Friday, 7 July 2017

A Final Wwoof

The drive to Hobart, at the very south of Tassie, was long and reflective. My thoughts kept turning back to Leo and the direction that whole situation had taken. My mind wasn't quite engaging with my feelings, I was overcome with an odd mix of relief, vague dread at the hurt I've inflicted and echoes of my own emotions, gone unacknowledged, by me.

The journey wound us back up to the top of the national park, then looped back southwards, and was mostly uneventful, save for a stop at Lake St Clair, where a drove of exhausted trekkers, having just completed the overland track from Cradle Mountain, got on the bus, thin, dusty and stinky. I was, predictably, jealous. Why oh why, I lamented, was I not organised enough to find a way of fitting this in - it would've served as perfect preparation for the New Zealand portion of my trip, where I planned to do some wilderness exploration. Or conversely, why oh why was I too rigidly organised, pedantic, even, so that I couldn't find a way to rearrange my plans and allow this to happen. But then, if I were different, I suppose other things would've been different too... At any rate, the trek I missed out on was purported to be exhilarating, yet not too challenging, through easy to moderate beautiful landscapes, half the way down Tassie. Not for the first time, nor the last, I was sad at how short this segment of my trip was. I'm still unsure how I came to decide five weeks in Australia and Tasmania would suffice.

Definitely non-Aussie Estate Agents
And so, eager for second hand participation, I spent the bus journey haranguing a couple of trekkers about their hike. They were two guys who met on the trail - an Aussie and a Japanese. 'Us Japanese', the man ruminated, 'tend to travel in groups, which means I'm regarded by locals and my fellow countrymen alike as a bit of a suspicious maverick'. The three of us engaged in a pleasant and friendly chat, until, for whatever reason, estate agents were mentioned, and I vociferously offered my opinion of them and their ilk, which deeply offended the Australian. It may well be, he sulkily insisted, that in the UK they are evil soulless creatures, but not in Australia, nope - never in Australia. 

Greeting me in Hobart was a luminescent woman named Jacqueline, and her two Korean
Wwoofers, a giggling pair, Stella and Iris - names they've adopted for themselves when taking an English course in Sydney - real names Keung-Ah and Ni-Keung. Stella was chatty, with a sarcastic twinkle in her eye. Which also meant, as her English was still far from fluent, I could never tell if she was speaking sincerely, or being facetious. This led to frequent awkward silent staring between us over the next few days, with me trying to gauge her intention by careful scrutiny of her poker face. Her companion, Iris, was a quiet woman, who, I've come to realise a full day later, could speak excellent English, but chose not to.

Jacqueline soon turned out to be the nicest Wwoofing host I've had. A semi retired nurse, she tended to my thumb's splinter infection, told me to help myself to the computer - a rare luxury for a nomad backpacker, and announced we were only to work four hours a day and never ever exert ourselves!

Her husband was a lighting specialist, working on giant projects such as the man-made islands in Dubai. He'd been called abroad the previous night, and we were therefore left just us four women, along with three dogs, one cat and two cockatiels.

The house itself was set on a beautiful hill, surrounded by forests, and overlooking the Huon Valley. It had been lovingly built ensconced in the midst of wild gardens, stubbornly rooting into the rocky hills. My room overlooked the harbour and wooded slopes leading down to it. 

Huon Valley, Tasmania
I spent my first evening taking it all in, chatting to Jacqueline late into the night. She told me about the new age movement prevalent in Tasmania, mainly of newer settlers from the past 40 or 50 years - baby-boomers really, alongside the more traditional farming and logging communities. These groups were influenced by indigenous and Shamanic practices, incorporating them into their way of life. Her group would meet regularly and engage in rituals, sometimes augmented by hallucinogens, to facilitate causes close to their hearts. Here was where I first heard of smudging, a ritualistic practice of cleansing an environment of unwanted energies, using a bundle of sage leaves set alight and left to smoke like incense, or waved around an "affected" area.
In the morning I caught up on my emails, then got to work as per our instructions - lugging firewood up a steep hill, which did in fact take some considerable effort, and digging up and transplanting certain flora - a delaying tactic to the house being caught in bushfires. My co-Wwoofers were less than keen to test their English in elaborate chats, and this limited our interaction to short exchanges of fatigue signals, nods and awkward smiles.
Jacqueline was working a night shift and not due back till morning. With my uncommunicative colleagues keeping themselves to themselves, I found myself truly alone in the big house, the rain coming down hard outside, and I surrendered to an evening of comfort telly and canine time, with an occasional fridge venture - for me or the dogs.

One of the three dogs, an impossibly ancient 18 year old called Bear, couldn't quite use her
 hind legs anymore, and needed to be lifted off the floor at times, or she would flop down, only able to get herself up again with great effort. She was a sweet, loving pooch, and during our afternoon's work would occasionally wobble out, and keep us company. At one point that day, I saw her standing on the trail looking over the valley, as if deep in thought, and had a sharp pang of foreboding.

Jacqueline had given me feeding instructions, and mentioned Bear doesn't get very hungry anymore, in fact she rarely eats at all. That evening, however, Bear seemed eager to eat, finished her portion of food and then scarfed the cat's bowl clean as well. It got very cold and as I sat with the dogs I expected her to signal she needs to go outside, having eaten so much, and so kept my coat at the ready, but she slept and slept. Eventually I retired to my room.

The next morning, I went downstairs to find a distressed Jacqueline, who told me Bear's not well. She'd had a few "accidents" during the night, and Jacqueline came back to a messy living room. Bear was looking weaker than ever. Sorrowfully lowering her head, Jacqueline explained she thinks it's time to take Bear to the vet to have her put down, as it isn't right for the dog to suffer any longer. I told her about the cat food and she said it's happened before, but as Bear's been getting worse and worse, there was no point in delaying the inevitable. I suggested I'd come with her and she was relieved to have the company.

We worked in the garden for an hour or so and then drove to the vet's and sat with her as she slipped into unconsciousness, both of us quietly weeping. Jacqueline wiped her tears and said, 'this is not something you'd expect to be doing on your Wwoofing trip'. I shrugged;  you never really know where life takes you and it's all part of the journey after all.
We got back before noon, and worked in silence for a time. Jacqueline then said she had a hospital appointment in Hobart, and asked if we wanted to come along for a couple of hours' exploration of the town, while she's at the doctor's. Naturally, we all said yes. I only had a couple more days before my flight back to Melbourne. It was a 6am flight, which meant I would need to spend the night at a hostel to make it, so this was a good opportunity for me to get the feel of the town and maybe check out some potential accommodation.

Lovely Hobart Harbour and wharves
After a quick wander in town, during which I managed to locate the hostel i'll be staying in, we drove back, and Stella announced she would prepare Korean food for dinner. Despite the lacking level of communication between us, I felt we had very subtly bonded over the past couple of days. It was clear I connected with Jacqueline, but it was nice to be reminded that some sympathetic connections form naturally and unexpectedly, and didn't necessarily require verbal interaction. I suddenly felt sad about her leaving soon, particularly as it's been a day of difficult goodbyes. After dinner, we all sat together for a short meditation, wishing Bear a swift journey, getting constantly interrupted by a curious and cheerful Piper, the puppyish white Retriever, which lightened the mood and gave the evening a sense of continuity and a life circle, all that crap.
All my female Wwoofing hosts in Tassie so far have experienced at some point or other in their life a serious illness. It was interesting how differently each of them handled it, and I wondered if it could be taken as a measure of character. Never having been seriously ill for a lengthy stretch of time myself, I couldn't imagine how I'd have dealt with the situation - most likely with a demand for martyrdom peppered with a high degree of whinging - which makes me fairly certain you could estimate people's position on the positivity-negativity spectrum that way. Using the three women as examples, Susan had been very ill once upon a time, and was all better now, but would never stop talking about it, forever wringing pity out of the listener. Kathy had an ongoing, non-life-threatening condition, albeit extremely unpleasant and long-term, and she allowed it to suffocate any feeling of joy and obstruct her making any changes or improvements in her life. In contrast to them, Jacqueline was gravely and terminally ill, but hardly ever mentions it, despite the fact that, as it turns out, it was most probably caused by toxic crop spraying nearby their then house. Others would no doubt have taken the wronged victim approach, but she refused to dwell on it, nor was she bitter. She may not have had long to live, but you wouldn't know it. She went about life with the same love and joy of a person touched by a moment of clarity, or miraculous healing.
My last day's Wwoofing in Tassie was quite memorable. In the afternoon, Jacqueline drove 
An oyster glut!
Stella, Iris and me to the bay, where we watched the water turning red by the sunset, and spotted a couple of suspicious fins peeking out - presumably dolphins, although, true to form, the creatures wouldn't break my streak of bad luck by making themselves known to me, the teases! We were then led along the coastline towards a vast beach completely covered in... oysters! We couldn't believe it. I love oysters, but oh, I was a mere amateur next to Iris, who screeched with excitement, swooping along the shore, picking a few select juicy ones, then proceeding to frantically bash them open with a rock, and we spent a happy hour eating briny-sweet wild oysters in the twilight, a once in a lifetime experience.

The next morning, Jacqueline drove me to Hobart and presented me with a hand-bound notebook she had crafted as a parting gift, with a touching message of friendship inside. I didn't know whether I'd ever see her again, as even if I ever made it back to Tassie, she may no longer be alive.

Constitution Dock, Hobart
I spent the day walking around the colonial town - in places picturesque, more frequently rough, certainly economically under some duress. I walked around the redeveloped docks, purchased from a street stall a dinner of fresh scallops and chips with a nice local beer, then made my way to the hostel to settle for the evening.

The common area was sparsely populated with a few friendly travellers. Chatting to them, I mentioned I had an unused, still safety-capped gas canister, bought in preparation for my planned hiking trips, or to be used if I ever needed to camp out on a Wwoofing stay. Unfortunately, I'd have to dispose of it as I wouldn't be able to take it with me on the plane back to Melbourne. A sweet and friendly German guy helpfully pointed me in the direction of a nearby shop, where I was able to sell it. This seemingly innocuous thoughtful act made my stay here such a different experience, especially juxtaposed with the next seaside hostel i'll be staying in...! It's incredible how such small gestures can make you feel utterly taken care of, or utterly alone.

The Hobart hostel

When I got back to the hostel, the place had come alive with the addition of an extremely chatty Japanese girl and a silent Korean girl, staying in town before starting Wwoofing in the next couple of days. They were approached by an American man in his 50s, who cheerfully offered several horror stories about the dangers of Wwoofing. Clearly taking pleasure in alarming them, he warned that they must possess the necessary chutzpah to ask vital questions before committing to any long stays, such as 'do i get to eat?' and 'are you going to sell me off?', stuff like that. There have been many cases, he explained, of Wwoofers, particularly women of East Asian origin, being taken advantage of due to their timid demeanour. There have been cases of hosts, particularly on commercial farms, using Wwoofers in place of paid labour - making them work long hours, without break, appalling conditions, even preventing them from leaving. The Japanese girl was suitably horrified and grateful, assuring him she would not let that happen. But then, she was not the quiet timid type.

Although friendly, it was grimy little hostel, made worse by the albeit lovely German guy's revolting pair of shoes, stinking like a pair of over-anxious skunks in our shared dorm. I set my alarm for 4am and tried to sleep through the foot odour fug. At around 1.30 i was jolted awake by a god-awful row between two severely inebriated gentlemen, shouting somewhere in the hostel. The racket got louder and louder, doors and bodies slammed with heavy thuds. The dorm beds all rustled at the disturbance, but no one got up. It was odd - everyone just let it run its course, as if accustomed to the routine. There was a final slurry shouting, an angry door slam, then silence. Half an hour later i was awoken again to the same voices, now laughing and singing, best of friends, harmony recovered. Thankfully, the two appeared to have passed out soon after, and i got a couple of hours' sleep, before trundling to the tiny Hobart airport in time for my one hour flight to Melbourne.

I spent the night in the city, then got a coach heading along the Great Ocean Road, overlooking the shores of Southern Australia - I've had several gasping protestations from various people at my failure to visit the area - it was a must see, I was told. With little time left in Australia, I stopped off for one night in Apollo Bay, a small beach town, as I haven't yet visited a single beach, nor even used my bathing suit. And yes, it was true - how could I possibly justify having been to Australia and not once been to the beach?

The spookily endless shores of South Aus
Apollo Bay itself was nothing to write home about, but the shores were spectacular - deep emerald green waters and white sands, surrounded by forested hills. I got into town around lunchtime, checked into the hostel, then popped down to the beach with my towel and book. I looked in both directions. The coastline appeared to continue indefinitely, with not a soul to be seen. It was, in fact, slightly spooky. I sat there for a while, reading and trying to relax, contemplating going in for a dip, imagining delightful scenarios filled with sharks, stingrays and jellyfish, or a lone lunatic making off with my belongings, or worse. Relaxed I was not. All of sudden, it got very cold - although the sun was shining, a chilly cutting wind was blowing, and this was the excuse I needed - I grabbed my things and headed back to the hostel.

Here I spent a riveting afternoon and evening putting a jigsaw puzzle together with a progressively drunker Italian girl, who, with each sip of vodka, became more and more irate about her boyfriend, who was apparently at the pub, watching the cricket and late coming back. Even so, we at least managed to have a nice chat. The rest of the characters at the hostel were composed mainly of 20 something year olds visiting town with the sole purpose of looking good, topping up their tan and doing nothing other than drinking and posing some more. Not my sort of crowd. Needless to say, they didn't particularly take to me either, and i was grateful I was only to spend the one night here.
The next day i walked up a nearby steep hill, to Mariners lookout, overlooking the bay and surrounding beaches, and got to the top just as two hang gliders drove up with their equipment, setting up for a little late morning glide. It was majestic and exhilarating just to watch, definitely an add-on to my bucket list. The only complication was they had driven to the top with all the gear, had their glide down, then had to hitch a lift up to the car again - I passed the two on the way down the hill almost an hour later, no one would stop for them! Out of jealousy, no doubt... 

Mariners Lookout - when hang gliding, aim to land near your car
I still had 4 hours to pass before getting the coach back to Melbourne. I sat at the hostel unencumbered by human interaction, I may as well have been wearing a leper sign around my neck and ringing a warning bell. The common area was filled with groups of hip young posers, getting ready for a night of debauchery. My attempts at friendly chat to pass the time fell flat. My tip would be, if ever you plan to go anywhere such as Apollo Bay, go with friends, or you'll never feel as alone - this is one cliquey party town.
Back in Melbourne i was requisitioned by a sweet, yet rigid, German woman, who demanded I come to dinner with her, as she would 'never eat on her own'. I could not argue with that. We grabbed a cheap and odd curry, which tasted nothing like a curry, yet was still enjoyable. The woman explained she had just finished her studies at university, and, having already moved out of her Melbourne flat, she was reluctantly staying at the hostel a few days before she goes back to Germany. She complained vehemently about how there was no way for her to take all her belongings back with her, lamenting how much it all meant to her. Why not have it sent to Germany?, I
asked. She pooh-poohed the idea sternly - 'No. I do not intend to spend a hundred Aussie dollars on sending it.' 'A hundred dollars...? That doesn't seem much to pay for sentimental value...', I tried. 'I won't do it', she stubbornly insisted. 'Can you not afford it?', I asked. 'That's not the point, it's so much trouble and I shouldn't have to pay for it at all', she maintained. 'But,' I continued, baffled, 'if it means so much...' It was no use. She balked at my attempts to solve her predicament, and refused any further discussion.
My last day in Australia was spent walking around Melbourne, visiting the Prahan district
St Kilda's beach
and, of course, St Kilda. Prahan was achingly trendy - similar to east London's Shoreditch. St Kilda was lovely too, with an amazing beach, where i strolled for a while. A few beach dudes were doing beach acrobatics and somersaulting tricks, which I took photos of. As I walked off, they caught up with me and asked if I would send them the photos, to use on their "awesome" website of, well, beach acrobatics. This being over a decade ago, my phone camera capabilities were limited to say the least. I told them if i ever worked out a way of getting the photos off it, i'll send them on. As it turns out, however, my phone's days were numbered.
For my final dinner in Australia I stopped off at an idyllic beach bar for some beautiful moules marinière and a celebratory glass of white wine, there I sat reading my Bill Bryson book, till it was time to head back into town, and make tracks for the Greyhound night bus.
I made it to the airport just in time to board the New Zealand bound plane. My glee was premature, as here i was informed that due to a ticketing error by the booking agents, I would need to pay for a paper ticket (again, over a decade ago, airline computer systems were still clunky), and therefore would have to pay an extra $75 if I wanted to get on the plane, a not insignificant cost for a backpacker. This has not been the only slip up by the agents so far, and I was not impressed. Having reluctantly paid up, I boarded, slightly aggrieved, with a first bitter taste associated with my NZ segment of the trip. First of several. 


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