Tales From The Sand Box - Episode 3
Trip Start May 01, 2005
7Trip End Nov 15, 2005
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Hello again. Last time we left our intrepid globe trekker he was about to make a right hand turn around Colombo and start heading north into the Arabian Sea.
Well we made that right hand turn and started our slow passage north. I sometimes think that growing up in Queensland and travelling up and down the coast has made me a little conceited when it comes to discussing or
even thinking about distances. I have often looked (longingly) at the Arabian sea and in my mind I have always equated it to crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria or some similarly inconsequential distance. Well I'm here to tell you it's a whole lot bigger than it seems. I don't know if it was the anticipation of what was waiting at the end of the transit or whether it was the never ending un-alerted (practice) Action Stations at 0530 in the morning, but the trip from the bottom of India to the Gulf of Oman seemed to take a lifetime
You may remember in my last missive that I made mention of some heavy weather in the Indian Ocean. Well that weather had more of a detrimental effect than just making the dinner line shorter. We used a bit more fuel than expected so we had to make a quick pit stop to grab some go juice and a couple of egg and lettuce sandwiches. The lovely little place designated to host our five hour fuelling is called Fujairah (Foo-Jy-Rar). Oh my god!!!!! I think that one of the boys said it best when he quipped "If this is the middle east, you can keep it".
Fujairah is in the United Arab Emirates just south of the entrance to the Straits of Hormuz. We didn't actually get to see the town but if the port was anything to go by I don't think we missed much. I will normally do a bit of background reading about a place so I can be a little informative about it when I write home. As far as Fudge-ra (our new nick name for it) goes I can't be bothered. I don't know what it is they mine there, but the slag heaps from it rise thousands of feet into the air all around it and the dirt and dust is enough to kill a swagman
ship at one stage to have a cigarette away from where the fuelling was going on. While I was there I started talking to a chirpy young American chappy who was acting as one of our guards. His name was Carlos and he was from some place just north of Los Angeles. His unit were part of the harbour defence patrol boats. He was on his last thirty days of a year long tour in the middle east which had included some nasty places. He was very much looking forward to going home with all the money he had earned. We started talking about the relative allowances our services paid us and it turns out that in my six months up here I will earn twice what he has in twelve months. Bugger that for a joke. I would have had a bit of a laugh about it with him but he didn't seem too impressed, and he was holding a semi-automatic weapon at the time. I chose to point out at that stage all the other benefits that his military would provide him that our stingy government would never dream of. I think I cheered him up a bit. Anyway, that was the breadth of my experiences in Fujairah.
The next hurdle to jump was the Straits of Hormuz. This is a rather tight little bit of water about sixty miles long which separates Oman and Iran. Both of these countries have a rather proprietary attitude towards this stretch of water as it is the only way into the Persian Gulf. Therefore 90% of the worlds oil must pass through here. As you can imagine neither country is willing to try and enforce their claims on this waterway because the international community would fall on them from a great height. Back in the 80's the Iranians tried a bit of bullying in and around here so the US started escorting the oil tankers in and out of the area. I can't remember the details of the incident but one of the American warships, USS Stark, got hit by a missile while undertaking these escort duties. But more about her later.
Anyway, while the Iranians don't try those sort of games these days they do still like to pretend that they run the joint so whenever a foreign warship sails through there they get challenged by Iranian patrol boats. The usual format for these challenges is - Who are you, what are you doing, where did you come from and where are you going. Thankyou very much and have a nice time burning in hell you sycophants of the great American devil. Once all of these formalities are done with you are allowed to carry on your way. Well our transit was no different from the rest but I was quite excited because I got to be the voice of HMAS Newcastle speaking to them. It was actually a very pleasant conversation and no doubt Allah will reward them with a dozen virgin brides for being so polite. We did the transit at night and at high speed and the wind blowing across the deck was incredible. Can you imagine forty knots of wind with absolutely no cooling effect what so ever. It was still over thirty-eight degrees at midnight when I went to bed.
The next morning was a bit cooler (not much) which was good because we were pulling into Bahrain and the heat while pulling on lines is not a good combination. Bahrain is a city state centred on the largest Island of an archipelago of about fifty islands. The largest island is also called Bahrain. Like most of the countries in this area, Bahrain was controlled by the British around the eighteen hundreds until the middle of last century. These days it is an absolute monarchy ruled by an Amir. The Amir is a descendant of the strongest family amongst a group of merchant families who left Qatar in the 1700's to create their own country where the could carry on like pork-chops and not have anyone tell them not to. In the 70's the Amir of the time actually got with the program and created a constitution which allowed for an elected assembly. The first of these assemblies was sworn in in 1973 but it turned out to be too much of a handful for the poor old throne sitter so he dissolved it in 75 and there hasn't been one since. Apart from some serious arguments with Qatar about some oil rich islands that they both claim, Bahrain has also suffered the usual religious trouble prevalent in the region. The Shiite Muslims (60% of the population) want the parliament to be re-established and democracy for all but the Amir and his Sunni Muslim buddies (the ruling minority) aren't keen so there is a bit of tension around. About the only thing holding the place together is the fact that the US has made this their main base in the region and so they walk around with a big stick keeping everybody in line. The word on the street is that the Iranians are a tad annoyed with little old Bahrain
for jumping into bed with Satan a.k.a. the US, so it is unlikely that the Amir is going to do anything to make Uncle Sam take his bat and ball and go home any time soon.
The sole purpose of our stop in Bahrain was for us to attend a series of briefings on what our role here is going to be. These briefings were taking place at the main US Naval installation known as the NSA or Naval Support
Activity. This is a huge base servicing the needs of US and visitinf navy personnel. It has a very large all ranks entertainment and relaxation area called the Desert Dome. It has a couple of bars a large pool and fast food
restaurants. As well as this there is a PX store and clothing specialty shops, a hairdresser, dry cleaner, bowling alley etc.... It is a little American town within the city guarded by large men with larger guns. The security is unbelievable. As well as all the R&R amenities there is a massive amount of housing and of course the administration, logistics and headquarters infrastructure needed to run the regions military activities. With the exception of a twenty minute bus trip around the city, I didn't leave the NSA.
On the Friday night I went to the Desert Dome for dinner and a few cold ones. I decided to be adventurous and headed for the Alabama BBQ restaurant. After a careful perusal of the menu I ordered a Crispy Pork Burrito with a side order of Coney Island Chilli fries. Now you maybe wondering what Alabama has to do with Burrito's or Coney Island. I am afraid I can't answer that. I just shook my head and grabbed my food. Now I was expecting a Burrito with some sort of battered pork in it when I ordered the Crispy Pork Burrito. What I actually got was shredded pork wrapped up in a Burrito and then the whole thing deep fried. I took one look at it and my arteries started to harden on the spot. It tasted bloody good though. The Coney Island Chilli fries however will not get a repeat performance on my menu. Blegh!!!!! I think the reference to Coney Island is an indication of the roller coaster ride your stomach will take as soon as the chilli hits it. Lennie had a good old laugh at me as he chewed on his safe plastic double cheeseburger from the MacDonalds look-a-like shop. Leave was up at 2200 so after dinner it was pretty much straight back to the ship.
We had busses to transport us to and from the NSA from the wharf where the ship was berthed, but the bus would only drop us at the end of the wharf. We then had to negotiate the many obstacles back to the ship. These included but were not limited to, vehicle chicanes and large steel bollards which pop up out of the roadway to stop cars, busses and probably Sherman tanks. Sandbagged machine gun emplacements manned by trigger happy 19 year old farm boys from Oklahoma. And of course the security checkpoints manned by our Coalition partners, the British Royal Gurkha Rifles.
For the younger blokes who have never come across a Gurkha before, the first time can be a bit of a shock. They are small, polite, always friendly with smiles on their little brown faces and they carry the biggest meanest looking knives you have ever seen. When a Gurkha passes out from their version of recruit school they get issued their knife. Legend has it that every time they draw their blade it must taste blood so if they pull it out and don't use it on someone then they cut themselves. Needless to say if these blokes pull their pig stickers there is a good chance some pig is going to get stuck. The History of the Gurkha's is a little bit convoluted but it is well worth reading about. These blokes are not actually Indian. They are from Nepal. Back when England ruled the sub-continent they decided to have a go at India's neighbour to the north, Nepal. After these little hill tribesmen had fought the best of the British army to a standstill the Brits signed a peace treaty with them and decided that these blokes would go alright in the service of the King. So for a long time after the bulk of the British Indian Army was made up of these guys. In WW1 these blokes went ashore at Gallipoli beside the ANZAC's and were the only troops to ever take and hold the bluff positions in their area. After the poms pulled out of India they left half the Gurkha's behind to make up the bulk of the new Indian Army and took the other half back to old blighty with them. Both army's today still recruit these guys which is why a lot of people think that Gurkha's are actually Indian when they are in fact Nepalese. The blokes who go to the British brigades get automatic UK citizenship after their twenty is up.
Day two at the NSA was spent looking around for novelty gifts. I found some t-shirts that people had asked for but I couldn't get hold of any of the famous singing camels. I hope I can find them if and when I get to Dubai. I bought some Oakly Sunglasses for $2.50 US. The little man assured me they were genuine copies. I almost bought myself some aftershave because the prices were ridiculously cheap, but for me to make such a purchase without Keanne's approval of the aftershave would be a dangerous exercise. After spending $20.00 on a nineteen minute phonecall home, I had a lunch of pepperoni pizza and went for a swim. There is something not quite right about swimming in a pool where the lifeguard is armed with an M4 assault rifle. The No Jumping rule is strictly adhered to. That afternoon the boys conned me into going for a game of tenpin bowling. I should have remembered that American bowling Alleys all have bars in them. I have to admit, watching the guys play their third game after their sixth beer was one of the highlights of the port visit. After another dinner adventure at the Desert Dome which didn't produce anything of note I headed back to the ship for an early night.
Sunday was briefing day. All day in the HQ of Commander Fifth Fleet. The boredom nearly killed me. Obviously the subject of the briefings were of interest because they were outlining what we are to be doing for the next
few months, but the monotonous monolouge was mind numbing. We finally escaped there at about 1500 (2200 AEST) so it was too late to call home. I was duty that night which afforded me another opportunity to experience
something I will probably never see again. I got to witness the US Navy's Killer Attack Dolphins at work. I'm not kidding. These guys have got trained Dolphins that swim around and look for enemy frogmen and then attack them. I'll never be able to go to Seaworld again.
Well that was Bahrain. I can't say that I was overly impressed by it but then again I didn't really get to see much of it. I think my most lingering memory will be of the few locals I did interact with. They really don't like us very much. In fact I would say that without being openly hostile, they actually hate us. I am not going to make any judgement on whether those feelings are deserved or not.
We are now on our way to our first patrol. I can't say where exactly but I reckon I will just about be able to smell the Euphrates river from our position. I'll write again soon.
Love Bruce (Jock) (Daddy)