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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2. The Cradoc Regime

Occurred - January/February 2011, Cradoc (Tasmania, Australia).

I can't truly say that there have been many times in my life that have made me feel as if I was working for 'The Man'. As far as I know, or at least used to know, slavery was a thing of the past – at least in Australia. Never had I walked down the streets of Melbourne and saw a guy pulling a rickshaw, and never had I considered that dictators were still even lurkin' around. But sadly I was wrong, and it took me until travelling to Tasmania to realise it.

The story that I am about to tell will probably mark my one and only encounter with a modern day dictator, and my only experience of living under her rule. I can't imagine that it measured up to all the elements of bloodshed, genocide and extermination of minority races that come with your classic dictatorship, but they were definitely an inspiration. This is because the fruit picking game in Australia can be downright brutal and, just like in a dictatorship, it always involves the most idiotic human being in charge.

In this case, the idiotic human was an obese British woman, and her prison was a travellers hostel in the Tasmanian country. As Jake and I continued our travels around Australia and into Europe months later, we came to understand that the place was actually pretty notorious on the Australian fruit picking trail. Everybody had done their time there, and everybody that we had met had somehow found out about the story of our three week sentence.

But they didn't know the half of it. The shit that this owner copped from a large, and revenge seeking pack of fruit-pickers can only be described through emphatic detail. And despite the fact that everybody who knew the woman would advocate nothing but hate for her, our methods for dealing with it are still up for debate. But, the fact still remains that it was here, in the small town of Cradoc, that hundreds of backpackers felt her wrath – just as it was the same place that she was defeated.

The small town of Cradoc is situated in the south eastern tip of Tasmania, maybe 60 or so kilometres from Hobart. Each year, in around December to February, fruit picking goes off in this area. It is one of the only places in Australia that is shadowed from the harsh summer sun, and is therefore a great environment to grow stone-fruits. Backpackers from all over the world come to Australia every year to follow the harvest trail, but in 2011 the country was hit with every natural disaster under the sun. Floods covered half of Queensland, making it fashionable to ride a tinny down to the local shops, and hurricanes and tsunami warnings were happening every week in Darwin – but that's no surprise.

By default, it seemed, everybody was forced to travel down to Tasmania to work. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that everybody was forced to step foot in Cradoc, and even worse spend their Australia Day in Cygnet – the backwards town with a population of just over 800, half of which were probably related.

Jake and I actually stumbled upon the hostel by chance. We had just cashed our checks from the work we had done in Dunally, and were cruising the streets of Huonville looking for a place to stay. Huonville is the biggest town in the area, even if I did have to hitch a ride out of there at one point because there is no public transport system. We'd already set up some work picking blueberries for a yet another local farmer. His name wasn't actually Geoff, but for the purposes of using a pseudonym - and for the fact that we had decided to call every farmer by that name from now on - this is what I will call him. It basically just started when we called him one day and Jake accidentally addressed him as Geoff, rather than his true name. Curiously enough he didn't seem to mind - he was probably just happy that we made the effort. Needless to say I saw the hostel on the internet and when I stopped to check the address we were only about 800 metres away from it. We cruised on in, took a look around, and met some of the people who seemed to be lurking around.

The place seemed kind of prison-like. Everything, including the camp kitchens, the reception and the dorm rooms were either painted a faded green or a gun-metal grey. It looked miserable - but the strange thing was that it was surrounded by mountains and cherry fields. There was also a large picnic table outside of the camp kitchen that had all kinds of engravings and pictures scratched into it.

On this particular day Jake and I walked past to find three young travellers sitting, bathing in the sun and drinkin' beers. They looked so fucking exhausted and just all 'round beaten that we both weren't sure if we'd accidentally stumbled upon an area of Tassie that nobody was meant to see. Being around all those grey buildings (and these three youths who'd had the life sucked out of them) almost made me want to backtrack the hell outta there. But at that point we were just stoked to meet anyone younger than 40 and older than 15, especially when a few days earlier our best friends were two Tasmanian high-school teens.

The conversation that we had with them ended up just consisting of extreme excitement on our part and prolonged sighs on theirs. We didn't know it at the time, but this was probably as good of a warning as any to not live there – especially considering the copious amount of beers they were sinking to deal with everything. But nevertheless we check in and their reality soon became ours, even though we had no idea what to expect.

On our arrival we were greeted with two complete jokes. The first was the woman who ran the hostel, Helen, and the second was the deposit system. The best way that I can describe this woman is through a rumour we heard spreading around the hostel when we first arrived. It went something like this:

'Yeah, we all think that when the hostel first started she was just one of the pigs eating from those old bathtub troughs (points to old bathtub with a shit load of moss and dirt in it), but eventually she grew strong and slowly turned into a human. She got back legs and everything. Not long after she ate both of the owners and now she runs the hostel.'

Yannick, a German backpacker who told the story, called her 'Mastsau'. Apparently in German it loosely means 'something you feed to the point where it bursts', which is quite fitting, really.

At that moment I got a little angry at myself. Here I was thinking that the woman who served us at the reception was just a humble, slightly obese woman with a strong British accent that sounded as if she had eaten far too many pork pies. As it turned out she was actually a fucking bitch. The appearance of this woman was the epitome of somebody who is comically obese. If you're wondering who buys all the moo-moos in the world, it's Helen. At the time she reminded me a lot of Homer Simpson in the episode where he gets really fat, can't dial buttons on the telephone and has to prod everything with a stick.

But it wasn't this woman’s appearance that caused people to view her as demonic. She could've been ten times as thick with a heart of gold and we would have loved her. But unfortunately that wasn't the case. On our arrival, and on everybody else's arrival to her hostel, you were required to surrender your passport. This was the first step of her deposit system – and an illegal step. She kept them all in a little draw near the snack bar that she had behind her desk.

The second step involved you paying your weekly rent ($70 for camping and $140 for a dorm), a $100 deposit, a $40 finding job fee, and a $20 blanket borrowing fee (of which only $10 was returned). Nobody truly knew what the deposit fee was for, but after staying there for over a week everybody came to realise that it was usually used as blackmail in one way or another. The finding job fee was basically just a guarantee that you would receive work. But this was Helen's job – considering that she lived amongst every local farm – to find work for her tenants. This was her one and only duty, and was the entire point of owning the hostel.

Jake and I never paid any of these fees. At the time we didn't actually have our passports on us – which made sense considering we were still in Australia. But the majority of the hostel was occupied with foreigners so their passports were always seized without fail. Every moment after our first encounter with her we kind of just slipped out of her office with a fake excuse, usually because we never had enough money to pay her - but mainly because we didn't want to.

We discovered pretty quickly that Helen was all 'round stoked with her system. It basically involved every backpacker staying there paying her around $250, with either $70 or $140 each week after that. This was absolutely ridiculous, considering that the fruit work only ever just paid enough for a slab or two a week.

But nobody was blind to it. Everybody's first days of the farm served as a kind of slavery induction that involved them picking strawberries down the road. This was as good of an indication as any that their $250 was not well invested. Jake and I lasted only 4 hours – which was about the same as the oranges only a month before but apparently not as short as some other travellers had lasted. But you could only feel sorry for yourself when you were getting paid $2.50 an hour to pick strawberries with 100 Asian migrants on a barren field. It was the closest I or anyone else there will ever feel to being a slave. The only bonus was that if you didn't give a shit about the work you could eat as many of the strawberries as humanly possible.

So here this woman was feeling pretty satisfied with all aspects of life having every worker pay $250 on the spot, only to cop some shit work as a reward. But clearly she couldn't do it alone. Apparently she had some kind of boyfriend, but I couldn't imagine that he had much say in anything. It looked as if he had only been given two jobs by Helen, and that was to drive the hostel van to the farm every morning at 6am (which cost $5), and air-blow leaves from the car-park. Basically anything that involved effort, really. Whichever way you looked at it, he wasn't very stoked.

Sometimes Derek, or whatever his name might have been, would come lurking in from the shadows and try and sink beers with us. Even though Helen ran a pretty tight ship, she was nowhere to be seen when the sun went down. But Derek would always squeeze onto the wooden table with a fresh six pack, somehow believing that we was going to be there for the long haul - probably just because he wanted to tell some wise cracks and pull a couple of bitches. But his conversation was as repulsive as his drinking habits, and after dropping a few comments about the Adelaide Crows he would usually bust.

Conversations around this table would mostly revolve around torments towards Helen. Someone would always have something to say about her, whether it be stepping out of the shower and seeing Helen standing there with a stop watch, or having a new rumour to spread. But after weeks of slaving, and having drunk ungodly amounts of Red Bitter, most of us had reached breaking point. There's only so long that you can write yourself off, and we had definitely boarded the limit. One night, in particular, our British friend got so obliterated that he vomited red wine and two minute noodles all over the camp kitchen. He flipped the table, trashed everything in the room and screamed 'nup, no work tomorrow!'

But in amongst these drunken experiences there were some pivotal, solely Australian moments. On Australia Day we broke into somebodies property and swam around in their dirty dam for a few hours. But folk down this part of the country aren't always accepting of things like this, even if we thought it was common-place at the time. I can't say that I wasn't a tad paranoid of some dude coming out with a twelve-gage and mouthing obscenities at us until we fled.

But I still don't think this disputes the fact that work and life in general was miserable in this asylum of a place, even if we had formed a strong bond with everyone working there. One day, when Jake and I got back from work, we heard that a few of the English dudes had egged Helen through her the window of the little mini bus she drove around. I knew that this was the start of a rebellion, and I was in stitches when I heard of it. Not only that, but all the cherry pickers had come back after a long day and decided to start a cherry fight in the games room. Aside from the heavy drinking, this was pretty much our other source of entertainment. Cherries were everywhere, smeared all over the walls, the table tennis table, couches, etc. A riot was beginning to form, and this was when Helen truly came into her element. I really think she underestimated the power of a mass, even if half of it was made up of pot smoking Italians that couldn't speak English.

The next day Helen emerged just as everybody was getting fired up for another night of drinking and card playing. She walked into the room, didn't say anything, but wrote a message into the cherry juice that covered the walls. It went like this:

'You guys think this is funny? Wait and see just how funny it is when nobody gets their deposits back.'

That was it, the Queen had spoken. But nobody really gave a shit anyway. Jake and I were told that the $100 deposits had been used as blackmail in the past, so neither us or anybody else expected to get them back – especially when one of the conditions was that you had to show up for work everyday. But that was the first rule in a long list of rules that Helen knew were going to be broken at some point.

Over the next few days everybody started to leave and go their separate ways. They'd all had enough of this woman stealing all their cash and, even if everybody skipped out on paying her anyway, wanted to go somewhere mildly enjoyable. For the previous couple of weeks you could see that everybody was working harder than usual, forming small unions and trying to pull enough money together to buy a blown out Commodore with Tasmanian plates.

Jake and I definitely weren't going to hang around if nobody else was, so we planned an escape. We were about $200 collectively in debt to Helen at this point, but there was no way we were going to pay her. It was as if our hatred of her was heightened by just knowing what she was scheming, and how oblivious some of the people were to it.

Sandy - one of backpackers we had met on our first day - also wanted out, so we told her that we were simply going to say our goodbyes to everybody, pack up our tents, pack the car, and burn out, never to be seen again. She thought it was a pretty rad plan, and agreed there was no time like the present to execute it. After all, Jake and I had started to become fans of leaving people, work and locations spontaneously.

Later that day we went and said our goodbyes to everybody who over the last few weeks had become really close friends to us. It was so ironic that we had met some of most genuine people in such a derelict place. We had all copped so much shit as a group when we could have been somewhere a lot nicer and had actually formed a little bit of a union. But just as we had said our heart-felts and turned around to leave, there stood Helen in all her glory.

'Now luvs,' she said sternly, standing as solid as a brick house, 'I'm gonna get mah mu-ney.'

We were stuck in our tracks and everything fell silent.

'Dude, let's run,' we whispered to each other, 'She can't really chase us.'

In a sea of confusion, I just decided to absolutely leg it. This was probably a bad decision in hindsight, but when in doubt I always just run. Jake and Sandy walked casually.

We walked onto the small block of land where we lived and began unpacking our tents. It was difficult though. We both really had no idea what either person was thinking or doing, so we definitely weren't doing it in record time. There was a weird aura in the air, and somehow I knew that Helen was watching. I stood up and had a look over the fence to where our car was parked - something suspect was definitely going on.

What I saw was Helen in her Ford, actually boxing us in. Our car was parked on this little strip that had ditches on either side. We could only really get out one way, or two if Jake could somehow pull a swift manoeuvre - but Helen had that covered. She had parked her little mini bus at the other exit, boxing us in from both ways. It was clear now that she knew what we were trying to do - leave without paying, basically. She locked both the cars and walked back to the reception, never saying a word.

'Dude,' I said to Jake, 'What are we gonna do? We might just have to pay her.'

'Get in, get in,' Jake yelled, 'Let's go right now!'

I had absolutely no idea what was going on. We definitely had no way of getting out, or so I thought. But somehow the 3 of us just kept on going. We threw in our unpacked tents, piles of clothes, our guitars, and finally ourselves and started the engine. Jake sussed out the slopes of both ditches and all of a sudden swiftly gunned down one, dodging Helens Ford.

And somehow it was that easy. In a situation that we thought was definitely going to end our streak of living the high road and free life, somehow all we had to do was try.

We all fell into laughter as we burned out of Helen's hostel just as fast as we had entered only a few weeks before. This was becoming a new trend for us, but nothing mattered. We had no direction or plans, but running was always better than staying. We passed Cygnet town, taking a last look over the back seat for Helen's mini bus – but it was nowhere in sight. We knew then that there was only one option, and that was to just keep driving.

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