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Prof or hobo: fieldwork fails

Like many, I have done my share of fieldwork over the years.

I've sampled in both hemispheres. I've been in big groups, small groups and solo. I have been out collecting in -30 degrees Celsius, simultaneously freezing and sweating while hauling logs through the snow. I've worked in plus 48 degrees Celsius with swarms of black flies that are so thirsty they are trying to suck moisture from the corners of your eyes.

I've slept in fancy hotels and a tent that was literally being held together by duct tape and zip-lock bags while it poured with rain. I've been 'stuck' due to flooding twice, waited out a bushfire once, been bogged numerous times and changed several tyres. After a while you think you have seen and heard it all. Expect the unexpected, right?

Fieldwork in -30 C collecting mountain pine beetle bolts

This summer, during some fieldwork, I got my most unexpected. I managed to terrify two young boys and have them run away from me because they thought I was hobo!

So, let me recount some of my top fieldwork fails.

1. She's a hobo

I found an excellent patch of orchids along an abandoned train line this summer. It was sheer luck. I was actually looking for something else when I discovered the patch tucked away in the bushes, along this old train line, set back from a busy highway and some shops.

I ducked down into the bushes and prepared to sit for my obligatory 1.5 hrs. During this time, two young boys, about 8-10 years old, walked past with ice-cream. They chatted away and I guess my movement to see who was walking by caught their attention. I raised my hand to smile and wave. The two boys looked at each other and ran off saying "don't talk to her, she's homeless".

For a good second or two I was shocked. Why would they think I was homeless? Then it hit me. I was now a legit contender in that game Prof of Hobo! (I only scored 7/10 for that by the way).

In retrospect, I am an idiot. For starters, I am not young to those boys. I'm probably as old as their parents. Young boys don't care that I may be an Assistant Professor. They care about ice-cream. Also, I was squatting in the bushes alongside an abandoned railway line. I hadn't showered or brushed my hair. I was wearing faded old pants and similarly fashionable shirt. I was sitting amidst a pile of stained old bags that I use for carrying equipment. I DID look like a hobo.

Touché, young boys, touché.

2. We'll make sure you get across ok

Years ago now, I was tracking down an orchid site in the Central Highlands of Tasmania. I'd been driving on 4WD tracks for hours and not seen a single person. So, when I finally got to a small river crossing I thought I would strip down and walk across. The car had no snorkel and I wasn't about to try and tie tarps to the front bumper to make a bow wave. Walking seemed sensible.

I was about halfway across, carrying pants/gear/shoes overhead, when I hear a man yell "Hello love".

I turned to see a car towing a caravan with two elderly gentlemen gawking out the window at me. How the hell they got that caravan down the 4WD track beats me, but I digress. They were clearly amused and thought it was their lucky day to stare at a woman in her underwear.

I shouted back that I was just fine and they could continue on. Such gentlemen (sarcasm here, naturally), they declined and insisted that they would wait until I made it to the other side, just to make sure I was ok. Needless to say, my attempts to keep my pants dry failed as I ducked down in the water and re-dressed!

Fieldwork in Victoria, Australia

3. You can't come in here!!

Tasmania is home to these evil little ants called 'Jack Jumpers'. These little things pack a punch! People can go into anaphylaxis from these bites.

I was, as usual, searching for orchids. I was accompanied by a National Parks ranger who was showing me some spots. We found some really nice Pterostylis cucullata and I crouched down to get some photos.

That's when I felt it. Searing pain up my thigh and hip. I've been bitten by inch-ants before and that was nothing compared to this. It was excruciating and getting more and more intense. I bolted upright and ran. I began to scream (and probably cry at this point) as I started tearing my pants off to see what was attacking me. The ranger began running too. He was smarter. He ran for the car and locked himself inside!

By the time I got to the car I had about 5-6 massive welts on me. While I begged for help and to be let in, he just kept yelling "you can't come in here!!" About 20 mins later I convinced him to open the doors. By this time I looked like I had elephantiasis. I was in agony. And rather angry and humiliated. Those bites took weeks to go away.

It turned out that the ranger was severely allergic to Jack Jumpers and wasn't carrying his Epi-pen! A good reminder to ALWAYS carry your medical/first aid supplies!

4. Flying chickens

I was being flown in a tiny cessna to a remote island to survey an endangered, and endemic, population of orchids. My colleagues and I had been warned it was usually terrible weather because it is right in the Roaring 40's wind path. We had been asked to transport three live chickens with us for the caretakers.

We sat in this tiny plane with these chickens, trying to keep the damn things clam through a very bumpy ride. We had several attempted landings before the pilot finally said it would be his last. We got lucky, I think. It was horrid. Bumpy, sliding out on the 'runway', which was more like a semi-slashed road verge. We unloaded in wind and rain, covered in chicken poo. The pilot told us, way too cheerily, that he would let us know when it was suitable conditions to be picked up again.

Turned out the orchids lived in the air strip! The poor chickens never recovered.

5. Remote places have interesting people

Ummmm, yeah, I can't recount this one here. Maybe some other time.

Fieldwork in New South Wales, Australia. My usual 'hobo' attire. Photo credit: Dr Manu Saunders.

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