Commence voluntary work in Dalby; the small country town three hours west of Brisbane Queensland. Snake infested fields, fencing, and friendships.
I regretfully did not bring my laptop and have discovered the local library is only open on my days at work; writing with pen and paper is so passé. So today is our allocated day of rest, naturally a Sunday given we’re situated along the bible belt. The Sunday sun is shining as expected and the 28*c heat is relaxing my aching muscles from my hard weeks’ grafting, from 7 am to 3 pm. My team initially started out as three; a backpacking Italian, an apparently immortal 70 (something) year old positively pursuing voluntary work, and myself. During the last 14 days I have worked for three farming families along the Murray Darling Basin, with eight different volunteers on the varying days. I feel the ever-changing scenery and eclectic mix of complimentary companions is merely an introduction in to the once in a lifetime experience I am about to journey on.
Having moved here after spending eight months fully immersed in the metropolitan Melbourne lifestyle I suddenly feared the juxtaposition I found myself in, and soon it felt like an uncomfortable conundrum I could not find the right answer to. The complete lack of home comforts, media and communication, and social opportunities were the biggest changes I would find hardest to accommodate. I wondered how Bear Grylls would assess and launch himself now in my situation.
The silence and surrounding sounds that accompanied me day and night were strange and unwelcome at first. The three days without company combined with the heavy rain and consequential work redundancy was my first solo low point. The isolated property, named Bethel and owned by the local Baptist Church, presented many new distractions. Whilst I am familiar with the clicking of crickets and high-pitched buzzing of mosquito’s I soon found the new sounds of unwelcome guests an inquisitive feature to the curiously curated and outdated orphanage. Throughout the week I discovered the inharmonious thumping, clicking, splashing and squeaking was the joint effort of the local frogs, mice and other anonymous wildlife that frequented the house past dusk in search of their share of the hospitality and Christian catering. Thankfully after a week and a few new human arrivals to the house, the cacophony of the countryside mellowed out as the exchange of European-Australian accented anecdotes reclaimed normality, and set the scene for the intrepid traveler seeking the second year visa extension.
My Savour, a laptop & one hours free internet.
The Queensland Murray-Darling Committee offer food and accommodation seven days a week in exchange for voluntary work six days a week. I had nervously expected a military style operation on signing up to flood relief work. I have since realised that there is a big difference in farmers expectations between paid and voluntary workers. Morning tea, freshly baked raisin bread and listening to the locals life stories is a pleasant working environment far from the whip cracking, and back-breaking work I had so unnecessarily anticipated. I am also fortunate enough to be working with two guys who are equally as eager as they are strong, and have no problems flexing their muscles whilst us girls complete the lighter work.
As a team we are working under the direction of the landholders. We begin by clearing fences of all debris brought on by the mile high flood water which passed through the properties during December and January. Centuries old Eucalyptus trees ravaged and bent in the strong flood currents are lodged into fences and surviving trees. Wildlife has dispersed and inhabited far and wide, and as the floods have subsided we find ourselves carefully negotiating with King Browns’ and red belly snakes for visiting rights in their new home territory.
As we lift, dig and delve into uncharted debris we are inundated with hatchlings and wildlife flourishing far from their natural nesting place, thriving in the generous post flood growth. Trying not to disturb the local reptilian and amphibian population we reclaim old fencing and materials and on surviving a potentially hazardous morning we progress onto re-erecting fences or building new. I do not have my driving licence nor do I have a clue how to drive a 4*4 through bog, sand and rough terrain, and whilst I hint at this minor potential setback this doesn’t hinder the farmers confidence on offering me the keys. I maintain perfect driving dignity until I become immersed in the local radio station and I aimlessly steer straight into the boggy mud. And then 30 minutes later mount the Mitsubishi between two sandbanks. As if by chance the farmer is close by and rescues me on both occasions in a few wholesome minutes. I modestly decline the offer of driving the tractor and within seconds the guys relish the chance to play with a new toy.
My team now consists of myself, an Irish girl Sarah, an Italian guy Cristiano, and an English guy, Doug. Doug works the heavy wooden fence posts into the deep clay earth with the aging, yet ambitious, John Deer tractor whilst us girls carry out the technical work, measuring distances between posts and pickets. On discovering the ab and arm workout that the ‘picket-post-putter-inner’ equipment gives, us girls relish this task for the afternoon; highly hopeful it will counter balance the generous offering of homemade blueberry muffins we over indulged in at morning tea. By the end of day 15 I feel like I am an expert at fencing, and knowledgeable on many areas of agriculture, including the pros and cons of cross-breeding livestock and witnessing the different methods of taking away a bulls manhood. My now established team of four is the perfect combination of strength, enthusiasm, intellect and humour, and the days feel like they are passing faster than before.
Another beautiful Sunrise.
The early, yet only occasional, 5.30 am rises were initially a minor challenge to my daily routine. When there are so few distractions in the evening however it has proven relatively effortless to fall into a sofa slumber and then slide into bed at 9 pm. The morning drive to our allocated property is unlike any other daily work commute I expect to take pleasure in, in my lifetime. For me now nothing compares to the tranquility, uniqueness and wonder of the Australian outback.
On the rare occasion my now youthful team surface before sunrise we are rewarded with a drive at dawn. A rainbow of pastel colours prominent with pink, purple and mauve, like a dreamy Disney picture, adorn the early morning sky and we find ourselves staring, spellbound, through the morning mist at the golden sunrise. We do not need the weather forecast to tell us that it is going to be another hot day of 30*c and clear blue skies.
For mile upon mile I soak up the scenery and unfamiliarity, all completely new and intriguing. A landscape, a mirror image, of Dorothy’s home town in The Wizard of Oz’. The dusty red roads and cattle and crop fields are endless. The cotton plantations grow as far as the eye can see along the rough and bumpy road, and so inquisitive, I request a short stop at the edge of some blessed bitumen, to examine this botanical specimen at the root of my beauty regime. I pocket a few flowering buds to examine over dinner later. At the end of another hot and sunny day in Dalby I share my botanical discovery with the team, who are equally as curious. We all sit over dinner dissecting the delicate seeds from the fluffy flowering cotton balls that we’re so used to seeing packed in the hundred’s, row after row in UK and European Supermarkets. Another dusty day complete, so tired from the fencing and heat. 68 days to go…