Mataranka: 100,000 Mangoes Later

Disembarking into the caravan park that was going to be my home for possibly the next six weeks, I was introduced to Steve, the AREA supervisor for our farm, and shown the room that I was to share with a Irish couple, Aidan and Pamela. Seeing as tomorrow was going to be our first day picking and all we knew about the job was that we had to be ready for 5.30am and would finish picking when we’d filled the lorries, whenever that may be, so we hit the sack pretty early.

Getting up at 5 was never going to be easy but I think the excitement of starting something new, even it that something was probably going to be pretty underwhelming as far as experiences go, always makes me want to get up early, so I was skulking around in the dark at 4:50, trying not to sabotage the last ten minutes of my room mates’ sleep. Then there was the decision of which of the grotesquely over-sized charity shop shirts to wear: I settled on the one that was probably equivalent to a medium and so looked the least absurd and, almost, stylish to boot, along with my trousers that were about 2 inches to big in every dimension, and girls’ hat. Mornings quickly turned into my favourite time of the day: stepping out into the relatively cool, faintly-lit pre-dawn air; the ten minutes of time on the bus with nothing to do but watch – almost without fail – the clouds set ablaze by the yet-to-rise sun; and the 10 minutes out in the field watching the fiery sky give way to the rising sun, counting down the minutes till 6am, when we started picking.

As far as first days on a job go, the first day at the Oolloo Farm, Mataranka, wasn’t great. After a quick demonstration of how to pick mangoes we were set loose to the do the only productive thing were ever going to do in the next 6 weeks, but it was slow going at the start. Although we’d be made believe that picking was completely scientific and that there is a set minimum size of mango to be picked, once we were out picking them ourselves with no reference and very little feedback it very quickly turned into a subjective exercise. As with any repetitive job like this, we were slow, really slow in fact, for the first day but things soon picked up. To put it in perspective, on day 1 we had to fill 2 road train trailers; each trailer holds about 65 bins; each bin holds maybe 700 mangoes. It took 6 teams of 5 people (with mostly only 4 of those actually picking) 11 hours to finish that. In a few days, the same 6 teams were filling 3 trailers in 8 hours. So, understandably after my first 11 hour shift, through 40 C heat and perpetually clear skies, I resorted to all that I could be bothered cooking, 2 minute noodles, and pretty much headed straight to bed.

Throughout what turned out to be the 4 and a half weeks it took us to ravage the plantation of all marketable mangoes, we probably averaged out at about 7-8 hour days. Because we were paid by the hour, and not by the bin, we were always torn between picking quickly so as to not get an arse-kicking from the bosses and get home a bit quicker, and coordinating a go-slow between all the teams so as to get paid more for picking the same amount of mangoes. To this end, if we’d been getting paid per bin we’d have probably finished not long after 11 most days.

Although mornings were the highlight of the day, being able to jump into a what seemed like quite a liberally-sized swimming pool for a caravan park after each shift was great, especially since I’d usually get it to myself for 10 minutes before anyone half as eager as me joined. On the other hand, something that I won’t miss for its monotonous, repetitive and generally un-compelling content are the local television stations. I once foolishly – and I won’t do it again in a hurry for any Australian broadcast, local or otherwise – perked up a mild interest in a particularly ominous looking advert for a storm-rescue documentary, which gave the distinct impression that some poor soul was in a fairly serious kerfuffle, stuck down a storm drain as a clearly visible storm approached. Alas, the camera approached drain, past numerous emergency service personnel and looked down the drain to find nothing but a feeble kitten mewing. It wasn’t even trapped, just completely ignorant. That was it, I immediately went outside and hunted down one of the grazing wallabies with my bare hands, just to feel human again.

And so the month passed without a great deal of excitement, well actually there were a few funny moments generally fuelled by alcohol and race-mis-relations. In fact, after getting told out of the blue – as was generally the way with any communication from our employers, who seemed to think that we just sat around picking our noses when we weren’t working and therefore didn’t need to be told till the morning whether we were going to be working or not that day – that we had a holiday the following day, almost everyone headed straight to the bottle shop and started an afternoon-come-evening of unrelenting drinking that split open every little social crack that had formed in the last few weeks of being stuck together in dump on the highway. I can’t remember what caused me not to join in that night, but it gave me an unparalleled view of the amusing sight of almost everyone trying to leather everyone else. A French guy gave an Indian guy a pretty decent run around (he had his reasons), leading to a Nepalese guy thinking this was a great idea and trying the same, but on all Indians, for no reason other than that the Nepalese don’t have a lot of neighbourly compassion going on towards the Indians; an Irish guy lobbed a beer can off my English supervisor’s head; and just when I’d gone to bed and thought it was all over, the gay guys in my room sparked up a hissy fit which escalated from one of them misguidedly resting his foot on the edge of the other’s bed to them both romping around on the top bunk with the resulting stability similar to an elephant on Penny Farthing. In fact, rather surprisingly, the only person, apart from myself, to not get in some sort of raucous was the pro-IRA-Muslim-Irish-Egyptian and that was probably minor miracle, seeing as after about half a can of beer his only communication with the anyone involves proclaiming that ‘it [Ireland] is my fucking island!’.

Although it was essentially a month work and not much else, there are so many things I haven’t got round to writing about, many of the good, like: having peacocks and wallabies running around our back-yard, meeting the French guys I’d first seen in Kununurra, going to the thermal pools and swimming along the stream of the bitter springs, getting drive for the first time in Australia and almost hitting my first ‘roo while I was at it, eating warm mangoes straight off the trees and getting paid for it, pelting the other teams with our dodgy mangoes, spending most of my working hours dreaming of buying a car and learning to paraglide, having the privilege of seeing the making, and tasting, of authentic Indian and Nepalese cuisine, meeting and getting to know so many foreign people, shooting a cover for the single that a French and Nepalese guy wrote about mango picking, and finally getting the hell out of the place when it was all over.

Obviously there were a few bad points, almost entirely related to the mango picking: getting mango burns in the first few days (but they cleared up), getting mango rash in the last week after I thought I was immune (but I survived till the end), having an arse of a recruitment manager who tried to tell me I couldn’t find my own way to work because that would mean less money coming in for his bus (thanks in particular to Aidan for telling him where to stick his greed), not knowing when each day would end, not knowing when the work was going to end, drinking at least 4 litres of water a day and sweating it all out, walking around most of the day with wet feet from the sprinklers (I was almost a martyr for the cause, getting bollocked a few times for waging war on the irrigation system), literally burning our feet through our soles because the ground was so hot, waiting in the searing heat at the end of the day for the bus when all we wanted to do was get home, and generally finding some sort of discrepancy on our payslips.

But none of that matters now: it’s all over, I’ve made it to the other side, and now have the money to hopefully chase that dream of getting a car and learning to paraglide, and I’ve racked up almost 1/3 of the working time I need to do to be eligible to apply for a second year’s visa in Australia.

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