I arrived in Australia in August 1991. I went to a youth hostel in Glebe, a very pleasant leafy suburb of Sydney, not too far from the city centre. My first impressions of Sydney were that there was an awful lot of Eucalyptus trees, far more houses were made of stone than in New Zealand, and there was orange juice for sale everywhere. There were also an amazing number of cake shops. I didn’t have much money so needed a job. I got one straight away as the manager of the Landsdowne Backpackers, above the Lansdowne Hotel on the corner of City Road and Broadway. The Lansdowne was also a pub during the day and a heavy metal nightclub, seven nights a week – hardly the ideal place to stay above. I was also doing a bit of cleaning in the morning, hosing down the walls and fishing the syringes out of the toilet cisterns. I spent my spare time just wandering around Sydney and starting to be a bit of a hippy. I had two earrings in each ear and wore a dozen or so bangles on my wrist. I used to take the boss’s big Ford Falcon out to the airport to try and drum up business for the backpackers by approaching likely looking types arriving on incoming flights. I do not remember many of my new recruits to the Lansdowne accommodation being pleased with it. Something about loud heavy metal being played downstairs takes some of the rest out of your sleep.
I haven’t mentioned before but I have two tattoos and, as I said earlier, I also had my ears pierced. I bought back to the Lansdowne from the airport, a young (19 or so) Canadian brother & sister who were one of the few guests to like the place. They used to hang out with me quite a bit and they were good company. One day though they came back from town with a tattoo each as they thought mine were cool. I am sure their parents were delighted when they got home.
I met an artist who used to frequent the pub and we got friendly. She had a studio nearby and I remember one night sitting with her surrounded by her art, having a beer and looking out of her big picture window across the Sydney skyline at sunset. It was a great snapshot of a good life moment.
I spent the odd night also doing door security and the brief was to keep the rough element out. When your clientele is head bangers and metal fans the rough element can sometimes be a little hard to identify. The rough element though, was skinheads. The boss hated skinheads and they were most certainly not welcome. One night a very popular band who went on to big things were playing, The Baby Animals. The place was heaving and some skinheads turned up at the door. I denied them access and the ring leader took umbrage at not being allowed in. “We just want to come in and have a good time”, he shouted. I told him that his idea of a good time and everyone else’s were very different but he wasn’t having it. “If you want to stop me coming in, you’ll have to knock me out” he screamed at me, at which point the boss, a really big fellow who really hates skinheads, flew out of the pub and piled into this guy. They were having a right old scrap in the street. The police pulled up and watched the skinhead get a beating, they didn’t like them either. The upshot was that the skinhead and his mates took a hiding and scuttled off into the night.
The gig ended and at about 3am I got back to my room above the pub. My door was open and sitting in my room and loafing on my bed drinking beer was the band. The Baby Animals were chilling out in my room. I was very tired and didn’t care who they were so very unceremoniously sent them on their way. The lead singer and guitarist in the Baby Animals was the gorgeous Suzie DeMarchi. Many Aussie blokes of a certain age find it amusing that I have chucked Suzie DeMarchi out of my bedroom. Suzie DeMarchi was, and probably still is, seriously hot.
Someone I haven’t spoken of much is my younger brother, Campbell or ‘Bum’ as we refer to him. I had seen so little of Bum over the years since I had been in the army and then living away from home. Bum was quietly getting on with his life. Apparently he hadn’t done much more school work than I had , but he was a very talented sportsman. He was in the school 1st XV when in the fourth form. He went on to play for Hawkes Bay Under 18’s. He was also a gifted cricketer, an all-rounder, so he also played rep cricket at U18’s. He joined the army on leaving school but unfortunately was posted to a city unit rather than the field so he didn’t get to have any of the big adventures that I did. He packed it in and decided to set off for an overseas trip as well. I met him at Kingsford-Smith Airport in Sydney and put him up at the Lansdowne for a couple of days. He then set off on his own adventure and I didn’t see him again until London, but that’s another story.
The boss’s wife decided she could do the running of the backpackers and I was laid off. I went back to the youth hostel to decide on a course of action. I saw an ad on the wall for a tractor driver on a cotton farm in north New South Wales. I bought a ticket for a bus journey to Moree, which took about 26 hours. There was a long stop at Dubbo and we then headed across the scrub for about 16 hours with the scenery unchanging. Gum trees, just bloody gum trees, for as far as the eye can see.
I arrived at Moree and reported to the recruitment office that had advertised the tractor driving job. I had about $16 to my name. I met the boss of the farm, Andrew I think his name was. He wore a dusty John Deere cap and had a beard and thick glasses. I knew the moment I saw him I wasn’t going to like him. He asked about my tractor driving experience and seemed satisfied that I had enough. I was told that the rules of the farm were that if you break anything, you’re fired. I was put on the back of a Toyota Hi-Lux and driven for what seemed like an eternity, a very dusty eternity, to the farm. Most of the journey was on a gravel road and I saw loads of Kangaroo’s and Emus wandering about the place. It was a very typical Aussie outback scene. The farm was a cotton growing property that was just about to start the season. When I finally arrived at the farm, the Hi-Lux was mobbed by 6 enormous English Mastiffs, Andrew’s pets. They were absolutely huge but luckily it turned out they were lovely dogs.
I was shown to my accommodation; it was by some margin the worst shit hole I had ever lived in. A beaten up old shack with broken windows and fly screens. I had an iron bed, just like the army, and no bedclothes. I used my sleeping bag and discovered on my first night that my first pay packet should be invested in a mosquito net.
There were two other guys in the house, Erin who was an Israeli and an Aussie bloke. The house was situated in the middle of the farm. The farm was vast and there was little to see on any horizon. There were two big water reservoirs on the farm. They were man made but had gone native as it were. There were a load of Crane’s, Pelicans, Spoonbills and Ibis on them. Lots of beautiful wading birds. One of the few good memories I have of this place was driving out to the back of the property at dawn and seeing the kangaroo’s in the fields, the birds flying up from the huge reservoir and the odd Emu fossicking about with her chicks. Real good Aussie outback scenery like you saw in films and on TV.
Mostly though this place was just awful. The flies, millions of them, everywhere. You wondered what they were doing out in the wilderness before you arrived. The minute you stopped moving you were covered in flies. My first job was irrigation. The farm had huge fields, each surrounded by a ditch about 6 feet deep with a mound of soil between it and the crop rows. Lying over this mound of soil for every row was a 12 foot long black alkathene (plastic) pipe. This pipe was how the water got from the ditch into the crop row. You had to manually get suction going by putting one end of the pipe in the water and cupping your hand on and off the other end while you work the pipe back and forth. When the water comes you quickly lie the now heavy pipe down over the mound of soil so the water can run from the ditch into the crop row. There are thousands and thousands of these pipes going out of sight into the distance, sound good? Yes, it is back breaking work. To enhance the unpleasantness you can only get to these pipes by walking barefoot through the half full ditch. There is water up to your thighs with a nice film of insects and centipedes to stick to you. When you leave the water you climb, in your bare feet, up the mound which feels like it is made of volcanic rock as the broken soil is so dry and crumbly. You spend the day in the sun in your bare feet with your hands getting wet and dry, wet and dry. This dries out your skin on your fingers and palms and makes it crack and become painful. You use a lot of barrier cream, your feet become like leather.
All day every day you work these bloody pipes. Then at night you have a second shift where you come back out at about 2 am to stop the pipes where the water has reached the end of the row and start some new pipes. This is when it can become truly unpleasant. It is pitch black, you are in bare feet. There are many deadly poisonous snakes out here in the outback. They like to find a nice warm place to have a sleep, like a black alkathene pipe for example. Once in a while you would pick up your pipe, stick one end in the water and your hand over the snakes only exit. You drop the pipe and now you have somewhere nearby, in the dark, a deadly, angry snake. You are in bare feet. You just have to hope for the best, there is little else you can do. I used to carry a snake bandage in each pocket. If you don’t know what a snake bandage is, you don’t need one, just think yourself lucky.
A bloke can only take so much of this sort of work so you have a break every couple of weeks to do tractor work. My tractor was a John Deere 4950 – that’s a big beast. It had a huge drum on the front for carrying crop spray and the tractor work varied between ploughing, cultivating and spraying. Ploughing is the least bad job. You just drive back and forth across an enormous field at 7.2 kilometres per hour, for days. I invented ‘tractorobics’ to ward off the boredom. I have a picture taken from the cab of this tractor of a featureless vista, nothing at all on the horizon and all you can see is the brown bit I have ploughed and the green bit that I haven’t.
Another kind of ploughing is with a big V shaped grader in the empty ditches. You had to get a very good understanding of your tractor’s centre of gravity. This is because you drove at an angle up the mound at the edge of the ditch until one front wheel was up in the air and then you tipped over the edge into the ditch and one of your back wheels went up in the air until you got onto the side of the ditch itself. You were driving at very harsh angles and it was a little nerve racking. You then drove along the ditch with the grader pushing weeds and soil out of the ditch. At the far end of the ditch you then had to climb the tractor out. This was even more difficult than getting in. You always thought that you were going to go over backwards.
Cultivating the young cotton was the hardest job mentally. The tractor had a huge apparatus on the back which spanned eight rows of cotton. This was a combination of knives and discs. Basically, it was a big weeding machine. You drove up and down the rows peering over your shoulder at this huge bit of kit weeding to within a couple of centimetres of very small cotton plants. Occasionally you would hook up a bit of wood or a rock of some sort. At that stage. you climbed out from your air conditioned cab into the heat and were greeted by several hundred acres worth of tiny biting midges that then joined you back in the cab.
I hated Australia; you couldn’t pay me to go back to the place. Everything that flies, slithers, swims, walks or crawls, bites you. They all seem to be poisonous. Australia has the most poisonous version of every venomous creature on earth. They do not even have the courtesy to be scarce, they are abundant. I would meet several deadly snakes every day. One day a taipan was in some pipes I needed to work with. A taipan is one of the most poisonous snakes on Earth; it is also the most aggressive. The taipan and I had an argument about who had the rights to the pipes. I won, with a spade.
They also get aphid storms in Australia. That’s right, a whole sky full of aphids that blow across the wilderness coating everything in their path, including me one day. You have heard the stories about red back spiders. Well they are everywhere. Kangaroos travel at incredible speed when spooked, especially with a couple of blokes in a Hi-Lux in hot pursuit looking to shoot them for dog tucker.
Australia does have some lovely parrots. The Galah, for example, is a great character as well. You will know from Aussie folklore that ‘Galah’ is also a term for a bit of a clown. Galah’s come in their thousands, and they come LOUD. Deafening almost when they take over the vicinity.
There had been no rain for many months in this part of Australia and the place was parched. One day ‘the wet’ was due to arrive. I was at the back of the farm, nearest where the weather was going to come from, doing some cultivating. Andrew told me to let them know on the other side of the property when the rain looked like it was nearing the farm’s boundary, to drop whatever I was doing and get home. I thought “Yeah, whatever, it’s a bit of rain”
Watching the front arriving from my tractor was like watching a wall moving. I could see for miles and miles from my vantage point of the tractor seat, such was the lack of any sort of feature on the horizon. I forgot about the moving wall of weather for a bit as I was concentrating on my cultivating. I was about 200 metres into another run across the field when I noticed large drops of rain hitting my windshield. I radioed Andrew and said “The rain is here”. He screamed down the radio to “Get out of there now!” I was quite taken aback by his hysteria; well I was until it started raining properly a few seconds later. Torrential does not begin to describe the downpour, it was vicious. Lightning was joining in now and the sky was incredibly dark. I had lifted up my cultivating equipment with the hydraulics and was reversing the 200 or so metres back to my Hi-Lux. Getting the few feet from where I parked the tractor to the 4×4 was a sodden experience, I was completely soaked though in seconds.
I started up the Hi-Lux and now the weather was a total sensory experience, I could even feel my ears popping at the change in air pressure. Considering I was on a flat dirt track in a very capable 4×4, it was very surprising when I ground to a halt after barely 400 metres. The wheels had got so clogged with the new mud created from the rain on a dirt track they had gotten completely wedged in the wheel arches. I was not going any further in the Hi-Lux. I was still about 5 kms from the house in a biblical storm. I had no choice but to walk, but the weather was almost impenetrable. As soon as I got out of the Hi-Lux my boots were having the same problem as the tyres. I was not going to be able to walk either. I hopped into the irrigation ditch and took my boots off. I waded for quite a distance until I got to the gravel part of the track and was able to walk from there. It was a long wet hike back to the house.
The storm settled right in for a few days. We sat on chairs on the veranda and watched the lightning and listened to the thunder. The noise of that plus the rain on the corrugated roof made for an awful lot of sound effects. We were now stranded in the house until the weather stopped and the roads dried out. You get a good idea of the breath-taking ignorance of some people by spending a few days with them confined to a house. One of the Aussies I shared with was perplexed by my desire to travel the world. “Why would you wanna do that mate? You’ve got everything you need right here”. In fact, this was the exact opposite of reality.
Remember I was told when I arrived that breaking something will get you fired? One day I was spraying the weeds in unused ditches with a 30 foot boom sprayer after the place had dried out a bit. The place was huge and there were very few trees anywhere near the actual farm, just a few dotted around the boundary. I was looking for a good place to turn my tractor around for another pass of a ditch. I felt a jolt and suddenly the tractor was a lot less responsive. I looked out of the back of the cab and the boom sprayer was dragging along the ground behind me, broken. I had hit probably the only tree that it was possible to hit. So I radioed Andrew who drove over, looked at the sprayer and said “Well you know what this means? Brenton will drive you into town, go and pack up your stuff”. Getting fired for breaking stuff wasn’t an idle threat then.
Brenton drove me into town and left me in the High Street. I need a new plan now as I was certainly not staying any longer in that dump. I had been getting paid pretty well with nothing to spend it on so had a few bob in the bank. I popped into a travel agent, M&G Travel. A very nice lady called Lyn Barnett dealt with my request. I wanted a seat on a flight to London, as soon as possible. My older brother Finlay was in London and I thought that would be a good place to go to continue my adventure. I could work in the UK under the arrangement New Zealand has with Britain. Under the 2 year visa rules, I had to have a return ticket and £2000 to support myself.
Lyn found a seat on a Malaysian Airlines flight due to depart in a couple of days. Now all I had to do was get back to Sydney. I bought a ticket for that bus that night and sat on a bench to wait for midnight. Another huge storm was blowing in and it was getting on for evening. There is nothing to do in Moree so I just waited. A police car rolled up and the officer said “You don’t want to wait there mate, the ‘Abos’ will have you.” It seemed that in these outback towns the local Aboriginals would get pissed and then go out looking for fights. So I went with him to wait in the police station until my midnight bus to Sydney. It was a wild night outside and I had a good yarn with the policemen, they were good sorts. The bus ride back to Sydney was another 26 or so hours and I arrived in time for my flight to London the next day. I spent an uneventful night in a youth hostel at Kings Cross and set off for the airport the next day.
Yet again I was moving on but this time I was feeling a bit more adventurous and looking forward to my journey.
To be continued….