Consultancy On The Ground

We could also call this one “The Escaping Eskies”.

Have you ever worked on an Island? At the right time of year it can be quite pleasant, before it gets too hot and before the endless wind starts. We’ve commissioned a few treatment plants up north in the Torres Strait. The commissioning timeframe is generally pretty long as the council up there doesn’t want to put an operator on the plant until they are fully trained, which also happens over the term of the commissioning and performance tests.

When it’s all running well it’s quite pleasant and peaceful (many of the islands don’t have mobile phone reception so a real get away!) and it can be quite pretty. In fact, we had one plant at the top of a hill with a really nice view over the bay. Not a bad place to be when everything is working.

However when things go bad it can be a pretty ordinary experience all together.

The Torres Strait islands are generally supplied by a barge service, which ships in foodstuffs, equipment, etc, and via the local air service, which can run between 2 and 10 flights per week depending upon which part of the islands you’re currently in. Barge transport is by far the cheapest option, but it requires material to be shipped from Cairns up to Thursday Island (TI), then shipped from TI out to the remaining islands, so it can be a long process to get anything in via barge.

Part of the commissioning and testing program is taking laboratory samples to both tune the plant in and to prove the plant works. We normally take one per week during start up to make sure our field samples are accurate and to get the thing going, then two (or more) per week during the actual performance trial. These samples are taken in laboratory prepared bottles and sent back in eskies.

The logistics of getting samples out of the Torres Straits can be daunting, especially since you have a 24 hour delivery timeframe to keep your bacteriological samples within holding. It requires you to sample as close to the plane arrival as possible, and requires that nothing goes wrong when they’re transferred from the local carrier to the Qantas flight out (and that the Qantas flight has freight capacity…). In our case, it generally ran quite well due to solid planning, although there were a few times I was standing at the local airport praying the plane can get through the borderline cyclonic weather so I can fly my samples out.

With all the stress of getting eskies out of the islands, you’d think the easy part should have been getting the eskies in… To keep costs down for our client we would generally try to ship bulk (like 8 or so) amounts of eskies up to the islands in one big shipment using the barge service. Unfortunately barge transport can be a bit rocky, equipment can go missing, can be dropped off on the wrong island, or sometimes a helpful person will pick something up and hand it to someone they think is supposed to have it, only to realise that it has nothing to do with them.

We shipped out 8 eskies, enough for the first 8 weeks of the commissioning phase, via the barge about a month or so ahead of time, which would normally have been plenty of time. When the time came, we arrived on site to kick off the plant establishment and testing. We flew in on Sunday (since it took 2 days to get there due to flight timing) and went looking for our gear and, to our great surprise, we had no eskies. The Barge was due on Wednesday and we were supposed to take our first samples on Tuesday. The Office wasn’t open on the weekend and, while we could fly an esky up, it’d be virtually impossible to do that in a day.

So on the Monday with the help of the lab technicians (we were running an analytical lab at the time) I managed to field prep a range of bottles suitable for sampling, comprising of various store-bought bottles, detergent washed, oven sterilised, with an esky I managed to buy from the local store. While not as good as properly laboratory prepared bottles these bottles actually held up pretty well when we compared the laboratory results.

So I got my eskies on the flight with no real problems. All set for the next two weeks, hopefully those eskies would show up on the barge tomorrow…. Naturally the eskies didn’t show up on the barge that week; however we’d kind of expected this to be the case and had organised 2 weeks’ worth of eskies to be shipped up via plane.

The barge eskies did finally arrive (the barge was a day late), just as I got my 2 weeks’ worth of eskies off of the plane. We shipped the remaining 2 weeks up via plane as well and things went generally smoothly from then on as we’d pretty well sussed out the logistics for the process.

Wondering what the moral of the story is folks? Well, when it comes to getting your eskies to the Torres Strait for sampling, consider it a ‘fantasy island’ and repeat after me: “The plane, boss! The plane!”