24 September: And That's A Wrap (Timor-Leste Expedition)
The collecting component of the Museum's biggest expedition in 100 years has come to an end. A look at the last day as well as a look back.
The last day of the trip was devoted to packing up, although there was very little of the personal kind happening (with some scientists confessing to stuffing everything in their pack at the last minute) and an awful lot of highly organised and coordinated stowing of specimens and equipment.
Once everything was sorted and placed into the 50 or more tubs, containers and polydrums brought with us, we could begin the long process of getting everything to the freight company on the other side of town. This meant multiple trips in our hired Lancruiser with Rosemary 'Tour de Timor' Golding at the wheel, leading us through the traffic, heat and dirt.
But I'm forgetting the lists. Lists were compiled, lists were checked, lists were double-checked and lists were sent off to various authorities. It was like a very niche version of Santa's workshop and I'm sure the scientists will think it's Christmas when the specimens arrive back at the Museum.
By the final car trip, Mark, Lauren, Amanda and mysef (moonlighting as team labourer) were there with Rosemary in the freight yard: tieing down, gladwrapping and moving our stuff to the right place while the freight guys did an uncanny impression of Sydney road workers. They stood around watching us, occasionally muttering something about how we had more equipment than we did pallets.
But we got there in the end and I even managed to eat my first roadside meal of the entire trip, having had all our breakfasts, lunches and dinners catered for by our team cook, Chris Hughes. The man did an amazing job especially considering he had to run obstacle courses for basic kitchen equipment and a working fridge.
All meals catered for except for the last one, that is. For dinner on our final night in Timor we gathered at Castaway Bar together for the first time, with most of us ordering - wait for it - the fish (panko tuna to be precise). The conversation at the table covered many topics, perhaps the most interesting one being the future of taxonomy. Pat Hutchings, she of the broken hammer and long tenure at the Museum, is particularly concerned about this issue and I hope to work with her on a blog post about it soon.
As scientists traded stories of striking reefs in the night, encounters with sharks and of course, the ones that got away (fish and human), I made my way around the table, laptop in hand, asking each of each them for their highlights of the trip. This I'll publish tomorrow, but for the moment, here's what stood out to me (after this octopus photo)...
A field trip is an intense experience. The work begins as soon as you wake up around 6am, packing your gear for that day's dive or shore trip and filling up on breakfast knowing that you're going to burn a lot of calories. Then it's off to the boat or 4WD for the often long journey to that day's collecting site/s.
For the divers, the day was spent making the most of the short windows of opportunity they have to gather specimens 5 to 25 metres below the surface, at locations that may or may not impress. It requires concentration and teamwork right up until the point they have their samples carefully stowed in the eskies on the boat.
For the shore explorers, the day involves trying for specimens again and again at different beaches and mangrove swamps, battling entirely different road rules, the draining humidity and the mud, mosquitoes and apparently crocodiles (I only half-believe Jim's latest story).
But this is actually the fun part of the trip, the part that reminds many of the scientists why it is they do science, because after the field collecting is done it's back to the accommodation to sort and store the day's samples. A process that rarely finished before 10pm each night.
And, of course, then there is the months and sometimes years of work to come back at the Museum, in the laboratory, usually working alone, describing the many species collected on the trip.
For the blogger, it was like being in a foreign country within a foreign country sometimes: strange new words and a slightly different style of social interaction (rarely did anyone beat around the bush on any topic). But I came to enjoy all the latin, the corrections, and the conversational directness that was completely overshadowed by a lot of laughs and in-jokes.
My days were spent asking questions, remaining alert to photo and video opportunities and keeping an ear out for interesting quotes or good explanations of what were often complicated-looking procedures. Then back at the accommodation it was a matter of constantly interrupting busy scientists to confirm details, check spellings and test again that I really did understand what they were doing earlier that day and why.
Finally, I had sorting and processing of my own to do: choosing photos, writing posts, editing video and always begging the internet to please stay with me and please if possible please go a little bit faster please.
All in all, it's been the most interesting experiences of my career and I'm grateful to have been included. I wrote these posts not for scientists or science enthusiasts so much as for people like me: interested in and curious about science, but not sure how it's done and looking for an easy way in. I hope I gave you that way in and that, like me, you're much more of an enthusiast now.
I'd like to thank each and every one of my Museum colleagues for their help, good humour, patience and impressive dedication to their important work.
Now it's time to sleep. I'm a bit blogged out.