Western Crews Explore In Mysterious Algeria

Updated: May 3

By The Western Geophysical North Africa Operations Team;

Originally published in the 1972 Spring-Summer Western Profile Recounted by Scott Singleton

The Doodlebugger Diary recounts the experiences of geophysicists during their working lives. I’ve published extensively on my own experiences and encourage those of you with experiences of your own to also contribute. Your fellow industry professionals would love to hear your stories.

I’ve been occasionally reprinting a series of early 1980’s articles from the GSI Shotpoints and GSI Grapevine that can be found at http://gsinet.us/. I also have reprinted various Western Geophysical Profile articles. These can be found at https://seg.org/Publications/Journals/Western-Profile. This month I’m peeling back the years to an even earlier time with another blissful-sounding article from the Western Profile. Enjoy!

Algeria map
Figure 1: Map of Algeria in 1972 accompanying the Western Profile article. Each of the towns mentioned in the article is on this map so you can follow along with the crew’s travels.

Prolog by Scott Singleton

After the end of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) the National Liberation Front (or Front de Liberation Nationale, FLN) became the sole legal and ruling party of the government, an arrangement that lasted until other parties were legalized in 1989 (which, by the way, led to the formation of the Islamic Salvation Front and their second civil war in the early 1990’s). Successive governments of the 1960’s and 1970’s resulted in dramatic increases in authoritarianism and socialism, which in turn led to collectivization of agriculture and nationalization of oil production.

It is in this environment that our intrepid doodlebuggers ventured into Algeria in 1970. It is not too hard to imagine that they were welcomed with open arms; the society was at least at peace after decades of wars, killing and destruction following WWII, and were trying to make it as an independent country. I have written about the same kind of experience in Eretria after their independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990’s. It is in this context that our story begins with Western Geophysical ramping up full-scale exploration efforts with the establishment of a central base of operations run by a fairly good sized group of expats in Oran, Algeria, a city on the coast to the west of Algiers near the border with Morocco (Figure 1).

Oran, Algeria, 1970 AFRICA -How full of mystery this name seems! For some persons it is synonymous with an immeasurable desert full of masked camel riders, for others it brings to mind veiled women and oriental perfumes, and for some men it means the Arabic belly dancers. For those families living in the “Enchanting City” of Oran, Algeria, however, these descriptions are not altogether as they see them, however much they may match those of tourist pamphlets. No matter, because the object of the PROFILE is to move the imagination and increase the knowledge of all Westerners all over the world - in this case, regarding our Company in Algeria. This Western multi-party operation began in the early fall of 1970. Among the early arrivals in Oran from the States were Supervisor C. Q. (Quin) Williams and wife Billie. Because of their friendly concern for others, they were of great assistance to those crew members in getting established and settled. By October 31 the town-based personnel and many crew families had flown in to begin a “new life” (Figures 2, Figure 3, and Figure 4). Also, the equipment was arriving and awaiting clearance through customs.

Algeria, Sant Cruz Fort and Cathedral
Figure 2: Westerners in Oran, Algeria, can see this view from the base of the mountain located directly across the harbor from the Western building. The structure on the left is the Santa Cruz Fort, and in the background at the right is the top of Santa Cruz Cathedral.

Actual Western operations in Algeria began in February 1971 when Party 53 fired its first shot in the Sahara Desert. This was near Ouargla, which was used by this crew as a supply base for food and water and where Fred Cooper then lived and was in charge of our warehouse there. Party V-54 soon followed and set up camp farther west, near the oasis of Ghardaia. In the cooler mountainous regions northwest of Ghardaia Parties 55 and V-56 used the small livestock community of Mecheria as a supply base. The surrounding land looks like the King Ranch, with no fences, skinny cattle, and an occasional mountain jutting out of the otherwise flat terrain. Meanwhile, the Westerners back in Oran were becoming acquainted with their new “post.”

Algeria figure 3
Figure 3: This view of Oran can be seen by Westerners standing across the harbor in the Santa Cruz Fort. Western’s building is in top-left background.

Oran, an important prehistoric town originally called “d’Ilfri’ (the Caves) and in Arabic ‘Wahran,” was founded by the Andalousian Arabs in the 8th century. Prospering under the Almohades and Ziyanides from Tlemcen, the port shared its trade with Rachgoun and Honaine. Following an expedition by Pedro Navarro, Oran was occupied in 1509 by the Spanish, to whom many monuments today bear witness. In 1791, however, as a result of attacks by the Bey of Mascara and an earthquake claiming 2,000 lives, a treaty was negotiated between King Charles IV of Spain and the Bey of Algiers. The city then reverted to Islam and became the home of the Bey for Western Algeria. Built at the foot of a mountain, Oran was surrounded by a wall through which a few doors were built and was bordered by flour mills on the Ah-Rhi River. Today the town has expanded way beyond its wall and, with its numerous high-rise buildings, has become one of the busiest North African towns.

Algeria figure 4
Figure 4: A group of Western expats (left foreground) at one of Oran’s outdoor cafes

To house its offices and personnel and families, our Company took an entire building, the Immeuble Charles de Foucauldt. Dubbed “Chez Western,” it is majestically situated in the center of an immense naked field (handy for the assembling of vehicle caravans) just on the outskirts of the city. Our office-apartment building has offices on the ground floor and, directly above six floor apartments for the men and those families who accompanied them. With everyone in the same building there are no excuses of taxi or bus strikes or sudden “illnesses” that creep up on a person on cold winter mornings! Whether we like it or not, every morning at 8 o’clock all expatriated office personnel rush downstairs to earn their day.

Now to the field, with Party 53 Ieading off. To reach this crew we travel through the orange-growing areas and the Atlas Mountains. Just over the mountain is the resort town of Tiaret, surrounded by fir trees. It is a center for schools, in which many expatriates serve as teachers. Leaving Tiaret and the high mountains, we drive through the plain and hills to Laghouat, where petrol and tires must be checked for just outside of this picturesque village is the beginning of the Sahara Desert. The nearest city is many miles away an oasis called Ghardaia. While wending our way through the hills and down into this tight little valley we are almost certain of viewing a mirage as glimpses of nothing but Mediterranean blue meet the eye, and as we round the final curve there it is, the town of Ghardaia - completely to the last building, dressed in blue. A long-to-be-remembered sight. Ghardaia actually consists of five walled-in cities connected somewhat loosely by open market places. Persons not from one of these cities are not permitted inside the walls unless accompanied by a guide or resident. Ghardaia is considered to be a holy city and its inhabitants are the Mozabs. They are a religious sect who settled here in the 8th century, much as the Pilgrim Fathers, to be free to pursue their faith and to start business. Both pursuits have proved very successful. Business is thriving. Because of their location, the Mozabs form a trading link between nomads and people from the coast area.

Departing Ghardaia and its abundant date palms, we are again surrounded by the desert, and we begin to see the Bedouin with their camel trains traveling south. Just before reaching the city of Ouargla, we see the first and dunes - Party 53 is surrounded by these. A small green patch in a barren desert, Ouargla itself is a nice city where that all-important item, food, is bought for the party. Located northeast of Ouargla is the beautiful oasis town of Touggourt with lovely palm and white mosques.

Algeria figure 5
Figure 5: “Sorry but I was here first” this arrogant dromedary seems to be saying to doodlebugger Tom Pack. Field crews in Algeria meet up with many of these humped beasts during their desert wanderings.

While working in the desert, the crews are often visited by camels and donkeys (Figures 5 and Figures 6) and less often by gazelles and an occasional hyena or two. The weather is as you would expect, cold in the winters with a few short showers, hot and dry in the summers, and the wind is almost constant (Figure 7, Figure 8, and Figure 9).

Party 53 itself consists of about a dozen expatriates (Figure 10). They are assisted in all phases of the work by approximately 44 local men. Since it is necessary to move camp fairly frequently, there is a tremendous turnover in local labor. This puts a handicap on all of the expatriates. The party manager, Harvey Hearn, and his assistant, Carlos Reijenstein, are constantly involved with labor boards in the various towns.

Snow-covered hills are not exactly the scene one would expect in the desert, but this is the case with Party V-56. At the time of writing, the crew is positioned about 250 kilometers (155.2 5 miles) due south of Oran, near the small town of Kreida and, being so close to the coast, receives its fair share of winter weather. Even the routine task for Party Manager Bob Castille of telephoning the production figures to Oran can prove difficult - and sometimes impossible as that little stream has a remarkable tendency to become a raging torrent when it rains.

Algeria figure 7
Figure 7: A distant view of Party V-53’s ‘home sweet home’ emphasizes the desert’s barren, arid emptiness.

Algeria figure 8
Figure 8: Looking for a ‘bar’ in the Algerian desert are Party 53 Surveyor Roger Henry (left) and Digital Technician Daniel Bondoz.

Before we Westerners in North Africa say au revoir to our colleagues, we wish to add a few words about our crew that migrated, Party 55. On November 25 there formed outside “Chez Western” a “wagon train” as it was known in the days of the pioneers or a caravan as it is known in our desert. In the dim light of early morning the men and equipment of Party 55 departed for Mauritania. They passed through little Algerian towns as they wended their way southwest, waving goodbye to Algeria at the near border town of Tindouf before heading into Mauritania.

Algeria figure 9
Figure 9: Party 53’s cable trucks and juggies add life and the third dimension to an arid desert’s seemingly infinite plain.

This, then is Oran and Algeria as we saw it in 1970. We hope that we have moved your imagination and increased your knowledge of this humble, peaceful, and ancient place. We had a great experience in our Western sojourn in Algeria and will take away some great memories and friendships. We hope that with our work we have in some small way helped these people by exploring for natural resources beneath their lands. And we hope that one day we will be able to return to see some of the fruits of our labor.

Algeria figure 10
Figure 10: Party 53’s dauntless cable crew.

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