Electrician Pete Dyer left Croydon to join a group expedition to Mongolia – which is a long way to go to organise the construction of a clinic out of straw.
In the remote township of Tsenkhermandal in Mongolia, there is a brand new, 16-bed, straw bale clinic for the local community. Babies are born there, children are immunised and infectious diseases are treated. The facility was built this summer with the willing labour of 42 young people taking part in a Raleigh International expedition, the not-so-willing labour of five local Mongolians, and the project management skills of Croydon electrician Pete Dyer.

By the sound of it, Dyer’s crisis management skills played an important part in transforming the straw bales, bare planks and dry cement into a fully functioning building. Back home in Croydon, he can laugh at the memory of the inaccurate construction drawings and the walk-out staged by the Mongolian workforce. But it seems certain that the three months spent overseeing one of Raleigh’s most ambitious construction projects have added more than three years’ experience to his CV.

Dyer says he “doesn’t want to stay on the tools for ever” and hopes the site management experience will help him secure more management work in the UK. But there are easier ways of doing that than travelling to Mongolia and coping with the builders merchants of the capital, Ulan Bator, and a cuisine of yak and camel meat. Upgrading his CV was definitely not his only aim.

In fact, that document probably has “intrepid, adventurous, outdoor-type” written all over it. As well as details of his career with a local authority direct works department and later as a self-employed electrician working through agencies, the CV states that 29-year-old Dyer is a qualified kayak instructor and mountain leader. But it was taking part in a Raleigh International expedition to Belize in 1992 that caught his imagination, and made him determined to do it again as a member of the expedition staff.

Work commitments delayed his dream. But earlier this year, Dyer went through Raleigh’s rigorous selection process and raised £1500 in sponsorship. He could choose his destination and plumped for Mongolia for its obscurity – “people joke about being sent to Outer Mongolia” – and because it would be difficult to get to if he went independently.

Each 10-week expedition consists of a community project, an environmental project and an “adventure”, each rotation lasting three weeks and managed by a member of staff. Although Dyer could have been posted to carry out a forestry survey, he guessed correctly that his experience made him a natural choice for a construction project. He had two weeks in which to organise supplies and materials and meet the township governors, interpreter and local workers.

The project itself was divided into three phases, to match three 14-strong Raleigh workforces that would tackle it. Digging the foundations and laying the ground floor slab was the first task and involved mixing 160 tonnes of concrete by hand. The next three weeks saw the straw bales positioned on top of reinforcing bars and the joists, rafters and skirting boards fashioned by hand from bare planks. In the final three weeks, the interior and exterior had to be lathed and plastered and the services installed.

Not surprisingly, Mongolia threw up its own construction headaches. Dyer’s first problem was that the specialist straw bale design company in Ulan Bator did not release drawings on time, and then information was missing. “The worst mistake was the 5.5 m long timbers needed for the rafters; the longest timber produced in Mongolia is only 4 m.”

Dyer had to resort to nailing joining pieces to two lengths of timber, then jumping on them to test their strength.

“It was a rather fundamental mistake, when it’s obvious that trees don’t grow very high in Mongolia,” he laughs.

That incident was typical of the “suck it and see” construction techniques Dyer used at Tsenkhermandal. Another unknown factor was the extent to which the straw bale walls would be compressed by the weight of the ceiling joists. Dyer had to rig up a weighting device to compress them, but still found that straw bale construction was an inexact science. “We ended up putting wedges in to lift the joists up or down.”

But the multinational teams evidently made an ideal workforce, and their lack of construction experience proved an advantage in some respects. “If you’re in a trade, you know what corners you can cut. But they were anxious to copy what I showed them exactly.” By contrast, the Mongolian labourers showed solidarity with their colleagues on the Jubilee Line Extension by walking out in a dispute over pay. Fortunately, this strike lasted only a day.

While all this was going on, Dyer and the voluntary workers enjoyed a lifestyle that is quite comfortable by Raleigh standards. Accommodation was sleeping bags on the bare floor of a local kindergarten, and washing facilities meant the local river. Food was mostly bought in Ulan Bator and prepared over a gas ring, supplemented by invitations to share yak stew with the locals in their traditional “gers” or tents.

But Dyer seems to have survived all these dubious pleasures with his enthusiasm and love of adventure intact. In fact, he is talking about the next Raleigh expedition, which – work permitting – will take him on a “full-on adventure” in Chile and add another experience to an already exceptional CV.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? I live with my girlfriend, Alison, in Croydon. What’s the definitive guidebook to Mongolia? There’s one called The Last Disco in Outer Mongolia by Nick Middleton. The disco is actually a real building. What are the highlights of Mongolian cuisine? There’s fermented mare’s milk, which is distilled to become more alcoholic. And we had what you might describe as kebabs in Cornish pasties. What would you say to someone thinking of taking part in a Raleigh expedition? You have to be outgoing and work well in a team. You have to not mind roughing it, and maybe going hungry for a day or two.