Reader. Hello. Thank you for still being here. It’s been a while, once again. If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you may recall that in April I went off on a mission to find that elusive 88 days of farmwork which would grant me a second year of working and travelling in Australia. Believe me when I say it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be! I am writing now from the cute little public library in the rural town of Tanunda in the Barossa Valley, wine country of South Australia, about 70 kilometres north of Adelaide, where I’m working in a factory and about halfway through my days. It’s going OK, but this was my second attempt at farmwork. The first one didn’t go so well and I ended up running away pretty quickly…
I said goodbye to Brisbane at the beginning of April, heading off on a short trip to see a bit more of the country. I spent a few days in Melbourne, picked a cold and stormy week to do the Great Ocean Road, and ended up in Adelaide, where I started trawling job ads, envisaging a nice little gig in a vineyard perhaps. It seemed that I’d chosen a bad time of year, in between seasons, and I just couldn’t find anything. I was eventually offered work picking cherry tomatoes in Bundaberg in North Queensland, so I packed up and headed back to Brisbane en route. A bit of Googling and posting in Facebook groups however revealed that the job that I was on my way to was a scam, and so I was back to square one. During yet another afternoon of searching online, I find a promising-looking advert from a working hostel in Wentworth, down on the New South Wales and Victoria border. They’re looking for girls over 23 years of age to work in packing sheds, on an hourly-paid basis. The owner answers the telephone quickly when I call and tells me that the work is hard but it is there, and that I can just let her know the day before I plan to arrive and she’ll come and pick me up from the airport. There’s plenty of other work going in the meantime should I have to wait to get into the sheds, she reassures me. I hang up and work out how I’m going to get there. Alarm bells ring a little when I realise that the local airport is Mildura, a name I’ve seen used in many warnings about farmwork online. But she sounded so sure and I’m basically desperate, so I book my flight and let her know I’m coming.
Disembarking in Mildura, I’m definitely not in the big city anymore. The arrival hall is reminiscent of many of the airports I went through in Asia; one conveyor belt and glass doors leading straight out to the road out front. My bag comes through quickly and I ring the motel as instructed; no answer. I head outside to see what happens and soon a ute pulls up and a guy with a British accent jumps out and starts approaching people. “Wentworth?” I hear him ask, and a couple of girls step forward and go with him. I spring up and make sure I’m not forgotten, and soon I’m squeezed in the back with two Irish ladies. S, one of the owners, is driving, and the guy is P, a backpacker like us we later find out.
After some initial chat with them, and a somewhat staged-sounding conversation between S and P about how he is about to start a great hourly-paid job picking zucchinis, S announces that she is off on holiday to Bali for two weeks, and jumps out at Mildura station. P takes over the driving, and we start grilling him on how things really are. He tells us that we’ve come at a good time, there is about to be lots of work, and we just need to keep our heads down and work hard. It’s a fairly short drive on to Wentworth. We pass farms and rows of fruit and veggies and I wonder
what we’ll end up doing.
On arrival we head to Reception, where V, the other owner, appears to not have a clue what’s going on: “I thought we were supposed to pick you up from the airport?”. It takes a while, but she eventually manages to get us checked in. There’s probably no work tomorrow, but she tells us to keep coming to see her so she “gets to know us”. I assume what this actually means is that she has no system for keeping track of who arrived when and is doing what and is next in line for work, so essentially we have to make sure we’re not being forgotten. I’ll soon discover that this initial assumption was correct!
The next day I go searching for something to fill my time until this work appears. Drinking and smoking seem to be the main hobbies for many of the other backpackers here. There’s not much to do. I go for a walk through the town to the river junction; Wentworth’s claim to fame is that it’s the meeting point of the Murray and Darling rivers. There’s barely a soul about and I feel like anyone who drives past stares at me a little. There’s one other guy wandering around and I wait until he has left to climb the little lookout. The river area is pretty. I hear a bunch of kookaburras laughing, and a couple of ducks waddle out of the water to say hello. The far bank, the other side of the Murray, is Victoria. It’s hot when the sun comes out and cold when it slips behind the clouds; good fruit-picking weather I suppose, better than up north in Bundaberg. We go and see V that evening; she seems to vaguely know who we are and says we can do pea-picking the day after next, reassuring us that we’ll be on the list for the packing jobs that should be coming up once the citrus harvest has begun next week.
By the time pea day rolls around I am desperate for something to do, and happy to be finally starting on my 88 days. The pay isn’t great – $7.50 per bucket picked – but it’s going to fill the time until the hourly-paid jobs appear, and I resolve to be a fast worker! One of the other backpackers drives us over the state border and into the infamous Mildura, where the farm is located. It’s a cold morning and the peas are wet with dew when we start; my fingers freeze as I run them over the pods, even through the gloves that they give us. The farmers are nice enough – they give us coffee and cake at “smoko” (Australian for “break”) – but the peas are bad and it takes me a long time to fill the bucket. By the end of the day I’ve managed to do four – that’s about $25 for a day’s work after tax. I can’t even cover my rent with that.
That evening V tells us that we are due at the farm again tomorrow, and then in the afternoon we’ll be back here for the induction for the citrus picking that will start next week, with good piece rates and up to 6 days of work per week. We can do that until we can get in the packing sheds, she says. When I check online later I see that the hostel is advertising again, this time for citrus pickers, even though, I calculate in my head, there are enough of us already here waiting for regular work to fill the available slots. I finally realise what they are up to; they advertise whatever jobs they have coming up, even though they will be taken by current backpackers, just to get people to the hostel. I’m annoyed at myself for not working it out earlier, but I tell myself that I am here now and I’ll in line for a citrus job so I may as well stick with it rather than leave and end up at the bottom of the list somewhere else.
I manage five and a half buckets of peas the next day, and then the work dries up. It’s Thursday. V tells me that the citrus will start next Tuesday. I express concern about getting my 88 days done in the time that I have left on my visa and she reassures me that I have plenty of time and I’ll get them done easily. Over the next few days, the start date for the oranges slips back to Thursday. My roommates decide to give up on farmwork and re-locate to Brisbane to find work. My gut starts to tell me that it might be time for me to take the risk of going elsewhere too. When I was in Adelaide I had briefly spoken to the manager of a working hostel in the Barossa Valley (spoiler at the start of the post!). I look it up online and find only positive recent reviews. I call again and ask probing questions about the work available, which he answers without hesitation, and I tell him I’ll get back to him (while I try to decide if he is bullshitting). By Wednesday night, we still don’t know what time we are supposed to be starting the citrus-picking the next morning, and V is nowhere to be seen. We mill about outside our rooms, the mood becoming more sour as I think we all realise what’s probably coming. When V re-appears, it’s to tell us that she’s had a telephone call just now to say that the citrus has been delayed by two or three weeks due to the “wrong type of frost.” She is “so disappointed”, she tells us. One backpacker goes to his room, packs his stuff, and jumps in the van taking my roommates to Mildura to get out of here. Everyone is pissed off. I go to see V and she tells me that there will still be packing shed jobs coming up but she can’t give one to me: “you haven’t worked yet, and I need to see what you are like out in the field.” This woman has no idea who I am; she has no recollection of the fact she’s just sent me for two days of pea-picking. The next day I book an early-morning bus from Mildura to Elizabeth, just north of Adelaide, call the Barossa Valley hostel to book my bed, and leave, dropping my room key in the office on the way. I’ve lost my $100 deposit and the rest of that week’s rent, but I just need to be out of there. She doesn’t even try to stop me.
Almost two months later, I definitely made the right decision. I’m working in a factory, in an hourly-paid job (packing is nowhere near as hard as S and V made it out to be!), and the hostel staff actually know who we are. I’m cold, tired, and ready to get out of here, but I am getting my time done. The first hostel are still advertising for workers periodically. I believe the citrus-picking did eventually start. But I wasted two and a half weeks there when I could have been over here getting started properly on my days. I wish I could give some advice on how to avoid scams and liars amongst the working hostels, but the truth is that it is just so difficult to know who to trust. Other than reading reviews online, there is no real way to work it out until you’re there. Give yourself plenty of time to get your days done, have money stashed somewhere in case you need to move on, and ask lots of questions on the many Facebook groups for backpackers before committing to something.
Next up in the Bumblefuck Chronicles…wine-tasting, manky onions, and how I think my brain is dribbling out of my ears…
PS. “Bumblefuck” is an affectionate English term for the middle of nowhere. No offence meant to anyone!