In 1966, while working as an exploration geologist for Western Mining Corporation, I was sent to the remote Kyzylkum Desert in Western Uzbekistan to report on various gold projects. This area is near to the Aral Sea, which has essentially dried from a large fresh-water lake with a thriving fishing industry into a dried dust bowl with a saline playa in the lowest portion.
The trip was organized by the Geological Survey of Uzbekistan and we flew out to Nukus where the vehicles were waiting for us. We travelled to the Karakalpakistan Gulag at Sultan Uizdag, which was a women’s prison from the former Soviet era.
This was to be our base while we explored the gold workings in the area. We slept in cells on old prison bunks using our super-down sleeping bags. The gulag was being used as a storage compound for drilling equipment.
One morning I got up early at about 5 a.m. to photograph an old fortress about one kilometre from the gulag. It was named Fortress Gyraur Kola and was built in the 4th century AD from mudbricks. Due to severe damage over the years from Mongul attacks, it was rebuilt in the 14th century AD into an interesting structure. However, with the salination of the river basin by excessive upstream irrigation, the water table of highly saline water has risen and is gradually destroying it. What a pity!
While there taking photographs, I noticed a vehicle approach the gulag entrance and four guys jumped out armed with Kalashnikov rifles. Two of them stayed to guard the gate while two entered the gulag. I also noticed that one of the two Russian-speaking geologists had gone out to the pit-drop toilet well outside the gate just before they arrived. I sneaked around to the toilet to talk about how we should proceed. In the end we decided to bluff it out and approached the gate openly and cautiously. We were pointed into the prison at gun-point by the guards.
On entry we quickly discovered that they were Islamic extremists who had come to capture us for ransom. Luckily, the Tartar Russian-speaking geologist, who had been employed back in Melbourne, knew the leader of the group (they went to university together and had been friends). This leader decided to let us off this time.
In order to celebrate this very fortuitous meeting, we purchased a sheep from the locals. I watched as it was killed by pointing its body towards Mecca and then cutting its throat with an evil-looking Islamic knife. It was quickly dressed and the cook turned it into a sumptuous meal. The excess sheep meat went back with the extremists as a token reward to their colleagues back at their camp.
This was just a typical occurrence when I was working around the world in all the places tourists never see. The odds of employing a Russian-speaking geologist in Melbourne, who knew the leader of some Islamic extremists in Western Uzbekistan, is mind-blowingly miniscule! We completed the trip safely.