Friday, 29 April 2016

Wwoofin' and a-trampin' in the Grampians

The bus journey north felt very long, but, still suffering from jetlag daze, I kept snoozily dropping off and great big chunks of the way disappeared. I got my first glimpses of kangaroos on the way, through my droopy eyelids. Some living, some not so much. After a few days spent trying to find my way around brand new environments, it was lovely having a break, letting go of the controls, and entrusting the bus driver with getting us to our destination, through the immense landscape.

I was met by my cousin and his van in Narrabri. We knew virtually nothing about each other's current lives, and as we caught up I had flashbacks to how much I enjoyed playing with him as kids, whenever my family would visit his family in their rural home, usually for a whole weekend of running barefoot on the grass, visiting farmyard animals and going swimming in the nearby lake. He was a very sweet child, and as it turns out, an utter sweetheart as an adult too!  

A town called Ma... er Narrabri
Him and his wife, a New-Zealander, whom I've met for the first time, both lovingly looked after me for the next days. I was a good-for-nothing rag, sleeping a lot and unable to do much else, other than exploring the neighbourhood, reading, and sleeping some more. Their kids – a one year old boy and a 3 year old girl - were sweet as pie and I enjoyed their cheery company.

Realising how badly jetlagged I still was, even a week after landing, I was fortunate to have this time to get my body clock in order. The house was right on a lake so I gradually took longer walks, went into town, visited my hosts' workplaces, but generally chilled out. Stimulation was thin on the ground in this one horse town, unless you get excited by the cotton industry. A good thing too, in my current state of mind. 
Lake Narrabri
In actuality, though, this was also time for the realisation of how hard my sister's breast cancer diagnosis had hit me - indeed I was shocked at my own reaction, when, at times, hours were spent sobbing uncontrollably, which must have been a delight for my patient hosts. I am not a crier - to a worryingly robotic extent some would say - but here I was clueless as to how I can come to terms with the situation - on a trip of a lifetime, having to find some way of enjoying it, whilst being entirely pre-occupied with worry over possible developments. I contacted home whenever I could, which was not often, this being an era slightly preceding ease of online instant messaging, but of course, that could not entirely assuage my, nor my family's, concerns. After a few days of sombre meandering, and certainly not a moment too soon for the my cousin's family's continuing peaceful existence, I left Narrabri to carry on with my plans, rested, grateful and apprehensive.

The next stop was to be my first Wwoofing experience, in the Grampians National Park, a beautiful nature reserve, roughly the size of Mauritius, but a mere speck on the map of Australia. I would be based at a bed and breakfast and farm on the outskirts of the small village of Dunkeld, Victoria, not far from Melbourne. Well, I say not far – in real terms about 4 hours' journey away. It's hard to convey just how mindbogglingly big this country is, the area covered so far being a teeny-tiny part of it, and yet I’ve already travelled almost 30 hours in total!

Sunrise on Serra B&B

Margaret was friendly enough when we discussed arrangements and expectations on the phone prior to my arrival. Like many in the Wwoofing community, she was very much into all things new-age - apart from the B&B she ran - Sunrise on Serra, so named after the one of the Grampian mountain ranges visible from her house - she also worked teaching pottery to adults with learning difficulties and practiced Reiki. She had a sweet horse called Gypsy - my first ever horsey friend, a cow called Sunny and two Siamese cats - Ninja and Ling.

She seemed really happy with me being there and wasn't too bothered about working me too hard, which was nice, this being my first experience. From reading people's accounts, at times farm owners try to take advantage of Wwoofers, demanding that they work longer than the maximum 6 hours per day, 6 days a week, and providing minimal conditions. Some even try to supplement and even replace their actual paid labour with this free resource, exploiting naïve Wwoofers. As the scheme is intended as a mutually beneficial and balanced arrangement, whereby backpackers could still use some of their time to explore the area they are visiting, it utterly defeats the object and is extremely unfair, particularly as even after 6 hours of manual labour one would usually be too exhausted to go on, say, a proper trek, let alone if being pressured into working any longer than that. Yes, the farming industry is a difficult and fragile one to survive in, some farm owners literally going hand to mouth, but there needs to be a clear trade or the whole thing falls apart, and those who took advantage got banned from participating. Similarly, workers not fulfilling their part of the deal got asked to leave by the farm owners, reported to the head office, and faced having their membership revoked.

From my correspondence with the various farm owners, I managed to get a good feel for the sort of person I was dealing with and their implied expectations. I sensed that my next farm stay was to be stricter and not as flexible, and was dreading it slightly, and therefore grateful for this soft initiation. However, I was not going to speculate and would reserve judgement for now.

My accommodation at Margaret's was a little soldier's cottage at the end of the garden, full of old gardening tools and other dust covered items, a mosquito net over a lumpy but ingratiating bed - it felt very much like a secluded hut in the jungle, with the sounds of night creatures all around me. It was very peaceful. Each morning I would wake at dawn and go to the main house, stopping on the way at the chicken coop to pick up a couple of eggs for our breakfast, then in the garden to pick some tomatoes. We'd have our delicious orange yolky and plump red nourishment with some toast, then get to work.

View of the Grampians' Serra range
Margaret had me doing some gardening, a little housework and masses of manure shifting – that stuff is fantastic for the garden, and I became an expert in transfer techniques of cow and horse-pat, first shovelled into the rusty wheelbarrow, then on to the vegetable and flower garden. It's a skill! The relationship with Gypsy was particularly gratifying, as it took several days to gain trust, but bit by bit she relaxed, and by the end would gallop towards me in glee whenever I was approaching and nudge me affectionately. Sunny the cow maintained respectful tolerance of my presence, but kept her distance.

In the evenings we would sit at the back of the house, watching kangaroos grazing at the edge of her land, sharing a glass of wine in the dusky sunset's diminishing light. She would tell me about her relationship history, fraught with challenging characters, and I would share alike about my troubled marriage. This is where I learned that getting close with your host could be a tricky line to tread. These were, at times, people thirsty for closeness and human contact, yet at the same time they had a business to run. The relationship formed was one of subordinate and master, disturbed by personal shades, making it difficult to manoeuvre and maintain boundaries. In this instance, the closer we got, the more Margaret was relying on me for answers to her personal problems, I had to work very hard to draw a line. This caused some tension and ultimately a degree of mistrust, a problem I later found to repeat.

In the meantime, though, I enjoyed my time there and was eager to see as much of the area as I could. At the first change I get, I planned to climb one of the mountain ranges, as the farm was right at the foot of the national park. To do so I had to use the farm bike to get to the start of the trail. This proved harder than anticipated... Being more of a rambler than a cyclist, I've always found cycling punishing and the cause of much deep bruising, scraping and slight but increasing panic throughout. As a child, I loved cycling, but only for short distances. It is possible I didn't do it enough to ever feel truly at home with it. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, when the roads were clear of traffic for 24 hours, my dad and I would embark on a cycling trip. Off we'd set, but as much as I wished for it to be an experience both bonding and cherished, I habitually came back feeling I'd let the man down with my low cycling capacity. As a rule we'd have to turn around and go back earlier than planned. And the slight sense of breathless exertion to keep up hounds me to this day.

In order to acclimatise to cycling again, I decided it would be easier to visit nearby Dunkeld first, supposedly a straightforward and quick trip. Internet access was scarce, and I needed to find an internet café so I could check emails and send updates to family and friends. Having memorised the map (not that there were many routes to choose from), I took off, trying to feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and revel in the rush of the open road. Somehow, though, I managed to take a wrong turn.

I found myself in a strange suburban labyrinth of cul-de-sacs, with the roads no longer paved, and paths so new they weren't even mapped yet. I cycled to and fro, getting deeper and deeper into the net of back alleys, a kind of white picket fence rural hell. Not a soul could be seen anywhere.  

Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks. Something was wrong. It was very quiet. The kind of quiet where no birds nor insects are audible. I looked ahead of me, and right there, on the path which just sort of carried on into the open horizon of mountains and forests, in an already disquieting scene of civilisation melting into wilderness, there were cockatoos. Dead ones. Lots and lots of large, white, dead cockatoos. There must have been 30 or 40 of them, scattered all around the path.

I froze, overwhelmed with odd terror. I looked around - still not a soul. Then I looked up. On the trees on both sides of the path, along the branches, were dozens of cockatoos, alive and ominously quiet. They were all staring at me. I couldn't work out whether they were sat in mourning over their fallen comrades, or am I witnessing the aftermath of some great tribal battle, the victorious side gloating over the corpses of the defeated.

slowly, as if facing a growling panther, I backed down the path, never taking my eyes off the trees. It was only when I reached the corner of the path that I dared turn the bike around and cycle away as fast as I could. I had to go a fair way before I got back on the main road, and managed to find my way into the village.

This was to be my first, and relatively tame, close encounter with the wild, within the same week.


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