Slaving Away Here in Hippieville
Trip Start Sep 15, 2006
80Trip End ??? ??, 2007
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After several locals dispensed a hazy "Wha?" in response to our questions about Jerra Park's location, including a rather toothy dude running the local tourist info center, we gave in and called the owner, Wolfgang, on a pay phone outside The Hemp Embassy. Wolfgang showed up around 20 minutes later at the Oasis Cafe, where Cierra and I were just finishing our coffee. Our first conversation with the man revealed him to be a really intellectual guy, with lots of opinions on the world economy and the ecological challenges that face us in this century, all delivered through a thick German accent. He is striving not to be a doom and gloom forecaster, but to simply see if it is possible to live in a truly sustainable manner out here in rural Australia. As he put it, at Jerra Park, "Ve haf a big sahndbox, und ve play."
He drove us out to the place along a dirt track that also served as driveway to the spectacular Border Ranges National Park, a landscape of craggy mountains and lush forests. Pulling into a carport, he took out some seedlings and potted trees in a box, then directed us to come along down the hill. We passed Wolfgang's house, then walked through a field and gully to the valley below. A small orchard down here had avocados, lemons, and oranges growing, though Wolfgang said very little was harvestable yet. We walked on to where we'd be sleeping, and were shocked to find that he had two train cars out here in the middle of nowhere. The insides were sparse, and my foam mattress lacked even a sheet, but the cars were still mounted on their original wheels. This meant that every time anyone in a car moved, the whole thing would rock gently side to side. Illumination was a single light bulb hooked to a solar panel and battery outside. Al this luxury for free, provided you were willing to work!
I should explain... Jerra Park is only one of many WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) locations all over Australia. Here, you worked for your room and board, doing whatever needed to be done for the farm. We would be putting in four hours of labor daily for our three squares and bit of foam.
Down in the ramshackle common house, we met our fellow WWOOFers. Louis, a Frenchman, was strumming a guitar, occasionally stopping to roll another cigarette. Jonathan and Lydie, German and French respectively, were traveling Australia for a year together and had been here for two weeks. We looked about a bit, at the gardens overflowing with eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, and a veggie we'd never seen. It's called choco and it looks like a puckered green pear, with a taste of strong cucumber.
Everything about the common area had an appearance of being half-done. There was no door, just an open wall into the living area, then a doorway into the kitchen. Wiring hung from the ceiling, all connected to 2 car batteries in the hallway and a solar panel on the roof.
Wolfgang continued our tour to the bottom of the valley and a group of pecan trees he had planted a few years ago, where we spotted two wallabies, our first. They're basically kangaroos, but a little bit smaller, and these were about 35 or 40 feet away. We got all excited about it, but Wolfgang wasn't impressed. "Ze vallabees are efreevher, you vill zee them ull ze time."
When dinnertime rolled around, our companions got to work in the kitchen, and as I didn't want to appear lazy, I offered to help. I chopped onion and choco, and the others worked around the "stove", which was a bunsen burner attached to a gas tank big enough to send us to the moon if somebody left it on. But what came out of this process was a delicious meal of stir-fried vegetables and pasta, plus a big bowl of salad, and enough of it to feed us all twice. Boy, if the food is this good every night, who wouldn't work four hours for it? After dinner, we sat by the table and chatted with everybody, but even though it was only eight-thirty, one by one they all excused themselves and went to bed. Hmm. This could be a sign that the work is a little hard. Back in the train car, I struggled to find comfort on the foam mattress, and whenever I flipped over, I set the whole car in motion, side to side, as if we were on a journey through the night.
We awoke to birds chirping in the morning, and when I went down for brekkie (Aussie for breakfast) I got to meet the final member of our group, Claudia, tall and strawberry blond, from Sydney. She'd been in the area for 7 months, with the intention of buying into the property, but now that she'd been here a while, she'd decided against it. Still, she stayed on, doing many of the chores around house while she worried that the coming rainy season would mire her van and force her to stay months longer than she wanted.
Babbling on while she cleaned dishes, I related that we were pleasantly surprised, after hearing Nimbin's reputation, that Jerra Park wasn't just a bunch of people smoking pot out in the woods. She looked affronted. "We do smoke pot here, man."
"I know," I lied lamely, "but its not the reason why everyone's here, right? That's good." Then I decided to shut up and eat my breakfast, a bowl full of tasteless museli, while the others sleepily emerged from the traincars and set about filling their bellies. Wolfgang arrived at 8 am sharp, and gave us our duties for the day. Cierra and I were given a recently cut patch of field, two rakes and a pitchfork. We were to make large piles of the grass every ten meters. Working hard under the hot sun, we were optimistic about finishing fast. It was only as we approached the end of the narrow lane we were raking that we noticed the clearing hadn't stopped, but turned 90 degrees, ran on for a ways, then spread out into a larger area under some trees. We began to weaken. We pressed on with our rakes, and a group of magpies took notice of the fresh ground we were uncovering, perching in the trees around us and darting down to the ground to snatch away insect prizes whenever they dared. Cierra watched one gulp down a cricket only two feet away. Cierra and the magpie, former enemies, now with a symbiotic relationship.
We finished the raking and moved on to machete work, clearing a plant called Lantana. It was introduced by the British as a hedging plant, and has now run amok across much of Australia. Thorny, reaching feelers soon thicken into tangled branches that strangle the light and life from native plants. And it's darn difficult to clear with a machete. I swept the blade in front of me in wild arcs. Ricocheting off a wider trunk, it made a clang. "What was that?" said Cierra.
"That was the power of Excalibur's blade, m'lady!", I sang out in falsely British tones. "Just kidding. But if I've got to wave this thing around, I might as well have an entertaining fantasy about it."
When noon rolled around, we quit work and walked numbly back to camp. Claudia had prepared a tasty lunch for us, and we ate slowly and gratefully, then sat around in a daze for a while. My arms were itching. Eventually, I realized that I was covered in hundreds of tiny ticks, marching along my arms, crawling around on my neck, many already attached. After a cold shower failed to dislodge them all, I spent another hour tiredly picking off my unwelcomed passengers. They were so small you could barely see them, let alone grasp them, so I borrowed a pair of tweezers from Cierra and plucked them off one by one.
Hiking off the farm had been our plan for the afternoon, but the day's work had taken too much energy... now all we could do was eat lunch and dinner, chat with the other workers, play cards, and go to bed early, thinking of tomorrow's labor. This pattern was to be repeated for the next three days.
The second day, Wolfgang separated us, getting Cierra to do some weeding while I prepared the area we'd cleared for the planting of some macadamia nut trees. We put stakes into the ground, I used a heavy pickaxe-like tool to unearth all plants within a meter of the stake, and then dug the hole with an ancient post hole digger, once painted orange, but now rust colored with occasional flecks of the original coat. That was how it worked in theory, anyway. What really happened was that the first hole I attempted was located directly over a large rock, somewhat crumbly and dirt colored. I turned, sweated, and grunted away at the hole again and again, each time reaching into the hole to pull out a few pieces of slatey earth. The dirt here is really packed tight, I thought. Over an hour later, I'd drilled down 20 of the 40 required centimeters, and my shoulder was giving out. Figuring I'd better get on with the other holes, I moved down the line and was surprised to find it took me only 15 minutes to get all the way to 40 centimeters. Only 10 meters away and the clay here was completely different. The other holes were easier as well, but by this time I was completely exhausted, often falling to my knees when stooping to clear the holes of loosened dirt. I was walking unsteadily and actually wondering whether I might pass out in the field. Having finished the sixth and final hole, I was starting again to work on the shallow, rocky one when Wolfgang showed up at quitting time. "How eez it?", he called.
"This first hole, it's inside a rock!"
"Ve hav a crowbar!" he yelled back. "Break zem up und pull zem out!"
Nice. Why didn't you tell me about this crowbar before, I thought. I could have killed him, but I didn't have the energy, and instead dragged my carcass back for a near catatonic lunch and afternoon.
While everyone else had the day off, we had a double whammy the next morning, with more raking, seven additional holes to dig, not to mention having to bust deeper into the problem hole from yesterday. Attacking the rock layers with the crowbar, which was nearly as long as me and half as heavy, I'd deepened the hole sufficiently in about 30 minutes, leaving a large pile of rocks behind as evidence of the local soil quality. Hope that tree doesn't mind having to work pretty hard to put its roots through. We got it all done though, then made ourselves stir-fried rice with veggies for lunch and whiled away the afternoon.
That night, Wolfgang invited us up to his house to view a documentary, The End of Suburbia. Though it starts off looking like it might have been made in the fifties, it's actually a recent film, and one that is of real importance to Americans. It's got quite a few insights into coming economic changes that will force us to shift the way we live and work in America. It certainly deepened Cierra's and my understanding of the oil industry and the limitations of world oil production. No matter what your feelings are on the current hot topic, global warming, this film presents some pretty compelling arguments that our ability to grow in a world that is based primarily on fossil fuel energy is rapidly coming to an end. I'd recommend that anyone who can find a copy of this, should see it. The earlier you can start planning for change, the less chance it will hurt.
When our final morning on the farm came, Wolfgang came down for a good chat across the breakfast table, and then we said goodbye to all. We'd shared a lot with Jonathan, Lydie, Louis, Claudia, and Wolfgang, and though it had only been a bit more than 3 days, it seemed like part of a completely different trip. It was also strange, on the long hike back out of the property, to think we hadn't left the farm for 3 days. Such a beautiful little world unto itself, tucked away in the bush.
Our plan today was to hitch to Brisbane and it started out smoothly, picking up a ride to the nearest filling station right off the bat with a hippie couple in an old station wagon. Their baby was in a car-seat between us in the backseat and had stared at us with big, beautiful blue eyes, especially as Cierra climbed in over the back seat due to the broken door handle. His dad drove down the curvy road as if it was a time trial, and we both clung for dear life as baby stared backwards from his car-seat, calm as could be. Every day for this kid was a trip to the amusement park.
Two guys in a nice new car picked us up next and drove us all the way to one's house in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, suggesting we take the bus and train from there. They were so nice, one let us use his phone, and the other his Internet connection. How lucky are we?