After a taste of Hawaiian paradise, it was time for me to return to Australia and to the farm. I enjoyed an evening with my friends in Melbourne before hopping on the night bus back up to Red Cliffs, where I arrived on the first very hot day I would experience there: it was already 26 degrees by 6am. I’d just missed everyone going to work for the day, so I napped, sorted some laundry and did a food shop before going to lay in the sun. It got to 39 degrees mid-afternoon, so it was lucky I’d already had some exposure in Hawaii or I would have burned very quickly in the harsh Australian sun… I sat outside and caught up with my Mallee friends as they all came home from work in dribs and drabs, and that evening I got ready to get back to work.
My first job was picking peas. In much the same vein as orange picking, the actual job really wasn’t bad at all. We were working on a small patch run by an older local couple who were very relaxed and interested in our lives back at home. They had a lovely old border collie called Scully who kept us company (read: sat on the peas we were trying to pick), and we had music playing between bouts of conversation. It was quite hard work on the back bending down constantly and moving along, so many of us adopted a (no doubt very elegant) ‘bum shuffle’ technique to prevent the aches and pains. The four days I did went quickly, despite the early summer heat – and swampy thunderstorm aftermath on the last day. However, again in the same vein as orange picking, the piece rate we were on was terrible, and I barely earned any money despite picking the most number of buckets on all but one day. We learned this can have ramifications as to whether or not these days of work fully count towards the 88, due to how they’re shown on payslips – so again, look out for hourly work where you can! 46 days down, 42 to go…
Following my pea secondment, it was back to the familiar raisin regime. Early wake-up calls were at least made easier by the lighter, warmer mornings by this time of year – and the journeys to and from work were, as usual, spiced up by bets as to whether or not the old bus would actually start. With a jumpstart here and a push start there, I got through another few weeks of packing (despite the best efforts of the raisin mobile) until work started to become a little unreliable. As it was reaching the end of packing season, we had a couple of weeks where we’d arrive at work to be sent home after only an hour, and a week where we didn’t go to work at all for a few days. With my aim to be finished with farm work by Christmas, this wasn’t a particularly useful state of affairs, and with no other work seemingly available at the Mallee, it was time to look for another opportunity. 67 down, 21 days to go…
That opportunity came up in the form of a Swedish friend of mine I’d met through one of the guys at the Mallee. He was working for another hostel in Red Cliffs (yes, surprisingly there’s more than one in this tiny little place) on an orchard sanitation job: clearing the almond rows of debris ready for harvest to begin in late January. There was a position available thanks to a girl who was leaving mid-way through the job, so I spoke to the manager at Dream Harvest hostel, secured my place, and got ready to leave the Mallee.
I was sad to leave. Although many of my closest friends on the farm had already left (most overtaking me and finishing their 88 days soon after I’d returned from my month away), the gang there had become something of a family as we were all there in the same boat. We’d had another fun bout of social activities, including our Mallee thrift shop party. We each picked a name at random, and had a $10 budget to buy our unwitting recipient the quirkiest, most hideous outfit we could find from a charity shop. The thrift shops of Red Cliffs and Mildura had some absolute gems just waiting to shine – everyone got into the spirit and it yielded a very funny evening in the Mallee shed. Another weekend we went bowling at Sunraysia Tenpin – which after a few beers was also very funny. As the hot weather continued, other weekends were spent by the local Red Cliffs pool with music and BBQ dinners. We often had the place to ourselves, and at $3.70 a time or $10 for 4, it made for good cheap entertainment.
At the beginning of December, after a pretty big and memorable leaving night out with the Mallee gang in Mildura, I headed off to my new digs. The sanitation job took the crew around several of the almond farms in the area, some of which were a couple of hours away from Red Cliffs – so whilst working in these further reaches we were living in a trailer park in a tiny little place on the Murray River called Boundary Bend. We were in two-person cabins which all had a shared kitchen and living area, and although it was fairly basic, I really liked it there. It was a nice change of scene, and being in the middle of nowhere it was so quiet. The sunrises and sunsets were beautiful.
My new job was a welcome change to the monotony of packing raisins. I was on the little sweeper team driving Flory machines: these essentially blow debris out from under the almond rows into the adjacent tracks, to be picked up by the tractors and disposed of. The purpose of this is to clear the rows so the trees can be shaken and nuts harvested in January-February, preventing old nuts and leaves being collected in the harvest lot. I was given a quick induction as to how to operate the machine, and then we were off! On my first day we were finishing off a farm the team had already started, so at the end of the day (after I’d managed to get my machine shield stuck in a tree and wrench the cap off my blower), we cleaned out the machines and drove to the next farm, where we worked for the remainder of that week.
That weekend, we moved from Boundary Bend back to the hostel in Red Cliffs, as the remaining farms were closer and more commutable. We worked 10-13 hour days, but remarkably these went a lot quicker than days half the length in the packing shed – despite the ongoing disagreements between my machine and the almond trees… That week was very hot, with temperatures over 40 degrees, so I was glad of the effective air conditioning in my little machine cabin!
Two weeks into my sweeping career, I hit a hiccup. The last three farms we were due to be covering no longer needed sanitising, so my job came to an abrupt end a week early – with a week to go until I needed to leave for Christmas. That projected third week should have been my final one of farm work, so with my Christmas deadline, to say I was frustrated is a bit of an understatement… A few of the others were in similar positions, so we hunted for other opportunities, but most of us resigned ourselves to having to finish off after Christmas. On the plus side, I had a wonderful group there to get to know on our days off. In contrast to the Mallee Inn where perhaps 95% of us were Brits, at Dream Harvest, my team was a mix of German, Swedish, Korean, Japanese, Brazilian and Canadian, so I really enjoyed getting to know backpackers from different parts of the world. We made some mulled wine and had an arts and crafts session with Christmas approaching, trying to feel a bit festive in the mid-summer heat! Despite the work ending early, I really enjoyed the two weeks I had in the new hostel, and I’m looking forward to attending a festival with the Dream Harvest gang in Melbourne in January.
So with just 3 days to go, I waved goodbye to Red Cliffs and it’s back off to civilisation to meet some very special guests for a Christmas extravaganza…
Until next time,
Number of strangers I’ve spoken to
today since I left the Mallee: 17, including one of the Korean guys on my team who made a name for himself doing something unexpectedly weird every day. One day, he made noodles so spicy that he was sick. No really.
Interaction was: always funny, even though we got used to his ways – we started placing bets on when ‘Ethan hour’ would come on a given day.
One Woman and her Backpack x
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