Living in a Marsupial World
 
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Cockatoos flying out of the rockmelon field
Before we had even crossed the border into the NT, we had determined that the four of us would do a WWOOFing stint after our concert deadline, and had called several hosts in preparation. Two different hosts had previously told us we were welcome to join them, so we rang up the closer of the two, Wilderness Farms, a 350-hectare organic farm just north of Katherine. By Friday we found our way onto their impressive property and were greeted by a mob of WWOOFers also working there, and by Caroline, one of the two owners. The other workers came from all over: many from France and Germany, but also from Belgium, Italy, and Canada. 



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Tom, from Germany, toiling in the squash patch
After the first few grueling days learning the work routine, we began to feel a strong bond with the other WWOOFers. This was not only because of the long hours, but also because the other owner of Wilderness Farms, John, was a bit unpredictable and ornery. While occasionally spouting somewhat coherent and reasonable philosophies from his travels and experiences, more often than not he was erratically driving his tractor around the property and yelling at workers with a whiny, incoherent back-of-the-nasal-cavity noise, usually criticizing their inadequate progress. He had a tendency to leave out important vowels when he spoke, so that all you could make out was a garbled Aussie drawl. Whenever he finished describing what needed doing with a particular job and drove off, we would all reconvene in a WWOOFer huddle and attempt to decipher what he actually said. As native English speakers, we often had the responsibility of translating as much as we could, but usually we were just as lost.



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Colin adds some UDL to his nightly meat fry
In addition to the WOOFers, there were two farmhands who stayed on the property for months at a time. Paul, from Tasmania, was one of the nicest people we’d ever met. He was great having around when you had a question but didn’t feel like approaching John or Caroline, who always seemed enormously busy and pretty cranky about it. Paul was a big fan of what he called “vacuous pop music” -- you could always tell he was driving the truck when your farm work was accompanied by bass-thumping club music. When he wasn’t working at the farm, Paul spent much of his time in India (the bastard), or in Tassie to see family. He highly recommended we give Tasmania a good look, but to be wary of the many leeches that inhabit the island.
 
Colin, on the other hand, was a real salt of the earth kind of guy. With his dilapidated straw hat, sun-charred leather skin, cut-off denim shorts and effortless fluency (and versatility) with expletive language, he was a shining example of a true backwater Aussie. Not to say that he was any bit uncultured. I (Ben) was frequently blown away by his almost encyclopedic knowledge of music, as well as by his many experiences traveling abroad. Colin was also really hilarious to talk to, especially after 4 or 5 vodka passionfruit drinks and a baker’s dozen of cigarettes. It was actually a rare occasion when Colin wasn’t accompanied by a can of UDL Vodka Passionfruit and a smoldering hand-rolled cigarette.



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Mar working hard for the money
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Devin gets splattered by Honey's dog grime in the squash field
The daily routine changed for us after a few days. We began just as WWOOFers but once we proved to the management that we were reliable, hard workers who were willing to stick around, we were offered extra paid work for the remainder of our stay. This meant that instead of working from 7:30 AM to 1:00 PM and ending our day, we would work from 7:30 AM to 6:00 PM and get paid from 11 to 6. The work itself was physically demanding as it was almost entirely picking and packing of fruits and vegetables, often in the hot NT sun. In the morning, the women would go pick zucchini and then meet up with the guys to pick button squash. Guys would also pick rock melon (cantaloupe), watermelon, and butternut squash. In the afternoons, all of us would often pick capsicum (bell pepper), eggplant, cucumbers, and pumpkins. Packing was sometimes a great relief, as it required being in the shed and out of the sun, often getting splashed with water while washing vegetables.



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Stef and Julian help clean up a roadside melon/zucchini fiasco
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Devin after a long, dirty day amongst the mango trees
For several days, Devin and I spent our afternoons among the farm’s mango trees doing maintenance work on their irrigation lines. At first it seemed like the cushiest outdoor work on the farm – spending the hotter part of the day in the shade, enjoying the occasional refreshing splash from the sprinklers. It was also great to spend some quality bonding time with Tom and Jonathan, two backpackers from Germany and France. It really seemed like heaven for the first hour or so, right up until we discovered the bane of citrus farming – citrus ants. Also known as green ants for their bright green abdomen, these little miscreants would wait until you were busy cleaning out a sprinkler head before 5 or 6 would start crawling up your leg, biting you along the way.


Tom had a particularly intimate encounter with the ants. He and Devin were working on a clogged sprinkler head beneath one of the mango trees when Tom noticed a stream of ants crawling out of his hair and down his neck and shoulders. As he began frantically brushing them off, Devin looked up to see that Tom had a grapefruit-sized ant nest resting on his shoulder, with dozens of very pissed-off ants pouring out. With girlish screams, Tom ran wildly out to a clearing, ripping his shirt off and swearing in both German and English, while Devin fell over laughing.



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A citrus ant nest - this one was about the size of a basketball
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A familiar sight - citrus ants swarming a sprinkler head
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The swimming hole/river
Although the work was taxing, each afternoon after knock off (quitting time), we would take a glorious cooling dip in the river that ran behind the property, washing off the days dirt and veggie crust under the palm fronds. After a swim and/or a shower, there was a feeling of great satisfaction in another hard day finished and a slight energy in being clean with achy muscles. Dinners were always superb and everyone took turns in cooking the night’s meal. Caroline spent many years living in Israel and would often contribute homemade tabouli or hummus. At each meal, there were always plenty of reject fruit and veg for us to eat. We became accustomed to each of us having an entire rock melon, fresh off the vine, to ourselves for break and lunch. Although this was fantastic (I don’t think we’ve eaten such fresh, healthy food so consistently ever), it made us acutely aware of how much waste is involved in farming, even organic farming. The slightest scratch, bruise, or deformity causes produce to be unworthy of sale. Huge bins were filled daily with these rejects, with most of it left to rot and become compost or to be fed to cows. 



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Massage train at the bonfire [Right to left: Emily, Mar, Julian (Ger), Sarah (Fr), Stef (Fr), Jayde (China), and Tomaso (It)]
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Tomaso and the ladies
We stayed at Wilderness Farms for two weeks and although there were occasional frustrations with the work and the management, we met some truly fabulous people that we hope to see again. Days spent together in the fields on the proverbial chain gang and nights round the campfire with a brew all added up to some great friendships and a very satisfying experience. 



Rob Hayton
12/1/2014

Very interesting to read your account of life at Wilderness Farms. I stayed there in 1999 for three months while woofing and have very special memories of my time there. As you say, john could be a bit cranky, but I found Caroline millwright to be very approachable......

Reading your account brings back many happy memories....

Rob

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