When Fieldwork Goes Wrong

Well, it’s been a while since I posted anything. I’d like to catch up on what happened over the summer holidays. First, I had to do another autumn stint back in Australia. As usual, I managed to pack a lot of living into 10 weeks. Think wakeboarding, Ita (cyclone), John (Mayer), and Alice (Walker).  There’s lots of photos to share!

The purpose of the trip was to do a couple of extended trips out in the field for some intense sampling campaigns, because mid-March to Mid-May is the season I’m interested in. I couldn’t be out in the field continuously–it was too expensive, and I needed to do the analysis in reasonably short order–so I came up with a plan that had me bouncing between Sydney and Cairns every two weeks. I had to account for the calendar as well–Australians take their Easter holidays VERY seriously, and with ANZAC day falling during the same week this year…everyone was looking forward to a long holiday.

Except Mother Nature.

Image of Coastal Road overlooking Coral Sea

On the road to the field…what could go wrong?

My lab manager and I flew into Cairns on a Monday and drove up to Cape Tribulation. When we arrived at the research station, the first words out of the station manager’s mouth were ‘You picked a brilliant time to come up here! There’s a cyclone forecast to hit at the end of the week.’ Well then. The lab manager and I got our instruments installed in the forest, fired them up, and as it was late afternoon by that point, we went back to our lodgings to devise Plan B.

After much debate, Plan B was simply to play it by ear. We would run the instruments and collect as much data as we could, take our other samples on their original schedule, and otherwise pretend that there wouldn’t be an apocalypse in five days. My manager was supposed to leave on Wednesday, and the cyclone wasn’t predicted to make landfall anywhere until late Thursday or Friday. I always end up booking flexible tickets for fieldwork, so I would wait and see what happened.

In the meantime, there was data to collect, so up we climbed.

By midday Wednesday, my ostrich plan was looking a little less sound. Cyclone Ita had reached Category 5 status, and was packing 130 mph winds. She had dumped rain and caused flash floods in the Solomon Islands to the north, and left 22 dead and 50,000 displaced in her wake. This was not a little storm. Later in the day, I was told that the winds were too high to climb the research tower (above), and there would be no more data collection for me. My lab manager left, and there was nothing more for me to do but hang out at the research station and work out Plan C.

A picture of Cape Tribulation Beach

Cape Tribulation Beach. Not exactly inviting in advance of a cyclone.

There really weren’t any decisions to be made. As you can probably tell from the photo above, the site is less than a mile inland, and my lodgings were about 100 yards from the beach (yes, ordinarily, it’s pretty nice). At the time, Ita was projected to make landfall with a high tide, which would wash away my bed and the road, but probably not my gear. I couldn’t stay where I was. Some of the locals, whom I’ve gotten to know over many trips, kindly invited me to stay with them. They had enough beer (priorities..) supplies, an extra pallet, and I’d be welcome. As generous as that offer was, I really didn’t want to be an extra mouth to feed. I may be local(ish), but I don’t have any family or property there to look after. So I packed my bags, my equipment, and went down to Cairns.


A picture of the patio at the Cairns City YHA

Home away from home. Waiting for the pool to flood

My new home was the YHA. I’ve usually done well with them, and this one was no exception. As usual, the amenities were exactly what I needed-off the beach, a place to stash $55,000 worth of equipment, and a covered parking space to ascertain that I would be able to get away without filing an insurance claim on the rental car. Plus it was next door to the grocery store, the movie theatre, and the bar.

And what a dodgy bar it was. A dive that served the finest piss-water Australia has to offer (XXXX or Tooheys, take your pick), these folks did a brisk business throughout the entire ordeal. All of Cairns was shuttered and closed except for this place. I’m not sure it would even close for a zombie apocalypse. It was that kind of place.

A map shop near the ocean tracked the storm

By Friday, the situation started to improve. Ita had slowed a little overnight, and weakened some, too. That pulled her back from making landfall with the high tide, and instead she came ashore with a low tide (much less damage). She ended up making landfall as a weak Category 4 storm, which is still nothing to laugh at, but her angle was such that the Tablelands which flank the coast helped to disrupt the wind field a bit. When the eye passed over Cairns, she was barely hanging on at a Category 1. I ended up spending three days in the hostel reading my book, answering questions about the weather, and waiting for the power to go out.

Picture of a taped-up window prior to a cyclone

The residents send their best to Ita


Still, the field trip was disrupted enough that there was nothing to do but go home. It was several days before non-residents were let back up the road north. The river ferry had sustained some damage and had to be repaired before crews could go in and clear trees and restore services. The site was fine, except for the odd downed tree.  But paying for a car and a hotel to wait around and waste time didn’t make much sense. I stashed my gear with a fellow researcher and went home to regroup, plan, and hope for better luck next time.

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