Snapshots from the Desert, Thursday 6th November
Early morning on Hakskeen Pan. A crowd of a hundred or more stands under a Kalahari sun that will soon be punishingly hot: engineers, sponsors, journalists, TV and film crews. There is hardly a sound as they gaze into the heat-distorted distance. A radio barks into life, snapping people out of their reverie.
“Cars be advised, we are go in 60 seconds. Repeat, 60 seconds. Hold station”
BLOODHOUND's Conor La Grue checks his watch, looks to the sky, then checks the watch again, nervous tension channelled into intense focus.
Somewhere out past the shimmering horizon, Richard Noble sits behind the wheel of a Jaguar sports car, waiting for the signal to accelerate. Riding shotgun is Emcon’s unflappable George Spencer, radio in one hand, stopwatch in the other. A second Jaguar takes up position alongside, the roof festooned with aerials. Its boot has been transformed into a test lab full of delicate data and radio equipment. This is the reason we’re here: to see, for the first time, if we have the right technology to get live pictures and information off a supersonic car and out to the world.
“Jet confirm: time on target 30 seconds, over.”
All eyes are on Skip Margetts, as he calls in the L39 aircraft now circling above a line of ragged black hills at the edge of vision. At his signal the incredible array of movie-grade cameras he has brought to the desert begin to turn over.
“Roger that Control, beginning approach now, speed 400 knots.”
Conor, who has been counting the drivers down, makes the call.
“Cars you are go, go, go!”
For a few breath-held seconds there is nothing, then a spiralling cloud becomes visible as the cars gather speed, their blue-white headlights slowly becoming distinct. Shapes morph and a helicopter emerges. It flies low and close, barely ahead of the hurricane of dust thrown up by the car’s tyres. A computer-stabilized camera mounted below its nose frames the action, beaming pictures for the live TV broadcast that has been running all morning.
Across the mesmerising flatness of the Pan, pilot Pierre Gouws dips the left-hand wing of the jet to line up his approach. BLOODHOUND's IT manager Sarah Covell is in the back, fighting G force and trying to concentrate on the instruments in front of her. She is testing radio signal strengths and data rates and no-one assumes its fun up there – not after yesterday, when two other passengers passed out having sat in on practice runs.
“Cars hold speed! Course looks good.”
Richard holds the steering wheel lightly, letting the lead Jaguar bob and weave a little on the crackling dry-mud surface. He squints to see through the glare and haze to the far horizon, twenty-five years of land speed racing experience keeping his car’s track arrow straight.
At the centre point, a call goes up as the jet comes into view, a small white dart against the dazzling blue sky. The ‘copter pulls up and a mere instant later the aircraft is upon us, crossing just twenty feet above the Jaguars now ripping past in the opposite direction. The world is an explosion of jet shriek, engine roar, dust and kinetic energy as the three vehicles punch past each other at a closing speed of over 500mph.
There is a momentary stunned silence, then fists punch the air and a cheer goes up – it’s the sound of exhilaration, relief and of an extraordinary moment shared.
Dust-blasted cars pull up, growling, as the Jet lands and taxis over and the helicopter sweeps a clattering arc overhead.
Sarah is helped out of the L39, relived to escape the sweltering heat of its cockpit. She’s looking for water but can only see cameras and microphones.
The question is asked, “So, how was it?”
“We got the data. A great signal all the way though.”
After months of preparation and long, hot, challenging days making systems work, this is the result that was hoped for but never counted on.
There is no time for celebration, though: every member of the BLOODHOUND Team is headlong into interviews with press, radio, television. The talk is about a six-year journey, the incredible support in South Africa, an Engineering Adventure and inspiring a generation.
One reporter, caught up in the moment, says to Noble, “That was so fast…and loud too!” Richard smiles, pauses for a moment then replies, “Yes, it was great fun but just you wait until next year! BLOODHOUND will be twice as fast and ten times louder! You know, you’re in for something really special…”
Michael is an engineer with MTN, BLOODHOUND's South African Communications Partner. He is one of the team responsible for the four giant transmission towers positioned around the edge of the Pan that will relay data and pictures from BLOODHOUND. A tough guy from a tough land, he looks you straight in the eye when he speaks and gets to the point quickly, his sun-cracked skin and economy of movement testament to many years spent delivering challenging projects in remote locations.
Right now, Michael is trying hard not to cry.
“This is what its is all about, man…This is the real thing. It’s not just marketing hype, we’re really doing something here.”
He’s standing by the BLOODHOUND themed computer room that he has helped build in Groot Mier Primary School, a ragged collection of breezeblock buildings with a shaded area for outdoor lessons and some sandy yards bounded by wire fence for a playground. The village of thirty tin-roofed houses is easy to miss even if you’re looking for it, which few people venturing into this remote wilderness ever are. Groot Mier is off the map, a place made of the heat and dust and making do, but for the children in the classroom it is the centre of the universe. Because today they have the internet and they are using it to speak to pupils from local Avon Primary School visiting BLOODHOUND's Technical Centre in Bristol. After a few nervous “hellos” and jerky Skype pauses, kids separated by five thousand six hundred miles and a world of opportunities start asking questions, sharing jokes, laughing together.
“Listen to me people – children, parents - when I say that we…Now…Have…The world!”
The rich, rolling voice of the schools’ head teacher Sarah Murphy-Williams fills the room. A five-foot high force of nature, she stands centre-stage, leaning forward as if to share a secret.
“Up until a few days ago none of us even knew the word ‘Google’ but now look! We can go anywhere, see everything, all thanks to you, our friends at MTN and BLOODHOUND. You have given us so much.”
The parents clap, kids cheer and the MTN engineers look to each other, shy smiles all round. Now Michael isn’t the only one feeling emotional.
We’re late and have to hit the road to make our flight from Upington to Johannesburg. We don’t yet know but will find out soon that the influx of people attending our test and media event has temporarily drained petrol stations of fuel and the few cash machines of money. We may have made Hakekeen Pan front-page news but its something we’ll have take note of.
We dash around saying good-byes but inevitably miss people. The camp built by Skip’s team is being broken down and soon the sparrows, spiders, scorpions and foxes will have the dunes all to themselves again.
In the past few days we have learned a lot. Names on email had become faces, then colleagues, and, as the days went by, friends. There were plenty of problems, technical and logistical, but none we didn’t overcome and that process helped create a proper team: not BLOODHOUND and its sponsors and suppliers, but one group, in the desert together, making something special happen.
Hakskeen Pan is bewitching, its colours, textures and light quite extraordinary. Watching the sun break through the night sky during the 5am drive to site was magical, as was standing at the end of a long day in absolute silence, looking up at a moon so bright you almost had to shade your eyes.
But it is a serious place too. Fine to visit for an hour with air conditioning close by but really hard if you’re out on the Pan working. Despite sun hats and endless bottles of water, each of us felt beaten up by the end of the day and deep down tired by the end of the week. The challenge of living and working here for, months at a time, isn’t to be underestimated.
More important though was the feeling that the Project has reached a significant milestone. Our technology worked. The team worked. We brought the media to the back of beyond to share the story. We found out too where we were falling short. As the first, modest rehearsal for what’s to come, it was quite a week.
By Richard Knight, Communications Director