Coping skills

Working in remote regions of NSW often involves solving problems. The best problems, of course, are the ones that aren’t yours! It’s much easier to solve somebody else’s problems, especially when the solution falls into your area of expertise. The worst problems are your own, especially when the solution is beyond your area of expertise!

In 2023, we were engaged to perform a large survey near Bourke in north-western NSW. The weather wasn’t particularly favourable, which meant that we were not able to access to site due to the roads being closed for flooding. The site itself was massive, and mostly inaccessible by 4WD vehicles, being thick scrub for most of the area.

My solution to this problem was to use one of our quad bikes, which enabled me to access the boundaries for the survey – once the roads re-opened and we were able to get to the site. Bringing a quad bike along does increase the amount of equipment required. Trailer, ramps, fuel, the list goes on. One issue is security for the bike when staying overnight. Another is the increased fuel consumption from towing the trailer and bike. It’s always a balancing act!

Image of a vehicle with Compass Consulting Surveyors signwriting, towing a trailer upon which is a quad bike. The vehicle is parked beside a survey monument located about 50km south-east of Bourke.

Bourke Base Line survey monument.

Image showing the sun rising over a desert landscape, with low trees on the horizon. In the foreground is a reddish coloured sand dune.

Sunrise in the desert.

Image of a quad bike, loaded with survey pegs, shovel, and chainsaw. A GPS is mounted on a short pole on a bracket at the front of the bike.

An excellent vehicle for inaccessible desert areas.

As the roads opened and we planned to get back to the site for final marking, I had handful of projects north of Lightning Ridge to be done. I planned on travelling to the Lightning Ridge site on Thursday, completing one of the surveys on Friday and staying with a mate who owns a property nearby for the weekend. On the following Monday, I was going to finish the surveys at Lightning Ridge and travel to Bourke, ready to get that job finalised over two days, then home.

Image of the sun setting with sparse trees on the horizon. A straight, dirt road stretches into the distance on the right-hand side. Dust hangs in the air.

Sunset north of Lightning Ridge

Things started out well. The trip north was smooth, and my mate offered to give me a hand with fieldwork for the jobs nearby. We decided to get going early on Friday morning, marking an unfenced boundary that was about 3km long. As always with rural surveys, getting a start is often the slowest part. By that I mean we have to find enough existing survey marks or monuments to determine the boundary location before we can place any pegs.

Where the surveys we work from are old, the marks were typically a blaze carved in a tree. Most of the state was surveyed in the late 1800s through to the early 1900s.  Now, trees don’t last forever, even if unmolested by farmers. When farmers have a shiny machine to knock down trees, it is inevitable that survey trees are removed. This makes finding survey marks quite challenging!

An extract from a de-identified black and white survey plan, showing lines representing boundaries dimensioned with bearings in degrees and minutes, with distances shown in links.

Survey plan dated 1935. Distances in links. 15355.2 links is 3,088.975 metres.

The first tree we looked for was found… pushed up in a pile of timber to be burnt! Yes, a farmer with a shiny machine had cleared his fenceline, with the survey tree as collateral damage. At least the side boundary at that point was fenced, so we could measure the fence as a rough starting point.

Just a note here, a fence is not necessarily a boundary. It is not uncommon to discover that fences stand well clear of the official boundary line!

Based on the approximate position of the boundary corner, we calculated how far away the unfenced boundary corner was. At that point, we stopped, and started looking at trees, hoping to find signs of a surveyor from 100 years past.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover the blazed tree still standing, with the blaze visible. The boundary to be marked went from near this tree to a corner located about 3km south-west. The corner was shown as fenced on the original plan, but so was the boundary we were meant to mark. Obviously things had changed since the first survey.

Based on the tree and the first fence corner we had measured, I had a rough idea of where the boundary was. We headed south-west down the unfenced boundary line, hoping to hit a fenced corner and, ideally, find another survey tree.

Three kilometres is a reasonable distance. It takes a while to drive three kilometres on a highway. When you’re driving over black soil plains with fallen timber, standing trees, bore drains, and crab-holes, it takes much longer! Eventually, through some lignum, we could make out a strainer post in the distance – this should be the fence corner we were looking for.

Measuring the fence strainer revealed that we were definitely in the right area. I added the measurement to the strainer into my calculations, and we went looking for the survey tree. What are the odds of two survey trees remaining after over 100 years? Quite good, in this case! The tree was a “boonery”, with the blaze visible. Now the boundary could be accurately pegged.

Image showing a table with reference marks from a plan. There are 5 columns, being Corner, Bearing, From, Links, No. on Tree.

Schedule of reference marks.

The client wanted to fence this boundary, so we needed to place pegs at about every 500 metres to ensure that the fencers could see between the marks. The land was fairly flat, and we pegged the boundary with relative ease. We were done by mid-morning. I had a small task to add a single mark to an existing job in Lightning Ridge, so we headed into town, placed the mark, then sorted out some lunch.

Since we were well ahead of schedule, we decided to start one of the two jobs we had planned to get done on Monday. It was a contour survey over 48 hectares, which would allow the farmer to work out where to add some drainage banks.

Just a quick explanation for those unfamiliar with the details of how GNSS (Global Navigational Satellite System) is used for surveying:

Raw GNSS signal will generate a position accurate to about 3 metres in position, and at best 10 metres  in height. That’s not good enough for survey work. To achieve accuracy, two GNSS units are required. These can be linked in real time by a data link – either GSM mobile phone signal through a server, or by using a UHF radio link. The two units are called a base and a rover. The base unit is fixed in place.

At any given moment in time, the difference between what a GNSS unit measures and the actual, accurate and precise coordinates for that location is constant, provided the two units are within, say, 20 kilometers of each other. The base unit is set up to recognise the difference between the measured coordinates and the actual coordinates and transmit this difference, or correction, to the rover unit. These transmissions can be every second, or every two seconds – or any setting that the surveyor chooses. In this way, the rover is able to determine, in real time, the accurate and precise coordinates of its location. This process is called Real Time Kinematic.

In our area of operations, if we have phone signal, it is likely that we are able to use a system called CORSNET. This system has a series of Continually Operating Reference Stations (CORS) that send corrections through an online link. If the surveyor is further than 10 kilometres from the nearest CORS station, the software can use a network solution based on the nearest CORS stations and combining correction data. This system means that we don’t have to set up our own base unit, so that when we turn on the rover and connect to the internet, we can get corrections almost immediately.

If we don’t have phone coverage, we use our own base GNSS unit and UHF radio modem to send corrections locally. Because the distance to the base is typically less than 10 kilometers, the accuracy and precision of the measurements is excellent.

The morning’s work was within a phone coverage area, which enabled me to use CORSNET. This afternoon, phone service was a distant memory, so the plan was to set up my base station and UHF radio, then mount the rover unit on my vehicle and drive in a grid pattern over the site to collect the level information.

The area to be surveyed was about 1 kilometre by 700 metres. It was fairly open and flat. I expected our base radio to cover this area, easily. We use a radio that can transmit at up to 25 watts, which will normally cover 10 to 20km, depending on terrain and vegetation. I started off close to the base, working my way further from it as the survey progressed.

Something that you may not be aware of is that in the country north of Lightning Ridge, almost everything has spikes. Trees, grass, shrubs – you name it! It’s hard, tough country. While driving across the area, a broken branch pierced the sidewall of my left-rear tyre, and I had a flat. In quick order, my mate and I changed the tyre, and continued with the survey.

Google earth aerial image of survey site, showing contours in red and maroon linework.

Aerial image of the site.

Oddly, the data connection via the radio link started getting weak, and the GNSS started losing lock. A few weeks before, at the Bourke site, I had damaged the UHF antenna on the rover. I had a new antenna, and thought that everything was fine – but now, 400km from home, I was discovering that anything that can go wrong, will!

Image of a survey GPS rover, showing a broken antenna bracket. In the background is a red protective case for the equipment.

Broken antenna plug – not good!

Image of small pieces of broken metal, extracted from broken GPS antenna plug.

The remains of the broken antenna plug.

To get coverage over the site, I had to move the GNSS base. The radio would only reach about 600 metres before the signal was too weak for the rover to use. In country like this, that’s barely more than can be measured with an electronic distance measuring total station, and it’s just not enough to make effective use of my time. We budget a certain amount of time for projects, based on our equipment working as it should. When things like this go wrong, it may mean retreating to the office, getting repairs, then trying again when everything is ok.

As the sun set, I packed up and headed to my mate’s farm, where I was staying for the weekend. Of course, when something like this happens, you rack your brains to diagnose the problem. While I was fairly confident that the issue was related to the broken antenna, I had to confirm that it was not an issue with the base unit or radio. So, Saturday saw me setting up the base, changing settings on the radio, until I was convinced that the problem was something in the rover – either the new antenna, or inside the GNSS unit. Either way, there was no way I could fix this myself.

I now faced a dilemma. There was a full day of fieldwork planned for Monday. The phone coverage over this area was, at best, patchy. I do have a phone booster in my vehicle, but it can only boost any signal that it receives. With a 600 metre range, was I better to use my total station? My mate had an older GPS that he’d purchased from me years ago, should we try that? He also has a better phone booster in his vehicle than I have in mine – maybe we can get enough of a boost to use CORSNET?

In the end, my mate offered to tag along and give me a hand, with his vehicle on standby in case my booster wasn’t good enough. We’d attempt to use CORSNET, with the option of using his older GPS system as a backup.

My mate is a very capable bloke. He has skills ranging from fabrication to fencing, mechanical to measurement. Among his skills was tyre repair! Between the two of us, we patched the hole in the tyre, meaning I had a spare, again. After a weekend spending time with my mate on his farm, we headed off early on Monday morning. I was leading the way, towing the quad bike, with my mate sitting behind my dust. It was about 30km from my mate’s farm to the job.

I’d turned the corner onto the main road, which was still an unsealed gravel road, and was heading into the rising sun. It was a great looking morning, a few clouds, sunny, and cool. Suddenly, I heard a thud, and a rattling noise. I knew straight away what had happened. A rock had flown up from the rear wheels, hit the spare tyre on the trailer, then bounced into the rear window of the canopy of the ute, shattering it!

Image of the rear of a grey VW Amarok with canopy over the tray. The rear window of the canopy is shattered.

Less than ideal!

So, with a day’s fieldwork to do, then a trip to Bourke planned, I was faced with a bucketload of glass shards strewn through the equipment and boxes in the back of my vehicle. The equipment normally under lock and key in the ute was now no longer secure. Everything was going to get covered in dust. This trip was cursed!

Since we were on site anyway, my mate and I decided to see if we could get the survey done. I’d then head home. I have a spare rear window replacement, made of alloy, which I have used for a previous incident similar to this one. The plan was to replace the window, then head back to Bourke to get that job done.

My task was to mark another unfenced boundary. This time, the boundary was 3.3km long. First things first, we had to get started. Transferring some of my equipment into his ute, we checked to make sure his phone booster was going to do the job. In a minor victory, we had data! I had a previous job located about 3km away, so that was where we headed. After connecting to several marks, we were then able to calculate locations for the corners nearest the eastern end of the unmarked line.

Did I mention how hard and tough the country is in this area? Yeah, well another example is when we looked for buried galvanised iron pipe marks. We did find them, but in places the soil was so acidic that the pipe had rusted almost completely away! Each scrape with the shovel revealed a brown circle of rust where the pipe mark was. Given another 30 years, there may be no trace of these marks at all.

With the buried marks, we had a satisfactory solution for the eastern end of the unmarked boundary. We headed westwards, hoping to find some kind of survey mark. Based on the original plans, we knew the marks would be either a timber peg, or a blazed survey tree. Based on the evidence along the boundary, there had been a bulldozer along the boundary, removing the fence itself and clearing about 20 metres each side! Fortunately, the bulldozer operator is a friend of mine, and he gets me to provide him with plans when he’s working on boundaries, in order to preserve survey marks. Phew!

The downside to that is that for the entire 3.3 kilometres of unfenced boundary, there were no marks – he’d checked, and where he wasn’t sure he had left trees standing. When we checked, it was confirmed. No survey marks remaining.

When this happens, you can’t just guess, estimate, or accept near enough being good enough. Historically, the boundary line continued straight for several kilometres, and the old survey plans indicated that there were – or had been – survey marks about 1.2 kilometres to the west. We headed off to this location, only to find evidence of a different bulldozer and no evidence of survey marks! Another 300 metres further on was my final hope. A “bibble box” with a blaze, shown on a 100-year-old plan. After that, the line was cleared, with next to zero chance of finding any marks.

A de-identified survey plan in black and white, showing boundary lines annotated with bearings in degrees and minutes and distances in links.

Survey plan – 8000 links to a mile (1,609.344 metres)

Amazingly, the bibble box was still standing, the blaze visible, complete with Crown arrow (convict arrow) and the number of the adjoining parcel of land. Now I had this unmarked boundary fixed.

Image of the trunk of a box tree. A blazed part of the trunk is visible with no bark. A convict (Crown) broad-arrow is carved into the top of the blaze, with the number 72 carved below it.

Bibble Box saves the day!

Next, the tricky part was to determine the location of another side boundary that meets the unfenced straight line. Where the two lines met, no evidence remained. There was a side fence, however that’s not necessarily where the boundary will be. We followed the fenced boundary for about a kilometre, until we arrived at a boundary corner. There had been a survey tree shown on the original plan. We did find this tree – lying on its side and pushed away from the fence.

Image of a large fallen tree, with the roots on the right-hand side.

Not what we want to see when searching for survey trees.

Image showing a blaze on a fallen tree. The blaze is pointing towards the ground. A broad-arrow can be seen carved into the blaze.

The blaze on the fallen tree.

Comparing the stump hole to the fence indicated that, at this corner, the fence post was the best available evidence as to the location of the boundary corner. Now we could mark the unfenced line, including where it meets the side boundary.

By the time we were done, it was getting late in the afternoon. I still had a 400km drive to get home, with a shattered rear canopy window and questions about the state of repair of the radio in my GNSS rover unit. My mate and I stopped in Lightning Ridge for a late lunch, before parting ways.

It’s not an especially interesting drive, from Lightning Ridge back to Dubbo. Straight roads, flat country, minimal traffic. I was making good time, taking a sweeping right-hand bend, when there was a crash and a grinding noise. The right-hand wheel from my trailer overtook me as I pulled over to the shoulder: Bearing failure. No doubt a result of the thousands of kilometres of dirt road this trailer has endured – at least 200 of which happened in the last four days!

Image of a trailer. It has no right-hand wheel, and the axle is sitting on the ground. Tools are visible on the mudguard of the trailer.

Can this day get any better?

I was about 40 kilometres from Coonamble. The sun was setting and I knew I was buggered. No way I could fix this with the tools I had. We do have a subscription to a roadside assistance service, so I called them on the off-chance that I’d be lucky. After getting through the menu, then explaining to the Sydney-based customer service gentleman where I was, the local roadside assist crew were notified. I walked up the road and retrieved my trailer wheel, when the local crew called me to see what they could do to help.

I knew that the bearing could be fixed. I was very reluctant to have to stay in Coonamble, concerned about security for the equipment in my vehicle, and for the quad bike on the trailer. I really needed to get the wheel back on and get home, if possible. I suspected that the service crew would only be allowed to tow the trailer to their depot, which would leave my quad bike vulnerable, and mean a return trip to Coonamble or necessitating an overnight stay.

Sure enough, the bloke, while genuinely keen to help, explained that he wouldn’t be able to fix the bearing tonight, and could only tow the trailer to their depot and maybe on to Dubbo the following day. He also told me he’d be at least an hour before he could leave Coonamble, and I was 40km away. I expected to be waiting for another hour and a half before I saw him.

While I was waiting, I called my mate, to let him know what had happened. He laughed in disbelief! As the conversation went on, he realised my predicament. Unbelievably, he offered to bring tools and a replacement hub to get me back on the road. At that moment, the service crew beeped in my ear on call waiting, so I told my mate I’d call him back.

Sure enough, the roadside assist crew were about to leave Coonamble. I rolled the dice, and told him not to worry, I’d get my mate to come and we’d fix the trailer so I could get it home tonight – with luck! He told me to call him and let him know if we couldn’t get it fixed, or if I was back on the road – such a top fellow!

I was straight back onto the phone with my mate, who sprang into action! His toolbox is always quite comprehensive, so he grabbed a spare hub with bearings and set out. I settled in to wait the two hours for him to arrive.

It was fully dark when his ute pulled in behind me. I’d taken the opportunity to jack the trailer up, so we got to work. The old bearing had welded to the axle when it was dragged along the road. The shackle bolts holding the axle to the springs had also been ground down, but not broken. It was quite an effort to get everything back to a point where we were confident that the trailer could travel another 200 kilometres.

I didn’t even have a beer to offer my mate as thanks, but he knows I’ll do anything for him, any time! We said goodbye for the second time today, and I gingerly headed home. As I went through Coonamble, I called the roadside assistance bloke and told him I was under way and thanked him for his offer of assistance.

It was a few minutes before midnight when I pulled into my driveway. I was exhausted. My gear was beaten and damaged. My enthusiasm for finishing the job at Bourke was non-existent!

The outcome? I spent hours cleaning shattered glass from the back of the vehicle and all of the equipment boxes. The GNSS rover was sent away for repair, as the internal radio had been damaged. The weather did its thing again, and roads were closed for rain, meaning the Bourke project was delayed for weeks. I installed the alloy rear window temporarily, and installed the replacement glass three weeks later when it arrived.

Life is tough, some people say it’s a series of slaps in the face. I always think they way you deal with setbacks defines you as a person. I’ve had my fair share of setbacks, whether you call it bad luck, coincidence, poor judgment, or voodoo! I like to say that I have good coping skills. The thing with skills is that you have to keep them sharp – use them or lose them! As a surveyor in rural NSW, I certainly have plenty of opportunities to hone my coping skills!