48 Days Later…

I’ve made it. It’s done, over, complete and signed off. 7 weeks of living and working in almost complete isolation, bar the company of a boss who I only ever looked forward to separation from, has paid off, and now I’m hopefully in with a pretty good chance of getting a second year in Australia. I didn’t exactly leave the blog on an optimistic note when I last wrote about my new job, and looking back and remembering that even in the first week I’d realised I was going to hate working for my boss, I’m surprised that I was still working for him a week ago. Luckily most of the time I’ve spent on the farm has been tractor driving, and now that I’ve planted probably 5000 of the 7000 acres of fields on the farm I have a much better appreciation for just how big 7000 acres is.

Although I spent most of the last 7 weeks wishing time would go at least twice as fast, or really wishing that as a working-holiday-maker I didn’t have to work for the worst boss ever to gain eligibility for a second year’s visa, I like to think I can leave the disrespect and demoralisation in the past and take a few positives with me. For a start, right up till the last week, I constantly doubted whether I’d make it to the end or just give in, leaving me desperately scrambling for yet more farm work in the last month of my ‘holiday’. I’d realised just how good all my other jobs have been, whether stuck behind a computer screen, out in a field wrapping vines, or in a brewery sipping (and serving) the finely crafted ales, I’ve never been treated like an idiot who’s incapable of learning or at least following simple orders. So I’ve resolved to consider very carefully whether a job is worth doing if the working conditions are anything like those of my last job, and hopefully I’ll be able to either question the attitudes of the boss, or tell him where to stick his attitude in future. Hopefully I’ll never again be so desperate to hold on to a job that I feel it too risky to call into question the boss’s attitude. Luckily I had the dream of coming back to Australia to live a fairly idealistic lifestyle, mainly based around paragliding, to keep me going – if I’d been doing the job purely for the money I’m sure I’d have been out by the end of the first week.

Anyway, now I’m in Brisbane, easing myself back into being a backpacker, although arriving in the 3rd largest city in Australia after living in basically complete social isolation for 7 weeks does feel like a bit of social-slap-in-the-face. Apart from being my first stop in my 7th state – Queensland – it’s the first time I’ve slept in a dorm of more than 10 people, currently I’m holed out in a monster 30-bed dorm. It’s not all that bad, and I think having lucked out on getting a bed in the corner of the room has helped make it feel like I have some amount of personal space left. It’s taken 10 months for me to meet some friends from back home, finally catching up with Vicky a few days ago, it was pretty cool to be walking through a city on the far side of the world but with the banter of back home.

Brisbane’s quite a neat little city, even if it does apparently have a really good public transport network, the CBD is so compact it’s easy to walk around and it only takes me 10 minutes to get from the hostel to the city centre. I’m not sure whether to label it as ‘just another city’ though – when I arrived, everyone I spoke to was totally underwhelmed by the place, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from: there isn’t a huge amount to do. There’s plenty of stuff around the city though, national parks, the Gold and Sunshine coasts, and the islands around Moreton Bay – the closest bit of coastline to the city. I was going to check out Stradbroke Island today, to get my first fix of idyllic sandy beaches, but this morning the Aussie winter had just enough bite to sway me away from that plan, so here I am back in the hostel milking the free internet for another afternoon. Talking of that, the Brisbane City Backpackers is the first hostel I’ve been to in Australia that has free internet access, both PCs and wifi, so it’s not surprising the lounge is constantly looks like a geek-convention. Anyway, hopefully I’ll have something more exciting to say about being a backpacker again next update, and maybe I’ll be a bit closer to Cairns too..

Getting Stuck into Bright

With the 9-day licence course completed, I was at a bit of a loose end. Having spent almost every day last week flying, I’d now to make do with the more typical forecast of intermittent days of flying, giving me, initially, time to rest and reflect on what I’d accomplished in the last week, as well as time to think about how long I wanted to stay in Bright. Now half-way through my year in Australia, but having clocked up less than a third of the days of work I needed to do to be eligible for a second year visa, I had to start thinking about doing farm work again, so I took a cycle up the Wandiligong Valley one morning in search of the Nightingale Brothers’ farm.

Nightingales’ is the biggest farm in the area, with an expanse of apples (I think it’s the biggest orchard in – as is the usual kicker with Australian records – the southern hemisphere) and chestnuts, luring in hundreds of backpackers – in particular, curiously, Koreans – months ahead of season. It seems that, with such high demand for their employment, the Nightingale brothers could do this really annoying thing where every time I turned up at the farm asking for work, they would tell me to come back in two weeks. Leanne and Greg, owners of Bright Hikers, are some of the kindest people I’ve met, so nice that they let me borrow their 4×4 for a day to have a better stab at job hunting so, after enjoying a week spent mostly in the hammock on the verandah, and occasionally flying, I drove to Nightingales for one last time then tried some farms on the Great Alpine Road towards Eurobin. After the usual dismissive, devoid of all interest, response from the apple farm, I was happy to be finally at least being asked for my name and number by Boynton’s Winery and the Bright Berry Farm, amongst others. None of them seemed optimistic about the opportunity of work, but at least they were more sincere about it, and they had my number. In fact by the time I’d got back to Bright I had a message from the berry farm saying they had a position for me, starting next morning.

Back at the hostel, Leanne told me she’d heard the Bright Brewery might be looking for bar staff so I had a look down. Having never worked in a bar, I didn’t fancy my chances for the job – it couldn’t be that hard, surely – but it looked like an OK place and I’d met two of the guys who worked there last week so knew I’d be working with cool folks. It turned out they were interested enough, so I was back an hour later after hunting down a pad of paper from the supermarket and scrawling down what vaguely resembled a C.V. in my typically poor attempt at neat handwriting. C.V. handed in, I was asked to hang around for a couple of hours as they were training Danny who hadn’t yet done a shift, so it made sense to get me done at the same time, and at that point, I guess I’d secured my second job in a day.

What followed were a few seriously busy weeks, where I’d do at least two of the three: vine maintenance, working at the brewery, and flying, each day, typically up at 6, cycling 13km to the berry farm for start at sunrise, getting home about 3, then either floating around in the smooth late afternoon air á la paraglider, or putting in a few hours at the brewery. It was a good time, even though it made every second of sleep count, being up to see the sun rise and set, cycling 15 miles a day, doing at least one job I really liked (brewery) and one that was OK, still getting time to fly, and all in Bright. I didn’t care that I was slowly wasting away the time I had left to explore the rest of Australia, I was earning money, getting to know people – better than you get to the know them when you’re touring round the coast – and generally settling into life in the alpine region.

As the weeks went by, things only got busier, with me adding two unofficial jobs to my workload so I was – aside from a bartender and vine maintainer – supplying photography to the paragliding school, and tending to the IT needs of the hostel, which doubled up as an internet café. Life couldn’t get much better, I was using just about all my skills to tie down paying jobs, as well as work that paid the kind of perks that made living, and playing, in Bright very affordable for me, and soon jokes were being made – cautiously – about when I would really leave the sleepy little town…

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’.