Early in 1966 a long convoy of heavy-duty trucks set out from the Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, headquarters of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) on an 850-mile journey to a dot on the almost empty map of the eastern edge of the great Rub' al-Khali. When they came to a halt some two weeks later in the lee of a towering mass of red sand, the dot became a place—a campsite called "Seismo-3"—and the search in the Sand Mountains had begun.
The establishment of Seismo-3 was the beginning of two years of seismic exploration of the subsurface geology of what was at once the most inaccessible, most inhospitable, most rugged—and perhaps most spectacularly beautiful—area yet penetrated by Aramco's exploration teams. There, arid mountains of sand rise six to eight hundred feet above mud fiats that barely cover reservoirs of ground water seven times as salty as the sea. In the spring desiccating winds carry temperatures above 110°F during ten hours of the day and in the summer the heat is so great that until this year work was often suspended.
Yet, though suspended during parts of two summers, the seismic exploration of the Sand Mountains area, one of the first and most vital steps in the continuing search for oil, will be completed on schedule this winter—thanks to a special breed of rugged men and uniquely adapted desert equipment.
The approximately 106 men attached to Seismo-3 at any one time stay in the field for up to four weeks at a stretch with very little rest. Then they are flown back to Dhahran on an Aramco Fokker F-27 which makes one round trip per week carrying personnel and priority cargo. The F-27, which is based in Dhahran, and other aircraft attached to the S-3 exploration party, land on an airstrip which was made on the "sabkha" floor next to the dunes by rolling and packing the salt-mud flats with truck tires. Five contract helicopters with motors specially adapted to work in the hot air of the Sand Mountains are also stationed at S-3.
In their ground work the seismic crews employ 12 "sand buggies" (originally developed for oil exploration in the Louisiana bayou country where they are called "marsh buggies"), whose outsized tires allow them to practically "float" over difficult sandy terrain.
At S-3 the men live in air-conditioned trailers but when their work in the vast area being explored takes them too far out for easy commuting they set up tents at "spike camps" for a few days at a time. Back at the base camp, where thermometers installed in standard meteorologist's louvered huts measure as high as 123° as summer approaches, an ionics demmeralizer processes about 1500 gallons of water a day from the Aramco-drilled well to bring it from 7,000 parts salt per million to a drinkable 500 parts per million.
About once a month another convoy of trucks makes the 1700-mile round trip from Dhahran to the S-3 base camp. Each convoy consists of from six to nine Kenworth trucks carrying loads of 50,000 to 60,000 pounds apiece, a radio their only contact with the outside world while en route.
To the isolated men at S-3, finishing up their seismic exploration in a small corner of the barren Rub' al-Khali, their trailer camp dwarfed by the immensity of the towering dunes, the outside world, despite the radio, the truck convoys or the F-27, must sometimes seem less real and further away than the nearby moon, rising white and cool above the red Sand Mountains.
Brainerd S. Bates is an Aramco Public Relations writer specializing in petroleum subjects.