Category Archives: Working Holiday Life
This is my first blog post back in the United States. Yes, that means my Australian adventure has ended. What I initially intended to be a year or more of work and holiday in Australia concluded after spending a comparatively short 187 days in the country.
In an earlier blog post, I summarized an outline of the itinerary I had conceived for Australia. It was an ambitious plan for sure—my goal was to drive around the whole country and experience all the best that Australia had to offer. Seeing how this trip would be my only working holiday visa in Australia (and in all probability my only visit Down Under), I wanted to make the most of it. With the naïve idea that I’d be able to see everything worth seeing in Australia, I calculated a very thorough travel schedule so that I wouldn’t have to bother coming back to the country. After all, it was a long 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney just to get to Australia. Below is a map of what I originally envisioned for my year+ Down Under:
Needless to say, things didn’t work out very much as planned. Good, equitable work was difficult to find; shady fruit picking contractors swindled me out of a good chunk of my meager earnings; and my campervan experienced breakdown after breakdown. The accumulation of adverse experiences in Australia eventually led me to abandon the working holiday dream altogether. Though fate didn’t seem to be on my side, I don’t regret the journey at all and felt like I learned many invaluable lessons that I couldn’t have learned otherwise. Practically, though, as a major consequence of the essential unpredictability of eking out an existence in a foreign land, my idealized Australian itinerary changed drastically. Here is a summary map of where I actually traveled:
Probably the most noticeable difference between my idealized itinerary and my actual itinerary is the extent of the travels. Though I put over 15,000km on my campervan, I still only covered a fraction of the Australian continent. Major destinations like Queensland’s tropical north and the Outback’s red center were never reached. Travels to Western Australia and the Northern Territory were scrapped from the plan entirely.
Though I am disappointed at not being able to see such remarkable places, I’m not distraught over the lost opportunity. In conversations about my Australian trip, people often remarked that my journey was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. And, while making my plans for Australia, I took that sentiment to heart. I preconceivingly figured that I would never travel to Australia again—that this particular Australian trip would be my only chance to see places of world heritage value like the Great Barrier Reef or the Outback. Thus, I wanted to make sure I uncovered every stone Australia had to offer, so I could forever check the continent off my bucket list.
Abrasive reality—and sheer practicality—saw through my meager attempt to see everything in Australia. It is an impossibility to overturn every stone and leave nothing new to see in a country. Even if someone were to visit every square meter of a place, they would still have more to discover in the nooks and crannies. Such a person would still need to see the same things again, but from a different angle. Such a person would still need to spend more time in the country just to understand how the incessant elements of time and change affect a place. Fully seeing everything a country has to offer as a visitor is an absurd notion indeed.
As it so happened, I left many stones unturned in Australia. Though I wish I could have stayed longer and traveled more, I’m happy to say that I still have many reasons to go back to Australia in the future. Though I have no definite plans to revisit, I can see scenarios of returning soon to my much favored Hobart town for graduate school, or of returning only after many decades have passed as a grey-haired tourist. It’s also quite possible that I may never return to Australia again. But one things for sure: I never want to think of my stay in Australia as only a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.
For compensation at Emperor’s Choice Lychee, I was paid an hourly rate rather than on a piece rate (i.e., payment according to the amount of fruit picked) like I was on the cherry farms. Though the physical tasks of picking lychee and cherries were not dissimilar, the method of compensation made a world of difference in terms of the work environment. I must admit that I enjoyed extremely getting paid a wage, for it guaranteed me a certain level of income no matter the circumstances of harvest. I’ll also add that the method of compensation made the lychee harvest an experience that will be hard to beat, and the cherry harvest an experience to be avoided.
The most immediate difference with getting paid an hourly wage is that the pace of work is quite a bit more stringent. Since my employer was obligated to compensate for every minute of his employees’ time, he needed to run a tight ship in order to keep his labour costs down. Thus, on our first day of work, each new employee got acquainted with the farmer’s employment philosophy; in his own words: “Guys, believe it or not, you’re not here to earn yourselves money. You’re here to make me a profit. And if you can’t do that, then we aren’t going to get along.” The farmer did make good on his promise—he would let go of underperforming workers at any point in the season. Thus, at Emperor’s Choice, you either worked efficiently or you needed to find somewhere else to work.
But it was never our employer’s goal to sack people. Rather, employees were a big investment for the farm since they are the workers who bring in all the fruit during harvest, leading to the farm’s annual profit. The job of harvest was to be done properly and correctly, to maximize yield and minimize fruit damage. At Emperor’s Choice, employing workers directly allowed the farmer maximum control over the performance of each harvester (this in opposition to piece work, where little to no training is given to new employees and workers are typically hired by contractors instead of farmers). As investments of the farmer, new workers were properly trained in all aspects of the harvest, and employee performance was monitored throughout the season. The goal of devoting such training to all variety of harvest tasks is to create a highly-skilled workforce who can achieve high performance with minimal supervision. The farmer also knows that creating a highly trained harvest team and compensating them fairly will lead to greater employee retention from season to season. Thus, a relationship develops between the employee and employer where the employer is more akin to a coach who aids in the development of the workers’ skill. The employee, then, is a player who gives their best performance season after season.
The result of our training and the stringent pace of work at Emperor’s Choice became a picture of efficiency. If you ever found yourself standing around for more than three seconds wondering what to do, you were wasting your time—and also your employer’s money. But this situation was mostly avoided, since us workers knew all the tasks that needed to be done at any given moment. Teamwork was most important in the packing shed, and it was also where our machine-like efficiency shone the brightest. The harvest workforce formed an economy of tasks based on proximity to a job or whoever needed a ‘micro-task’ (a job taking a few seconds, like emptying garbage bins or stacking picking crates) while they were waiting on something else. Thus all manner of tasks—large and small—were accomplished without too much thinking or too much being asked. In the packing shed, workers with more skill and experience were assigned to lead up different processes, but common workers could be switched to a different task at any moment. Thus, workers were coached to have the flexibility and adaptability to fit in any part of the packing process. Since employees were very interchangeable in tasks assigned, it was thus understood that no harvest task was worth more or less than any other task (though I very well hope that some of the experienced veterans were getting paid more than me!).
When we all worked together for lychee harvest, it was quite impressive. Daily, the team of harvesters would pick and process over four metric tonnes of fruit with minimal direction from the farmer. It was a mutually cooperating environment, where we were able to celebrate with each at the end of the season for picking over 88,000 kilograms of lychee together. Being compensated on the hourly rate, there was no cut-throat competition for fruit to boost your own pay during the season. Instead, we created a positive and supportive work environment as we worked towards our communal goal, one in which we were all able to take pride in the farm operation and output.
I greatly enjoyed the change of getting paid an hourly wage. Though the workplace environment was very enjoyable, one of the downsides was that I remained uncertain of my job security throughout the entire season. Though I gave my best effort, I continued to feel uncertain if I was performing well enough to continue to be retained—especially compared to the most proficient harvesters. Such fears were heightened midseason after one worker was terminated for sub-par performance. When your performance is being closely scrutinized for efficiency, you can never be too certain if you might be the next to be let go. In contrast, job security is quite different on a piece rate; as long as you put in some effort, you’ll be retained as an employee—after all, you only get paid for the fruit you actually pick. Thus, if you want a break, go ahead—but you won’t get paid for the time you sit around smoking and eating your sandwiches in the orchard. Working on a piece rate allows one to pick leisurely and with less worry about losing the job.
Though job security is more certain on a piece rate, the biggest downside is that employers don’t respect employees’ time as they would if an hourly wage was used. For labourers on an hourly wage, the employer’s finances are respected by doing their jobs efficiently to reduce the cost of labour. This respect is reciprocated by the employer, because the employer is responsible for compensating employees’ time. An employer can assign employees to menial tasks, but remains aware that he must still fully compensate. On the contrary, the time of piece work labourers can easily be abused by an employer, because such workers are compensated based on fruit picked instead of based on hours worked. For examples of this on the cherry farms, my crew was sometimes assigned to orchard ‘clean up’. We were tasked with going back over trees that had already been picked to collect any fruit that had been missed. We, of course, still got paid by how many cherries we picked—but the problem was that there were hardly any cherries left on the trees. This led to an abysmal sum of money earned after a day’s work. Additionally, on one cherry farm the farmer would add extra tasks to the contract crew’s assignment; for example, we would be permitted only to pick cherries on the tops of the trees or we had to split clusters of cherries into single stems. These additional tasks required more time and reduced the amount of fruit we could pick in a day, though the rate of pay per amount picked remained the same. However, the cherry farmer didn’t have to pay for that extra time expended by the workers. I was informed later that this was done as a strategic decision to reduce labour costs in the packing shed.
Working on a piece rate always has the allure of a big payout if you become an exceptionally proficient fruit worker. As for me, I’d rather have my time respected as a worker and take the hourly rate. This decision isn’t based entirely on economics either, but on the workplace experience as a whole.
“I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
and see what there is to see”
—Jack Johnson in “Breakdown”
The inevitable backpacker van event has occurred to me: The Breakdown. It couldn’t have occurred at a much worse time than it did, late in the evening the day before I was supposed to start a long-awaited harvest gig early the next morning. But then the location was actually quite convenient. I’ve heard tales of backpacker vans melting down in the far remote outback, with no services for hundreds of kilometers. I happened to break down in the middle of suburbia.
This wasn’t the typical garden-variety breakdown either. This was what’s called the “catastrophic breakdown”. Upon inspection by a mechanic, it turns out the timing belt in the engine broke and warped the engine cylinders. Before this happened, I didn’t even know what a timing belt was, let alone its importance in an engine. It turns out, though, that the timing belt is the piece of equipment that keeps the engine’s moving parts in sync. A broken timing belt equals moving engine parts clanging against each other. It also equals a $3,000 charge for replacing the engine.
But when the timing belt snapped and Frank’s engine turned its last, we were quite fortunate to be on the busiest commercial highway along Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Using Frank’s momentum, I managed to steer off the main road into a 7-11 parking lot. There I found myself ‘stranded’. Without my own set of wheels I was limited to where I could walk on foot—or to travel with the extensive bus transit network. Though I was without a vehicle, everything I needed was within walking distance on that main street—coffee shops, grocers, convenience stores, parks, car rentals, hostels, surf shops, furniture outlets, rug stores—and much more. I was even about a kilometer away from the repair shop (though I still needed the tow).
A long-time favorite musician of mine, Jack Johnson, holds a rather romantic notion of breakdowns, singing about taking the opportunity to get out and explore the world on foot instead of in high speed transit. But I’m doubtful Jack Johnson was daydreaming about breaking down in the midst of California-style suburban sprawl. Getting stranded nearly halfway between two of the Sunshine Coast’s major beach cities, the landscape has developed into a suburban dream of strip malls and Aussie big box stores that punctuate endless tracts of brick-fenced single-family homes. Not to mention that the wide, high traffic capacity streets and discontinuous sidewalks make pedestrian touring exceedingly difficult.
Personally, rather than looking at the opportunity for adventure that a breakdown affords (as I was more inclined to do when I was younger and broken down with friends), I more often view breakdowns as a hindrance. True, I’ve been through the stranded-from-car-trouble game a few times before. This resume of mine includes getting stuck in the ditch twice (in two different vehicles), and getting stranded after mechanical failure twice more (in an additional two different vehicles). In fact, on a long road trip I usually anticipate such car trouble to occur—and I’ll feel like I missed out on something if nothing goes wrong on a long trip.
Whether seen as a hindrance or opportunity, the breakdown does have its way of (forcibly) taking you off your own well-planned schedule and creating a new experience for you. Thus, when you face the inevitable breakdowns in life, do you dwell on the costs and inconveniences of the situation? Or do you use it as a path towards something you likely wouldn’t have done otherwise?
As far as Frank breaking down goes, it’s a mixture of both. No longer able to camp in my van while it’s in the repair shop, I had to take the only affordable and available accommodation I could find in a resort community during peak season. Sure my temporary accommodation’s among the lousiest of hostels I’ve ever stayed in, but I’ve gotten to meet many more people than I would have if I stuck to my van. And sure, the section of town I’m staying in now feels like Los Angeles sprawl, but there are many unique local eateries and enterprises hidden amongst the strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. I wouldn’t have noticed these things if I had merely driven through as a passerby. In the end, I’ll get to know a new area of Australia more intimately via foot. Plus, I’ll have walking access to some beautiful surf beaches every day after work.
Listen to “Breakdown” by Jack Johnson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4O7ufx9D_s
Over the course of the cherry season, I harvested on four different farms and worked for three different labour contractors (I was never directly employed by the cherry farmers themselves. Rather, most farmers hire contract crews for the duration of the harvest season. The contractor hires the harvesters and manages their pay, freeing the farmer to only coordinate with the contractors). Thus, I’m not an expert on cherry economics, but I do have an idea of how a few different farms and contractors operate. From my experience, here’s some basic statistical explorations and speculations about “cherry-conomics”:
I was in Orange, New South Wales for the cherry season for 23 days. I only worked for a total of 17 days though, because some days no cherries were ripe, some days it was raining, and some days I just needed a break. Over the course of my tenure, I earned $1,936—that equates to $113.88 per day I worked, or $84.17 per day I was in Orange. For days I did get to work, there was a great range of wages earned—from a low of $35 to a high of $185. A lot of this wage variability depended on the hours worked. Not every day of work was a full day. Some days were short because all the ripe cherries were quickly picked. Other days were cut short when noon rain showers rolled in. Conversely, other days were long because the farmer wanted to finish harvesting a certain variety on that particular day. As a result, on any given day I picked cherries from three to twelve hours.
As far as compensation, I was paid on a piece rate. The Australian agricultural minimum wage is $21 per hour, but employers are also allowed to pay workers on an equivalent piece rate. The piece rate is calculated based on the amount of fruit an average worker can pick in one hour to equal the minimum hourly wage. From the different farms and contractors I worked for, I surmise that the equivalent piece rate is about $1.10 per kilogram of cherries picked. A well-seasoned cherry picker can easily exceed the hourly minimum wage. As a novice, though, I had trouble matching that rate. Some days, when the cherries being harvested were large and plentiful, I could earn upwards of $25 per hour. However, over the course of the whole season, I estimate that I earned an average of $15 to $17 per hour. Though I was disappointed I couldn’t meet the equivalent minimum standard, when compared to the $10 per hour I was making in the States, I was quite happy with the wages.
(As a side note, at the going rate of $1.10 per kilogram, I would have picked an estimated 1,760 kilograms of cherries, or about 3,880 pounds).
That’s how I fared statistically as a worker. The other side of the equation is the profit from the cherries.
From prices I’ve seen in the grocery stores, a kilogram of cherries will sell for about $12 (note that this is for fresh local cherries, not export cherries or process cherries). Of this price, the harvester will get somewhere around 10% of the retail value. The other costs of the cherries include the growing costs, transportation costs, and retail markup, of which I have no idea about costs. But everyone gets a cut on the cost of cherries as they go through the worker to the labour contractor, to the farmer, to the packer, to the distributor, and then finally to the retailer.
However, I was able to learn a little bit about the cut of the cherry price that labour contractors get. I’ll use the example of the farm I worked at where I learned the most. At this particular farm, cherries were harvested in 8-kilogram ‘lugs’. My contractor negotiated with the farm to pick these lugs at a cost of $13.75. Of this $13.75, I was paid $10 to pick the 8-kilogram lug. This equates to $1.25 per kilogram picked (note: at another farm I was only paid $1.00 per kilogram, but since the fruit was larger and easier to pick, I still earned better money). Thus, for every lug of cherries I picked, I earned my contractor $3.75. Since I picked 84 lugs of cherries with this particular contractor, I earned him $315 over 10 days of employment with him. As a worker, I would have liked to earned that extra $3.75 per lug. But, when middlemen take their cut as contractors, the wages payed to workers take a cut.
And finally, one speculation on the cherry business. At this particular farm with the 8-kilogram lugs, an average tree would yield six lugs, or about 48 kilograms of cherries (106 pounds). At an average retail value of $12 per kilogram, each cherry tree would produce around $576 worth of fruit annually. Multiply this amount per tree by the hundreds to thousands of trees in an orchard, and the value of just a few acres of fruit trees becomes obvious.
I like to think of fruit picking as a gold rush of sorts: Boom or Bust.
The promise of a ‘boom’ is the reason a lot of foreign workers (including backpackers) and Australian citizens pick fruit—there is good money to be earned. A good harvest season can be a boon to the workers, as thousands of dollars of fruit can be picked in just a few weeks. The backpackers will use this money to finance an extended holiday, some Australians use the windfall to support a semi-working lifestyle, and other foreign workers will save the money to send back home. So far I’ve heard numerous tales of people picking up to $500 worth of fruit in one day—and over the cherry season I worked with a guy who regularly picked $300 worth of fruit per day.
But the harvest season can also go bust. The picking can be there one day, but then suddenly disappear due to myriad circumstances. Thus, the biggest ‘bust’ with fruit picking is the uncertainty of the labour itself. Frankly, the fruit doesn’t care about whether there are workers ready and waiting to harvest; the fruit ripens at its own pace, and is indifferent to becoming overripe as well. Likewise, the weather doesn’t care about harvest season either. Unfavourable weather can scrap a day of picking even when the fruit is perfectly ripe. Finally, market factors are also at play. If there is no market demand for fruit at the time, the crop will remain unharvested even if all other factors are favourable to harvest. Thus, a worker’s schedule is at the behest of many outside factors, making a regular work schedule somewhat of a fantasy. Willing workers end up waiting around for the fruit to ripen, the weather to clear, or market demand to kick in. But once harvesting conditions become ideal, it literally pays to be there. And if you aren’t ready in that moment, you’ll miss out on the boom.
The locality where I harvested cherries, Orange, New South Wales, was no exception to the fickleness of harvest labour. With a delicate crop like cherries, the old farmers’ nemesis of foul weather wrecked its havoc. Orange had a particularly wet summer harvest season. With too much rain, ripe cherries will swell and split. Additionally, if the cherries stay wet for too long, mold and fungus will attack them (this later problem, I learned, is a big enough concern that it justifies the cost of cherry farmers flying a helicopter just above the tops of the cherry trees in order to blow the excess water off).
With periodic days of steady rain (and a hailstorm) during the harvest season, things were going pretty rough for the Orange cherry farmers. Already I had to switch farms after an isolated hailstorm destroyed that particular crop I was harvesting. Then for a while things were going good, as the cherries were ripe, the weather was clear, and the cherries were in demand. But, 2½ days of heavy drizzle around Christmas time temporarily ceased harvest operations and seemed to spell the end of cherry season in Orange. Fortunately, in spite of the rain (and perhaps with the help of the farmers’ helicopters) it seemed as though the cherries survived. Full-scale harvest operations resumed after the rain for a couple of days, and there were still enough cherries remaining on the trees for two weeks of solid work. Conditions were seeming good once again.
Conditions were good, except that in order for the farm to sell the cherries, there needed to be a willing buyer for the fruit. Thus, one day after picking operations at the farm resumed full scale, the cherry harvest ended once again. The buyer of the cherry farm’s fruit, a cherry packer based in Melbourne, suddenly refused to buy the fruit. After sorting out the split and moldy cherries, the Melbourne packer found that it didn’t get enough quality fruit to make it economical to keep buying from the farm. Thus, as soon as the farm manager got the call from the packer with the news, the farm manager had to go around the orchards telling all the workers to drop immediately everything they were picking. With no buyer for the cherries, there would be no money coming into the farm to pay the workers for any further picking. Thus, cherry season ended a second time, for economic reasons. This occurred in spite of acres of trees left to harvest all containing good fruit mixed with the bad.
But, it turns out cherry season wasn’t over after all. The farm, as expected, did not want all of its fruit to rot on the trees. To recoup operational costs, the farm needed to salvage as much cherries as they could. So the farm negotiated a lower cost of fruit to their packer, and picking operations resumed yet again. The resumption of work was bittersweet news for the pickers. Even though there was work to do again, the lower value of the fruit meant that each worker would now get paid less for the same amount of work as before. But, when the choice comes between low paid work and no work at all, there will always be those who have no choice but to take the lower-paid work.
My experience working the cherry harvest in Orange highlights the biggest downside to this boom-and-bust cycle of fruit harvest labour: the uncertainty. This labour is not a 9 to 5 weekday job. Instead, you have to live your life around the unforeseeable schedule of work. You either end up working all the time for a short while, or you end up with no work to do for days on end. When the picking is there, you have to be able to take it in order to make your living. The fruit won’t wait for you. And even if it did, other people would pick that fruit before you to earn more money for themselves.
For these reasons, harvest labor is well suited to the flexible itinerant backpacker or the handful of professional Aussie fruit pickers who decided the lifestyle worked for them. One can’t place a schedule around the fruit harvest season, nor can one really plan that much around it. And, unless you live in a really rich and diverse agricultural area, work will usually not be year-round. As it happens, such uncertainty of the economic viability of harvest labour makes it very difficult to live traditionally or with much certainty.
In Australia, the bulk of the harvest labor seems to come from individuals who find the nomadic and uncertain agricultural work accommodating to their lifestyle. Yet, I have met many foreign guest workers and Australian residents who have had to pick fruit as their main means of economic survival. As unskilled labor with plenty of easy jobs to get, fruit harvest labour may sometimes be all people have available to them. This situation isn’t limited to Australia either. I’m thinking of all the individuals in the United States alone who do harvest labour for their livelihood. Under such employment circumstances, it’s extremely difficult to build a traditional lifestyle off of the uncertainty—such as challenges of instability from moving around to find work, and supporting a family on variable harvest employment.
One thing I will take away from this experience is a greater sympathy for the basic challenges of individuals who have to do agricultural labour as their economic means of survival. Somehow there has got to be a way to make it easier for such people to live.
My alarm goes off at 4:45 am. I don’t need to get up that early. I just like to be one of the first ones up before the flow of activity starts in earnest. Outside, the land remains dark, but twilight is imminent enough to walk around in the dim light unaided. The first streaks of crimson light have already appeared in the far reaches of the eastern sky. The sun will make its way above the horizon shortly.
I crawl out of my tent into the cool morning air for the start of another day. The cold from the night will linger still for a while longer. A few early risers mill about in the murky dawn. Rows of vans and tents line the fields of this makeshift migrant worker camp at the Orange Agricultural Showgrounds. Life in the backpacker camp is about to begin a new day.
Brushing off the sleepiness from my eyes, I slowly start stirring about, preparing my body for the day ahead. Sore, blistered fingers gingerly make their way down my second-hand button-up work shirt. A quick rinse of the face in the mobile restroom unit washes the remaining sleep out of my eyes.
I make the short walk from my tent to the backpacker kitchen, if the facility even deserves that moniker. The kitchen is located inside an open-air animal barn, the sign labelling the building’s use for ‘dairy goats’ has been temporarily taken down and now lays solemnly against the wall. In place of showground dairy goats, the backpacker’s makeshift kitchen has sprung up. An odd assortment of worn tables and mismatched chairs are scattered around the trampled dirt floor in what can only be described as the unwanted leftovers of a bankrupt thrift store. On the left hand side of the building sits the kitchen area—a row of second-hand refrigerators, a lone sink draining directly to the lawn outside, and a folding table filled with a hodge-podge of small appliances.
I brought my own bowl and spoon for breakfast. Around here, dishes face a grim future. Lying shattered on the floor amidst the cigarette butts, unwashed on a table for days on end, or disappeared without a trace. My morning breakfast consists of a cut-up banana and seven Weet-Bix biscuits with milk (or yogurt, if dumpster-diving in town has proved successful). A hearty breakfast like this has proven to keep me satiated for a full 12-hour day of cherry-picking, provided enough cherries are snacked upon during the day to keep energy levels topped off.
I wash my bowl in the sink and head back to my tent to change into my work boots. Activity at the camp has picked up considerably. Rank-and-file cherry pickers mill about. By now it is well past light enough to pick cherries. Around 5:30 am, the first contingent of workers departs the camp, going silently off to unknown orchards in the countryside. Soon I will follow in my own van to see what type of harvest is in store for the day.
Who knows what goes on during the day in this camp when most people are gone working? Those who spend their days on the Australian harvest trail are not cognizant of such endeavors.
For, harvest work can come all at once, or not at all. Those lucky enough to have work for the day eagerly take the opportunity to earn whatever money they can. Around here, money earned is used to finance an extended period of holiday in Australia. Those for whom work wasn’t available, the whole day remains for enjoyment. Thus, on any given day there is a lot of hanging around in camp. A soccer game may break out in the field. The make-shift will kitchen gradually fill in the afternoon with workers, watching a movie or playing cards.
A day of cherry picking can last only for the morning, or well into the evening. With the amount of work varying day to day based on any combination of the number of workers, amount of ripe cherries, and the weather conditions, the amount of harvest work available is always in flux. In any case, the workers will eventually return to their seasonal camp once more, where evening activities are much more conspicuous than the morning lull. The evening hours sees the camp kitchen full and boisterous. The upwards of 100 people living and working here are unwinding from their days and celebrating the night. Clusters of people are scattered about akin to the furniture. The handful of young Australian pickers sit on a couch drinking beers and alternating practice on a skateboard. A group of young but mature Germans stick quietly to themselves, making and eating their dinner in hushed tones. The French are the most prolific and animated demographic here. They cluster in large groups all over the kitchen area. Soon the French will start their nightly session of Goon Pong. It’s the game of choice at camp, played exactly like beer pong, but the beer being substituted for Goon—Goon being the Australian slang for any form of cheap alcohol. In this case, the Goon of choice is boxed wine, but taken out of the box so that the internal wineskin can be slung around person to person.
All signage put up by the Showgrounds administration, as well-intentioned as it was meant to be, is disregarded by the backpackers. The harvesters roll their own cigarettes and smoke in the kitchen under the no-smoking signs. The butts are discarded on the dirt floor in jest. Dishes are used and left dirty, and half-eaten food litters the tables when the distraction of drinking games becomes too much. Activity will continue long after the posted hours of 10pm, unless the neighbors across the street call management to shut things down
The camp kitchen at night is not the place for me. I make an easy dinner with the limited utensils and eat it among some even-tempered fellow harvesters I have meet during my time here. We relax, we talk smack, but under no circumstances do we talk about cherries. After a while of hanging out, it has come time for me to leave.
As I walk back to my spot on the edge of camp in the mottled lamplit dusk, cheers from the Goon Pong game erupt. Another game has just ended in an apparently spectacular fashion. I settle into my tent between 9 and 10 pm, tired from the day and in anticipation of better cherry picking the next morning. As I get comfortable under my blankets, I pull out my book to read. I’ll be dozing off in a matter of pages. Clamorous uproars continue to emanate from the camp kitchen, fading out of cognition as sleep encroaches upon my mind. The cool air of night begins to settle over the Showgrounds.
Having left the luxuries of the big city and the comforts of a hostel bed, I have moved on into the Australian countryside in order to earn my pay to extend my stay. And I live in a van… (sorry, but it’s not down by the river).
The campervan culture is very conspicuous in rural Australia, as all the foreign workers (that is, the working holiday makers) flock to agricultural towns in anticipation of the fruitful harvest season.
I bought my van and have joined the ranks of itinerant fruit pickers. Just wanted to introduce everyone who is curious to my new digs.
This is Frank the campervan. He’s a 1997 Mitsubishi Starwagon. At that age, he’s developed quite a number of quirks, but the most important thing is that he’s reliable and a hard worker…sort of like me!
Here’s a look at my gourmet kitchen. Built-in sink, mini fridge, lots of storage…
Here’s my grand banquet dining room and home office…
Here’s the master bedroom. The table folds down and converts to a bed at night. Comfy.
And finally, here’s what I look like driving the van. Australian driving is a daily feat of pure determination!