We’ve seen a huge metal bridge being pushed from one bank of a river to another by a Warrior armoured vehicle, as the Royal Engineers did their bit to help build the route between Lashkar Gah and Geresk. We’ve seen an imposing concrete fort rise up out of the dirt to become a District Police Station. And we’ve seen the beginnings of a structure promising to become a local community centre. But one engineering feat which caught my eye for its originality during my stay at a Patrol Base in Nahr e Saraj was – if somewhat more modest – rather more unusual.
I should first point out that in these Patrol Bases, it really is basic living. This means a bottle of water over a tin sink to brush your teeth, a tent fitted with metal piping and a chain-pull to douse yourself with cold water as a shower, and the delightful ‘Portajohn’ bags with wooden structures to set them down on for the rest. It also means any laundry is painstakingly done by hand in a bowl and then hung up outside or on your tent in the sun and dust, so that it is hopefully a little less smelly and a little less grimy than it was before. That is, for at least ten minutes anyway.
In that context, any element of added luxury as you can imagine is a huge bonus.
At first I couldn’t quite understand when I spotted a small traditional concrete mixer sitting in between the shower tent and toilet structure, neatly tucked away next to a wooden table. But it wasn’t long before I was treated to a full and very proud demonstration of the new camp washing machine.
The tatty old grey (still with chunks of concrete glued to the outside) mixer is plugged into the nearby generator. You pop in your little load of clothes. Add a scoop of soap powder and just enough water. Turn on the generator and hey presto, it’s Dot Cotton’s launderette! I was told scientifically that the correct cycle was approximately 7 minutes. Then all it took was a fresh load of cold water and another 7 minutes to rinse.
Now this may not be a bridge or a community centre, and it may not get your whites whiter than white, but it’s a lot more fun than washing your dirty kit in a bowl. And it just goes to show, you can put a soldier in the middle of the Afghan countryside and take away his mobile phone, his IPod and his Xbox, but it won’t be long before he’s got hold of a couple of egg-boxes and some double-sided sticky tape and made himself a washing machine out of a concrete mixer.