Living in a Marsupial World
 
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How things went down. Photograph courtesy of benandmarsupials.
We have looked forward to writing this post if only to use the words “Bamboozled” and “Hoodwinked” in a sentence, as there’s really no other way to describe what transpired.

In Adelaide, desperate for work, we called Australia’s toll-free Harvest Hotline to see if anything was available in the farming industry. We had dialed the hotline for work in previous locations around Australia to no avail, but on this particular day we were in luck, or so we thought. Northeast of Adelaide, farmers were looking for both orange pickers and potato harvesters immediately. Score. 

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With our extensive experience in veggie harvesting in the Northern Territory, we determined that any harvest job where we didn’t have to bend over all day would be beneficial. Oranges thus seemed the most logical choice as they grow in trees and from what we had heard from other backpackers, it’s always better to get farm work where you’re reaching up instead of straining your back. We called the number the hotline had given us and were elated when we found that the farm wanted us to start immediately the following morning. As two people on the verge of broke, this news was fantastic.

We drove for just over two hours to the little town of Waikerie (rhymes with bakery), South Australia’s citrus capital in the Murray Riverlands. Perched above the mighty Murray River, this town was little more than a few cafes, a gas station, and a grocery store in the middle of thousands of acres of orange trees. It was grey and rainy when we arrived, and had we known better we would’ve cut and run to the potato farm as soon as we took note of the weather. After arriving at the address given to us over the phone, we were informed that we couldn’t pick on that first day as oranges can’t be picked when they’re wet (the rind becomes too soft and bruises easily). 


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Our new supervisor, Matthew, told us he would keep us all updated on the field conditions and let us know when it was dry enough to start. After speaking to a few locals in town who told us, “It never rains in Waikerie,” we checked in to the cheapest caravan park in town for the week, hopeful that the sun would come out shortly. This was also after putting down a $200 deposit on our picking bags – basically canvas marsupial pouches to collect the oranges. As we’re writing this, we’re cringing a bit and trying to will time backwards to stop our past selves from staying. You’ll see why…


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The sun did not come out. The rain did not go away. At least for the first three days that is. Every morning we woke up, hoping to get a message telling us we could work, and every morning it was still too wet and we were closer and closer to broke, stuck at a crappy caravan park riddled with mosquitoes and hours away from any form of amusement. On the fourth day, when god created ticks, lowly invertebrates, and Glenn Beck’s amoebic ancestor, the sun finally came out and tricked us into sticking out the most dehumanizing week and a half of our lives. We might be getting a bit dramatic, but let us continue.


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On our first day of picking we were initiated into the industry with 40 C (105+ F) degree heat. We strapped our pouches to our chests and dove, head first, into snail infested, thorn-riddled orange trees. Our goal, as described by Matthew, was to clear all the trees in our row of all fruit. To give you a better idea of the size of this endeavor, a row is about two-three city blocks in length and the trees are packed tightly next to each other, often with thick groups of branches tangled between one another. Trees on average are 10-15ft tall, so cumbersome metal ladders are required to reach oranges at the top of each tree. More often than not, many oranges are not reachable from the ground or by ladder, so we had to crawl under the thick foliage and up the center of the trunk, utilizing our climbing skills to reach the tricky ones, sometimes with a bag of oranges still strapped to us and often crunching slimy, innocent snail folk.


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Each time we filled our pouch with 10 lbs of oranges we emptied them into Jacuzzi-sized plastic bins. For each bin filled to the brim, we, as a pair, received $25. We were told that working as a pair, filling a bin should take us 45 minutes, but that we weren’t expected to do it that quickly in our first few days. Our first day, it took us two hours per bin as a pair, and by the afternoon when they told us to quit because it was too hot and they were concerned about workers getting heat stroke, we had filled 3 bins. We had each made $37.50 for six hours of labor.

The experience was certainly one of the best workouts of our lives and we really do like to work outside. Being paid by the bin, however, seemed criminal, especially at that rate and without any hourly stipend or accommodation offered. Obviously this is probably the standard in the orange industry, so it was quite the eye opener for us on the reality of migrant orange picking work. For anyone who disapproves of immigrants taking on work such as this, I seriously recommend you live in their shoes for a bit. 


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We kept at it for the next few days, improving our time and number of bins little by little, working a few 10-11 hour days. It did cool off slightly and we were fortunate to have quite a few days that were overcast and it made quite a difference. Then in this little town where it never rains, the rain came again, this time with a vengeance. We ate dinner in our car during the first wave - canned spaghetti, pretty bleak. The lightning was constant and very intense and the rain came down in sheets. At least it was cleaning some nasty bug death off our car. When there was a break in the weather we made a break for the showers, as we were still pretty disgusting from working in the field.

Halfway through our showers a lightning bolt hit the caravan park bathroom blocks and knocked out the power in the little concrete buildings. Imagine being alone in the dark in a little concrete shower stall, covered in soap, with only the occasional flash of white light illuminating the room. Creepy as hell. Your imagination practically solidifies the maniac with the kitchen knife right just on the other side of the door. After finishing our showers as best we could in those conditions, we were then trapped by the lightning and river of water pouring down between us and our tent, which, by all accounts should have been flooded or destroyed since our poles were held together with duct tape. When we finally made a dash for it, we found our tent miraculously dry on the inside, despite a slow leak forming at the seams in the roof of the fly. Way to go little $30 pawnshop tent. 

Throughout the night we staved off the leak with a camp towel and didn’t get much sleep. It poured all night long – 10 cm or 4 inches of rain fell in this one sitting. When we drove into town the next day, parks and orchards were flooded, one athletic field had even turned into a large lake complete with ducks. No one in this town had seen rain like this in their lifetime. One farmer said that he wouldn’t have to worry about water for his orchard for the next four to five years. Needless to say, we weren’t picking oranges that day.

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The caravan park where we were staying was the other part of our dreary situation. There was a reason Sunlands Caravan Park was the cheaper of the two in town, located behind a gas station with about 15 spots for caravans and tents. As we gradually discovered, this place was one health code violation after another. In every caravan park we’ve been to, in addition to the pass-through backpackers and weekend retirees, there is always a contingent of devoted, long-term residents who appear to have no intention of leaving. Some of the set ups have been quite impressive – we’ve seen several camper trailers converted into solid homes, with wooden decks, stone patios, full-on gardens and sheet metal porches. The long-haulers at Sunlands were different. They didn’t have gardens or anything like that; they just simply weren’t going anywhere. Their caravans had flat tires and rusted chassis, and had not had a washing since 1973. For the first half of our stay, we noticed an occasional, odd smell that seemed to come from somewhere nearby. We were informed by our neighbor soon after that the smell came from a particularly debased individual three lots away who made a habit of pitching his pee bucket on the lawn every few days. He also mentioned that a few nights prior when he had gone to take a shower at the nearby toilet block, he found a “fat turd” deposited with clear intent on the shower drain. It was at this point that he pointed out that the manager of SUNLANDS CARAVAN PARK never actually cleaned the toilet block, but instead simply swept the floor. But hey, you can’t beat those low prices, right? 


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At this point, our morale was at its lowest, and it wasn’t helped by the plague of locusts that had descended upon the area. Having locusts bounce off your head in the mornings while using the restroom isn’t a good way to start your day. And the plagues of mosquitoes every night didn’t make sunset any better. Thankfully when a week was up, we relocated to the nicer caravan park funded by an early, gracious Christmas gift from the Warshauers. THANK YOU MARK AND TULLIE!!!! We’re fairly certain we would have gone insane and possibly come down with a nasty case of mange otherwise.

The rest of our time in Waikerie was fairly routine – waking up early to go to the next picking job, work our butts off and get chicken feed in return. By the end of our 2-week stint in the Murray Riverlands, we were super eager to get out of dodge and head east to Melbourne. Above all else it was certainly a character building experience, one we might just appreciate at some point later in life.  


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