I arrived in Melbourne just in time for the last few hours of 2016. At midnight my plan ended. I’d cycled from London to the far side of Australia in a little under two years and it was time for something new. It was time for a job.
I’d known for a while that I wanted to cycle beyond Australia but if I wanted to spend more months on the bicycle I’d need cash. I would have loved to stay in a cosmopolitan city but I knew it would be easier to save money if I headed somewhere rural where there would be less distractions for a disposable income. If you work in Australia on a Working Holiday 417 visa you get one year in the country during which time you cannot work with the same employer for more than 6 months. If you’d like to stay in the country you either need to get sponsored or do a ‘desirable’ job for 3 months. By desirable I mean somewhere that the Aussies need people, so basically work in farming, agriculture or something miles from anywhere.
Once I’d worn off the hangover that followed me into the new year I sat down at the computer and began sending off a million job applications that would allow me to work somewhere rural and nail my 3 months of specified work – meaning I’d have the option to come back to the country on the same visa another time. I like keeping doors open rather than closing them and besides, it seemed a waste to have a year visa and to have only been around a few months.
I must have fired off a zillion job applications around the country. If I wanted to go to New Zealand I needed to get on with things so I wouldn’t arrive there in winter. Some of the jobs looked great – legit and easy to make good money. Otherwise were a joke. Many farmers in the country prey on backpackers desperate to get signed off for their second year visa and pay them pittance a bucket of picked fruit, knowing that they’re working for the paperwork rather than the dollar.
After a few days I got phonecall from someone in Queensland. I had no idea which job it was (something about a feedlot, but I wasn’t sure what that was or where exactly it was) but I accepted it without thinking twice and hopped on a plane to Brisbane the following morning.
From Brisbane it was a long 6 hour bus to Miles at the very end of the line. It’s an appropriately name town as it is absolutely miles away from anywhere else. It’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet but only as a place to stop so you don’t crash into a kangaroo driving through dusk. The first 90 mins out of Brissy to Toowomba over the Great Dividing Range was beautiful but then there’s a mind-numbing few hours of pancake flat pastoral lands and cotton fields. Yawn.
Queensland was greener than anywhere else I’d cycled in from the coast in Australia. On that road inland there are small towns every 50km and many small farms in between. At Miles I was picked up and driven 20 miles to Condamine where I’d be living. From there it was another 25 miles to my farm.
I got set up with a small donga in Condamine. If you have read my blogs from this country you will know how the people here call everything a town, something that drives me mad. They all called Condamine a town but it was a village. There was a school, a service station, a pub (which was also a liqueur store) but no shop. Only in Australia could you have a village pub and no shop! The service station sold a few bits and bobs for extortionate outback roadhouse-level prices. I popped in for some milk, bread and butter. $16 (£9)!
It’s a good thing I was earning decent money. I got paid $20.50 (+superannuation) an hour. To an Aussie that is a low salary (if I worked in a city I’d be getting a few bucks an hour more than that). But to an Englishman that is around £12 an hour. That is a ridiculously good hourly rate for an unskilled worker back home! I used to do odd hospitality jobs in London shortly before leaving for £6.50, that’s almost half!
My donga was just a little cardboard box that set me back $100 a week (bills inc). It was a simple home where the air-con rattled and ants found their way through the holes in the wall but to me it was the life of luxury. A mattress to sleep on, a sit down loo, a shower, drinkable (if foul tasting) tap water, an oven and hob, fridge and freezer, washing machine. Wow! And I didn’t even need to share. For the first time in two years I actually had a place to myself (actually the first time in my life I’ve lived alone somewhere).
When I was cycling down the middle of Australia I often thought to myself ‘this would be a pretty good place to be a cow!’. The stations I cycled past and through were the size of small European countries, the cattle there would barely see a human before the day they got carted off to the abattoir. I didn’t know about feedlots…
A feedlot is where the cattle go to get fattened up before they get chopped up. Mine had around 10,000 head (and if you think that is big imagine some of the big US ones that had 100,000 cows!). The get put into pens and fed grain for 100-300 days, during which time they out on a serious amount of weight.
There were three sets of workers on my feedlot. The ‘feeders’ kept track of which pens were on which rations (there is a real science behind getting them to put on weight), would mix the grain accordingly and feed them (by pouring the grain into feed bunks) at certain times in the day. The ‘pen cleaners’ removed all the shit from the pens and re-packed them. I was with ‘stockies’ and we looked after the cattle and moved them around.
Every morning the guys on horses would slowly ride through every pen and ‘pull’ any beasts that looked sick. While they were doing that we would re-treat the sick ones. I must have stuck a thermometer up thousands of cow bums. Not a nice job as cows shit a lot. They also have an unfortunate habit of shitting when you poke the thermometer up their arse. They also have an even more unfortunate habit of flapping their tale simultaneously. I have had cow poo in my eye, my ears and nostrils but there is no feeling in the world more gross that getting a fleck of feces so far back in your mouth that your only choice is to swallow…
The poo was the least of my concerns doing hospital. It was the abscesses that were the most disgusting. We’d have to cut a small incision in them and then squeeze the puss out from inside, pulling out the fleshy bits. The smell from a rotting abscess is the most vile in the world.
Clearly it was not a job for the faint hearted. Not only was there a lot of poo involved, it was also long days on foot in the heat. And it was hot up there! The heat wave that came in the end of January bought regular temperatures up in the low 40s. It is not easy to be out all day in the sun in that climate. It wasn’t just me that was struggling, the cows were too. It is too hot for them when it’s like that. You don’t need to be an expert on cattle to spot a pen of fucked cows that are about to die from over heating. They stand still panting away, tongue out and drooling. We’d start work at 5am and finish by 11am because it was too hot for them. Move the cows around too much in that temperature and they’ll just drop dead. Even as it was there were dead ones to get rid off every day. We’d tie a chain round their ankles and tie it to the ute, before driving them off to the ‘dead pit’. You don’t want to know what it was like down there…
Once it started to cool down a tad the hours picked up. The abattoirs that had closed over Xmas re-opened and the sale yards became busy again. The last 7 weeks I was at work I only had 4 days off. I’d usually be at the farm for 55ish hours a week. Then the money became good. I’d have saved a lot more money had their not been a pub in Condamine but as there was nothing else to spend money on I saved a fortune. The shop was 20 miles away and I didn’t have a car so I could only get there once a fortnight. A couple times I ran out of food and had to hitch-hike my way to Miles for some shopping.
I may have been earning a fortune but I had to pay a price for it. I debated a lot with myself about with how ethical a place like this is. The cattle are bred for slaughter. They see no grass in a feedlot, they just walk around in their own shit for months. They get growth-hormones in the ear and pumped with anti-biotics when ill. Then there’s the environmental factors: feedlots like this put a huge strain on the land. The gasses produced in the cattle industry are enormous, the water use crazy and the wastage is plenty too.
I’m not a vegetarian. The thing is, I don’t eat much meat. While I was working there I never bought raw meat – something I try to avoid on the whole. I don’t think there is a problem with eating meat but there is a problem with the way we consume meat as a society. Feedlots are not the problem – they are the only way to keep up with our demands. It is our eating habits that are the issue.
I did feel sorry for the cattle at times but very quickly you become de-sensitised and they just become an inconvenience. You forget that you’re sticking needles in them, cutting holes in their ears, tagging them, injecting them with hormones, castrating them, chopping off their horns and all the other unpleasant stuff and they just become a big fat inconvenience. Stupid animals that never do what you want them to.
Soon it all became very normal. My life became a steady routine and then BAM! It all got flipped upside down. My dad called me up one morning and told me that my grandad was dying, so the next morning I jumped on the bus back to Brisbane and flew all the way home to London. In two days of travel I had undone two years of cycling.
I touched upon the experience in my last blog. I’m not going to write about it in any more detail but the short story is that I got to see my grandad in time. He was alive for a fortnight after I returned and then he died. A few days later I headed back to Australia. It was a surreal experience to say the least. A total head fuck to say the most. But, every cloud has a silver lining and to see my grandad before he passed away is something I wouldn’t have traded for the world. Getting on that plane was the best decision I could have possibly made.
Life was easier when I got back to Queensland. Cyclone Debbie arrived causing carnage across the state’s coastline and we had a very rainy day as its tail end reached us. The farm turned into a mud pit (I say mud, but it was just deep wet cow poo) and the temperature finally became cooler. The Condamine river, which is usually a pathetic looking brown stream, suddenly rose a few meters and flowed with conviction through the gum trees. Luckily the water level stopped before reaching the banks. In 2011 the river flooded and the town became a lake. People were getting to my farm by boat back then!
Finally the end was in sight and although there was plenty I loved about the rural life, I was desperate to get back on my bike. It was all I thought about and I’d even had cycling dreams! The people I worked and lived with were nice but we had absolutely nothing in common. They talked about cows and machinery all day long. Free time was spent out ‘pigging’ (hunting for boars) or at the rodeo. I was the peculiar foreigner who read a book and ate muesli for breakfast (while they ate a pork chop for morning ‘smoko’ at 7.30am). That must be the first time I’ve ever been teased for reading!
There were a couple of other ‘backpackers’ there. A couple of girls were there two weeks, one English girl not even a week and an Irish lad made it three days before escaping back east. In another small world encounter, the one English girl who had been there for 3 months longer than me turned out to be the step-cousin of one of my good friends back home!
The Irish guy was a little less patient than me about the locals’ strange obsession with cowboy culture. “It’s the 21st Century! Why are they still dressing like farmers from Texas 200 years ago?” He had a point though – cowboy boots, akubra hats, cotton shirts and Wrangler jeans were the norm out there. I don’t quite get the Aussie obsession with US Wild West fashion. It looked something out of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
I don’t need to have something in common with people to get along with them but it was the racism that reminded me how out of place I was most of the time. Rural Australia is disgustingly racist. I have thought a lot about how it might compare to the UK (given that I’m a London boy from a tolerant city who’s grown up with half the world around him) but Oz is so backwards in places that it beggars belief. The aborigines are the butt-end of every ‘black fella’ joke – dumb, alcoholics etc. A couple of the girls I worked with asked me about cycling across the outback. ‘Weren’t you scared?’ ‘Of what?” I asked back. ‘The snakes…’ one said, ‘fuck, I’d be more scared of the black fellas!’
When I was near Adelaide I was talking to a policewoman who also asked me if I’d met any unsavoury people in desert. ‘Not even with the blacks?’ she asked when I replied none. A policewoman. I met lots of lovely Aborigines crossing the country. Sure, many were holding a VB stubby but many too stopped to ask me where I was from and where I was heading. I didn’t see any aborigines after I reached the Flinders Ranges back in mid-December. Only a couple begging in Sydney. Now I understand why this social divide I wrote about a few months ago feels so abstract to the rest of the country.
The Muslims get a pretty bad deal among the rural Australians too. It’s ironic because the racist Aussies who have ranted to me about them (and there have been plenty of conversations along those lines) the last half year have never met a Muslim in their life, nor have they ever been near one. One of the girls I worked with was telling me how the ‘boat people’ and Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in the country because they want to stop Australia Day. Hilarious. I don’t think the terrorists are busy in mountains of Afghanistan plotting how to put an end to Australia Day. I suspect there are many more Aussies that have an issue with what Australia Day stands for and the day in commemorates… The girl saying this to me was 17. How can you be so young and yet so jaded? I just doesn’t make sense to me.
It wasn’t just the racism that wound me up, it was the homophobia too. One evening at my local pub a bloke came up to me who’s taken offence to my nose piercing (which did admittedly look a little out of place there). He asked me where I was from, called me a faggot and tried to start a fight with me before I’d said more than two words. I thought he was joking at first and by the time I’d properly realised what was going on and turned around to get out my chair his mates had already bundled him into the car. As a straight bloke it’s not particularly traumatising to get started on for ‘being a faggot’ but it is a little confusing. It would be like someone trying to fight me for being a Muslim, because last time I checked I didn’t feel particularly Muslim. Ah well, at least we know where Ms Hansen is pulling her votes from…
The biggest culture shock of my entire trip was leaving the quite farm life and returning to Brisbane. I have switched sharply between so many cultures in my time on the road but this was the most confusing.
In the UK, our peculiar obsession with class culture permeates whichever way you try to break down society. In Australia (and it is a huge generalisation, of course) you can draw a nice neat line through society with rural Australians on one side and urban people on the other. The rural ones dress like cowboys, urban ones like anywhere else in the world. Rural-ers call everything a cunt, urban-ers swear less. Rural-ers drink cheap, tasteless lager (the only thing people drank where I was living was Bundaberg rum or XXXX Gold lager) whereas the city pubs are full of summery ales and independent brews. It is a different world entirely.
Brisbane was lovely. I was happy to be back in a big cosmopolitan city. It was Buddha’s birthday and all the Chinese were out. There were vegan cafes and restaurants serving ‘grass-fed beef’ and ‘hormone-free chicken’. I stayed with Scott’s (who I cycled with way back in Kazakhstan and China) mum and her partner. They took me to the local cemetery where dozens of kangaroos jumped around the graves unfazed by the visitors paying respect. It is a strange country…
I made a quick stop to visit Sydney on the way back to my bicycle. The waiting time for an appointment with the US consulate in Melbourne was 5 weeks but only 5 days in Sydney. I didn’t want to loose any more time so I’d booked myself in for an interview in Sydney, giving myself an excuse to give the city a little visit. Because I’ve been in Iran I’m disqualified for the 3 month visa waiver and need to do an in interview in-person for a B2 visa. In Iran I was taken into the police station for questioning about what I was doing in the country and now I had to answer the same question to get into America! Ridiculous.
Sydney was gorgeous. By far the most charming of the Australian towns I have visited (which are, on the whole, fairly homogeneous and unexciting). Everything about Sydney oozed charm – beautiful beaches, the iconic harbour, city parks… Why did I have to grow up in grey London?
I’d still been walking around Sydney in a t-shirt but summer ended when I arrived in Melbourne. It was grey and nippy but I was happy to be back in a familiar city where I had friends to visit. Most importantly – I had a bicycle to collect! Thank you Freddie and Kyle for letting her chill in your back garden these last few months!
When I first arrived in the country I’d almost had a heart-attack from how expensive everything was. A beer for $10? That was two days of living in East Timor! Now I had taken advantage of the Australian system perfectly – earnt a fortune whilst spending as little as possible in the country. In 3 months I managed to saved about 4/5ths of what I had spent in the last two years of cycling!
That is the best thing about Australia. Rent in Melbourne or Sydney is not more expensive than London and yet wages are 50-100% higher for basic work. My mates in Melbourne were doing construction work for $25 an hour. You could be on half that in London doing the same thing. The balance of wages to living here is just so ‘healthy’ compared to back home. I think that is what I like and respect the most in Australia. I’m not sure they realise how lucky they have it.
Catch you in NZ!