Work on the Access Slope Commences

Billy preparing the access slope.

This is entirely Yorkshire Bob’s fault. He’s guilty of pointing out that this slope of mine is a steep, slippery mess, even when there’s not been much rain. And, irritatingly, he was absolutely right that it could be done during the land owner’s final coffee harvest, and I can’t do much else until he’s done with it. This wasn’t in my plans. I thought anxious customers would just sort out their own access using helicopters, zip cords, and such.  Unfortunately, I didn’t remember what he called the type of road that he suggested, so I spent ages asking Google different questions. “Road that has an empty space between the bits that the tires roll on,” and other silly searches. About 8 weeks later Google spat out a PDF file titled “Concrete Strip Roads for the Farm.” This was published by a Cement & Concrete Institute located in Midrand, South Africa. According to them:

These roads can be built without expensive or sophisticated equipment and by comparatively unskilled labour that has
received a little instruction. The work can be done in short lengths as labour is available. Strip roads are a particularly
useful means of making steep farm roads passable in all weathers.

Nice looking strip road.

What sold me, though, was the pretty picture of a strip road. Also, they had an entire section devoted to “Construction on Steep Slopes.” Over a couple of beers a helpful engineer friend of mine gave me some advice and I put together the plans.

I’ve been dealing with engineers throughout my life, mostly in my bread-and-butter work, but literally since birth. I learned a bit later in life that beer softens the seriousness of their profession into something a bit more reasonable, so instead of having 12cm thick panels, I’m doing 10cm with some reinforcing steel to keep the pieces mostly together when they crack and begin to come apart. I should point out, however, that the concrete institute that I mentioned, which must have a vested interest in concrete sales in South Africa, after applauding concrete for its greatness and benefit to mankind, recommended slabs of unbelievable thicknesses. If concrete is so bloody wonderful and so strong, then why do you need so much of it?

Billy fetching water down at the river.

So, I was armed with a design, but I still had to surmount a number of obstacles. Well, two, really, if you exclude that fact that I hate mixing concrete. First and foremost was a lack of power at the site. My financial resources are limited, so even if I bought a concrete mixer, I’d have to power it in some way, which would mean a diesel engine or a gasoline powered generator.  No way. The second problem was that there’s no water at the side in the area that it would be needed for mixing concrete. I did numerous searches for “waterless concrete,” but to no avail. Eventually we paid a bunch of kids to fetch water with a push cart from nearby the main road.

Cousin from Pakse crashing after a brilliant attempt at bringing water from the river up the slope.

Of course, there is always the labor-intensive Thai/Lao concrete mixing method which some of my readers may be familiar with. The result is usually a puddle or pool of concrete, which may be fine on a flat area if all you are going to do is walk on it, but horrendous on a slope that will later have 6-wheel dump trucks going up and down it. Water, anyway, either too much or too little, was going to be a problem.

To make things more complicated, I came across the Cretesheet. A funny thing about this simple product is that for every customer review, 20 or 30 Australians start shouting their comments about having been doing that in the outback forever. And it’s probably true. But what appealed to me was the ultrasonically welded-on handles. How do you ultrasonically weld a handle onto a plastic sheet, I thought. So I splurged and bought two of them.

Each panel that comprises the 60-meter long strip road, a total of 80 of them, is 1.5 meters in length, and 60cm in width, with a 90cm space between the two.

How it's supposed to be.

Half of the panels are just flat and 10cm in thickness.The other half are “anchor” panels as shown here. So, with three pieces of steel reinforcing in each, that’s 240 pieces of 6mm diameter steel, half of them bent into a particular shape to fit the anchor. This otherwise insurmountable problem was easily solved thanks to family in Ubon with a steel fabricating business.

And so it was that 240 pieces of steel were loaded into my Chinese SUV and smuggled across the border to Vientiane, close to 500km from where they were fabricated.

Tight fit

In Vientiane, 80 pieces of wood for the forms were cut to size using some larger wooden planks (for forms) that I already had. These made a racket over even the slighest bump for the whole 750km or more trip to my site– in other words, they made a continuous racket.

Having then reached my site in Paksong on Tuesday, November 22, it took another two days to get one load each of sand and gravel delivered. The sand arrived in the morning and the gravel in the late afternoon, on Thursday, so the day was blown.

Helping Billy bring gravel down the slope to level the frames.

The site preparation could have been started and completed during this period, but I didn’t really have much of a crew. The owner of the land expressed an interest in working on the project. He was immediately promoted to chief foreman, above myself even, as I learned that not only did he have a degree in mechanical engineering, but had also worked on building bridges and clearing unexploded ordinance with a group of Australians. None of this is directly applicable to this project, but close enough. The more we talked, the more I realized that I should just let him lead. He at least knew how to make wooden stakes and tie strings to them, which was already over my head. He is two years my elder, and his name resembles “Billy” enough that that is what I call him.

The cousin from Pakse is showing off the shovel handle he just made.

Billy takes his work seriously. I like watching him work. His favorable work ethic is elevated all the more and in stark contrast to my other crew member, who I will refer to as the Cousin from Pakse, a Lao family member of mine. He can chitchat amicably all day, cigarette in one hand, hammer for fabricating the forms in the other. In fact, he did just that. Billy doesn’t smoke or drink and I doubt if he knows any jokes. I suggested we ask Billy where the best noodle shop is in town, but I was told that he wouldn’t have a clue. Billy would never spend money on a bowl of noodles at a shop. And, even though he sleeps in a shack (he has a house in Pakse, though), it is presumed that he is far wealthier than I am (which isn’t saying much, really).

The frames are in place, level, and ready for concrete.

By the end of the day on Friday all the frames for one side of the strip road were down and leveled to a certain degree. I had learned a few days earlier that Billy’s cousin and some other people use this road through “my” land for access. Mostly motorbikes, but occasionally fairly large vehicles. I decided that this is okay since to get to my other 2 or more hectares of land I have to go the same direction through the cousin’s land. So, I decided to curve the road in that direction, towards the left. This gives me more space on the right as that is where my first aquaponics greenhouse/mushroom bunker is going to be built.

Cretesheet with cement, sand, and gravel.

Saturday was the first concrete mixing day. I’d shown them how the concrete was to be mixed in small batches and poured into the frames directly from the Cretesheet, though the sheet was devoid of material when I did it. With two Cretesheets and a steady supply of dry materials coming down the hill, progress would be remarkably fast, I’d hoped, as a batch can be mixed in about 90 seconds. As I explained this, flapping the yellow sheet around as if it would magically make the concrete weigh nothing, I noticed that the look in their eyes revealed a little bit of awe and a lot of skepticism. So I told them that after using these for a while they were welcome to return to their traditional methods as long as they kept the mix on the dry side. Billy understood the importance of maintaining a fairly dry mix.

Good morning! Why are you here? Oh, well. . .

So, when we arrived at the site at 8:00 a.m., you can imagine my surprise to see a large ring of cement mixed with sand with a mountain of gravel in the middle. If I’d known any Lao expletives, I’d have used all of them. I managed to point at the pile and moan painfully, adding “What’s that?” I decided immediately to take the hurt farang (foreigner)  approach rather than the more common farang approach which would involve a red face and a lot of shouting. At first I suspected it was the Cousin from Pakse’s idea. I mean, this guy who was an hour late to work on the first day actually showed up early to get this pile prepared before we got there. But then I realized Billy was complicit in the plot. They both pantomimed a fictional story of how they had tried one mix, lifting their hands above their heads as if they had been expected

Local mixing method, adding cement to the sand.

to lift the concrete mix to eye level and shake it. In unison they then pointed at me with my big body and strong muscles, as if to say that it’s okay for you, but impossible for us little, tiny guys. But there was no evidence of their having mixed any concrete with either of the sheets, which were reflecting the morning sunlight in that “I’m so clean and never been used” way that you would expect an unused item to sparkle. The scene was funny enough that I just gave in and told them to get on with it any way they like, just watch the water. The Cousin from Pakse was delegated to the mixing process, which was done in amounts not much larger than I would have mixed using the sheets. His first mix was so runny that Billy rejected it. More gravel from the pile in the middle and sand/cement mixture from the sides were added. This produced only a couple of buckets of concrete.

Unflattering photo of me mixing concrete.

I decided to play with a sheet just for fun. All in all, the sheets lost the first few goals but made a tremendous comeback by half-time. We lay the sheet down next to the frame. A bucket of dry cement, two buckets of sand, and three buckets of gravel were placed on the sheet. We then started rolling it back and forth to get it uniformly mixed. The idea is to keep the weight of the mixture on the ground and lift the corners to get the stuff rolling over itself. Once you learn that you don’t have to lift it, it’s not that bad. Water is gradually added (it doesn’t have anywhere to run off to if the four corners are partially lifted. This first batch was a bit of an uncoordinated attempt using too much material. Billy and the Cousin from Pakse eyed us suspiciously. They seemed tremendously relieved when, upon lifting and pouring it in the frame, one of my handles broke off. So much for ultrasonic welding.

The kids thought mixing concrete was fun.

But, by lunch time, using one half bucket of cement, one bucket of sand, and two buckets of gravel, we were mixing and pouring very quickly. And this was with our having to go up the slope for more materials ourselves in a somewhat unorganized fashion. The uniqueness of this mixing method attracted a group of kids who insisted on participating. With some guidance they were mixing the equivalent of three buckets of concrete every two or so minutes. When we left to get some lunch I was certain this was the nail in the coffin for the crew’s old fashioned mixing method and, as their pile was almost gone, they would be converts for life.

To be continued. . . .




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1 Response to Work on the Access Slope Commences

  1. Dollie says:

    At last! Someone who understands! Thanks for psoitng!

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