Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Outback

I know it's been a long time since the last update but I do have a good explanation this time. My 3-4 week job turned into 6 weeks and I've just returned to Brisbane again. The work itself was brutal but the overall experience was a great one.
I was working on a family farm in the outback close to a town called Dirranbandi. I say close to because Dirranbandi was where we were picked up after getting dropped off the bus after a 10 hour journey through dry, flat farmland, and driven by Doug Crothers, our boss, back to his farm a further 1/2 hr away. As it turned out, Dirranbandi wasn't exactly the closest settlement because 20-30 minutes in the opposite direction was a settlement called Hebel. Hebel has a population of 25, one general store, one pub and a school that goes up to grade 7 I think.

Dirranbandi wasn't a whole lot bigger with a population of a couple hundred. We went into Dirranbandi a few times (they have a very funny golf course that is more sand than anything resembling grass, and with oiled sand for greens to putt on) on the weekend but mostly for shopping we would actually go to Lightning Ridge. Lightning Ridge is across the border in New South Wales (I was in Queensland) 100 km/1 hr away. It is famous as an opal mining town and as such is supposed to be a little on the rough side. It is also famous as a town people go to to disappear and hide from whomever. It's estimated at a couple thousand people but officially has an unknown population because few people are actually registered residents. We went in a couple of times on a Saturday to stock up on food for the week. We also made trips to St. George and Mungindi (also with populations of a few hundred people) for shopping or something to do on the weekends. They are both about 1 1/2hrs away in different directions.
The Crothers farm is run by 2 brothers, Doug and Donald with their wives Lorraine and Pam. The family has owned and been on the land there since 1864 and is in it's 5th generation of ownership. They were all very hospitable and welcoming and while we were told ahead of time that we would be responsible for our own food, we were invited to dine with one family roughly once a week and we were often given additional food as well. Doug has 3 daughters and Donald has a daughter and son, all of whom are away studying or working but we met at some point as they came home at different times for their various holidays. They included us in their weekend activities like golfing, going to the local rugby games or simply heading down to the Hebel pub. That was really nice of them as we had nothing to do otherwise. They always had plenty of stories to tell about the community and we met quite a few of the local colourful characters. Being so isolated, our phones had no service and we were only able to use the internet briefly at Doug's house once a week to check in with the rest of the world.
I said before that I was going with 2 British guys, John and Craig, who happened to be from Glasgow and spoke English to each other in a Scottish accent that was unintelligible to everyone else. It was actually pretty funny to hear, especially considering all 3 groups (Canadian, Australian and Scottish) were native English speakers and we had a hard time understanding one another. Even the Australian accent throws me off from time to time and I swear the Filipinos are easier to understand. From the beginning it was obvious that it was going to be rough work and a lot of social isolation and I suppose it wasn't too surprising that Craig went crazy and actually quit after 3 days. He and John had come out to Australia planning to stay for 2 years but Craig quit and flew home after only 3 weeks in the country leaving just John and I there. It's a very good thing that John and I got along very well, though we are complete opposites in personality.
The Crothers have 27,000 acres of land of which 8,000 or so is planted crop and the rest still undeveloped. They currently grow chickpeas, wheat and cotton and also raise steers for market but originally the land was used for grazing and raising stock, both sheep and cattle. A lot of the wild land is still wild because they simply couldn't manage more on their own or it was never converted over but now mostly because the government actually satellite maps everyone's property and sets up random maps of area that must remain natural and can not be developed. Back in March there was a very large flood that covered nearly all of their land and the surrounding communities with over 1m of water. In terms of weather, generally it was cold or cool (cooler than the coast), but sunny. Day time highs were anywhere from 11 to 25C and lows from just under 0 to 8C. That was very cold for me and we'd be all bundled up at the start of the day and peel off layers as we warmed up. Of course John, being Scottish, actually found it all too warm and would even start the day in shorts and a t-shirt at times. We've both slowly acclimatized toward normal temperature reactions though from opposite directions. I can honestly say that Australians up here have no concept of insulation. Our quarters were made of simple wood with plenty of gaps for air to pass through and only single pane windows. Everything is built to counter the 45C summers rather than the relatively short winter season. It was often colder indoors than it was outside in the middle of the day. Doug and Donald had their own rather cozier homes while we were in a workers' quarters, a small home consisting of a central cooking/dining area with 4 rooms to make up the corners. Our showers, toilets and laundry machine were attached to the outside of the house out back. I was quite satisfied with the arrangement to be honest. There was another Aussie guy that used one of the rooms but wasn't currently living there so John and I basically had it to ourselves.
The work we had to do was "stick picking" which, as it sounds, means we walked around picking up sticks.

We ended up clearing 2400 acres of mostly chickpea crop from sticks that would be too large to pass through the heading machines during harvest time. Very simple, very repetitive and very mindless but it gives you a ton of time to think about all sorts of random things. Our day was literally walking up and down rows of little chickpea plants picking up sticks every couple of seconds and bringing them over to a tractor that was following along to carry them for us. It was actually kind of funny that anyone could do that kind of job, and yet with my educational background and with John being an elevator technician, the Crothers were always joking that they had highly qualified employees working for them. Some of the rows were as much as 2km long so it was just best to zone out for as long as it took to get to the other end where we'd stop for a drink before turning around again. In a typical day we were walking 15-20 km a day on soft soil so that it felt like being on sand. I'm pretty good at zoning out at this point and wasn't really bothered just walking along, listening to the ever-present idling of the tractor and the occassional curse from someone who'd just dropped their sticks. You can't stick pick in the rain as it just becomes a muddy mess and would be really bad for the tractor to drive over the plants so only on 2 or 3 days did we not work or had to quit early because there was rain.
We were fortunate that Doug's twin daughters (17 years old) were home on school holidays for 3 weeks and were forced to help us. Doug also joined in and we would rotate driving the tractor throughout the day to rest the body a bit. So rather than an abusive work kind of thing (which it was), it was nice to feel like part of a family affair and to actually see the boss suffering with us. As the time went on even Donald and both wives, especially Pam, joined us and we'd have as many as 6 stick pickers at any given time. After 4 weeks we were not finished and were asked to stay an additional 2 weeks. We must be masochists as we agreed to extend and 2 new backpackers were brought in to replace the twins that were going back to school. The new guys were David (German) and Alex (Italian).

To say we were driving the tractor is a bit of an exaggeration. I can't believe how computerized farming has become. The tractor is set on a course contolled by GPS satellite and all we had to do was put in the clutch to make it start and stop and turn it at the end of the field or to avoid the odd tree but even that could be programmed in had it really been necessary. They level their fields, spray the crop and everything with laser and satellite technology it seems. It's a far cry from the Chinese guy hoeing a rice field in a suit at the beginning of this trip. It was really nice that they were so open about the whole operation and would explain all aspects of modern farming on their scale. Their biggest expense by far is fuel and it is a truly staggering amount so you can easily see how rising fuel prices factor into food costs and everything else we buy every day.
The first week of stick picking was absolute hell on my body. Don't ask me why but nobody wore gloves so our fingers were constantly getting slivers and cuts the first week. My fingertips were so sensitive by the second week that I could barely hold or grab anything outright. My knees and back were also quickly destroyed but as with all things the body adapts relatively quickly and eventually I got into a rhythm I could survive. It was also rough on the clothes and on the last day I finally retired my original pair of boots after 5+ years of service. A standard work day for us was getting up at 6:45am (sunrise was at about 7am), getting picked up and heading out to the field at 7:30 and working until sunset at about 5:30pm. Then we'd go back to our house, shower, eat and try to stay alive until 8:30pm before going to bed completely exhausted. As the weeks went by John and I actually got worse and worse to the point where we went to bed before 8pm a few times compared to 9:30 at the beginning. I think this is further proof that working is just not good for me. I don't think I've ever been able to find a balance between work and fun. I'm either doing one or the other and it takes all my time. To add to the current weirdness, I've been basically living as "Richard" since I've arrived in Australia. Could this be the beginnings of a split personality between work and play or the first and third worlds? The only way work was good for me is that John and I were eating stupidly massive amounts of food and despite all the calorie burning I still managed to gain a few more Kg. I left the farm the heaviest I've ever been and unfortunately I'm sure I'm quickly losing it again now that I'm back in the city.
What kept us sane for the first month we were there was John's great obsession, football, and the World Cup. It was our highlight of the day to hear the game results every morning on the radio at 7am. Almost all our conversations throughout the day revolved around speculations on upcoming game results. Being Canadian is useful as it allows me to cheer for any team I want so this time I was hoping for Holland to do well to please Savannah. It helped that John had put a 200 pound bet on the Dutch to win it outright and with Australia quickly going out it wasn't long before everyone on the farm was eagerly awaiting the next Dutch match to tease John about his potential winnings. It got to the point where we simply had to watch the last few matches so after 3 weeks in our first quarters we were moved into another one nearby that had a satellite dish and tv. Games were at 4:30am so we got up early and then went straight to working afterwards. The new quarters were an upgrade as it had carpets and a nicer sitting area but was just as freezing cold at night. When David and Alex arrived they were put into our old quarters so we weren't all together.

I’ve also learned from Doug that up in the far north of Queensland the people also say “eh” a lot. If this is true then it is a potentially devastating blow to the Canadian psyche, making us less unique and just closer to being funny sounding Americans :P And did you know that “kangaroo” in whatever Aboriginal language it is, actually means something along the lines of “I don’t understand you” and was their first response to the question “what is that?” by the first European explorers to ask? Too funny.
The land naturally looks like somewhere you'd go on safari in Africa, dry grassland with clumps of trees scattered about leaving plenty of open space to spot the wildlife that was out there. It would not have surprised me at all or seemed out of place if an elephant had walked by. Instead they have tons of kangaroos, emus, foxes, wallabys, wild pigs, rabbits, marsupial mice, wild goats, eagles and a ton of other birds from ibises to various parrots. It is said kangaroos and emus are in dwindling numbers in Australia and are currently protected but you'd never know it from the numbers we saw. It was not uncommon to see up to 100 kangaroos in a day driving through the fields and a dozen emus as they were wandering through the fields eating the crop.

Doug estimates they lose about 10% of their crop to the combo of kangaroo, emu, pig and ducks here. One way of teasing them would be to mention how cute kangaroos were. Not a single farmer in the area would agree with such a statement and all openly admit they'd like to go out and shoot them all. Emus are also protected so rather than have to deal with them, most would smash any nest of eggs they came across on their property though that can't be exactly legal either. Spend enough time around them and you can't help but come to the conclusion that emus must be the most mentally challenged bird in existence and kangaroos are a freak of nature and not too bright either. I didn't know that there were 3 different types of kangaroo, red, blue and grey, all of which we saw on a regular basis. Emu eggs are significantly smaller than ostrich ones, maybe half the size and are totally green, not white. The amount of roadkill was unbelievable as well. So many kangaroos hit all the time. They are nocturnalish, being seen all day long but more common from dusk to dawn. They are attracted to the plants on the side of the road as they are often cut back and growing new shoots and are healthier, getting the rain runoff from the road as well. So of course driving anywhere at night is like running the gauntlet with kangaroos constantly jumping in front of you. Everyone out here drives 4x4's with bars across the front for protection from this problem. Someone obviously goes running around cleaning up all the road kill periodically because there don't seem to be any natural scavengers to eat them. Saturday morning seems to be a particularly good time to go roadkill spotting as all the drinkers driving home from the country pub friday night would definitely have plenty of opportunity to add a few dents to their trucks. John and I don't have driver's licences but that didn't stop us from borrowing the truck and driving to Lightning Ridge on a shopping expedition. They didn't realize we weren't allowed to drive when they offered so it's a good thing nothing happened, but it was my first time driving in 3 1/2 years and the first time on the left side of the road as well. It felt so nice to drive actually. I want to go on a road trip now.
If the others were constantly complaining about being stuck in the middle of nowhere I've learned that while I'm no closet farmer, I do prefer the quiet and solitude of small places to the big cities. The stars were amazing, the air so fresh, consistently great sunrises and sunsets, the water was captured rainwater and tasted great and it was probably the best way for me to try to adjust to Australia culturally, rather than jumping back into the city life. Not that the outback is anything like the cities, even in terms of culture. One thing I have learned though is that rugby is not my sport at all. I can honestly say it has no appeal for me and I will probably never enjoy watching it. We also saw a few horse events as well, competitions being held in the various towns, with anything from controlling cattle and running them through a series of gates to a sport called polocrosse. I'd never heard of polocrosse before and you probably haven't either. It's like polo but instead of the mallets playing a ball on the ground the horsemen have adopted and adapted lacrosse sticks. There are only 3 on a team on the field at any given time and there are positional rules to each person but honestly it seems a little too easy to score if you know what you're doing and impossible to do anything if you don't. I took a bunch of photos and video of it all but the memory card on my camera wiped itself out and I've lost them. We managed to get ourselves photographed watching a rugby game and ended up in the local paper too.
In all it was a very positive experience and while I will not miss stick picking, I will miss my time in the outback.



At 6:21 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhh, Ammon I almost cried (seriously) when I read about your boots. The thought of them in the garbage and not hanging on your backpack or on your feet on travel days breaks my heart. They covered sooooooo many miles.
I'm really happy that you are gaining weight, now to keep it!! :)
I sure miss and love you and the travel.

At 7:00 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

A fine read.


At 10:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was great. Well done my friend.



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