Saturday, 11 January 2014

Bananas, melons and Gold phones - Chapter 16

Our journey from Darwin to Cairns was ridiculously long. Somewhere in the region of 36 hours if I remember correctly. Thankfully the bus had a toilet and air conditioning. We'd been travelling for at least a day when we pulled over in a place called Mt Isa, Queensland. Our driver informed us that in total area this was one of the largest cities in the world. I guess that when you have so much land to play with you can put your city borders anywhere if you wish to break a record.

It was here that disaster struck poor Kev which would ultimately lead to him changing his travel plans completely. We were told that we had a 30 minute break to go to the toilet and get some food. However when we returned to the bus it had been broken into. The thieves had taken Kev's bag which had everything in it. His passport, his money, his camera and anything else that was of any use to him. All that he was left with was a bag of old clothes. This was a travellers worst nightmare.

Kev continued on the journey to Cairns but after a week of partying with us he headed back to Sydney to sort his mess out.

We arrived in Cairns with full intentions of finding work in a bar or a hostel. But the place was so much fun that we ended up partying every night in either the Captain Cook hostel or at a nightclub called "The End of the World". At certain points through the night at the club they would blow a hooter and from that point on drinks were free until the hooter was blown again. This did not work out well for me. I was generally back in bed around 30 minutes after the first hooter was blown. Skinny dipping in a display pool which was located between the hostel and the nightclub was also a favourite pastime. One night we ended up with half of the population of Cairns naked in the pool. Thank god CCTV was not widely available back then.

Life was good but we couldn't continue with this momentum forever. We were either going to burn out or run out of money. For the sake of our sanity we had to get out of the city and head to a more rural location. When I won a trip to Cape Tribulation in a bar game I was afforded the perfect opportunity. In the game 10 people sat in a big rubber boat which was placed in the middle of the bar and then the guy in charge of the game would shout such things as "the last person to bring me a white shoe is out." By the time the game was over I'd beaten my rivals by fetching such items as a pair of knickers, a bra and a tampon (which was thankfully not used).

I was partying so hard that when it came time for my trip to Cape Tribulation I almost missed the Jeep. If I had not been dragged out of bed by my friends there's no way I would have made it there at all. I was still drunk 110 km later when we finally arrived at our lodge.

Cape Tribulation was so named by Captain Cook on June 10th 1770 because of all the problems that he encountered after his ship struck a reef there. As far as I was concerned the name was still appropriate 213 years later as I struggled to get out of bed to reach the place. By the way, Cape Tribulation was a really cool place and well worth the effort to see the beautiful rainforest and white sandy secluded beaches. In case you're ever in the area.

From Cairns, Andy and I (all the others had gone their separate ways) headed to Tully. Tully is famous for being the wettest place in Australia and we only had a tent to live in. This was not the recipe for a happy existence. An average rainfall of 120 inches a year meant that there were an obscene amount of mosquitoes there. Once again this was not the recipe for a happy existence. On a brighter note (sort of) the high rainfall also meant that there were a lot of crops growing in the area. The only reason that we were in Tully was to find a job on the banana plantations.

The way that things worked around there went as follows. Scores of able bodied males turned up at the Tully post office at 6 am and waited for the plantation owners to drive past and point out the ones that they wanted to work for them for the day. I have no clue how but I got chosen on my first day. I wouldn't have minded but I was the only one that actually had a lot of savings left and wasn't really bothered too much about getting a job. I hadn't even packed myself any food to eat for the day.

My employers were a skinny Indian guy and an older lady who I presumed was his mum. Despite my efforts to converse with them from the back of their Toyota Land cruiser they didn't seem to want to speak to me. I wasn't altogether sure if the older lady spoke English at all. They were rambling on to each other in some foreign tongue throughout the whole journey as though I was invisible. I was beginning to feel like an Aboriginal back there.

The drive out to the fields took longer than an hour and he was driving at quite a pace. When we eventually arrived at the plantation I took one look at it and wanted to cry. All I could see for miles around were rows and rows of muddy, water filled trenches and bunches of bananas that were larger than my employer. God only knows how he managed to carry them. But carry them he did, two bunches at a time. There was no way that I would be able to lift one of those bunches I thought to myself, and I was right. When my turn came to prove my worth, the Indian guy chopped a bunch from the tree with one sweeping motion of his machete and I was immediately knocked to the floor as it landed on my shoulder. He wasn't happy, I can tell you.

I was temporarily saved from the humiliation of my pathetic attempt to catch a bunch of bananas by a careless guy on a tractor, who came flying around the corner and smashed into a banana tree. My bosses anger was deflected from me to the new arrival. By the look on my new bosses face he was not impressed by his choice of employees that day. "Ya fuckin idiot George," he shouted, followed by "you're fired!" George, or Crazy George has I had already named him in a split second, didn't seem to acknowledge the fact that he had been fired and continued to drive the tractor.

My boss decided to break his no talking embargo to furnish me with some important knowledge. "If ya take ya shoes off mate you'll pick much better," he advised me. I followed his instruction and I must admit I did feel better for at least four minutes until a humongous rat ran over my bare feet. "It's the snakes ya wanna worry about mate." my boss informed me as he laughed to himself.

He wasn't laughing two hours later though when we  returned to base for breakfast and he realised how far behind his quota he was. "Ya gonna have to speed up mate," he warned me. His mum looked over and nodded in approval of her sons sentence. They sat there and stuffed their faces with all sorts of food while I sat there quietly starving.

Of course, my performance didn't improve after (their) breakfast. By now I was weak with starvation and hardly capable of standing up never mind lugging 85 kg bunches of bananas around. The final straw came when I tried my best to catch a bunch and I was knocked onto my arse and submerged up to my neck in water. My first instinct was to save the bananas, which I did by keeping them way above my head in my outstretched arms. This was apparently not good enough for my dear employer who shouted out "watch out for ma fucking bananas ya prick." And my response was to throw the bunch of bananas at him whilst shouting "fuck your fucking bananas, I quit." With this I walked off with pace and determination but unfortunately without direction or geographical knowledge. It took me the best part of an hour to find my way off the plantation and then the rest of the day to find my way back to the camp site. This was only achieved by hitching a lift with a bunch of hippies in a VW camper van who took great pleasure in the story that I had to tell them. As for Crazy George, he's probably still working there today.

Andy was marginally more successful than I was in the job market. He found a job on day two and lasted for a week. He hated every minute of it though and I was secretly praying that he would pack the job in. He'd complain each evening about how much his back hurt from the picking and I would throw comments at him such as "you don't want to put strain on your back Andy, it'll ruin you for life." After a week of it I like to think that my subliminal coercion paid off and we were ready to move on once more. We'd heard rumours through the travellers grape vine that they were always in need of fruit pickers in a place called Ayr. So that's where we headed.

Andy and I arrived at the Silverlink Camp ground sometime around the mid June and as soon as we entered the camp ground our spirits were immediately raised. Unlike Tully where we were met by sullen rain soaked faces, here the sun was shining and the camp site was brimming with optimism. "You'll have a job in no time lads," we were told by everybody that we encountered. "There's loads of picking here, if you don't like picking peppers then quit and pick pumpkins, if you don't like picking pumpkins then pick melons, it's as simple as that," they informed us. And they were right within a few days both Andy and I had a job on John Rapisada's farm, the biggest melon farm in the Southern Hemisphere.

Our colleagues were a mixture of locals (mainly indigenous guys from the islands around Australia) and backpackers who were predominately from Britain. We were picking rock melons and the fields went on as far as the eye could see. Unlike the grape picking job that I had done in Dareton this was paid on an hourly rate. It had to be like this because of the way that the picking worked. The work itself was not too difficult, especially in comparison to my previous disaster in the banana plantations. The main problem in Ayr was the stifling heat. To combat this we would work only in the morning and have the afternoons off.

A team of men would follow an enormous vehicle down the fields frantically throwing melons on to two booms that stuck out of each side and resembled wings. The booms housed conveyor belts that would transport the melons into a large container on the back of the vehicle. A team of ten men would stand in front of the booms on either side of the vehicle and another ten would stand behind. The team in front would be responsible for picking only the ripe melons which were visible by their slightly orange colouring. The guys behind had more responsibility because they had to pick the melons that the front pickers missed. Behind the rear boom pickers were the two team leaders. It was their job to check for anything that had been missed by both teams and to scold the rear pickers if this happened. Driving the vehicle was John Rapisada, who would sit there in his shades looking omnipotent as he watched over his kingdom. If the team leaders ever missed a ripe melon John would stop the vehicle and raise holy hell. Thankfully I only ever saw this happen twice.

I started off my melon picking career in front of the boom and surprised myself and everybody around me by only getting hit in the head by it once. Once was enough to know that I never wanted to do it again. I only did a few days behind the boom before being relegated back to the front again. The all seeing eye of John Rapisada must have picked up on my picking inadequacies.

Besides our work life, life on the camp site was good. Although Andy and I shared a tiny tent and slept on the hard floor without a matt for two months there were enough facilities around the camp to occupy our minds. The focal point of our camping area was a large outdoor kitchen. This was the place that people generally hung around at night because there were some long picnic benches to sit on and good lighting. There was also an indoor kitchen that we could use if we wanted which was complete with dining room. The highlight of the camp site however was a wonderful outdoor swimming pool and large Jacuzzi which is where we spent most of our afternoons.

Every evening we would drink. Somebody would either drive to the drive through bottle shop and fetch alcohol for us or we would walk into town and carry it back from the supermarket. This always came with a risk though because an extremely rough family of Aboriginals lived on the corner of our street and it was not uncommon for them to ambush people and take their alcohol off them. The problem had become so bad that an Australian news presenter called Hitch (Peter Hitchener) ran a special news feature on them.

Our poison of choice was usually a five litre cask of cheap wine (Coolabah) which we could buy for as little as $5. This came with the added bonus of being able to be used as an inflatable pillow once the wine had been consumed.

On weekends we would all head into the town itself. Here there was only one place that we would ever go. It was called Capones and like many of those out of the way outback places its main function was that of a hotel. Capones was  a large old Victorian structure made of wood, two levels high with an iron cast veranda rail running around its perimeter between the first and the second floor. Downstairs was the bar and upstairs was a disco. I never was quite sure where the hotel rooms though

Andy and I never really bothered with the bar. We'd always drink on the camp site and then head to down Capones completely wasted. This was the only way that we were ever going to dance as frenetically as we always did. Our favourite three songs of the summer being Two princes by The Spin doctors, And then she kissed me by Terrence Trent Derby, and Are you going to go my way? by Lenny Kravitz. Whenever these songs came on we went wild. One night I pulled an Aussie chick in Capones and in our passion we left a trail of clothes all the way from the camp site entrance to the Jacuzzi. It took me several hours to retrieve them all the next morning and the Jacuzzi was a rendered a no go zone until it was cleaned a week later.

On the outskirts of Ayr there was a drive in cinema. I had long been a fan of the concept of a drive in cinema although I had never actually been to one. I'd really wanted to go to one during my stay in America but we didn't have a car. Fortunately on the Silverlink camp site our friend had a car and one night my wishes came true. We went to see the film "Falling Down" which was itself a great movie but we could have watched any old shite and the experience would have been wonderful.

The drive to the cinema that night was amazing. You see, Ayr is surrounded by sugar cane fields and at a certain time each year they set fire to them. The fields were not too far out of our way so our friend detoured slightly and we drove straight through the burning fields. It was a truly remarkable experience to see flames lashing the evening sky as our car raced through a tunnel of heat. Well recommended in case you're ever in the area and happen to have a car.

When the melons ran dry I was offered a job with a bunch of Israelis picking pumpkins. The day started off okay as we were sent into the field with a big pair of shears to cut the pumpkin roots, but halfway through the morning I got the shock of my life. Remember when I told you that I didn't like birds and that even the sight of an emu would probably give me a heart attack? Well this was that moment. As I neared a big bush to chop through a root an enormous emu suddenly popped up from behind it and spun its head round to get a better look at its predator, yours truly. For a moment I thought that it was going to launch an attack at me and I was getting ready to curl up and die. But thankfully the emu was more scared of me than I was of him and he legged it across the field at high speed.

In the afternoon we made 10 massive crates out of plywood to put the pumpkins in. These were then placed on the back of a large flatbed truck which had driven into the field. My role was to clamber into the crates and wait until the pumpkins were thrown up to me by the rest of the gang. I would then try to catch them and level them out as best I could. I was okay for a while but then my arms got weak and I could no longer keep up with the gang. The pumpkins were coming flying over the top of the crate and smashing me in the face, on the head and just about any other body part that you can mention. The problem was, I was trying to dodge the pumpkins so intently that I had no time to tell them to stop throwing. When one of Israelis eventually came to investigate I was practically buried up to my neck in pumpkins and it took them five minutes to dig me out.

After my pumpkin bombardment I decided to take a little break from Ayr so I headed to Magnetic Island for some rest and recuperation. The island lay five miles off the shore from Townsville which was only an hour or so drive from Ayr. It was named Magnetic Island because of all the troubles that Captain Cook had with the ship's compass as he sailed past in 1770. There seemed to be a theme emerging with Captain Cook and his problems. First Cape Tribulation and then Magnetic Island. I had to wonder what other places there may be out there that had been named because of Captain Cook's struggles - Gonorrhoea Beach or Syphilis Cove maybe.

The island itself was nice and a welcome break from the world of work. I met up with a Dutch guy called Danny there and we'd spend the day chilling on the beach and partying by night (no surprises there then). It was Danny who would teach me a little trick that would save me a lot of money and win me a lot of friends. One drunken night we were sat in the camp site kitchen and we got talking about a certain pay phone known as the Gold phone which was ubiquitous throughout Australia. Rumour had it that these phones could be tricked into giving free calls by pushing the follow on button down at the exactly the same time as the receiver. I'd been trying this for months but to no avail. Anyway this particular night Danny informed me that he was a Gold phone free phone call master and he persevered in showing how to do it. It was like a gift from the gods. You've got to remember that this was in the days when a phone call to our parents once a fortnight was our only form of communication. I must admit tricking a phone system was the last thing I expected to learn on a beautiful tropical island.

After Magnetic Island I headed back to the Silverlink camp site for a few days to have one last emotional farewell with Andy. He was heading west to meet up with Daniela and I was heading down the east coast to have some fun. Eventually I would arrive in Melbourne from where I would fly back to New Zealand for a month to meet up with my parents. I could feel that this part of my journey was drawing to a close and it didn't make me feel unhappy. 

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