Tundra tales – Year 6

You know the situation. At the barbecue, party, or parents’ evening, someone sidles up and asks ‘So…….’, and nowadays all sentences start with ‘so’, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’. And you tell them, ‘I’m a geologist. I work in gold exploration’. A pregnant pause follows. Then, an ‘Oh, that’s nice’, and off they sidle for less complex prey.

It’s hard to make small talk with a geologist. Most people have no idea what we do. So, and a ‘so’ is justified in this context, here is a ‘day in the life’ of a geologist.


With all the Brexit-related kerfuffle in the UK, what a relief to escape to the fresh Arctic tundra air again. For the sixth year on the trot, summer holidays are torpedoed by my Russian comrades. After the long mobilization (Aberdeen-Amsterdam-Moscow-Magadan), then 2-hour flight to the mine, and 2-hour TrekAll trip to tented camp, I settle in. It takes a while to get into the right sleeping pattern; the 10-hour time difference is brutal. But, after three or four days, I feel up to making mental notes for ‘Tundra Tales Part 6’.

The typical day. Wake at 6 am. Squeeze past colleagues in cramped tent, complete with giant kerosene stove (Russians love their hot tents). Slip on sandals, walk to wash tent. Carry out an ABC wash (face first, armpits, ‘bottom area’ and, if I’m feeling lucky, feet) using freezing river water in a plastic tub. A wooden pallet serves as a wash station. The soap will not lather. Opportunistic mosquitoes get tangled in the (limited) suds. I dry using a dirty shirt.

6.30 am. To the kitchen tent, an old Soviet throwback of heavy canvas. The kind of thing you still find at Scout jamborees, but with nailed wooden beams, not poles. Black tea and something hot, milky, and reminiscent of school dinners: porridge, rice pudding or semolina, with some chopped apple to liven it up. Topped by lashings of condensed milk (‘moloka’ in Russian). I only recently found out that this is not actually ‘condensed’ milk, thickened by some magical distilling process, but instead milk with huge amounts of sugar added. Whatever its origin, it assumes mythical dimensions in Russia. Moloka is liberally used in tea, porridge, on pancakes (blini) and on bread. Childhood memories of condensed milk and, unbelievably, sugar sandwiches come flooding back. (God knows how I still have all my own teeth.)

Return to sleeping tent. Briefly retch on threshold at the stench of unwashed human bodies, in particular, feet. (It takes a dose of fresh air to make you realize just how bad it is. The culprit sleeps about two feet away. I never saw evidence of washing in the week I was there.) Dress, pack rucksack, coordinate lunch with gunman (on bear duty). Load two quad bikes. Set off about 7.30 am up into the hills. Hammer rocks all day, collect samples for assay, look through my little hand lens; this is not a high-tech job. A brief respite at midday for a lunch of dubious dietary value, normally closely related to previous night’s dinner. In afternoon, munch sunflower seeds using the following technique: 1) store 20-odd seeds in left cheek, aka hamster; 2) balance a single seed between upper and lower jaw, on left side; 3) squeeze gently, seed pops out; 4) transfer kernel with tongue to right hand side for chewing; 5) spit out husk from left side. Deeply satisfying and as addictive as smoking or ‘Love Island’ (Channel ITV2, UK). Filthy habit, of course, but I recommend Bubushka, ‘Grandma’, brand.

At 5 pm, given no breakdowns, back to camp and the warm farty atmosphere of the kitchen tent, alive with laughter, mostly at the expense of the young cook,  too fond of ned-beat music. Eat dinner and banter with colleagues, trying to translate the wide-mouthed frog joke into Russian, with the help of Valentin. He is a bilingual resident of Anadyr, regional capital and a very remote spot; the only entertainment in Anadyr seems to be the annual whale hunt, involving speedboats, old fashioned harpoons, a tractor, and plenty of balls. I enjoy my fried pork, usually with spaghetti or other pasta. The Russians dip into a bowl of raw garlic cloves and munch happily. Everything is washed down by black tea with numerous sugar cubes. Anal as always, I check the expiration dates of produce. Everything is out of date; the Nesquik by 2 years, the coffee by a year, the cans by just a few months. I take my own plate, cup and cutlery to the euphemistically titled ‘wash station’, for their own ‘ABC’; the mosquitoes are happiest at dusk, so the visit is brief. The plates end up liberally covered in dead insects.

From 6 pm to 8 pm. Get all the day’s data from notebook to laptop. Download GPS waypoints. At 8 pm clean teeth and pass out in sleeping bag, with sleep-inducing book; Rider Haggard usually does the trick (it was great to learn the derivation of ‘She Who Must be Obeyed’, from the novel ‘She’, of course). After a night or two, the noise of the 5-kw generator, needed for the geophysicists, becomes tolerable. Mind you, Sonos noise-cancelling headphones are a big help.

Wake suddenly in the middle of the night. Something is sniffing round the tent. A wolverine or bear? Attracted by our fruity scent? I clutch the bear spray and debate whether it is best to go out and confront it, or risk it ripping canvas and me having to spray concentrated pepper inside the tent? I decide it is probably just a gopher and slip back to sleep, sleep mask over eyes, to block out permanent daylight. The dawn is already creeping up, though it never really buggered off. Another day, another dollar.


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