Monday, February 6, 2012

On Whales' Fin: Migrating South for the Summer

As the southern right whale swim south for the summer, so too did I migrate in this direction. Leaving Fremantle, my plan was to head to a small town called Donnybrook, which is known for its apples, and the filthy people that harvest them (me). I had heard of an ancient path leading from near Perth all the way to Donnybrook, called the Munda Biddi trail. The trail winds and bends its way through ancient forests of trees called Karri, Marri, Bullitch, and Jarrah, all of which have invaded the rest of the world, all of which I would call simply eucalyptus. In their native habitat though, these trees are quite appealing, and massive. The Munda Biddi caused my first, second, third, and fourth crashes of this bike trip. It was slow going through the forest, mostly due to the often poor surface of some of the wider sections of the trail, which were finger deep gravel. Lots of pushing a heavily loaded bike uphill there. But I perservered, braved the biting insects and ENORMOUS snakey snakes, and cutey pie kangaroos who move in such a ridiculous manner. I'm sure the feeling is mutual there.

So I arrived in Donnybrook. I made my first stop the cafe to have a cappucino, which are the same price as all coffee in this country, about $4.00 US. But one resigns oneself to such prices in Australia. Full of coffee and plans of picking fruit for the next several weeks making Gs, I headed to the local hostel, which here are called "backpackers". The hostel also serves as a labor placement agency, as it is mostly foreign, educated people in their 20s who do most of the agricultural labor in this country. It was around 9am, and I cruised down the hill, across the famous brook, and up the hill again to the agency. The first thing I saw from the road was people sleeping on the grass with bottles next to them. No tents, no blankets, just bottles and people scattered like fallen statues on a lawn. Luckily for all, there were none on the way up to the office, so I didn't have to use my expert bike handling skills to dodge any on the road. I went into the office, which was closed. So I wandered around the building, past the kitchen, past a swampy courtyard that smelled of doodoo, past some dorm rooms and out onto what seemed like the the front doorstep. There were some folks there watching videos on technology I couldn't work, and I asked them, "Excuse me, where is reception?" They ignored me, so I said it louder and more angrily. This worked, and they directed me past a TV room with people sleeping on bare hardwood, through a hall, and into reception. As I approached, I could hear a woman lamenting to a younger man about how the one police car in town last night was called in to the hostel for its third noise complaint in 3 days, and how none of the guests respected the place. Indeed, there did seem to be a general lack of respect among the guests. My approaching footsteps caught her attention, and she turned to me, smiled, and asked how she could help. I told her I was looking for work and would like to stay for a few nights. Despite my interest as a customer interested in paying $30 a night to sleep at her odd, smelly hostel, it seemed like my news made her sad. She replied that yes, they had rooms, but I shouldn't stay there. The work situation was bad because of the recent heat wave, and some people had been waiting in small, shitty, smelly Donnybrook for five weeks waiting for one of 20 positions, and the waitlist was currently at 40. She told me to go west, to the shaded lanes and rolling hills of Margaret River, Western Australia's wine country, as the grape harvest would soon be rolling. I gulped, thanked her for her honesty, wished her good luck, and wheeled the old machine out the door. West I did go, to Margaret River.

I did however, have an excellent stop just 10km south of where Sue's Road splits off from the bicycle unfriendly Bussell Hwy. It was getting towards sundown, and time to camp. This was farm country, with barbed wire encircling every field, making normal camping impossible. After doing so in Portuguese (Spanish), French, Italian (Spanish with an Italian accent), Slovenian (Slavic: Jaco's and my mix of Russian, Bulgarian, and bits of Serbian), Bosnian (if you consider that a language), Montenegrin (same, I'm playing it safe here for Balkan political reasons), Bulgarian (Slavic), Turkish, Azeri, Russo-Uzbek, Uighur, and Chinese, I asked a farmer-in fluent English-if I could camp on his land for a night. I must say, I was more nervous here than with most of the other times I've asked in these sometimes obscure languages. I figure the expectations of me were higher. Nerves quickly turned to having a beer with salted peanuts playing frisbee with nice doggies (Aussie kelpies), playing guitar and watching the sunset. I was treated to a most hospitable welcome by Russell and his daughter Zoe. After a nice coffee and fresh bread from Russell's bakery, I took off into the wind for the last 60km to Margaret River.

Soaring against the wind is hard for any eagle, and on a bike it is only slightly easier. I made it though, in the late afternoon, to the promised land of Margaret River where wineries outnumber workers. So I was told. The reality is quite different. There are at least 500 work/holiday visa people like me looking for work right now doing whatever in the wineries around this town of 4000. Most are following the 'harvest trail' which is a rough clockwise loop around the country. When it becomes any given season, the painted vans and ruined cars arrive in town, their grimy occupants spill out into the parks and hostels, and the search for a job begins.

There are professional roofers, researchers, fishermen, computer programmers, mental health workers, cooks, winemakers, accountants, and even bankers all competing against each other looking for work from 5am to 11am picking grapes, getting paid by the bucket. All three hostels in town are full, if you can afford them. If not, you sleep in the marri and karri forests around town, or in your car or van, if you have one. You can cook on your own stove, if you have one. If not, you can use the electric griddles at the Rotary Park, which are on from 8am to 8:30pm. You can bathe in the river, or take a shower at a hostel for $3.00. And every morning, you get up at 4.00am, job or not, to hike down to one of the agencies in town that supposedly arrange work, and the first thing they always ask you is if you have a car. My response is always, "no, but I have a bike and I can go really far on it," agency bot: sorry, you'll be asked to go over 15km to your job, and me: yeah, I can do that, easy, I rode my bike from Portugal to Hong Kong! agency bot, not programmed to understand sentences like this: sorry, priority is going to people with cars right now, but put your name on a list and we might text you later in the week if there's anything available.

Yet, the lists restart every day. I was told today by an agency that they didn't operate with lists like that, although I had signed one every day for the past 6 days, one for every day I've been in Margaret River, including the day before! This makes it so you have to go every day at 5am, and ask if there is work. It is the same pattern, with the same results. But people are getting jobs, one by one, as each winery begins to harvest its individual vineyards. This is my hope at least, that as the three month season progresses I will be swooped up in the wings of a great eagle, and carried straight to the vineyard, where I will watch the sun rise as I gorge myself on, I mean harvest, premium grapes.

It is a fantastic community of travelers here. There are mostly French and Italian, with a few Brazilians and a few Yanks and Canadians and some English and Irish. Last night a Frenchman cooked us fish with grilled tomatoes, garlic bread, and potatoes with rosemary. Tonight an Italian fisherman is cooking me to his dismay frozen Australian fish. Tomorrow I will cook Chinese food. And like this it continues. A guitar playing Dutchman just moved into our little community, and he said he made $50 playing in the street in Darwin during the mango season. A lucrative business prospect awaits.

Like this it will be here in Margaret River, for the next month or two, as the grapes ripen and are picked by my eager and austere hands. The grapes will then turn to wine, and the bottles may sink to the bottom of the ocean in a deep sea catastrophe in which no one is injured but a ship will be lost. There they may age or sleep or do whatever grapes do for centuries upon centuries until some ancestor of mine finds them and drinks them. I can only hope that an eye twitches in the strangest way, as their body recognizes the traces in the wine left by my hands. And they will be confused.