Into the field and back again

It’s been two weeks since I went out into a remote community to check back in with project participants for RICES (Remote and Isolated Communities Essential Services), and I have since been busy with data entry from that trip. For the field work, I traveled with my two internship supervisors from the Brisbane area in southern Queensland to a town in northern Queensland all the way up to western Cape York.

From Brisbane, we flew up to Cairns as the first leg of the journey. I had never visited Cairns before this trip and seeing it from the plane definitely made me want to go back there for a vacation. Cairns is at the edge of the Cape York Peninsula, surrounded by mountains and lush rainforest. It is also the main city that you travel to if you want to see the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, I did not get to explore Cairns or the Great Barrier Reef this time, but I did get to see the reef from the plane. It’s amazing to think that much wildlife is under the water and that it is so large, it can be viewed from the sky. It’s also sad to think about the devastation that the Great Barrier Reef has faced due to climate change and human activity.

From Cairns, we took a small propeller plane up to far north Cape York to one of the main towns up there. I was so surprised when we got off the plane at the airport. Though I’m sure there are plenty of extremely small airports in the United States, I have never been to an airport that only has one terminal and the bags come straight off the loading truck out to the parking lot off of the arrivals lobby. I knew that I would be going into a more remote area in comparison to the bigger urban areas that I was used to in Australia, but the small airport was the first indication of how far I was away from urban Australia.

I was lucky enough to have a window seat for the last flight, and I was fascinated at the different landscapes that we flew over from tropical forests to low mountain ranges to savanna landscapes. As we approached our final destination, I realized how much mining had impacted Cape York, which I continued to see throughout the week. There were large open swathes of reddish-orange dirt where you could see huge mining vehicles moving around on top of the opened earth from the plane. I felt sad for this area when I saw piles upon piles of trees having been cleared and burned to make way for more open air quarries. As an environmental student, I felt a little discouraged as we landed and confused as to how this Indigenous land could have been scarred by these mining operations.

Ocean view from the hotel deck
Spying the ocean from my donga

Since there is no public transportation in many smaller towns in Australia, my internship supervisors had rented a 4-wheel drive car to drive around. After we got off the plane and grabbed our bags, we headed to our hotel for the rest of the afternoon to get our materials ready for the week and make our game plan. The hotel was only about a 20 minute drive from the airport and was situated on a little bay on the western coast of Cape York. The area is a popular spot for fisherman from all over eastern Australia as well as locals, so our hotel was full of fishers up for a week or two of what the local area had to offer.

After a night of nervous sleep, I woke up that Monday ready to go into the community that we were working with for the week. We started out the day with a morning meeting with the local housing office. All of the partner communities have a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people living in them and many of these community members live in government owned houses, so it was important for us to try and get the support of the housing office for our project and see if they could provide any extra information about leak reporting for residents since we found that leaks can make up a sizable portion of that community’s water use.

Long dirt road into community
Savanna landscape

Our first meeting went well and afterwards, we headed up to the community via a dirt road from the main little town. I have been to rural areas of Victoria in southern Australia, but I have never been to bushland in this part of the country. We drove along a red dirt road for an hour with nothing but dry bushland on either side. Sometimes, we would pass a small mining area or a road would branch off from the main dirt/gravel road that we were on and disappear into the savanna. My supervisors said that many of these roads went to the coast for fishing, to smaller communities or to mining operations.

Right before we got into the community, we kept passing termite hills that were dressed like little dirt snowmen. Apparently a lot of communities in the area put t-shirts and faces on the termite mounds as a fun little joke. 

The community was very quiet as we came in, and the streets were fairly empty. The Council building and Land and Sea Ranger office next door were bustling with activity, but other than that, most of the residents were at the beach or at home. The town has one general store near the Council building with the community’s only diesel gas pump. We drove around so that my supervisors could show me where we would be working for the week. The community is very laid back and situated right on the water, which makes fishing and ocean views an essential part of the community setup. While I was tens of thousands of miles away from my home in North Carolina, the community was not as different as I expected. The houses and the remote nature of the community reminded me of many of the rural towns I have passed through in the U.S.

Throughout the week, we met with project participants and Council all with the end goal to reduce water consumption. We were able to secure a commitment on our first few days from Council that they would be responsible with the outdoor watering of their own buildings, install tap timers on all of their outdoor taps and fix leaks in residents’ households (local councils are a part of Australia’s governmental structure and are extremely important to any work being done at the community level). This commitment from Council told us that they were supportive of water saving efforts at the residential level and acknowledged the role that Council buildings have in the community’s water use.

There are 17 participants involved from this community in Western Cape York. We went around during the week for follow up interviews with all of the participants in order to talk to them about the water use data we had collected from their smart water meters and to learn more about their own water use behaviors. Luckily, we were able to talk to most of the participants, and many of them were happy to discuss their outdoor watering habits and motivations.

Tap timer installation

One of my biggest fears going into a rural area of Australia was being able to communicate with the people there. The accents were deeper than I was used to in the city and many of them spoke Creole as a mix of their native language and English or their full native language in addition to English. I was not the main interviewer during our follow ups with participants, but I was the main note-taker. On the interviews I sat in on, I was able to understand the residents and they could understand me, even with my weird American accent. Everyone accepted the water saving technologies we had brought up for outdoor taps, which included tap timers, trigger nozzles for hoses, and soaker hoses. Most of the participants we talked to were also interested in lowering their overall water use.

Near the end of the week, we held a community morning barbecue in true Aussie style with sausages and bacon. We had more information about the water saving project and talked to about 30 community members overall, both participants in the project and non-participants. I was a bit nervous to talk to people because of my fear of being able to communicate with the residents, but I ended up talking to one of the Land and Sea Rangers about sea turtles. This time of year is nesting season for the different types of sea turtles in the area, and the Land and Sea Rangers are in charge of protecting their nests and studying the nesting habits of the turtles. She was so knowledgeable about the turtles, and once she found out that I was American, she asked questions about the sea turtle types in America and if I had ever seen any.

We ended our week in the community by going to the beach on the sunny Friday afternoon. Because the community has a small population of a little over 200 people and does not get a lot of tourists, the beaches there are so peaceful. We walked for about an hour without encountering anyone else. On one side was the swampy area (that was dried up due to the dry season) and on the other side of the beach was the ocean. The water was so clear, and after 85-90 degree days, beckoned us for a refreshing dip. Unfortunately, crocodiles are a very real threat in the area, and we were told by many of the locals that we did not want to cool off with an ocean swim. While we didn’t end up seeing any crocodiles during the week, we decided not to chance meeting one in the water and just settled with a quick toe dip.

Going into an Indigenous community shattered some of the idealistic pictures I had of community-level environmental work, and brought me down to earth out of the community-based environmental management theory cloud. This ended up being a great learning experience and set me up for more realistic expectations in my future work. Not all community members will be excited about what you are doing and not all of a community’s leaders/leadership structures/government organizations will go out of their way to support your project, and that is okay. I learned through this field trip that you have to tailor community projects to each of the communities that you work with, and that different people will be allies in your work. Even if people push against the project, especially with environmental projects where curbing some sort of consumption is the main aim, it is important to find out why they are resisting. I learned some invaluable lessons by being able to go into the field with my research team that will be able to pull on for years to come.

Me, PhD student Melissa, and the project supervisor Cara

This may be goodbye to Australia for now, but I know I will be back to this wonderful country again. I set off tomorrow morning for a week-long New Zealand trip with my dad, and then I will be back in the U.S. again. Thank you for following my journey throughout my summer internship!