Prologue

The constant drip, drip, drip was the worst.  Even the cold, the dark and the musty cave smell weren’t so bad once you got used to them.  Just no more drip, drip, drip …

Chapter 1

“We would plough Geoflex into the ground, a couple of feet deep and forty or fifty feet along the line, centered around the shotpoint.  The recording truck was out of the way a little, plugged into the lines of jugs via a thick cable and recording the signal as we went.  The dozer ops would sometimes have a little fun with the Observer.  That’s what they called the nerdy electronics guy in the truck running everything.  They used to plough it a little shallower as they approached the spot where the recorder truck would set up.  When the Geoflex exploded, the truck would be sprayed with dirt and the Observer would jump out swearing at anyone who happened to be around.”

“Wasn’t that against the HSE policy” Steven asked, looking incredulously at Kevin who was pissing himself laughing.

“OH &S it was called back then, but no one took much notice of all that shite back then; we were too busy getting the work done.  It was all one big party back then.  A mate sent me some photos recently of a bonfire they had to get rid of all the left-over flex at the end of one of the surveys.  What a blast!  Here, have a gizz at this.”  Kevin was thumbing through photos while he kept on laughing to himself.  He just couldn’t help himself.  Everything was funny when you thought about it.

“Don’t listen to him, he just makes shit up to scare the kiddies.”  I interrupted. I had just walked in to the lunch I had organized and followed by saying my hullos to all those already present.  Mark B, a computer nerd and his University student son Steven B, Kevin, a senile ex Bird Dog and now a lost soul, Mark C, another computer nerd but more hardware oriented and John, the lone geologist amongst us.  For those not in the know, a bird dog is a field supervisor on a seismic crew, most likely a geophysicist by training.  I am also a geophysicist, but of the lazier, office variety.

“Hi Bob and thanks for organizing another lunch.  We haven’t had one for a while.  Everyone must be too busy for such nonsense.”

I looked at Mark for a second and gave a little snort. “How can we be too busy, everyone has long retired, except Hassie of course and I don’t think he’s going to stop until he dies.”

“And Steven as well.  He hasn’t even started yet and the way things are going who knows if he ever will.”

I pulled up a barstool, ordered a pint of West End and put it on the tab.  I had a feeling it was going to get huge by the end of the day.  Ten for lunch, the best we had managed in a while.  It just depended on the collective mood whether we would be done by three pm or three am.  Well, perhaps when we were a little younger.  Nine pm was about the latest we had managed recently and even then, we all thought we should have left earlier.

“Hey, good to see you all.”  Hassie was larger than life in most of the ways you could imagine.  Tall, rotund, loud, colourfully dressed and always ready to tell you his latest joke, whether you were ready for it or not.  He grabbed a wine menu, looked at it for a few seconds and ordered the most expensive red he could find.

“Big day, let’s celebrate.  How many glasses do we need?”  I looked down, smiled and shook my head.  It was definitely going to be a big day.  I would need to consider what I could manage to drink and pace myself without prompting another heart attack.  They were no fun.

“What have you done now?” Mark asked.

“Just wait till Wassa and Boogie arrive and we’ll tell you all about our new Venture” was all he would tell us for now.  Wassa or Was was really Walter, another bird dog and everyone always joked about the contraction.  Boogie was Bogdan, a seismic surveyor with plenty of other skills to his name.  Everything was always a secret with Hassie; the next new way to make some big bucks was always on the horizon.  His diamond mine out on the Gawler craton had made him a fortune when he sold it; his software venture with Mark B and Anil selling bookmaking code to the Indian cricket entrepreneurs lost a bit of it again but best of all his Bollywood movie venture.  It was as much about tax as it was about the idea and it was the tax break that made him money.

“Let’s hope you don’t get threatened with kneecapping again” I added just to be involved in the conversation but making everyone laugh in the process.  The Indian venture had not gone well.  The talk was always thick and fast and a little hard for the slowest of us to get a word in.  Luckily, we regularly broke up into smaller, more intimate groups.

“What do you think Bob?  Will there be much of a career in Oil and Gas as a geophysicist if I take it on?”  It was a problematic question and I was unsure how to answer it in the boisterous setting we were in.

“Big Question Steve and probably one you need to think through for yourself.  I am sure you will get lots of views about that this afternoon.  My simple answer is probably yes, but you will need to be smart about it.  Whatever we do, we are going to need oil and gas for at least another twenty years and probably quite a bit more.  Everything from fertilizer to pharmaceuticals are made from gas and while we need to find new ways to make these, I can’t see gas disappearing quickly, at least not in Australia.  Most people would prefer to use Aussie gas rather than import foreign oil.”

“And how can I be smart about it?”

“I think you are going to need to be clever about choosing any career, as they are all undergoing rapid change.  You know, with robotics, AI and all the rest; but with exploration I reckon we are going to have less in the way of new discoveries and more in the way of new ideas to extract what we can out of the discoveries we already have.  Stuff like 4D seismic and more detailed analysis, probably incorporating some of those robots and AI.”

“4D?  Seismic recorded over time.  We should learn from what they are doing with fMRI in the medical business.  That’s what they do isn’t it?  MRI scans repeated over time while they look at brain function?’

“I think so.  I reckon that’s going to be your domain young feller.  Us old farts can’t keep up with all that fancy stuff”

“How many geophysicists does it take to change a light globe?”  And there was Walter or Was as he was better known, making a big entrance. “None” someone yelled back, “They would just hire an electrician. You Fizzle sticks don’t do anything for yourselves.”  And it was on, with lots of good-natured banter giving everyone in the room a bit of shit.

“Who’s this noisy bunch, then?” Boogie yelled as he walked in with Anil, another office bound geophysicist.  “Looks like we need another round, gents” as he started organizing beers with the bartender.  “And that’s a single malt and coke for you was it, Was?”

“Sure thing” he answered a bit sheepishly.  Apparently, they had started this silliness on a Variety Bash drive, a kind of car rally involving lots of dirt tracks and lots of drinking and Was kept on the tradition back in real life.

“And your West End, Bob” as he passed my beer over.  I was glad I had a chance to talk to Josh the barman a bit earlier and come to an arrangement.  After my first, he would pour me a Peroni Zero quietly on the side and hand it over with no one being the wiser.  One West End, any number of Zeroes and a few reds should keep me merry, but with a little less in the way of consequences over the next few days.  It meant that I would have to put up with a lot of repetitive conversation later in the evening, but what the Hell.  I couldn’t remember most of it anyway.

“Hey, a bit of shush y’all. Keep the noise down or you’ll get us chucked out.” Hassie started his planned speech.

“Never, we spend too much and tip too well” John responded to accompanying cheers and whistles.

“If y’all would just shut up a second I’ll tell you all about our new venture.  We, that’s Boogie, Wassa and me have got hold of a share in some acreage down in the southeast.  We are going to start our own oil company.”

“What are you going to call it?” John yelled out again. “The two percent Wankers?”

“Hey we have a five percent share,” Boogie protested.  “That gets us a vote and a seat at the table.  Free sandwiches for lunch every three months.”  At that everyone laughed and congratulated the trio and then pestered them with questions about cost, exploration risk, social consequences and the general wherewithal about how they were going to set it up.

“How can you afford it?” I asked Was quietly on the side.

“Easy” Was replied.  “Hassie had a mate who had an idea.  He told a few people about it and we eventually convinced a third party with deep pockets to farm in.  We got a five percent share, free carry for the drilling as a finder’s fee.  Problem is, they are arguing over the need for more seismic and that is likely to cost us big time as it’s not part of the free carry arrangement.  Hassie doesn’t care, as he can cover the cost easily.  Bit more of a problem for Boogie and me.  We might need to make alternate arrangements.”

“Oh” was all I could come up with as a reply.  But I put on a concerned expression to show I cared.  In reality I was a bit jealous.  It sounded like a lot of fun.

The conversation was loud for the first ten or fifteen minutes as everyone was excited to be together again, but it soon settled to a leisurely pace.  We had been doing this for about forty years with a few new faces over that time and a few who had been lost to various overseas locations.  It had started as a working arrangement back in the early eighties.  I was organizing five or six seismic crews at a time in different parts of Australia, all from different acquisition companies with a variety of capabilities.  Bird dogs on rotation were the go between me and the field, which meant a lot of bird dogs.

We only had radio communication in those days, passing messages back and forth at organized schedules, morning and evening.  That was good for actual data or daily problems and requirements but there was necessarily a lot left unsaid.  So, I did a deal with the bird dogs that I would make sure they got a day’s pay for a debriefing session if they agreed to take an interested group out to lunch.  It was all legit as all we ever talked about was work anyway.

And so began the legendary bird dog lunches at a historic hotel, a little out of town.  They were a very regular occurrence at first but slowed down with the pace of the business and necessities of life. After a few years, local crews were down to one or two a year operating for six months or less.  No matter if we had any field operations or not the odd bird dog lunch continued regardless, just with fewer bird dogs.

They were pretty much all blokes, as that was the industry at the time.  Over time more women joined the industry and a few would come along for lunch.  Now that we were old it was just the blokes again.

I looked at my watch, realized the time and suggested we all move into the dining room for our actual lunch.  More wine was ordered, menus surveyed with relish and toilet breaks taken as we all settled into more meaningful conversation at the dinner table.

“You guys call yourselves the McKinnon Institute.  Where did that come from?”  Mark had cleverly left me sitting next to his son while he was having a tense discussion with Hassie at the other end of the setup.  I was left to tell Steven all about the industry and how he might fit in.

“Well, I guess you realise that your old man is mixed up with a pretty odd bunch.  Everyone is a bit of a genius in some ways and a bit of a nutter in other ways.  One day, when everyone was a bit drunk some wise guy suggested that we should give our group a name to make it all sound a bit more official.  Kevin here is a deep thinker, but we reckon he is losing his wits a bit, but on this day, he just stood up, glass in hand and told us ‘we should call ourselves the McKinnon Institute’.  We were all taken in by the occasion, raised our glasses and agreed.  ‘To the McKinnon Institute’ we chimed.

A bit later Wassa asked me why and I stupidly replied that it was the name of the street the pub was located on.  Even as I said it, I realised that no, it wasn’t.  That was the next street over.  Was and I pissed ourselves laughing and soon everyone else had joined in.  There was to be no changing it.

We had become the McKinnon Institute.