School of Broc
Trip Start May 19, 2009
67Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Princes Highway Caravan Park, natch
But still, there was Vodafone reception which, if you've ever backpacked in Australia, you'll know is a rarity.
Money was tight, and it would be a few days before we'd embark upon our new career as broccoli packers. We spent our free time wisely; visiting the local pizza delivery joints and supermarkets to get the lowdown on discount days, and even ushering Woolies' deli staff to the shadowy side of the counter to get the inside track on the marked down roast chickens
One Martin Lewis-worthy moneysaving trick did manage to keep us in fuel money for Rand, despite the incessant mocking I received from my travel companions when I first suggested it. In South Australia, you receive 10 cents for every bottle or can you take to a recycling depot. Judging by our current rate of alcoholic drink consumption, I correctly predicted we'd be quids in.
The result, of course, was that our camping area smelt a bit like a brewery, which may go some way to explain why our new home (Princes Highway Caravan Park, no less), seemed to attract barely coherent resident alcoholics. Shared facilities didn't allow for much privacy and, being long-termers (making us the proud bearers of the title "longest staying backpackers at the camping site in the history of Murray Bridge"), we often found ourselves minding our own business in the kitchen only to be reluctantly drawn into conversation.
Of all the resident alkies at our new home, my personal favourite had to be Benny. I once overheard him on the phone to someone he owed money to and was momentarily concerned that his vocabulary didn't stretch beyond variations on the word "fuck", but was relieved to hear him call the gentleman on the end of the line a "fucking camel jockey", even if, to this day, I still wonder what on Earth a camel jockey is
For what they lacked as conversationalists, however, the alcoholics did provide us with the lion's share of our recycling royalties.
Sadly, we wouldn't be able to while away too many hours with our new friends and a bottle of Bundy. Work once again beckoned, and we were all too grateful to be welcomed into the world of broccoli, or broc, as we call it in the business.
Despite the hardness of our European constitution, after the first day The Amazon and I realised that standing in a fridge at two degrees for seven hours having only been provided with fetching latex gloves and hairnets might not be an ideal working environment. It took trawling through two Asia-Pac backpacks to find enough layers to keep us going for at least another day.
In spite of the volume of broccoli produced by Swanport Harvest, there were only five of us in the packing room, which, as you would expect, mounted the pressure on. By the end of our first week it became clear that we were part of a broccoli packing revolution, and we found ourselves struggling to cope with the demands placed on us by the head honchos
In the World of broc, there is no such thing as small. Broc can only be medium, medium large, large, or large large. I know not why, but I do know that within the space of a few days our packing was simply not up to scratch and we had each been provided with plastic measures and colour coded stickers to ensure that no incorrectly sized broccoli slipped through the net. I must add here that The Amazon correctly noted that Swanport were neglecting a significant gap in the market; that of singles and elderly couples who might require a smaller sized broccoli, but any such concerns fell on deaf ears as our supervisors had more pressing matters to attend to.
Stem length was causing uproar. Dissatisfied with the way the broccoli had been cut in the field, we were soon given the mantle of ensuring Swanport's stem-length quality by being provided with machetes to cut each broc down to size.
Unfortunately Craig, our boss, could politely be described as an agitated man, but more fairly as a the person you would least like to wield a machete in your company, meaning we were constantly at pains to keep our limbs a safe distance from his manical chopping
One day the broccoli farm even had a visit from Tony Abbott, the leader of the Australian opposition. Please don't ask me why, I have no idea, but I do know that he is committed to the future of Australian agriculture, which naturally meant that for one day the entire farm closed down as we stood in the cold room for two hours with broccoli on the conveyor belt waiting for Mr Abbott to come in for a politician's typically contrived photo opportunity.
Luckily, there were distractions from my mounting workplace stresses. Twice a week I'd wake up before the moon had finished the night shift to head to the racing stables and help Colin (or Soupy, as he prefers to be known), train racehorses. Galloping around a field as the sun rose I wondered how on Earth I got so lucky as to be paid for doing what I love.
Racehorses, though, are no gentle hacks. Their feed is a bit like equine crack, and before long I realised I was being paid for the risk. A good few weeks in Cat likened riding these horses to driving a Formula One car after you've been pootling around in a Fiesta when Prince, a young Gelding I'd been training, managed on his fifth attempt to throw me off, gallop twice around the field, break through three fences and take half an hour to catch
In the end I wasn't convinced that InsureandGo would consider my activities low risk and I'd rather not end up on a plane back home with a vacuum packed broken leg and a sizeable Medicare debt, so despite my continued friendship with Soupy, it was a short-lived second career.
In the meantime, however, I'd managed to take on yet another job at a local dairy.
The owners, Ron and Irene, were the embodiment of the Aussie spirit of "she'll be right". For many reasons I won't go into on a public forum, they'd been dealt their fair share, and many others' fair share, of adversity over the years, but somehow they were the most happy people I think I have ever come across. On the day we arrived, they even managed to crack a smile whilst apologising for not having any accommodation for us on site as the house burnt down a week ago. Quite why any higher power decides to heap a pile of crap on such wonderful human beings whilst giving arseholes a free ride is entirely beyond me. It's a question that's bothered me for many years, and, frankly, one that edges me closer and closer towards atheism.
Working at the dairy proved to be the antithesis of, and antidote for, the broccoli farm. Every afternoon Cat and I would pitch up to see our ladies, six hundred fresian cows, and start to understand life through the eyes of a bloke as we spent four hours fixated on bosoms
Turning up at the broccoli we'd be lucky to get a grunt as a welcome, but here it'd be all smiles, banter, and as many cakes and biccies as you could eat. I'll never forget my first introduction to the place when I tried to keep myself to myself on my first shift only to crack up when my 19 year old colleague Rhee started discussing the merits of the reverse cowgirl position with our sixty something boss Irene. But that was just the wonderful way it was. Somehow even the 4.30am starts didn't bother us, and we became impervious to the odour of cow shit even if anyone in the real world could smell us from a hundred paces.
All the while, though, things were stirring back at Swanport. We'd heard murmurs of complaints about our second job, but didn't think much of it until our shifts started to be dwindled down. All it took was a text to tell us that we'd lost our jobs, and a later discussion to find out that Craig had resigned and taken his crew down with the sinking broccoli packing ship. We were later told that our lack of commitment to the broc was the root of the problem, as working at the dairy had meant we were unavailable for any late night broccoli supply emergency that, surprisingly, had never arisen during our time spent working there.
For nights The Amazon and I suffered fretful sleep. Was it our inability to grasp the <110mm medium but too small to pack, 110mm to 125mm medium large (red sticker), 125mm to 140mm large (yellow sticker) and 140mm large large (no sticker) concept? Was it the fact that we didn't manage to pointlessly pack enough brocs head-up in ice packed polystyrene boxes? Was it the pressure of packing Friday's order on Thursday for Saturday and never getting our heads around that either? Or was it simply that we paraded round with (only medium) brocs in our bum cracks and Swanport Harvest 'Staycrisp' stickers on our arse cheeks for most of each shift? We'd never know, but, in time,we knew we'd come to terms with our brutal sacking.
As it turned out, it didn't take too long.
Ron and Irene soon found us extra work to take on at the dairy, and so over the space of our last few weeks Cat and I took to driving round in a completely unroadworthy farm Ute removing fences. We rolled wire, pulled out posts and I even managed to kill a tiger snake (I am not proud of this but Ron told me I had to do it, honest guv). As my transition into a male is virtually complete, I think I may be ready for my testicles now
One person who certainly didn't agree with this self-assessment was Danny. Oh, Danny. He was a chap who worked at the dairy, and despite being in a relationship with another girl there, he took a bit of a liking to yours truly.
One night we shared a couple of my beers and the next morning The Amazon came running into the dairy screaming at me to look in the van. Just when I thought my tiger snake had come back to life and karma was ready to bite me on the ass, literally, I peered in the window to see not a venomous beast on the driver's seat but a box of chocolates from Danny. He was pretty pleased with himself and I suddenly understood why he'd been whistling excitedly all morning.
I was later relieved to hear that Danny might be something of a chubby chaser and took the chocs as a friendly gesture before the thought crossed my mind he may in fact be a feeder. The Amazon ate most of them.
All too soon it was time to say goodbye to our girls, to our resident alcoholics, to our charity shop togs, and to Danny. But it would only be a "see ya later" as we'd decided that Ron and Irene Darling were aptly named, and Murray Bridge, although not postcard perfect, had somehow become our new home from home.