Friday, 27 May 2016

Into Western Australia

It was a great little phase of my life and I made some enduring friendships but sadly I eventually had to pack up and prepare to leave Darwin. I’d already covered a lot of miles on my Australian travels but this would certainly be the longest leg of the journey: three weeks and 6,000km through the Northern Territory and Western Australia all the way to Perth. We’d be camping out along the way and it would be a heck of an adventure…

My travel buddy from Darwin to Broome was a friend from Germany and our car was a red Ford Falcon called Oma, which is German for grandmother.  There was yellow duct tape holding the front bumper in place and I added a couple of strips of grey tape to the windscreen seals to prevent water dripping through.  The engine was sound and tyres were good though. I was glad for that, especially when I found out we were travelling with no jack or wrench for the wheel nuts!

Held together by duct tape - Oma

Our planned midday departure from Darwin was eventually about 4pm and we arrived at Katherine Gorge after dark.  Compared to when I was there in September, the campground was virtually deserted and it became obvious why on our second night there.  After a lovely sunny day spent walking in the national park the rain arrived. My little tent was no match for the weather and it wasn’t too long before we began to get swamped! Most of the sleepless night was spent in the shelter of the camp kitchen playing cards while the rain hammered down outside.

The beautiful Katherine Gorge

After we dried out wet sleeping bags and in Katherine, we headed west to the mighty Victoria River. The river had delayed our initial departure from Darwin because it had flooded to about seven metres over its usual flow. The sandstone cliffs where the highway crosses the river create a dramatic setting and it was easy to imagine the water raging under the bridge near the Victoria River Roadhouse. This roadhouse had a sign announcing that instead of being ‘under the management’ the owner was ‘under a new wife’!

Victoria River Roadhouse

We ended up in a little place called Timber Creek – population 230 people. This is the only town between Katherine and Kunnunara. It has an interesting history for such a small place and is on the edge of the Gregory National Park but after our woes the previous night we were more interested in catching up on some lost sleep!

Before arriving in Kunnunara we had to negotiate the NT/WA border crossing. We were surprised and a little bemused how strictly this is controlled by the quarantine inspection station which demanded that we give up all our fruit, vegetables, nuts and honey. The irony of it was that if we were travelling the other way there are virtually no checks! In other words, Western Australia is paranoid and the Territory doesn’t really care!

Feeding the tame wallabies

 After having eating some things, declaring others and hiding a stash deep in the car boot we managed to nervously clear the border. After setting our watches back 90 minutes to WA time, we soon found ourselves in Kunnunara. It's a relaxed place set amid lush farmland and tropical fruit plantations and we decided to spend a couple of nights. As expected, it rained again while we were there but lessons had been well learnt and we put the tent under some shelter this time.

Friday, 20 May 2016

From dusk till dawn

After a break for Christmas the planting season on Melville Island was at its peak and the operation went 24 hours a day. I was asked if I’d like to supervise the nightshift guys and initially I didn’t like the idea. But when I found out the new pay rate and that I’d get a room at camp with a private bathroom my arm was twisted. My hours of work were now 6pm to 6am. In the dining room breakfast was now dinner and vice versa. I’d be sleeping in broad daylight and my whole world seemed upside down. I coped but it’s something that I never really got used to.

My room in the camp

“It’ll be great” the guys told me, “we’ll be avoiding the heat of the day the others endure”. Heat and humidity, sweat and dust. It was true the night was cooler but it also brought with it the mosquitoes and dingos. We had to cover up and ensure that food was always securely hidden away in the truck. And it was dark and although we had light towers and headlights, little mechanical problems always seemed to be magnified without daylight. It was a challenge that we had to embrace and do the best we could. 

Mantova workshop

As supervisor, my job was to ensure that my crew put as many tree seedlings into the ground as possible each shift. While the guys were out planting, I had to supply them with everything they required. Seedlings, fertiliser, water, encouragement and the occasional kick up the arse. I had to keep track of everything and if numbers on my paperwork were down, it was me that got asked the questions, not them. Occasionally I’d jump on a tractor or planter unit to keep things moving but generally the guys did a good job.

According to some sources, Melville Island receives the more lightning strikes than anywhere in the world. January is storm season and after heat building through the day, they often roll in during the night. So, it added another dimension to the nightshift and the lightshow across the skies were spectacular at times. One night I had one tractor about to start a run but I quickly told them to park up and take shelter in the truck.  As the rain came in I jumped in the ute and raced up the top end of the field where I found two guys crouching beside the wheel of their tractor.  

With Paddy outside the camp office

I know from experience when the rain is coming in sideways it's about the only shelter you can get! I yelled at them through the wind and rain to jump in because we had to get out immediately.  It was too late though...we couldn't engage 4WD and became bogged. Fortunately we had radio communication with the truck and they said a tractor would be up to get us when the rain eased. But not before!  So we sat for about 45 minutes watching the most amazing lightning all around us and listening to the frightening booms of thunder that closely followed. 

Eventually the rain did ease and a tractor arrived to rescue us.  It was an easy job to pull it out and we left the muddy field at about 4am. I’d learnt the hard way that as big and powerful as tractors are, they’re often no match for the conditions. That night we’d bogged a tractor and the larger one I sent in to tow it out also became bogged. It was a job that called for resourcefulness and creativity in problem solving. With no mechanic on the nightshift I often felt like MacGyver trying to keep the planter units out on the fields instead of parked up at the end of a row.

Farewell Melville!

The peak of the season came and went fairly quickly. Night shift finished and it wasn’t too long after that the whole operation ceased. On my final rotation on the island I was offered pruning work with another company but I’d had enough. It was an unforgettable experience, I’d made new friends and my bank balance was finally looking reasonable. It’d been six weeks and now the Kiwi on the Tiwi was finished. It was time to return to Darwin, pack my things and find a ride going south.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Tree planting on Melville Island

I started off planting but soon learned how to drive the tractors and spent the majority of the time doing that.  It was certainly the easier of the two jobs.  The third part of the operation was driving the ute to refill the tractors with plants and fertiliser. They only had a range of about 1.5km so unless the rows were short they couldn’t make it back without this support.  There's something about the air con and radio in the ute that made that job a popular one...

So while it wasn’t strenuous work, they were long 12-hour days.  Sometimes we got lucky and didn’t have to work a full day because of the weather. Being the start of the wet season, Melville Island was receiving rain and thunder storms every day.  The only question was whether the field we were working in would be hit. Light rain was okay – in fact in the tropical heat it was great!  It lowered the temperature and eliminated the dust.  Heavy rain meant a risk of vehicles (even the tractors) getting bogged in the mud and we had no choice but to stop work to avoid it happening.

Typical wet season storm cloud

There are no sealed roads on Melville Island.  They are all graded forestry roads so can turn muddy very quickly.  One day a road near where we were working literally had a river flowing down one side of it.  The ground was saturated from rain the day before and the water had nowhere else to go. The weather patterns on the island are very localised though. We finished two hours early one day because of the rain but because it was dry and sunny back at camp we were sent out to another field!

The forestry camp was adjacent to the unsealed airstrip and consisted of portable buildings arranged around the central office, kitchen and recreational room.  I had my own room for the first time in months, complete with a wardrobe and writing desk. There were ablution blocks and two laundry rooms where overworked washing machines and dryers laboured with the dirty clothing of about 180 guys every night. Although it was a ‘dry’ island, there was a bar in the camp that was open for three hours each evening.

Plane on the island airstrip

For a poor backpacker, the camp food was great. Breakfast was either cooked or
continental depending on your preference and lunch from the buffet consisted of cold meat, salads, bread, cake and fruit.  Dinner was a variety of main dishes followed by dessert and every Sunday was barbeque night. Always the best night of the week for Mantova staff because the boss put $150 on the bar for us. Work hard, play hard.

So, together with the boys we settled into the groove. Work, eat, sleep; rinse and repeat. But they were all great guys to work with and we had some fun along the way. One day rain was threatening and Henry was complaining there was no toilet paper.  He eventually decided he'd improvise and walked out into the bush. Very soon it was raining and I wondered where he was. It took a full five minutes for him to return and he was totally saturated.  He had a look of disbelief on his face and he wasn't back long when he told me he had to go back and 'cover his tracks'.

Relaxing with Henry after work

When he returned dripping wet a second time I had to ask what he was doing out there!  He told me he'd had a bit of a mishap.  As he was squatting in the bushes he realised it was starting to rain.  Not wanting to get wet he jumped up, slipped on the damp grass and fell back into his own excretion!  His pants were around his ankles but he soiled is boxer shorts pretty bad.  When he went back to ‘cover his tracks’ it was actually to bury the boxers. I laughed like there was no tomorrow and still smile now thinking about it.  So funny… 

Friday, 6 May 2016

Kiwi on the Tiwi

So life in the Top End was great. I had the best of both worlds – I was earning enough money, had a nice group of friends and plenty of leisure time. Hey and the bar just over the road had a promotional night every Thursday with free beer! Yep, it was wet season but all going swimmingly and didn’t want for anything. Even so, I was made an interesting job offer: planting trees on Melville Island 80km north in the Timor Sea.

The Tiwi Islands

It wasn’t a job offer I had to consider for too long; it was an adventure and I was in! I quit my job at the restaurant and within a couple of days I was joining a few others in yellow work shirts at Darwin airport for the flight across the Beagle Gulf. While we waited for our little four seater plane to prepare for takeoff, I learned a little more about where I was headed to…

Melville and Bathurst Islands make up what is known as the Tiwi Islands, so named because they are home to the Tiwi Aboriginal. So yes, for the next six weeks I’d be the Kiwi on the Tiwi. One of a few actually because a couple of mates from the hostel also got jobs out on the island. The Tiwis (‘We People’) have a distinct culture and produce some vibrant artwork. They have a lifestyle that involves hunting and gathering to supplement their mainland diet. Tourism is restricted on the islands and it’s somewhere I’d never have reached otherwise.

Football on the Tiwi Islands

I was employed by an earthmoving company called Mantova which is based in Queensland.  Mantova were contracted to a company called Sylvatech Forestry and employed about 25 people on the island.  The trees that we planted were Acacia and will be used eventually for pulp and paper. Flights to the island were every four days so work periods were between 8 and 32 days. I decided that 16 days was about right for me before taking a four day break back in Darwin.

The days of drinking too much, sleeping in, swimming and playing beach volleyball before doing a few hours work in the evening were suddenly gone. Life on the island would be no more than work, eat and sleep. Food and accommodation was all paid and there was good money to be had. But we would work for it. 

Melville Island forestry camp

Work days typically began in the predawn gloom of 4.45am, which gave us 45 minutes to dress, make lunch from the buffet, eat breakfast and be at the morning briefing by 5.30am.  Ten minutes later we'd be in the vehicle and travelling the 10km out to the fields to begin 12 hours of tree planting.

The planting was done from four tractors with planter units behind them.  These units have a single seat at the back where the planter sits with trays of seedlings within reach on each side. In the middle of the planter is a large wheel that rotated as the tractor moved.  Attached to the wheel was a funnel that plants were dropped into and then forced into the ground. Press wheels then compact the surrounding earth and another tree is successfully planted.  A scenario that was repeated many thousands of times every day...

Tractor and planter units

The biggest battle for the whole operation was to keep four working tractors and planters on the field. Unfortunately the harsh environment meant that machinery was subject to all kinds of breakdowns.  Tyres were punctured, springs, chains and bolts broken, hydraulics failed and various parts became out of alignment.  The planting process had to be done correctly and this was monitored both internally and also by Sylvatech.  One day we had a 70% failure rate, a very unhappy boss and a ban from planting any more until the issues were solved.