This Month, I’m a Farmer

It’s a week since I got to Moree and started my ‘ideal’ job – at least as far as jobs go that I can do to fulfil my working holiday visa requirements. I’m staying on a 7000 acre farm 50km north of Moree, mainly doing gps tractor driving by day and very little by night as, being the sole employee of the farmer, I’ve got the workers’ quarters all to myself. Now as much as I quite like my own company from time to time and would happily go off for a hike into the hills or the likes and lose myself for a few days, what I’m faced with here is possibly over a month of living in solitude apart from seeing the farmer, who’s leadership skills haven’t left me exactly warming to him.

I’ll take a step back for a moment, as it’s a bit of leap for an I.T. guy to be saying he’s now taken on the role of hermit-come-farmer, and recap how I got here. Back in August I arrived in Australia on a working holiday visa, giving me a year in the country with basically no restrictions: great. The government also offers the visa for a second year to those who’ve used their first year visa, but on the condition that they’ve done 3 months (or 88 days if not all done with one employer) of farm, fishing, mining or construction work, in a regional postcode area. Now, I like to keep my options open and when I got to Australia, although I had no idea if I even would want to stay for one year, I was sure that if I did any work I’d make it count towards the second year, as hey, maybe I’d really want it after all. So, heading up the west coast, I applied for a tractor driving job – possibly the easiest type of farm work I could think of, and I have the advantage of actually having driven tractors on the farm beside my house back home – but with no luck and ended up picking mangoes in the Northern Territory through November. Down in Victoria, a few months later, I picked up some work at a berry farm, taking me up to a total of 31 days knocked off for the visa. Great, but after struggling to drag myself out of Bright for almost 3 months, I was left with a little over 3 months to find 47 days work in a country where I’d heard plenty stories about backpackers finding it hard to get work. Not one to be rushed, I dossed about in Sydney for a couple of days then checked on the government’s harvest work website, with an eye to applying for the job with the longest life expectancy and low-and-behold, posted that day, is a tractor-driving job in Moree.

So, here I am. Meeting the farmer off the train at Moree, I was getting quite excited by the figures I was hearing: a 400hp tractor – sounds fun – and a 7000 acre farm – well I know roughly how big a 20 acre field is but my imagination doesn’t really extend over a few hundred acres, so wow. Turns out it’s about 12 square miles, so if I climb the hill behind my house, most of the land I see would be part of this farm. Anyway, the first few days were pretty mundane, fixing up bits of the 18m wide sowing machine, tightening bolts, greasing bearings, cleaning up grain from the silos, that sort of thing. Mundane as it was, I could deal with that, but with by far the worst boss I’ve ever served under, I was already wondering whether I’d last much more than a week before I cracked under his constant questioning of why I didn’t do this, hadn’t done that, didn’t know how to do that, hadn’t done that quicker etc. Luckily, the forth day saw us taking the tractor and sowing machine out to the field and making a start at sowing wheat.

The reason I really wanted this job was, quite frankly, because I’m lazy. I’ve done a month of mango picking, going home with aching muscles and sore feet every day and having no time for anything between finishing eating and going to bed, so sitting on my arse in a tractor all day, and being paid a little more than I was for both the mangoes and the berry farm sounds great. And it gets better: the tractor has a gps unit that controls the steering of the tractor as it sows lengths of the field, so all I have to do is turn it at end of each row and take over briefly whenever there are trees on a row. My job is vaguely comparable to when I worked in I.T.: I sit on a chair, occasionally put my feet up when the boss isn’t looking, can listen to music, stare at a couple of computer screens occasionally, stare out the window, and every 10 minutes or do some work!

Of course the difference with my I.T. jobs is, if I was sitting on the chair doing nothing it was procrastination, whereas in the tractor, it’s because there’s nothing to do apart from look out the window to make sure the 10 tons of machinery and grain I’m towing is still there. It is a boring job, but so long as it’s boring I’m not going to whinge as I’m sure I’m earning more than a lot of people who are working a lot harder than me, and it’s bad enough being in that situation without being ungrateful for it. But, the field that I’ve been sowing for the past 4 days (yup, it’s over half a mile wide and well over a mile long) will be done tomorrow and if that means I’m back to being in the firing line of more abuse from the boss, then maybe my time as a tractor-driver will once again start to look short-lived, and maybe this month I’ll have the chance to be something other than this, maybe a fruit-picker again, or maybe just a backpacker for a while.

Back to Backpacking

May: winter is definitely on it’s way, the soaring days are few and far between, I’ve quit my brewery job, and the hostel is closing up so Greg and Leanne can have a holiday in a few weeks. It’s time to ease myself back into backpacking, but it’s been so long, I’ve had the same bed in the same room, with the same cosy lounge, kitchen and verandah for so long that Bright really feels like home. It’s Saturday, 1st May and I’ve already pushed back my departure date from Wednesday to Friday, then upon hearing today would be a good flying day and that Kieran Schultz was coming down, finally Saturday.

We head up to Mystic, I’ve had 2 runs up this hill committed to thinking they would be my last, but I can’t quite get away. The wind is strong, almost too strong, but that’s fine: it’ll be a slightly more demanding flight than what I’m used to, and I’ll get to practise my reverse-launch technique again. In the air, the ridge-lift is good and I manage to float down towards the paddock then crawl right back over launch a couple of times until, just before an hour’s airtime, I can’t maintain height any longer and finish off what might, again, be my last flight in Bright, taking a moment to sit back and soak in the beauty of the Wandiligong valley from the air one last time. We end up hanging around with Ted and Bret as they take this month’s would-be pilot out to Reeds for their first bit of ground-handling, and it seems like a good idea to get as much practice at my forward launches as possible as they’ve been a bit shakey. Once the wind has died down we get one last sled run from Mystic – this one spent not trying to fly, just sitting back, hands stretched out, taking in every last second of the smooth glide down to the paddock, and then it was done: I was really finished flying in Bright.

Bright is the first place in Australia that’s made me sad to leave as I’ve made a few friends here who I honestly hope I’ll see again, not that I’m forgetting some people from before Bright who I plan to meet up with back in Europe too. So after running round town saying farewell to a few folks, I was really, really, leaving Bright, heading to Kieran’s parents’ place for tea and a night’s sleep. Originally, I was going to try to be in Sydney on Sunday but then opted for an overnight train, getting me there on Monday morning, giving us time to check out a flying site near Gundowring in the Kiewa Valley and Kieran’s local team playing in Albury.

The train to Sydney stopped a lot more often than I expected for an overnight service, but then it wasn’t a sleeper and only one of two trains through that day so I guess it had to. Anyway, 8 sleep-deprived hours later (partly my own fault for now having a laptop with wireless internet) I was back in Sydney, and being familiar with the trains and buses made getting to Bondi a breeze. A couple of days of doing basically nothing followed, and I was pretty much OK with that. With 3 months left in Australia, and 46 days work to knock off before being eligible I was starting to feel a bit more pressure to get a farm job so I idly checked out the government website, noticing a tractor driving job: just the kind of job I’d been wanting all year, seeing as I’m not just lazy but can actually drive a tractor.

Even though the job had only been posted that day, I didn’t fancy my chances as I called the recruitment agency, but they told me to send over a CV so I enthusiastically obliged. Next morning, having heard nothing (I had sent the CV not long before COB though) I called to check up on the job and was told to expect a call from the farmer: great. Daryl, the farmer, called back and checked what experience I had and, although I was lacking in the way of mechanical or welding experience, he seemed happy to take me on.

So here I am, finally blogging in the present, on a train to Moree, having, partly out of hunger, but mainly out of boredom, already eaten a steak pie and roast-pork dinner only 2 ½ hours into an 8 ½ hour journey watching my first taste of new Australian countryside rush past my window for the first time in 3 months. Really this title is a bit misdirecting: if this job works out I’ll have moved from one long-term location to another with only a few days in between where I’ve been ‘backpacking’.

Snowy Mountains, and the demise of planning

Kosciuszko View

With 2 weeks festive rest behind me I was back on the road, this time heading south with a much clearer idea of where I was going. In just over a week the next paragliding licence course would be starting in Bright and there was nowhere I’d rather be then, but for now I had a few days to enjoy the trip down and explore what promised to be some awesome landscape.

My first target was Australia’s highest mountain – Mt Kusciosko – and I was so intent on getting to it that I drove pretty much straight from Sydney, completely bypassing Canberra (I know some people wouldn’t blame me, but surely the capital must be worth a visit), although I almost ended up in the Capital anyway after taking a wrong turn out of Queanbeyan. Before Queanbeyan, I’d had the interesting drive along the edge of Lake George, spending 15 miles of driving looking out across a 5 mile wide plain filled with farmland, looking down at the map at where there clearly was marked a fairly big lake. Turns out it’s pretty rare for it to ever hold any water. Through Cooma, I was soon in Jindabyne, the eastern gateway to the Snowy Mountains, turning onto the Charlotte Pass road for Mt Kusciosko. The drive to Charlotte Pass was a pretty unrelenting ascent towards the clouds, so much so that for a while I seriously hoped the road might ascend in and maybe even through the clouds that shrouded the lofty peaks. That didn’t quite happen though, and when I reached the end of the road at Charlotte Pass at the slightly late-in-the-day-for-a-long-walk-time of 4pm, I embarked on a slightly optimistic 18km return hike to the summit anyway. 5Km and many more photos later, I reached Seaman’s Hut – a bothy built in memory of an American guy who lost his life on the hill – and took a welcome breather from the cool weather. With its slightly buttressed walls and double entrance doors, the bothy felt as though it could withstand a nuclear winter – I chose to use it to shelter from much more mundane conditions for half an hour while I read some of the guest book entries then, resigned to the fact that if I walked any further I’d be doing the return trip in the dark, headed back to the car-park.

Charlotte's Pass

Charlotte’s Pass lays claim to having recorded the lowest temperature in mainland Australia, at something around -20C, and true to that title my night in the car did push the limits of warmth of my duvet. Next morning I headed back through the densest fog I’ve ever tried to drive through to Jindabyne and headed west on the Snowy Mountains Road, stopping in the picturesque mountain village of Thredbo for some photos of the mist burning off the higher slopes. After Thredbo, I had an awesome drive along 40 miles of unrelentingly winding road through the heart of the Alpine National Park to ????, stopping on the way at some viewpoints looking back across the ranges that I tried to conquer yesterday as well as part of the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme – supplying apparently 11% of Australia’s electricity.

Lake Hume

Out of the mountains and into Victoria for the first time, I headed to Tallangatta, a town that literally moved to avoid drowning under the rising waters of Lake Hume, and checked my car in for a road-worthy test the next day. I wasn’t far from Albury-Wodonga so headed round the lake towards the border-town and found a rest area near the lake that seemed like it would be good for the sleeping in that night. The rest area is beside a spit of land that extends for a mile or so out into the lake – a popular spot with fishers and folks who want to go for a swim. Driving along the shore of the spit I learned a few important lessons: the soil is a tad damp and slippy, demonstrated expertly by my car slowly crabbing towards the water; and my car is rear-wheel-drive, demonstrated by my accelerating only making the back of the car edge even closer to the water. For a moment, I thought I was going to have to get someone to drag my car out of the water but I lucked out and decided to keep the car back up in rest area after that.

The next morning I was back in Tallangatta, via a quick run up to the lookout, to get my car through the road-worthy test. And in one cursory glance, the mechanic threw all my plans for January out the window and told me to save the money on the road-worthy test and get rid of the car: it was that bad. 5 minutes of pondering the fact that all my worries about the condition of the car I bought were true gave way to agreeing that the mechanic was right and that the only thing left to do was get rid of it. Figuring that the market for second-hand-not-so-road-worthy cars in Bright wouldn’t be overly buoyant, I put the town – and my dream of flying – on hold for at least a month by heading back to the Hume Highway and dropping Kevin a line to say that later that day, I’d be parking up beside his house in Melbourne.

Back in Sydney

Jump Sydney

My week of sleeping in the boot of my car was over – I was back to a nice bed, regular shower, and good food in the comfort of my auntie and uncle’s house in Sydney. Since I arrived in Perth in August I aimed to be in Sydney for Christmas and, even though I had to skip the east to make it happen, I’d made it and was really happy to be somewhere where I could spend the time with family, and hopefully spend New Year with some of the people I’d met along the way here.

The fortnight surrounding Christmas was pretty laid back: quite a few mornings I’d get up and head to Bondi Beach for a swim before it got too busy then spend the day checking out the city or covering some more of the coastal walks with my auntie. My favourite stretch of the coast was on a walk to the north of Bondi, trecking through quite secluded sections of woodland between alcove beaches, looking out across the bright green waters of the harbour to the CBD. If I had a canoe I’d have happily spent hours out on the water there, and then probably suffered the inevitable dose of sunburn in the evening.

Being in Sydney gave me a chance to meet quite a few members of my family for the first time, in particular one my cousins who has never been back in Scotland since I was born, as well as some more distant relations who all originally hail from Scotland. Originally, some of them were going to be round for Christmas but we ended up having a quiet Christmas, instead having them round for New Year’s Eve. Carrying on a routine I started at uni, after a family Christmas, I caught up with a couple of friends I’d made on the west coast. Jorrel, a Swiss guy I’d met in Kununurra had spent Christmas in the Blue Mountains and was taking the train back into Sydney just in time for New Year so I cut my family dinner a bit short to catch up with him before we caught up with Henrikka at Circular Quay.

Hard to miss

I was a bit late getting away from Bondi though, as a few days earlier I’d ordered a copy of The Art of Paragliding – the recommended reading for novice paragliding pilots – and it arrived literally as I was about to leave. I’d been dreaming of taking up this form of free-flight for months now and receiving the book started to hammer home the fact that I was going to learn to fly soon, very soon..

I didn’t make many plans for New Year, partly as there were far less people around Sydney who I knew than I expected and mainly as I didn’t know enough about what was going on. The botanic gardens, with their panoramic views of the harbour, Opera House, bridge and CBD seemed like the place to be for the night so we headed there fairly quickly as Henrikka heard that the number of people through the gates had hit about 75% of the limit. The queues were long but fast-moving, so by 6 we were sitting on a grassy hill in the middle of the gardens watching the flying foxes flapping around as the sun dipped behind the skyscrapers of the city centre, casting a beautiful warm glow over the park.

At 9 there was a fairly big fireworks display so parents didn’t have to stay till late for their kids, then on each hour, and on the quarters of the last hour before midnight, each of the batteries of fireworks would send up a single burst of firepower, leaving everyone listening in awe to the rumbles of explosions from up and down the river, rumbling like thunder all round the city. Even then, the crowds were so dense that we couldn’t get within about 20m of any of the decent vantage points, so I improvised and climbed what was nearer to a sapling than a tree, that was within a few minutes precariously supporting 3 girls and me. The improvisation didn’t work that well though, as by removing all the people from my view, I’d added a few dozen branches, which were just about as hard to peer through as the people, and not quite as comfortable to hang on to.

Sydney Harbour

As midnight approached, we tried to get a better vantage point for the main salvo and found a strangely quiet spot near Mrs Macquarie’s chair. That said, we were still about a minute too late to bag a spot right up at fence, but we were still close enough to look in awe at the harbour, packed with hundreds of boats, many with people on them enjoying the evening from their own unique bobbing vantage point. The show was obviously great, but, having been to Edinburgh for Hogmanay the year before, didn’t find them truly spectacular, but then I’ve probably seen enough firework displays now that I’d only be really impressed if I ended up with sore ears after the show.

It was great that the city’s public transport network was running so it only took about an hour to get back to Bondi, where the gig on the beach was still going in what looked like a fairly epic fashion – if I’m in Sydney for another New Year then I think I’ll go there instead.

New Year’s day was spent getting packed and ready to head south towards Bright, as well as pouring over The Art of Paragliding, getting ever-more excited at the thought of what I could be learning to do in a week. And so my time in Sydney was up – I still didn’t feel like I saw that much of the city so it’ll probably be worth a revisit some other time, but for now I had bigger plans..

Megalong Valley

Kanangra-Boyd Dawn

After the lack-lustre dawn at Kanangra Walls I headed back through the Jenolan caves and onto Rydal where there was a campsite which offered a much needed shower. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have bothered paying the day-entry rate of $4 and just ran to the showers while I used the free 15 minute parking bays. Once I had paid to get into the site, I figured I may as well get some of my money’s worth and hung around to take some shots of the very low reservoir and to talk to a German guy who was having a slow day at the campsite and taking the time to write some Christmas postcards – I doubt at that time any of them would have arrived on time.

Megalong Valley

I headed through Lithgow for fuel and some food supplies including a massive stir-fry (4 days of noodles and cereal is a pretty good way to build up an appetite for a meaty meal) then on to Blackheath and the Megalong Valley. It was a hot day and the heat seemed to be taking its toll on my car: even the slightest hill was causing the engine temperature to nudge over the point that kicked the fan in to full throttle and drain half the power of the engine, so I wasn’t too happy that the amount of descending into the valley I was doing meant that I was almost certainly going to have to do a very slow crawl back out of shortly after. The valley was beautiful, with a few interesting photo spots, but there didn’t seem to be a lot to do so I made it back out and decided to take a chance on driving to Hargraves lookout

Bow View

The lookout is on the end of a spur-plateau that juts out between the Megalong Valley and some other valley, giving near 360 degree views of both. There’s a stone-walled shelter at the lookout which made cooking in the exposed shot a lot easier, and so I ate my stir fry overlooking the valleys far below, and then watching the sun go down. I couldn’t pass off on the chance of an amazing view of the sunrise over the valleys the next morning so slept in the car at the lookout. I think the night was one of the first that had been clear enough to see the stars so I tried a few long exposures (including my longest to date – 3550 seconds) but the longest exposure showed some bizarre noise/sensor artefacts so that was a bit of a flop. The sunrise was nice, but unlike Kanangra-Boyd National Park there was no mist to burn off so it wasn’t as compelling as hoped.

Blue Mountains Roadtrip

Lake Burragorong Even though I’d been given a driven tour of the route I should take out of Sydney the night before, I still – as expected – somewhere near the CBD didn’t find my way onto Broadway, starting 15 minutes of stopping, reading the map, heading off for a few minutes and repeating until I found myself on the road out to Paramatta. It probably didn’t help that I hadn’t slept a huge amount the night before, combined with a late night packing and getting up at 5.30 so I could slip out of the CBD before it got busy. As with most of my excursions, prior planning was minimal. The idea was to head in the direction of Penrith and on to Katoomba but once I got as far as Penrith – and finally had a rough idea where in the world I was again after taking a fairly obscure route to avoid the freeway tolls – I started getting distracted by signs for tourist attractions to the South that I hadn’t heard of and so I ended up at the Lake Burragorong Dam.

Wombeyan Caves Road Tunnel The dam at Warragamba was, well, a dam, with not a huge amount of water in it – although the info on how it was built was quite interesting – so I headed on fairly quickly and ended up at a lookout a little to the south at Nattai. Now this was more like it: a deep torquoise lake stretching out for miles in 3 directions, mirrored by a clear blue sky and flanked by rocky plateau on all sides. At the Yerranderie end of the lake there were unbelievably intense green patches of either marsh or some sort of algae that looked like a lush paradise at the end of an already beautiful lake hiding under the fairly barren landscape above. By this point I’d run out of distractions to the south of Penrith but had caught my eye on a road which appeared to wind round the southern edge of the Blue Mountains and I felt compelled to check it out even though it was over an hour’s drive in completely the opposite direction to my original ‘plan’ and might not even be that suitable for a normal car (especially one I’d just bought and hadn’t driven enough to trust taking on a fairly remote road).

Hills & Valleys Soon I was in Mittagong trying to work out where to get on to the Wombeyan Caves Road as – in what is fairly usual for my driving experience in Australia – the sign I required seemed to be non-existent. From the map, it looked like I had about 60km of driving along the road till I got to some possible camping areas. It looked a bit winding so I figured 2 hours would be fine, and after the first 20km of sealed and not overly interesting road that was looking like an OK target. Then the road turned to dust and started cutting round the side of steep hills, with nothing but a sheer face on one side and a precarious looking drop on the other. Hardly a kilometre in and I spotted two cars through the trees, lying at various angles, wrecked and abandoned and once again wondered about how smart it was to be on this road. But on I went, way slower as I couldn’t see what was round any of the tight corners and didn’t want to test my brakes on the rough and loose road. Apart from the slight fear of throwing the car off any one of the hundreds of treacherous and un-fenced corners, the drive along the Wombeyan Caves road turned into one of my favourites in Australia so far. As the road climbed up the sides of the hills, each corner opened up an even more spectacular and unique view of the edge of the Blue Mountains and, as the drive was now taking considerably longer than first expected, the sinking sun added yet more beauty to the landscape. Countless stops on countless corners, peaks, lookouts and a tunnel later and I’d arrived at the Wombeyan Caves campground, with just enough time to make some supper and get settled down for my first night sleep in a car. Arriving late did mean there was nobody around to charge me for using the campsite, or the hot shower, and so my week of avoiding paying for the priviledge of sleeping started.