in Angola caused the Okavango River to rise rapidly, surrounding our equipment with water. Our team quickly evacuated the site, ensuring the safety of both personnel and equipment. Emotionally drained, we demobilized back to South Africa, agreeing to return at the start of winter when the river would have subsided, and rainfall lessened.

After a few months, we received the green light to return to the site as the river had subsided. Wiser and better prepared, we re-established the team and equipment. Engaging with the local community, we arranged for a local guard to watch over the equipment at night. Early in the project, the guard was found zipped up in his tent, terrified by noises he had heard from a nearby bush. Investigating, we discovered large crocodile tracks, prompting us to enhance site security measures.

In horizontal directional drilling, locating and directing the drill head involves a handheld device receiving signals from a transmitter in the drill head. Ideally, we'd use a Steering Engineer for precision. But guess what? There isn't one available in Southern Africa, and flying one in from overseas would cost more than a small fortune. Our stakeholders agreed that this additional expense would not fit the budget, so we had to get creative.

We conducted a thorough investigation to determine the exact depth of the river at various points and developed a drill plan that the team could follow using our trusty handheld device. Enter our local hero: a fisherman with a small, motorized canoe and an even smaller boat called a mokoro (which you stand in while rowing). We struck a deal to pay the fisherman a daily rate to use him and his boats to locate the drilling head from the river’s surface. Everything was going swimmingly, and we were thrilled with our ingenious plan.

Then came the hiccup—well, more like a hippo hiccup. Nine big hippos and two baby ones had decided to set up camp on the opposite side of the river. If you’re not aware, hippos are very territorial, especially when they have little ones. So, in our blissful ignorance, we went on a bureaucratic wild goose chase, approaching various government organizations, even the military, to see if we could get the hippos to move upstream. After being bounced around like a ping-pong ball for days, we were finally told—quite sensibly—that we couldn’t disturb the hippos in their natural habitat. Fair enough, but it didn’t solve our problem.

To paint a clear picture: the hippos had settled in a small body of water separated from the main river by a row of reeds. Occasionally, they’d move from their position, but we had no idea where they went. The only way to find out was to climb into the canoe and peek past the reeds. Our fisherman was a bit too confident for my taste. I asked him to take me past the reeds to check if the hippos were around so that the drill operator could proceed. However, due to his limited English, he misunderstood and took us straight through the reeds into the hippos’ hangout spot. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but all I could do was scream at the fisherman to get us out of there. Thankfully, it was our lucky day because there were no hippos in sight.

This project was filled with uncommon obstacles, making it far from a standard HDD project. Despite the stress, the project was ultimately a success, filled with challenges and learning experiences. If given the choice, I would eagerly undertake such a project again. I am proud to have been part of the team that successfully drilled under the Okavango River. This experience reminds me of the TV show "Bush Pilots," which depicted the trials and tribulations of pilots flying tourists in and out of the Okavango Delta.

In conclusion, this project exemplified the complexities and rewards of horizontal directional drilling in challenging environments. The successful completion of the project, despite numerous obstacles, is a testament to the team's dedication, resilience, and ingenuity. This experience has not only enriched my professional journey but also reinforced the importance of preparation, adaptability, and collaboration in achieving success in demanding projects. If I had the chance, I would undoubtedly undertake this adventure again, proud to have contributed to bridging the digital divide for a remote village in Botswana.

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