Uli Vogler helped to provide a solid foundation for SANIRE and has spent a lifetime honing his rock testing expertise. He’s still at it and jokes that he was probably born to be an engineer: his birthday, 22/7, is also a way of expressing pi. Rock Talk asked this lively senior student a few questions.

ulistudyRT: How long have you been a member of SANIRE?

UV: Since its inception. First, I was a member of the SA Group on Rock Mechanics, formed soon after the founding of the International Society for Rock Mechanics. In fact, I was the first honorary secretary of the SA Group. I received the Lifetime Achiever award from Sanire a few years ago, so I’m fortunate to be a lifetime honorary member.

RT: What’s the greatest personal benefit you have experienced from being a member of these associations?

UV: In the early days, we had relatively small but very active group. We organised visits to mines and civil engineering sites. Later on, we held symposia. I was always learning and meeting people.

I was also fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. When the International Society started standardising test methods, I was at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and was involved in developing some of the standards published in recent “blue book”.

RT: What are your personal and professional goals for 2011?

UV: Well, I’ve been retired for 14 years and I’m still a student, so mine are a bit different from most people’s. I’m currently the oldest Wits student, enrolled for an MSc Engineering with a specialisation in mining and rock mechanics.

I aim to complete my dissertation this year. It is based on something that worried me over the years, and on which I formed a hypothesis. Wits has enabled me to test this hypothesis. I hope my dissertation will provide extremely valuable information that will influence the entire mining community.

I have also been a part-time lecturer at both Wits and the University of Pretoria and I like to attend as many Sanire meetings as possible to stay up to date.

RT: Who or what influenced you to go into rock testing?

UV: It was sheer coincidence that I became involved in this field. I joined the CSIR on 1 January 1956, straight after matric. It was simply the place where I got a job.

The mentorship was great – first I worked for Dr HG Denkhaus, the father of rock mechanics, then for Dr Evert Hoek, who became an international consultant, and for Dr ZT Bieniawski.

I was one of the first students to study for a National Higher Diploma for Technicians at the Pretoria Technikon, (now the Tshwane University of Technology) in the early days of “sandwich courses”. We would study for a term, then work for a term, study for a term, then work for a term… It was one of South Africa’s earliest attempts to provide an alternative route to tertiary education.

My BSc (Mathematics and Applied Mathematics) was obtained at the University of Pretoria.

I enjoy being involved in laboratory and in situ testing of rock materials and have had the privilege of participating in feasibility or design studies for several major projects, including the Orange Fish tunnel, pumped storage schemes, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, various dams and the Batoka Gorge project in Zimbabwe. I also consulted on rock testing, evaluation and the interpretation of test results for the Braamhoek Pumped Storage Scheme and the Coegakop Portnet Quarry.

RT: What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in your field at present?

UV: I think the greatest challenge in my field is that there are not enough rock testing laboratories at present, and they are very expensive to start and run.

Nonetheless, it’s a great field for a young person to get into. Our mines really need rock mechanics practitioners. South Africa still has plenty of mines to absorb these skills, its legal requirements are getting more stringent and it still has safety challenges. A rock mechanics practitioner can really make a difference in this country, helping to turn around South Africa’s bad safety record by international standards.

RT: Please tell us about your family, hobbies and interests.

UV: I’m married to Rina and we have three daughters – one living in South Africa, one in Australia and one in Austria. Each of them has provided us with a pigeon pair of grandchildren. They even made it easier for me by naming each of the first four in alphabetical order – but they deviated with the names of the fifth and the sixth.

We love to go to national parks, especially Pilanesberg. It’s in a malaria-free area and it’s an easy drive from Johannesburg. I’m particularly interested in birdwatching. We also enjoy visiting the kids overseas.

The Soccer World Cup experience last year was wonderful. I tried not to miss any matches. I also enjoyed watching some of the women’s World Cup games, played in Germany this year, on TV.