Deckchairs, Drunks & Darwin

I don’t know how best to describe Darwin. We drove a long way to get there, wanted to come and visit as it’s a big city on Australia’s map, with a lot of history and a lot of land. Upon arrival we weren’t too sure we’d actually arrived. In comparison to other cities we’ve visited here in Australia, it is small, compact and very quiet. Mostly due to the fact that we arrived at the end of the wet season (dry season starts in May) and that it’s too hot and humid to be outside in the day so no-one is outside. There’s something disconcerting about a city with no people. We were told that, as of the 1st May, the dry season starts and the population of the city more than doubles as holiday makers from around the country head North.

We thought our best plan was to head towards water. We needed to cool down. After all, heat and humidity is not a combination for someone with eczema – and I was suffering. The humid nights during our camper van road trip the week previous didn’t make for a good introduction to the heat, air-con seems the best cure, for both eczema and sweat. There is a large wave pool by the harbour, which for $7 per adult you can be bashed, smacked and drowned by the 10 wave patterns that come at you. Or, alternatively, just to the right of this is the free sea pool which is separated and ‘filtered’ free of harmful sea creatures so that you can enjoy a dip – granted the water temperature matches the air temperature of 33 degrees, the least you can do is swap one layer of salt on your body for another. It did the trick. We walked around the harbour, along the sea wall, along the esplanade and back into the city along Mitchell and Cavenagh St, down to the library and along McMinn St. then back towards our airbnb home. This journey took us up, down and around the city 3 times – in about 3 hours. We noticed there was a lot of construction workers around, this was evident because at around 5pm the restaurants and bars that line Mitchell St. (the busiest of all 4 streets in the city) were filled with the fluorescent glow of hi-vis tees and jumpers. Apart from that, there were very few people around, the only others were aboriginal people who didn’t seem to do much but change their sitting position throughout the day. We saw the same guy 4 times in different locations on our trip around the city.

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The nights sleep was delightful. Our first sleep in a proper bed, with well more than half a metre of headspace to sit up in, with air-con and a ceiling fan. Compared to the weather outside, the bedroom was an ice box – it was also extremely loud as the AC box seemed determined to keep the street awake, but we persevered. We’ve no doubt that our peaceful nights sleep was due to the fact we were so tired from the long drives (or at least Adam was anyway) but either way we were rested. We were up at around 9am which was the longest lie-in we’d had in a while, and got straight down to business. Finding a job.

We’ve been here nearly 3 months, living like kings and making sure we make the most of every opportunity that comes our way. As a result, our funds are diminishing. Along our way we’ve spoken to quite a few other backpackers who have told us how hard it is to get a job and warned us about the spiders and snakes of fruit picking. Although, these same people have all agreed that it was a great experience and they’ve met their new best friends doing these kind of jobs, we were looking for something a little more beneficial and more of an experience in the long run. We’d seen information and posts about farm work here and there and along with that the schemes in which companies can help you get farm work and 2nd year visa eligibility signed off no problem! These websites/companies such as “Job Shack” and “Travel and Work (TAW)” charge you $70 for a membership to be part of their database of backpackers in which they contact when they find a job for you. We heard reports of this kind of thing already, some a lot worse than others i.e. if you miss their call you go to the bottom of the pile again and someone else will get your position / they’ll fulfil their promise of finding you work..albeit for a week or two, the job will be complete but you still have another 7 weeks to work before signing off all 88 days. The company then have you at the bottom of the pile until something else pops up which again could be temporary, you’d spend more time and money going to and from temporary locations that the roles wouldn’t be worth it. Especially as you may already be running low on dollars! Travel isn’t cheap through the outback and this tends to be the only area in which you can work and be eligible for the visa. From what we understand, this works on a ‘giving back’ type scenario, Australia have a list of jobs and regions in which they feel more labour is beneficial to help the economy, growth of crops, or growth in farm production; including but not limited to fruit picking, fruit planting, construction, cattle farming, tending to goats, chooks (chickens), sheep, horses, building shelters for animals, & planting christmas trees.

Luckily for us, we had offers to work in all of these fields. Whether it was the number of applications we put out, or the way in which we wrote the applications, it seemed to work. People called us who we hadn’t applied to, which was difficult when answering the phone and they knew who you were, but you didn’t know them. They offered us work and accommodation, sometimes some paid work too. Sydney had taken a beating with weather and families needed help rebuilding what was damaged. Queensland seemed to all need help fruit picking for avocados or farm work. All of which are in remote locations (compliant with visa rules) and difficult to get to without our own car – which for many were deal breakers for both parties. We wanted to go somewhere that was a benefit to both us and the farm. Maybe it’s cliché but we wanted an experience that we wouldn’t have had on an easy route of fruit picking, and something different to what the normal standard backpackers do. Of course, we know that many Brits work in the outback on farms, but the opportunities are harder to get and much harder to find. We got calls and emails from random fruit picking jobs offering us work immediately, boasting that they regularly get backpackers – sometimes up to 50 at once, in dorm rooms – and pay 12-16 cents a bunch/punnet. Whilst we aren’t shy of hard work, doing the same thing day in, day out with a large group of people, with little security for our belongings in the dorms and lack of privacy, we politely declined. We very nearly took up a role at the Christmas Tree farm, planting trees for future years of Christmas tree buyers all along the East Coast. The company was large, we were able to google their farm, see their faces and stories on their Facebook page, and were tempted by the small group of workers who were treated to pizza and beer nights every Friday night. Though this was a voluntary role, the small work force and camaraderie that was apparent seemed too good to miss. This guy was also very kind in saying that our application was one of the best he’s seen and offered the job to us 2 hours after first speaking with us (granted this was on a Friday night and this meant beer night!). He said amongst the hundreds of applications he gets per week he’ll usually sift through them waiting for one to stand out, and ours did. He was honest, appreciative and willing to get to know us – definitely something to be grateful of, especially when you could be spending so much time in one place, with little around you to do and escape to.

We rested the laptop and applications to make a trip back into the city for the Deckchair Cinema, a cinema that has been around since World War Two, on and off throughout the years. En route we got another 2 calls off the back of our applications. It first started to entertain the troops on mass whilst they were waiting in the city for their next assignments. The cinema reopens in April each year, to avoid the wet season, so we’d timed our visit perfectly. It’s totally outdoors, under the stars, with deckchairs lining the grass. There are complimentary cushions to heighten your comfort. The deckchair is the perfect seat for a film, just the right amount of recline vs. the traditional cinema seat – though this does put you in the danger zone for a quick 40 winks. We knew that you couldn’t bring your own alcohol to the event, so bought two cold beers, chose our seats and marked our territory with the cushions (this was the common rule – do not sit where there is already a cushion or else). We then saw a guy walk by with pizza. WHY didn’t we think of that! Still with 45 minutes until the film started Adam used his peak fitness and sprinted back up the hill to Mitchell St. to the nearest pizza shop. During this time, we had another call regarding work, the farmer must have been needing a chat because he was chatting away for over half an hour until I had to nearly cut him off because Adam had returned with pizza, the beers were only getting warmer and the film was about to start! He was helpful for information though, and suggested that if we didn’t enjoy our own company and living in a remote area that the farm work jobs can be hard-work and boring with nothing to do between shifts, he had said he’d had backpackers leave because they didn’t want to do it anymore. Taking this on board, we were more determined to find a placement that would provide something more than just fulfilling the visa requirements, we had to enjoy the company of the farmer and their family too – otherwise there was no relief from a hard days work before it starts again the next day. We watched the film Birdman, which was very good but very bizarre at the same time. Watching it by moonlight, bats flying overhead and warnings that if you don’t finish and trash your cartons the possums will find you in the crowd and finish it for you (there was no danger of us leaving any pizza)! Our walk home was filled with conversation about the call backs, emails and texts we’d received throughout the afternoon. Who to choose, what we wanted as our non-negotiables (advice from millionaire matchmaker, a favourite show of mine), how far we were willing to travel, and who we liked best! We were grateful for having options and more than surprised that we’d had so many – but we were still holding out to hear back from one that we were excited about. The ad listed jobs we’d wanted to do, in an area we were happy to work and wasn’t too difficult or expensive to get to, it was funny and they just seemed normal. The application involved the formalities of a cover letter, CV’s, phone interview and trial – most of which were not necessary anywhere else. We had to impress for this, we knew we had the credentials, we just needed half a chance to show them.

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It was time to move airbnb homes so we went to the local shopping mall as a convenient location to be dropped off via the local bus, and then kindly collected by our new host a couple of hours later. Unfortunately this meant we were laden with our luggage, backpacks and miscellaneous items that we’ve picked up along the way. As it was a Sunday afternoon the mall was full of people – predominantly groups of teenagers all running, laughing and shouting their way through the crowds. The crowds were mixed, just like any other shopping mall in the world, but still being new to the ethnicity we consciously noticed the large groups of aboriginal teenagers, mostly causing more noise, more fuss and grabbing more attention than others in the food court. I would have felt intimidated even in the same situation back in Bristol, but knowing that the influence of alcohol and drug abuse is highly prominent in the aboriginal daily lifestyle makes me feel uneasy as they are often unpredictable. We’ve learnt that substance abuse is an ongoing issue in the aboriginal communities, predominantly throughout inner city families that are relatively new to living in societies where you must earn money and then spend it – most receive their money from the government benefits and so don’t learn this concept.

We decided to be smart and pop to the shops to get groceries for the next couple of days as we weren’t sure if there were any shops nearby our new home. As always we bought a little more than we probably needed but better to have too much than too little! This now meant we’re carrying baggage in both hands, and on each of our backs, through the busy mall on a Sunday. To say we stood out would be an understatement. Time was getting on though and our host text to let us know she would meet us, luck as the shops started to close for Sunday hours. We began to head towards our pick up point, we would be 45 minutes early but at least we’d be in the shade and able to put the bags down!  I was in front, paving the way, and Adam was a few steps behind me. I felt Adam grab my bum – weird, ‘why would he choose now for some PDA?!’ I kept walking trying to work that out, when I realised his hands were full. I span around, to find Adam with a group of Aboriginals who were looking strange and definitely up to no good. Adam’s bags were all over the floor, with his back to me, but still wearing his huge backpack. There was one guy who looked particularly dazed, holding his face and unable to see out of his eye. I started to realise that my phone was in the pocket that was grabbed – HE TRIED TO MUG ME!! Adam had seen the whole debacle, instantly dropped both bags that he was holding and clocked him. Needless to say, the opportunistic thief was a little shocked at being greeted by Adam’s fist and not the approval of his mates. Luckily my phone (that is a $10 Australian pay as you go phone and holds more value in credit than anything else) was still in my pocket and he didn’t get was he was after – just copped a good feel. He also got a new shiny black eye to match his left eye which (previous to any altercation with us) was already a nice shade of purple and swollen preventing him from using it to see. Seems that maybe this is a regular hobby for him. My instinct was to pick up Adam’s bags incase they were going to try and take those too – more of the guys friends started approaching Adam but this time to let him know it was a misunderstanding, holding their hands up – just seemed like part of the routine. Pulling Adam away (and after a few “kind” words of disapproval) we walked away a bit shocked, bemused and annoyed. A) How did that happen in broad day light in the middle of a shopping mall? B) Why did no-one react? C) Did we pick up all the groceries that spilled on the floor?

At this point I couldn’t stop checking over my shoulder just incase they followed us – knowing that the mall is closing and we’ll all be forced outside. I text our host again, highlighting that we’re already ready to be picked up and waiting in the right place. Not until we got home did we realise that the real victim of our afternoon was Adam’s jar of jam. In being quickly thrown to the floor the glass didn’t stand a chance – and consequently everything in the bag was also covered in jam! At this moment Adam’s sandwiches became only peanut butter.

Up early on the Saturday morning, Anzac Day, we raced it down to Darwin’s equivalent to a High Street and heard the band marching before we saw it. We’re glad we went as it showed the city for its organisation, patriotism and showed us that it did have a population over 4.

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We were back to the applications….watching the number of applications for this job increase, as the weekend continued, and not hearing back made us nervous and feel rushed for time in making a decision on the rest of the offers. Without being rude or ungrateful to the farmers who had made us offers we were eager to give them a decision without tempting fate at declining them all and being left with nothing. We held off anyway in the hope that an extra day or two would still allow us room to manoeuvre the other jobs if we still didn’t hear anything. We came very close to accepting the nice Christmas Tree man’s offer – but something was telling us to wait and finally, our luck came in. They arranged a call to chat mid-morning on Monday. We consequently spent the time leading up to it doing as much research as we could on their company, their background, their location mainly and figuring out how we could get as close to their station as possible – given all things went well. Turns out they did as much, if not more, research on us! This blog got a mention mid chat – Hello to the Fennell’s if you’re reading this – luckily they liked what we’d written about their country so far!

By the end of the call it was a positive outcome and we then had to call round all of our previous offers and politely decline. We also had to make a quick last minute trip to the shopping mall to buy steel toe cap work boots (just incase) and some clothes that we didn’t mind getting a bit wrecked by daily-life on a farm. We booked the Greyhound bus for half the price (still $$$) of the Ghan train, this travels north-south between Adelaide to Darwin, and in half the time, 26 hours. For the first half of our journey south we stopped at all the stops we’d already been to en route from Cairns-Darwin. The trip was good, not too long and quite bearable with all the stops for a quick walk and pee stop. Before we knew it we were at Alice Springs and changing coaches. Alice Springs was nice, safe and plenty of shops to keep busy – we automatically felt safer than in Darwin. Apparently it does depend which day you visit – dole collection is twice weekly – we must’ve chosen a good day!

We carried on through new road house stops and found camels and emus waiting for us. One woman – the only smart one – was wearing a fly net hat around her head. At first I saw her and had a little giggle – but quickly learnt that she was the only wise person on her bus tour (and at the entire truck stop) as the flies were everywhere. Arriving around 4pm, and feeling somewhat sweaty we arrived and met our new host family!

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