By Russell Tiesler
With 55 years’ experience as a surveyor, I’ve worked on hydropower projects for SMEC across Australia, Southeast Asia and Africa. It was a long way from where I grew up on a dairy farm in Gippsland, Victoria.
When I grow up, I want to be….
It was almost by chance that I launched a career in surveying.
I started working as a surveyor’s assistant while waiting for enlistment in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) for pilot training. Being mathematically inclined (pilots need high standards of Mathematics and Physics), I progressed to a survey team leader.
At the RAAF induction, we discovered that my left eye was below standard for pilots, so I was offered Commissioned Officer training, including a university degree. However, I chose to continue with surveying as I loved working in the bush and could utilise my maths talents.
I studied for a surveying degree part time at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University and later completed a Master in Applied Science, majoring in Information Technology.
”I had amazing experiences working on the original Snowy Scheme that laid the foundation for a long and successful career working on hydro projects.
A nation-building project shapes a career
My career started as a Survey Technical Assistant with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority (SMHEA), SMEC’s predecessor, where I progressed through to Senior Technology Officer. I had amazing experiences working on the original Snowy Scheme that laid the foundation for a long and successful career working on hydro projects.
This was a time before digital technology. With a career spanning more than 55 years, I’ve certainly seen my profession transform throughout the decades.
Before electronic instrumentation, we learnt to work from basic principles using tools like mechanical calculators, slide rules and logarithmic tables. I was tutored by exceptionally competent senior surveyors, predominantly from Germany, which in the 1950’s was the mecca of technology development.
With the advent of computers (mainframe, desktop and calculators), the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority was the first in Australia to investigate and employ emerging technologies, including electronic distance measurement by using both radio waves and lasers.
Going global: Professional and personal milestones
After working on various Snowy Hydro projects, I travelled throughout Southeast Asia as a surveyor, an aerial survey camera operator and photogrammetrist.
My first international assignment was in Nepal, where I spent three months each in 1974 and 1975 trekking the Himalayas doing aerial photography, survey control and aerial mapping for the investigation of hydropower projects. For the next seven years I surveyed for detailed design of identified hydro projects not only in Nepal but also in Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Ghana and Thailand.
The projects were intense and exciting professionally, but these countries’ unique cultures added another layer of complexity and experience, especially Nepal and Thailand. In addition to amazing mountains, jungles and terrain, they are also the only two countries in the world which never came under European domination during the 1500’s to 1800’s. This allowed for them to preserve their individual cultures; and for someone coming from Australia, it was a pleasant eye-opener. That was the case in the 1970’s and 80’s before globalisation swept through.
Thailand also holds a special place for me as it was here on a SMEC assignment that I met my wife.
Two years later we were married in Cooma, New South Wales, and 40 years of marriage and three children later, we are still going strong.
My favourite memories
I’ve had many roles since my time at SMEC, including private consulting and research back to Southeast Asia, the Himalayas and on to South America and Africa. I also worked for various periods during 1999-2012 as Senior Surveyor in the Australian Defence Force, running the Geomatics Engineering Wing (Survey School) at the School of Military Engineering at Moorebank.
But I look fondly on the years working with SMEC as the best of my early career. One of my favourites was working as Chief Surveyor on the Roseires Dam Heightening Project on the Blue Nile in Sudan.
Some of my best memories are operating aerial cameras in the old Beavers and later the Pilatus Porters across New South Wales, Victoria and Nepal. Being towed behind a Snowcat or Weasel up to mountain tops was always fun because after surveying the control stations I got to free ski back down! I have great memories of travelling to many different countries and of course meeting my wife.
SMEC is unique in the global reach of its activities, especially in developing countries. Working on these projects, it wasn’t just consulting for investigation, feasibility studies and construction. It also involved the transfer of skills, technology and knowledge to local personnel, thus enabling these countries to continue the development that we started.