My girlfriend and I are currently in Australia, exploring this incredible country. Having travelled up the East Coast we landed in Melbourne in mid November 2012. We were on a working holiday visa – for my advice on Aussie Working Holiday Visas, click here. For my pick of orange picking pics, click here.
After a week in Melbourne struggling to get jobs, we decided to radically alter our plans and head to South Australia to go fruit picking. Our decision was made based on our struggle to find immediate jobs in the Victorian capital – the nearest any of us got was one of our friends getting to fundraise for a kid’s charity by dressing up as a clown and shaking buckets in the CBD (no joke). We were short of money and needed guaranteed work; we also were stuck in a crappy hostel in a sketchy part of St Kilda and were somewhat overwhelmed by the big city after the tropical paradises of Cairns, the Whitsundays et al. If we were to do crappy casual jobs for a bit, it might as well be somewhere beautiful where we could live on a boat – the Murray River Queen – and maybe, just maybe, stick it out for the three months required by the Department of Immigration to get our second year visa. We had been told by countless people to get our regional work out the way early to get our second year visa, rather than leaving it to the last minute like most. So it was adios Melbourne and hello South Australian riverland. Our love affair with Melbourne was to come; we were just a few months too early… We were in the middle of nowhere in Waikerie, between Adelaide and Renmark on the old Murray River (a bit dirty but well worth a swim). The place was a pretty but very small community that clearly relied upon orange picking – even the bins around town were shaped like oranges. The work was tough, especially as we were paid by the quantity of oranges picked and not by the hour, making our pay rate well below minimum wage. The heat and the size of the fruit made a huge difference – sweaty 45 degrees and ping pong ball sized oranges meant we would almost struggle to afford cheap pasta for dinner every day. We paid a fair bit for our room – $150 a week each – in the dark and dingy “dungeon” of the boat, which included a lift to and from work each day. (Having said that, we did get left behind on day one!) Such living conditions, coupled with the level of manual labour and strict duration rules enforced by immigration, made this (I hope) the closest I’ll ever come to “doing time”.
Our boss initially was a crazy man called Patrick who was apparently inappropriate with many of the girls. He got sacked before long, after falling out with the even crazier Cambodian Mrs Samm, a remarkable toothy grandmother who was our boss thereafter. She was possibly the hardest working labourer I have ever met and working for her was incredibly tough and humbling. At the same time, not getting killed by her tractor driving was a real skill and it was hard to miss the comparisons between what we were doing in the blinding heat and the plights of slaves in sugar plantations in days gone by (without all the bad stuff, obviously). The torture of crawling in the dirt each day and falling off ten foot ladders feels degrading and far from fun. Branches get caught in your ladder and then ping into your face violently and it would be so easy to lose an eye. Naturally, the heat turns you crazy when you have nothing to think about other than how monotonous the task is and it’s easy to get very negative about life with nothing to distract you. On the days that it was cool, the sprinklers would invariably come on (you’d think our boss would be able to turn them off, but no that would be too easy) and soak us for the rest of the day, ensuring the experience was thoroughly miserable. After a while, iodine from the oranges stains your skin and it feels like you are actually turning into an orange! There was the occasional scandal where they hired too many workers for a while before securing contracts which subsequently fell through. People were literally screaming with outrage, it was quite the pantomime. The nature of your average orange picker (the majority at our working hostel were British or Irish) is not perhaps quite in line with the rest of society. Most were like us and at worst got rather rowdy on days off, but some were pretty scummy. A few days before Christmas there were a couple of very violent incidents over the pettiest of arguments.
When someone eventually got stabbed four days before Christmas, it was left to my girlfriend to press on the wound with her t-shirt until the ambulance finally arrived 45 minutes later. This incident resulted from the management’s unwillingness to prevent rowdy behaviour and discourage consistent excessive drinking and yet we never received an apology for being caught up in it nor an assurance that they would prevent such a situation re-occurring. Being kept up at night just means it is a bad hostel and I can just about put up with that – someone getting stabbed is on a whole other level.Cue police involvement, much hysteria and talk of the boat being shut down. Believe it or not, this was not the scariest time on the boat, either. By Christmas most of the residents on the boat had drunkenly been involved in a couple of mass fights with the locals and there was a lot of talk of them coming on the boat and starting a riot. This never happened in the end but yet again there was no reassurance from the Murray River Queen management of our safety and welfare.
Everything calmed down though (once the owners had evicted everyone involved including the victim) and the longer we stayed there the more brilliant friendships we built up. Christmas on the Murray River Queen was particularly fun and everyone chipped in for a huge roast. Returning to work before dawn on Boxing Day hungover was less fun, it has to be said! Imagine how it feels to wrench yourself up at about 5am on St Stephen’s Day because you have been so screwed over by your hostel that you can’t afford not to work, only to find the hostel member of staff due to drive you is still drunk as he assumed nobody was working without checking. Those of us who were barely surviving having been kept up all night by partying without the hostel doing anything to control noise pollution (despite their promises, even when our ceiling began collapsing from people fighting above us) then had to survive a downright dangerous drive to work. At least we had work – some days we would get up only to find it had been called off and nobody had bothered to inform us. Character building stuff, for sure…
The New Year’s Eve party was equally fantastic as Christmas, and the New Year’s Day 6:30 start equally horrendous. The best day was probably Australia Day on January 26th. We got to witness small town Australia at its best – the whole town celebrating and the entire footie oval transformed into a dancefloor with live bands, funfair rides and food stalls. Superbowl day, when we cooked a massive American feast, also gets an honourable mention. Life on the boat was good when we made it good; although the management got a bit better towards the end, they were clearly there to make money and treat us like cattle, not to look after us. After 89 days of the hardest labour of our lives, we were still unsure that our Visas were legit and it took huge persuading to get the management to sort it out for us. Our boss had once been bankrupt and said if they investigated us she would deny employing us – something we could do sweet FA about since she paid us cash in hand. It turned out her boss had to sign our forms, not her, but despite us paying a stupid amount of money to Harvest Hoppers to sort this sort of thing for us, we pretty much had to do everything ourselves. Work was sometimes non-existent and most of what we had been sold by Harvest Hoppers before arriving on the boat proved to be false. We were fortunate enough to build a good relationship with Mrs Samm and when there was no work, she gave us work chopping down vines for $15 an hour, a far better deal. The work was harder though as we had to keep up with her! The management’s reaction on the boat was to treat us as if we had somehow cheated our way into extra work. We were sneered at by one of the managers for earning more than everyone else and she tried to make us pay extra for the already extortionate rent. It was as if they would do anything in their power to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible during our three month stay on the Murray River Queen. Harvest Hoppers were worse than useless. To have provided no service whatsoever would have been preferential to the endless list of lies we were all given to lure us to the hostel – everything from how much we would pick and pay rates, to how the visa would be sorted, to who we would work for, to the type of people staying on the boat. We were told the boat was “perfect for couples and those looking to save money”. The first day we arrived we were told that anyone not drinking every night would be “hated” and for the duration of the three months there were people at the hostel vandalalising, stealing and fighting whilst the hostel did nothing to take control of the situation. If you could ignore that (easier said than done) and the nauseating smell of the toilets that made me feel sick every time I showered or just walked down our corridor, life on the boat was otherwise pleasant enough. It could get dull and the only trip off the boat we got in the three months was a winery tour that turned out to be not a tour but just a trip to a pub which we couldn’t afford. The scenery was stunning though and to experience the hard labour life of small town South Australia was something totally unique. All in all, it was very tough, both physically and psychologically thanks to the torment of not knowing if it would be all worth it right up until the last day with the visa hassles. But now, looking back, it was definitely worth it. I’m glad I’ve done the experience and when you strive that hard, the good times tend to be really good. I’d recommend it, but don’t underestimate the effect it will have on you mentally and physically.
One thing I did do which proved popular was come up with an Orange Picking Rap during my hours up in the trees in the sweltering South Australian heat. Here it is:
ORANGE PICKING RAP
One bin, two bin, three bin, four bin
I’ve been pickin’ bin, where the f*ck have y’all been
From the bottom of the ladder, to the top of the tree
Getting madder and madder, b*tch what’s in it for me?
Tryin’a remind myself reasons, ladders leanin’ like pisa
It’s the fruit picking season, and I’m here for my visa
Oh well, it ain’t so bad, coulda been worse, we coulda been stabbed
Uh-huh picky picky, pick those oranges quicky quicky
I’ve got cut knees and ripped tees from sh*t trees, hot damn.
It’s 45 degrees, there’s no breeze, I’m melting like cheese, can I go home please? Mrs Sam.
Ain’t nobody gonna stop us
What the f*ck, did someone rob us?
Wait, I spent my last 70 bucks on Harvest Hoppers.