Trippin'

Trippin' is a collection of travel stories written by a young Australian writer. They talk of the humor of living a life on the fringe, the frustration of being down and out, and the stories of all the people he met along the way. The journey speaks to anybody who has experienced life on the road, or shares a thirst for the freedom that comes with spontaniety and transient living.

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3. Blueberry farmers and yellow fever

Occurred - February 2011, Huonville, Tasmania (Australia).

On a first impression an Australian farmer can appear frightfully simplistic, leading a lifestyle that is in complete opposition to the busting city experience you have lived for so many years. At times, their backwardness is almost comical, especially when they dress in their flannelette t-shirts bought from Target for $2.95, sport half full sets of teeth, wear blunt-stone boots and have a deck of cigarettes hanging out of their back pockets. But what we came to realise was that there is often far more to them than meets the eye. What may seem like an honest, Australian man (and husband) bringing in the harvest to support his family can actually turn out to involve much more illegal acts than sprouting a secret marijuana plant.

This was especially true for a blueberry farmer we worked for in Tasmania. Like peeling away the layers of an onion we soon discovered that even the most unsuspecting people hold dark secrets (most of which they usually reveal to fruit pickers they barely know, but rarely to their own wives). It's as if all the years these farmers spend in isolation - surrounded only by cattle, weirdly shaped vegetables and stray travellers from the streets - culminate and cause them to do unforgivable deeds. This specific case is probably no different, until of course you replace the cattle with young migrant workers. This is the story.

Working on Geoff's farm picking blueberries for the summer harvest marked our second solid job in Tasmania. Jake and I had both decided that living and working on a small orchard picking Apricots – even if it was only for 2 weeks – had quickly lost its appeal. We had proved to ourselves that fruit picking probably wasn't our cup of tea, but by deciding to stay at Helen's we made a compromise. In exchange for all the binge drinking and card game disputes between German, French, Swedish, English, Canadian and Chilean backpackers, we would work a couple of 7 hour days and make some money.

Naturally, the money went straight back into hitting the bottle, but because of how chill the job was we didn't seem to care. Somehow, we had managed to find a job that had a shortest amount of hours out of any other fruit picking job in the area. Every morning, we would rise at 8 (after every other poor sod had dragged their arse's onto Helen's mini bus at 6am to pick strawberries) and blast off independently to our own farm.

The farm itself was run by an old Australian couple, with Geoff managing the picking and packaging of the blueberries, and his wife looking after the accounting side of things. Geoff was also the chairman of a larger organisation and controlled trade coming in all over the world. Somehow, everybody in the fruit picking game in Tassie possesses a worrying amount of knowledge on stone-fruits.

The property was hidden in the depths of a thin, dirt track, with two large orchards on the farm and a typical family house in the middle of them. They had a huge basketball court, a clear blue swimming pool, and all the other typical household items you would expect to see. It was like picking fruit at Aunty Cath's, although obviously much better because you got paid.

We burned in on the first day, having just travelled through the mountain peaks and winding streets from our house (tents) at Helen's. The road was called 'Nik Rivulets', and it became pretty infamous for us at the time. It stretched over 40 kilometres, passing through blown-out farms and huge huck turns with no railings. We both realised pretty quickly that if we crashed, nobody would be there to pick up the pieces. Our death would've been nobodies loss – except for the farmer who would have had to scrape our corpses off his pavement – so on this particular morning and the mornings that followed we made up our own rules.

When we arrived we were immediately introduced to the other dozen or so travellers who were working at Geoff's. Most of them were immigrants, hailing from countries like Malaysia and Burma. They all drove old, beaten up Ford Falcons and parked them at strange angles on his lawn. They had definitely been there far too long. On arrival, they would all pull out their one litre drink bottles and enormous feasts for lunch. Jake and I were the only Australians working there, but every so often you would see a Swedish couple or a group of dope smoking Europeans. At that moment it felt so strange to feel so separated, especially because we were meant to be the beer sinkin' Aussies. But in the weeks that followed globalisation revealed its beauty, placing us right in the middle of some traditional Asian festivities and making me understand what it would feel like to dine with my Nana had she been born in Malaysia.

We all stood around in a large, makeshift shed and waited for Geoff to arrive. Both Jake and I had never met him before. We had only exchanged a few words on the phone and accidentally addressed him by the wrong name. Soon enough he pulled into the driveway, churning up a whole heap of dust as he burned up to the shed in his white ute.

He jumped out and greeted us, marking the most Australian introduction to another male that I have ever been a part of. He was short but stock, wore tight fitting stubby shorts, a mediocre blue t-shirt and had a head full of white hair. He looked like an old guitar player from a 70's rock band, but with the hardness of a well seasoned Aussie farmer who could kill anything for a price.

'Ey boys, how are ya?' Geoff said sternly. 'It's so good to have some strong Aussie lads to help out 'round 'ere. I've got me workers that come every year, and boy are they fast, but I need men for me labour.'

'What sort of labour were you thinkin' of?' Jake and I replied hesitantly.

'I need you boys to handle all of that.' Geoff pointed to 3 tons of unstacked wood, around 20 solid steel rods and a dozen scattered concrete bags.

'But when will you need pickers?' Jake said, hoping that the work he had given to us would somehow just go ignored and uncompleted.

'Who knows. I've got a lot of stuff I need youse to do 'round 'ere first.'

What Geoff had just said literally shattered our entire universe. I found it difficult to think that he saw us as strong men, ripped and ready to get to work stackin' wood. Surely he knew we were from the city, and even though we had chosen to pick fruit and follow the harvest trail, we were actually pretty lazy. We disliked work with a passion and disliked anybody who made us complete it against our will.

But we never disliked Geoff. He was a steller dude, even if we had only ever had two conversations with him. He was the archetype of a staunch farmer and the type of Aussie bloke that people travel far and wide to see. We took him at his word, hoping that eventually we would be able to pick blueberries (because of the sheer fact that they were easier), and grabbed a ladder and set out to work. The 3 tons of wood that we staked probably marks some of the toughest work I've done – even if we did pump tunes and take twice as long to complete it than asked to. I definitely haven't felt more like an Australian bloke than I did wielding a pitchfork and sportin' a pair of blunt-stone boots.

On the second day we rocked up, having just blasted through Nik Rivulets for the second time. Initially it took us 25 minutes from start to end, but at the end of the 3 weeks we had it down to 9 minutes. ( This may not seem interesting but this is the kind of shit that amuses you in a place like this.) Every gear change and turn would be another victory as we gradually became less late for work each morning.

On arrival we were met with our second heart to heart with Geoff. It was clear that along with choosing to work on the farm, there were also a heap of added features that were blessed with.

'Now boys,' Geoff said sternly. 'If ya see a snake out there - and believe me there's loads - you gotta come tell me. Now, I can't promise that you'll survive, but if ya tell me fast I can get ya to the hospital. I know a quick route, and I got the number on hand.'

Jake and I were stunned, and I even laughed a little.

'Boys, you gotta remember the grass is long out there, and if ya pickin' some fruit they may sneak up and nip ya. If ya don't tell me YOU WILL DIE.'

This came as a huge blow to both of us. Never had we been in a situation that presented us with an almost 50/50 chance of dying. We were so frightfully stiff when he told us because from the look on his face we knew that he was telling the truth, and not the 'truth'.

Unfortunately Geoff left the farm most days we worked, so we never really knew if we were completely safe. Luckily his wife was usually around. She was a modest, typical country wife. I like to think that she was the type of wife that would bring out jugs of hand squeeze lemonade for her husband, but he would smash them aside and tell her that it wasn't good enough.

As a few days went by we gradually began to learn more about the workers on Geoff's farm. We began taking more frequent 'tea' breaks from our backbreaking wood stacking, not because we were genuinely tired but because we were already getting bored. Eventually, after a day or two more, we started on the blueberries. We were put in competition with a Burmese father and son duo, three Chinese girls, and several lazy European couples. But it was always the Asians that would come back everyday, and usually pick more and work longer than everybody else. A new group of Europeans seemed to rock up everyday. Secretly we both wondered what the deal was. We knew that the work we were doing was far from slave labour, and couldn't understand why Geoff would be so selective in who worked there. Aside from us, the majority of people there were Asian women (except for the one famished Burmese man and his son). The next day, over a quick cup of joe, Geoff opened up to us (at least as much as any Aussie bloke could).

'Yeah, I love me job - I've got this one girl, name's Wuan, who works for me every year. She lives out in China, and calls me every year askin' for work. One time I said we had nuthin, 'n she was in tears. She wanted to pick so bad - so I'll tell ya what I did? I made for her, with me own hands, a little bedroom in me shed. Ya know, just a bed 'n a sink, a toilet 'n all that. She was over the moon. She came and cleaned it everyday. She was just happy in that small space ya know? Happy to be here and pick for me.'

I think this was the defining moment that banded the three of us together, at least for him. He even believed that he had earned our trust so hard that he led us into his own personally distillery. Apparently, on the side of housing Chinese migrants he also brewed booze and sold it at discount prices.

We didn't even hesitate in giving us a bottle of his finest. It was a clean skin bottle of bourbon, personally named 'premium bourbon'. He stuck on the label with one of those old label makers that you used to be able to buy in the '70's. He was stoked on it, hence the self proclaimed title. I think the bottle rolled around in the back of our car for awhile, but eventually we gave it a good home.

On arrival back to Helen's we arrived to find that everybody was green with envy at us. It seemed as if we had acquired the sweetest farm set-up ever. Somehow, we had found the most mellow boss this side of the country, working 6-7 hours a day on a farm where you could eat the biggest blueberries you'd ever seen and receive free booze from your farmer. Every arvo that we would return we would always come home with a hat-full of blueberries and rehearsed lines from Geoff´s stories. One day though, the situation became even more hilarious.

On the day that we had heard of how Geoff had built a little house for his Asian worker, we came home and joked that maybe he plowed her when they were alone. Our Chilean friend Victoria made our dream a reality.

'Oh that guy,' Victoria said, as her eyes lit up. 'Yeah, we know him. Did you know he has a Raspberry farm just down the road as well?'

'Nah we didn't,' I said. 'But he always leaves in the morning so maybe that's where he goes.'

'Yep, for sure. We heard that he has sex with his workers 'cos his wife isn't there. You know, gets hand-jobs and stuff in the sheds.'

This comment was followed by nothing but silence, until of course we all burst out in laughter. Geoff had officially gone from being the archetype of an Aussie farmer to the closest thing representing God this side of Cradoc.

Everyday that we went to the farm from that day onwards everything started to line up even more. It seemed that Geoff was dropping even more outlandish comments with heavier sexual connotations - or who knows, maybe he was always doing it and we just never noticed. And even though it was so obviously morally and legally wrong (considering that he had a wife and a young child) we somehow couldn't hate him. I couldn't really understand how anybody could hate him, especially when he would openly tell somebody he has spent a majority of his harvest days looking up the skirts of his employees. As it stood, Geoff should literally be the only exception to the rule that monogamy is sacred.

After the incident that had occurred at Helen's, we both decided - on a pure whim - to live in the forest. The forest itself was 10 kilometres outside of a small town called Hug, and where we camped was another 1km walk from where we parked the car. As far as we were considered, we were so far from being found that it was beyond a joke. We illegally pitched our tents just down from a huge waterfall so that we were completely out of view. It was truly breathtaking. We camped under these two huge fern bushes, and dug out a square pit for ourselves and a fire. In-between our tents and the fire was an old collapsed tree with, and most nights we would huddle under it and cook our depressingly cheap beans.

I have no idea why we decided to live, voluntarily, like we did, but it seemed as good of a time as any. After all, we weren't totally destitute. We had shelter, food, a stolen pan from Helen's, and several Tupperware containers that may or may not have been left behind when we left. As far as we were concerned, we had never been happier. We spent the nights rationing food and the mornings hiking up to the car for work. Everyday we would actually prey for rain so that work was cancelled, but the only thing that kept drawing us back was Geoff, in all his cheating glory.

On the second last day of picking our two worlds collided. Unfortunately, living in the forest was no match for Helen, especially when she knew exactly where we were working. Somehow, forcing to keep secrets about adultery whilst living illegally in a forest to escape unpaid fees eventually caught up with us.

The day started like any other. We had just hiked up to the car after a heavy night reuniting with our ape heritage. We had spent the night, as per usual, cooking our home-brand baked beans to perfection and talking shit about whatever. It was pitch black, and you couldn't see anything except what was lit up from the fire. At about 11pm or so, after hours of chillin', the fire started to burn out. It was cold, we were hungry, and we had nothing left to talk about. But suddenly Jake broke the silence.

'Dude,' Jake said softly. 'What are those two lights over there?'

'Where? I can't see anything.'

'Turn around, man, over there. Are they like LED lights or something?'

'I dunno man, let's just go to bed - forget about it.'

'Forget about it? Dude, we're in a fucking forest in the middle of nowhere - it's not normal. They're not meant to be there.'

Jake picked up a rock and threw it in the general direction of the luminescent dots. They didn't move, so after I felt a little more confident I also joined in.

'Man,' Jake said again. 'We need to go check that shit out - I'm not sleepin' until I know what it is.'

'No way, man.'

Suddenly, and without even agreeing, I somehow had a club in my hand. We began to shift on over toward the dots, hiking through all the shrubbery and dead trees. We walked slower as we approached the dots, and I got a little scared. For anybody that was potentially viewing the situation from a secluded house, we must have looked complete idiots.

Eventually we reached the dots and prodded them a little. I felt like we were prodding a dead animal, until of course I realised that we actually were complete idiots because we were just prodding two tiny glow worms. Somehow I couldn't help but wish it was a park ranger or a bear that we were forced to slaughter in order to survive.

After the nights events we hiked up to the car. We got in and blasted 'Apeman' by The Kinks the whole way to work. When we rocked onto the farm we were greeted by Geoff, as per usual. We looked at him with star-struck eyes and then went into the shed to fetch a ladder that we had to use to clean a roof. As if it was ritual by now, we saw Geoff discretely leave the farm. But just as we hopped down to take a break we were greeted by the other infamous character of Cradoc. We ran into the shed in the hope that in her stupidity she would search the grounds and leave feeling beaten. But it wasn't to be. She came hurtling through the shed door, as if busting a cocaine lab in full swing.

'Now boys,' Helen said sternly. 'I need mah muh-ney, and I'm gonna get it.'

'Fuck off, no way,' Jake retaliated. 'We saw what you did to that French girl - you robbed her out of hundreds of dollars. You're not getting' us.'

'Fine - I'll just tell Geoff what happened and he'll take it out of your pay.'

'Geoff hates you,' I added. 'You steal all his workers.'

'I'll call the cops.'

'Do it then.'

Helen stormed out and sat in her van for around 30 minutes, making various calls to people. Jake and I both had a laugh and finished our work on the roof. After a short stint of blueberry picking we eventually watched as her mini van chugged down the dirt road and out of sight.

Funnily enough, Jake actually pulled out some figures that proved Helen to be quite the idiot. If you think about all the money required to hold a court case for two young dudes who didn't pay a bit of rent, you'd probably find that It'd be a lot more than the money she would receive. On top of that, as if any cop would actually help her. As scared as I actually was, thinking that we'd get to the ferry and see her standing there, I think we got off scot-free.

When Geoff returned later that day we told him what had happened. Curiously enough, he wasn't as stoked as we thought he would be. Don't get me wrong, you could clearly see that he was satisfied (but he had just come from the raspberry farm so who knows if it was about Helen). But something had changed in him. It was as if he'd realised how much he had told us and was starting to regret it on account of who we knew in the area. He asked how long we would be hanging around for, and sadly we knew that our weeks picking blueberries had come to an end.

The next day became our last. We packed up our tents, hiked to the car, pumped 'Apeman' once more and scored a free shower from a paid camp-site in Hug town.

Our last day of work was not nearly as eventful as the past few weeks, but I think there was an unspoken union between the three of us. We knew how much shit he was hiding, and letting any of it be publicly known would result in divorce and the loss of his business - but we knew that we weren't entirely sweet either. Neither of us actually knew what Helen was capable of, and because we weren't real lawyers (and definitely not adequately versed in farm law) I still had a feeling that at least some bad karma was coming our way.

In any case, we left the state unscathed. We left Tasmania with our heads held high for Geoff. We boarded the ferry, took one last look at an island full of amusement and natural beauty, and set out to tackle Darwin, some 4000 km's away.

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