JP de Ru doesn’t have an average job. He regularly spends weeks camping in the rain forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and often has to tackle some of the worst roads in Africa. And, every once in a while, he has a run-in with the local wildlife – for instance, a snake that attacked him from above, or an elephant with a penchant for tipping over bakkies
While sitting in his bakkie somewhere in Zambia, JP de Ru thought he saw something drop from a tree onto the back of the vehicle. He wasn’t sure, but thought it might have been a snake. At that very moment, a colleague walked up, intending to toss some equipment into the load bay.
“Stop,” JP shouted. “I think there’s a snake in the back.”
At first his colleague laughed, thinking JP was joking, but from alarmed look on JP’s face, he realised things were serious.
The two men approached the rear of the vehicle very, very carefully.
“Eventually we spotted it,” says JP. “It was a green mamba.
“We dropped the tailgate and drove as fast as we could, hoping it would slide off, but it wouldn’t budge. Eventually we managed to get it out with a stick.”
Snakes are a big problem in JP’s line of work. “There are loads of snakes around, especially in the DRC. You have to be very careful, since the snakes often come into camp in search of warmth.”
The local wild animals are generally a cause for concern. “We’re constantly on the lookout for things such as lions and elephants,” says JP. “The elephants in Kafue, Zambia, are particularly dangerous. They love to tip over bakkies and cause mayhem. There’s one elephant – the locals call him One Tusk – that goes out of its way to hassle people. He hides behind those large anthills you find in Zambia, and then charges at people who pass by.”
The sort of things that JP deals with during his average day seem almost absurd to people who spend most of their working days in an office.
So what exactly does he do for a living? JP is a mineral mud engineer. Any idea what that is? Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of such a job – there aren’t many mud engineers around.
“As far as I know, there are only four fully qualified mineral mud engineers working in Africa at the moment,” says JP.
What does a mineral mud engineer do?
“It’s tricky to give a precise description, but a mud engineer is basically in charge of designing a water-based drilling fluid system that circulates in the drill rig during mining in order to ensure 100% core recovery.”
JP is involved in the early stages of a mining operation when companies are still searching for viable areas. This could be as much as a decade before the real mining begins. JP doesn’t work on large, established mines. Rather, along with just a handful of other engineers and experts, he heads into wild regions where there is often no infrastructure.
Usually driving Land Cruisers, they traverse some of the worst roads in Africa. And when the roads run out, as they often do in the jungles of the DRC, they have to use helicopters to take them farther.
Accommodation is predictably basic and bleak. They often have to spend weeks in the middle of nowhere, in tents.
“It can be pretty scary at times,” says JP. “As I mentioned, snakes come into the camps. Also, the jungles are so dense that you can easily lose your way. Wandering away from camp on your own is a very bad idea.”
JP spends most of his time in the Copper Belt – a mineral-rich stretch of land that cuts through Zambia and the DRC. In Zambia, the wildlife tends to be the main cause for concern. In the DRC, however, it’s the political turmoil that poses the biggest threat.
“A trip to the DRC in 2011 was one of the scariest experiences of my life,” says JP. “We were in the east of the country, near Goma in North Kivu. It was an area with lots of rebel activity. In fact, we were in the middle of the mountainous region where the rebels were holed up.
“At one stage we were stopped by the UN, and told that mortars were being fired over the main road. We had to spend the night at a Catholic mission.
“To complicate matters, the roads in the area were among the worst in the country. At one stage, it took us about four hours to travel 300m.”
One day a vehicle being driven by a local business associate broke down on this stretch of road, forcing them to linger in an area crawling with trigger-happy soldiers.
“That part of the country really is haunting,” says JP. “Just about every village in the area was wiped out by rebels a couple of years ago. They stormed into the villages, killing men, women and children, and literally reducing populations to zero.
“We were in one of these villages one day, when a young child approached us with a note. It was from a rebel group, and simply stated that we should leave as quickly as possible. We didn’t need to be told twice!”
Of course, things don’t often get as desperate as that. Usually, the job is challenging yet rewarding.
“Working in Zambia and Tanzania is always an awesome experience. The people are wonderful – so kind and generous,” says JP.
If you enjoy solving engineering puzzles, spending time outdoors and driving on difficult roads, the job of a mud engineer might just be your perfect calling. Just don’t apply if you’re afraid of snakes!