88 days of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
The 28th of December. A brilliantly sunny day in the sweltering Country city of Mildura, north Victoria. A backpacker stands amongst thousands of grape vines, beads of sweat running down her furrowed brow. She removes her ragged gloves and unsightly high-vis sun hat, tossing them at her worn boots on the dusty ground. She turns to her equally exhausted colleague and…
HIGH FIVE. WE’VE FINALLY FINISHED OUR FUCKING 88 DAYS REGIONAL WORK.
Copious beers, ouzo, vodka and tequila shots ensue. Excuse the dramatic opening sentences, but after months of pursuing my 88 days regional work to qualify for a second year visa in Australia the act of throwing down your gloves for a final time is rather dramatic and elating.
It feels like I’ve been tantamount to a dog with a bone trying to complete my 88 days regional work since I arrived in Australia back in March 2017. My plan was to start on my 88 days soon after I’d arrived, I’d heard so many stories about backpackers who’d decided to do their 2nd year visa work at the very end of their stay and ended up tantalisingly short of the whole 88 days. I didn’t want to risk it. Even though the jury was still out on whether I even wanted to be in Australia for 2 years I knew I wanted the option. So after a few weeks exploring Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Noosa I made the decision to chase a 2nd year visa job all the way down in Victoria. After confirming the job details I booked my flight down south. Whilst in the airport at Brisbane I phoned the contractor with whom I’d been in contact, ‘could I have the address of where I’ll be staying to give to my family?’. ‘No’ came the response, ‘for security reasons I don’t give that out’. I politely argued that it was due to security as a lone female traveller that I needed the address to give to someone so they knew where I was. I was told that knowing the address was out of the question and I didn’t have to come if I didn’t want to. About to board the plane I hastily agreed to meet the contractor at 10pm from my connecting Melbourne train. As the train pulled into Shepparton station I shoved my penknife in one pocket and my phone in the other ready to dial 000, just incase. Why didn’t I ask the address before I booked the $200 trip there? It hadn’t even occurred to me that the address might be a secret!
When I arrived there were two other British girls meeting the contractor from the train and although still wary I stowed my penknife in my backpack and hopped in feeling less on edge. So, It was decided! I would apple pick my way to my 2nd year visa. Little did I know that I was infact coming to the end of apple season, so instead of working the 7 day week promised we were actually looking at about 3 days a week. With those maths we would be lucky to complete our 88 days in 6 months. We were also on piece rate and although contractors and famers will tell you ‘you can make more on piece rate than hourly if you’re hard working’ its very rarely true. Often we’d be on track for a $150 day and end up being sent home before eleven because there was no more trees to pick. As the season become more and more fruitless, in every sense of the word, we were put onto colour picking. This means you can only pick the apples which are red enough, often equating to about 10% of the tree. You’d climb up a rickety ladder to pick 3 apples and repeat the process over and over until you finished an 8 hour day having only made about $50. No matter how hard you worked, you’d be lucky to make $10 an hour.
Picking at the top of a Granny Smith tree
My last day apple picking (hence the enormous grin)
Running out of money and desperate to find a 2nd year visa job where I could work every day I applied for countless positions across Australia. When all seemed lost I received a phone call from an advert I’d applied to on Gumtree; Could I start work on a cattle station in West Queensland outback next week? My accommodation and food would be included, and I was guaranteed $450 weekly after tax, which was far more than we were getting in Shepparton. The station was 40km from the nearest town of Cunnamulla and I would be doing a variety of jobs needed on the farm. I hastily booked my flight back to Brisbane and a 12 hour bus journey towards the small town of Cunnamulla. I was told to let the bus driver know whose farm I’d be stopping at and I would be met there when the bus was due. Along the journey I marvelled at the empty vastness of the landscape I was hurting through, but during the tenth hour the reality of what I was embarking on dawned on me. The plan was simply to meet a man I’d only had a 7 minute phone conversation with off the bus, in pitch darkness, in the middle of the Aussie bush. The middle of bloody nowhere. ‘This is exactly what they tell you not to do’ I thought as the bus ploughed on. I once again shoved my penknife in my coat pocket (the 000 ready option on the phone was a no-go having not had any signal for the last 8 hours) and reassured myself I was doing the right thing, after all he’d told me on the phone he’d just had two hip operations so how much of a threat could he be? ‘Farmers have guns’ said a small voice in the back of my mind… I ignored it and prepared to meet the mystery man off the bus .
The first 2 weeks were great, I went mustering with the farmer and his Aboriginal farmhand, looked after the four farm dogs and scurried around doing household chores. However, the farmer I was working for seemed to become more critical by the day; I wasn’t doing things the right way (aka the ‘Australian way’, which from experience is rarely the right way I’ll have you know) and he began pulling me up on every tiny thing I did or said. As it was only him and me living in the farmstead there was no escape from the constant barrage of criticism and insults.
He was definitely what you’d describe as ‘a character’. He had moments of real kindness and generosity for which I was hugely grateful, but could also be impossibly difficult, critical and ungrateful at times. Although its easy to look back and see the funny side (there were plenty; My favourite has to be when he insisted that Wales was north of England no matter what I said) but in the moment, when he’d moan about the food I served or the order in which I’d watered the garden plants, it was hard to shrug it off and laugh. There were times when he was cruel and personal with his retorts yet I kept in mind the stories I’d read about backpackers being sexually harassed whilst working on cattle stations and felt thankful I wasn’t one of them. With no sounding board to bounce off and no internet to call home I relied heavily on muttering to myself while alone or having full blown conversations with the farm’s four dogs. Both of these tactics subsequently made me feel like I’d lost my mind more than a little. I can honestly say I’ve never felt lonelier in life than the 7 weeks I spent on that farm outside Cunnamulla. In hindsight I’m both incredibly amazed and also proud of myself for putting up with what I did.
Docking in the yards at the farm (cutting the lambs tail off)
Mustering with farm dog Lucy
My original plan was to endure a whole 12 weeks at the cattle station and complete my days, however, when a couple of jackaroos from a local farm, a shearer and a contract muster came to stay while the boss was off for the weekend I got a little carried away. We devoured three cartoons of XXX lager and for reasons still unknown to myself I decided it would be a great idea to take the farmer’s favourite buggy out for a spin. In my somewhat tipsy state I managed to roll the prized buggy whilst taking a corner far too quickly. I have no idea how I came away from the accident with nothing but a couple of grazes and bruises but I was sure that when the farmer returned I’d be a goner. I packed my bags and was strangely eager to get the sack as soon as he returned. It wasn’t long before I was out on my ear; Oh, it was also the day of my 25th birthday when I was left homeless and jobless in Cunnamulla town. My predicament was pretty diabolical it must be said, but at that moment I couldn’t have felt happier at the prospect of having escaped the farmer and that terrible job. While sitting on a park bench in Cunnamulla wishing my self a Happy Birthday and pondering my predicament I was fortunate enough to get chatting to a decorator from Charleville, a town 200km north of Cunnamulla. He called around some friends and managed to find me a job and a place to stay in his home town and promised me a lift back with him in a couple days time. He subsequently introduced me to his lovely family and we enjoyed several beers on several occasions in his backyard during my six weeks in Charleville. Brock and his family have to be the nicest people I’ve met during my whole time here in Australia and I’m forever grateful to them for their kindness when I was down on my luck.
My next farm job came a few months later, having travelled up the East Coast I was in desperate need for extra funds so decided to stop for a few weeks in the North Queensland town of Tully and kill two birds with one stone; Farm days and some extra travel cash. Tully is known only for a handful of things. Having one of the highest rainfalls in Australia, bananas and sugarcane. That’s about as far as it goes. I managed to secure a place at a working hostel with the promise of full time work and that promise was fulfilled only 12 hours later with a job sorting bananas in the shed of a farm about 30 minutes from town. Talking to other backpackers I realised just how lucky I’d been, many of them had waited upwards of 5 weeks for work to begin. The hostel was… grim. A semi outdoor kitchen with two ovens for over 100 people and a built in bar downstairs made for a less than enjoyable stay. Knowing I was only there for a couple of weeks kept my morale just high enough to continue. The work was also hourly, something I’d began to realise was difficult to come by with 2nd year visa jobs so I ploughed on and managed to rack up another 12 days towards my visa in Tully. The work itself was far beyond mind numbingly boring. For 8 hours a day I stood beside a conveyer belt of banana hands (bunches to the rest of us) tossing bruised or damaged fruit and neatly organising them to be transported down to the sorters.
Banana Shed where fruit is sorted and packed
Personal lockers in the staff area
After another few weeks of travelling around Victoria it was once again time to get back to the farm work. I assured myself that this would really be the last second year visa job I would have to endure and headed off on an 8 hour train journey to Mildura, north Victoria, to work on a vineyard. At this point I couldn’t get a definitive answer from anyone, least the immigration department of the Australian Government, as to whether my weeks in Cunnamulla counted as 5 days a week or 7 so I made the decision to count them as 5 and complete 88 individual days work. Woe-betide I applied for my visa and got denied based on the fact that the cattle station work was infact only worth 5 days a week rather than the 7 promised. The work in Mildura was hourly paid for four weeks whilst the last week went to piece rate. It was probably my favourite farm job. The hostel wasn’t anything to write home about, but what made it was the people I was fortunate enough to spend the unfortunate work time with. We shared in our combined frustration about the contractor and hostel and had a scheduled ‘Friday sesh’ which lifted everyones spirits (though depleted our bank accounts a fair bit). I finished my 88 days in Mildura and cannot even begin to articulate the feeling of completing that final days work.
Clearing vines at Nangiloc, south of Mildura
The original team from the hostel
Pursuing my farm days has largely shaped my first year visa here in Australia. When you think of it logically it seems insane that I’ve spent nearly 5 months chasing after another 12 months in Australia when I could have simply used that time to travel but chasing visa days took me to the depths of the drought stricken South-West Queensland outback, North Queensland’s tropical banana plantations, Central Victoria’s sprawling orchards and North Victoria’s blisteringly hot vineyards. I feel I’ve seen a little bit more of Australia with every expedition. If it wasn’t for that farm job in Cunnamulla I would also have never spent time in Charleville, the tiny outback town I grew to love and make friends for life in. And now the jury’s back, I love this country (please let me stay forever!) There’s so much room for improvement regarding the formality and legality of the second year visa process that I could go into and the governments attitude towards backpackers needs to change, but I’m glad I completed my 88 days. And I’m also very glad its over.
- www.harvesttrail.gov.au – Overload at times but a comprehensive guide to harvest times, labour requirement and produce type throughout the year in lots of specific locations across Australia. Checking this will mean you shouldn’t get caught out arriving at the end of a season.
- www.gumtree.com.au – I found two of my visa jobs on Gumtree. Look for jobs in specific locations or have an overview of whats about. Search for the obvious ’88 Days/Regional Work/2nd year visa’ but also try things like ‘Farmhand/Jackaroo/Jillaroo/Shed Work/ Picking/Packing’
- www.farmwork23.com – Lists working hostels across all states with contact details and website. Ringing around what felt like a million working hostels was how I ended up in the Banana Shed in Tully. Just don’t get downhearted when the first 10 you try say there’s no work or no beds left, keep trying new locations and before you agree to anything google some independent reviews of the hostel.
- Facebook is of course a great place to look for 2nd year visa Jobs. All the usual ‘2nd year visa/ Farmwork Australia / Fruit picking Australia’ searches will provide pages were jobs are posted, however a must to join is ’Backpackers 88 days and counting’. The page is a means of sharing information about employers among backpackers. Mother of Mia Ayliffe-Chung who died in an Australian working hostel is the force behind the page, attempting to ensure that backpackers pursuing their 88 days are safe and not mistreated by sharing info about farms and hostels.