Tale of an illegal Fruit Picker

Travel Diary by Mateusz Tuniewicz

From April until the end of September 1999 I travelled across Australia. At one point I ran out of cash and had to find a job to pay for food and other pleasures. Every year hundreds and hundreds of backpackers end up Down Under, lured by the availability of odd jobs. Many of them arrive from Southeast Asia without a penny, knowing that in a matter of days they can be back on their feet.
A few nationalities, such as the Dutch, British and Canadians, are privileged since their respective governments enjoy bilateral work visa agreements with Australia, allowing young people to work for one year. Such a paper undoubtedly makes things smooth for this group of travellers as they can simply apply for any job within the country while being mobile.
Others, like myself who do not carry a work permit, face a bit of a challenge. After all, when caught by the Immigration Service you can be deported on short notice to any place in the world including the PRC or Libya, your funds confiscated with cold blood. The Aussies are serious about their business.
However, there are ways to get around the strict regulations, particularly in Australia. The country is vast enough to conceal scores of Backpackers/Dodgers who must work to travel. From the government's point of view what you do is, to put it mildly, immoral; however, all you desire is to come up with enough cash to move from Perth to Broome, or to fly out from Brisbane to Bangkok. Unfortunately, your species of 'border walkers' (or transnational human entities) does not figure in the government's 'old politics' manual. As long as such a situation prevails on the global arena, you will have to hide and, occasionally, resort to such utterly repelling jobs like agriculture in Western Australia.
Kununurra - Before You Go, Think Twice!
It would be unfair if I failed to share my work experience in Kununurra, Western Australia, with those of you who one day might be driven there by despair. It is an archetypical Aussie town woken up from its perpetual slumber on Friday evenings when citizens cram to local bars to "get pissed" on Emu beer (local brew).
Located on the edge of the Kimberley, one of the most inhospitable, desolate areas in the world, Kununurra thrives owing to the grand scale Ord River Irrigation Project, that delivers precious water to this dry but fertile land. Today there is more work in Kununurra than the farmers can handle, therefore, if you are broke and without a work permit the town can be good news for you.
Keep in mind that the season stretches between May and November. Otherwise, you will encounter only rain and mud beyond this time frame. Also, remember that on account of the extreme weather conditions and, often, a repugnant behaviour of the farmers, only very few desperate travellers survive to the end. Your well-being will hinge in large part on the people and friends you will deal with. From my experience I can reassert that time heals bad memories, leaving you with faces and moments that have positively contributed to your survival.
I first heard of Kununurra in Tully, a banana-growing hub of Australia on the East Coast. An Israeli told me that jobs there were plentiful and no one would ask you for a work permit. Desperate as I was, I hitched across the heartland in the company of my girlfriend via Mt. Isa, Three Ways Crossing and Katherine. In Kununurra, I met with a friend of mine, Alister, who had already arranged a job for me.
For the record, finding something to do there is quite simple and there are a few ways you can go about it. If you have a work permit, you can go to a rural job centre where someone will contact you with a farmer who, in turn, will put you to some backbreaking activities. Otherwise, you can't be worse off finding the same deal on your own. Many big farms arrange transportation for their seasonal workers from three established points in town. The most popular are Shell Station where Bardena Farms pick and drop off their "slaves". You can also try the Post Office where the infamous Bothcamp Australia Farm collects their manpower. Your next bet would be to stumble towards Chicken Treat Restaurant where the iron-fisted and short-tempered owner of Ceres Farms, a Teuton par excellence, lines up his men.

Job No. 2
You don't stay unemployed in Kununurra for too long. The turnover of workers is extraordinary and many farmers do frequent rounds in their "troopies" (an Aussie word for 'pick-up truck'), looking for seasonal workers. Even though most of the time people are desperately needed on farms, it doesn't mean that backpackers have any leverage in negotiating or asking for better treatment. The farmers will treat you like cattle and fire you as they please... The formula works to their advantage; there are simply too many of us.
After I had phoned Ceres Farms, I immediately got my second job in Kununurra. The conditions on the farm impressed me for their closeness to the gulags in the Soviet Union about which Solzenitzyn writes so descriptively. The farm specialises in pumpkins and assortments of watermelons that first must be pre-selected, cut off the stems, arranged in single file, and then collected by workers.
Seldom breaks, tense atmosphere, continuous process of picking, spying by the German boss with his high-powered binoculars, and his frequent fits of rage make the farm a perfect breeding ground for mad men. One Aussie guy, a professional seasonal worker, reached the point where he could only function properly and relate to others in the deranged conditions of the farm. After hours, he quickly turned to a most unsociable and sombre species of man. The more unfair, high pace, and painful the activity was, proportionally to the heat of the day, the louder and madder he would become.
Another guy from Sweden, nicknamed 'Terminator', was known in town as the most loyal of the backpackers on the farm. Somehow he relished in being underpaid by the German farmer and even appeared grateful when awarded a 100-Aussie-dollar bonus at the end of the season. Someone told me he left Kununurra without a penny for he had blown everything in local bars!
In my case, the madness on Ceres Farms was short-lived, lasting only 24 hours, nightmares included. On my second day, the German farmer approached the crew during the lunch break and in his broken, thickly accentuated English fired six of us for an alleged insubordination, goofing off in the fields, and abusing his generosity. You should have seen him in his over-sized dark shades, yelling nervously at the innocent backpackers. It was a most ridiculous and pitiable display of human aggression. People tried to contest him and point out that he used antiquated Second World War methods, but all in vain. The English with work visas phoned the police; however, two other guys and I disappeared immediately. After all, there is more to do in Kununurra beyond dealing with one insane freak.
My test-and-trial approach to finding the most congenial work environment proved to be the right path. You must not take to heart the fact that sooner or later you will get fired on some unfounded, dumb account. As a matter of fact, the farmers don't ever take you seriously unless you make a commitment to slave for the entire season and keep your profile low. So why should you take them seriously too?
The best method to preserve your sanity while rubbing shoulders with Aussie farmers is to keep continually in mind that you're there to make bucks and get out as quickly as possible. Farmers don't trust you because you're a backpacker. Curiously enough, this term bears a negative connotation for Aussie country folk, meaning 'scum of the earth'. When pronounced and accentuated correctly with a doze of demeaning sounds, 'backpacker' can channel out all the aggression and lack of respect.
I encourage you, though, to stand up for yourself in your workplace. It will happen that some overzealous foreperson will not let you quench your thirst in the middle of the day because his commission depends on the quantity collected from the fields or that he will shorten your needed 'smoko' break out of no reason. Don't ever wait to stand up for yourself but apply the same foul language to make a point. Any other method of expression will not be comprehended. Most likely you will get fired but that's exactly how I found a farm where I could bear tortuous work in a more humane environment.
Finally Something "Right" - the Croot Farms
The surest bets in Kununurra are the Croot Farms and Oasis Farms for their rather civilised treatment of workers. The two are my undisputable recommendations, although they still fall far from what would be socially acceptable norms elsewhere in the First World.
I spent two months working for the latter, liking the fact that I was not abused verbally. The farmer and his two adolescent children related to their workers with respect and kindness. They were stern concerning workload and ridiculously exact down to the minute when it came to breaks. They mastered a double speech whereby what workers heard from the boss sounded pleasing and encouraging while the undercover meaning was calculated and mundane. The drive for profit beat any human rights rhetoric and that's pretty much how the entire world goes around. It didn't matter, to tell you the truth, as long as we received a case of cold beer on Friday afternoon from the boss!
One thing is sure, though. By the time you leave the Croot Farms in a hurry to make it to Southeast Asia, you will be able to recognise a dozen kinds of pumpkins and watermelons. You will be shaped like an athlete and tanned like a surfer dude. And, what's important, the farmers will pay you, however little, for that.
Every day, seven days a week, you will see the sunrise and sunset from the plains of the field. You will learn to tell time by the position of the sun in the sky and watch with awe the glow of the bush fire overwhelming the horizon. The weather will turn more unbearable as the months progress. By 7 am the sweat will pour down your skin as you grapple with the prospect of a ten-hour day ahead of you. You will become a master of internal dialogue, going over your entire life as you progress with the clippers along the unending row. Towards the end of the day, your mind will cease its intelligent functions, making you look more like a human machine following a high powered tractor. You will be driven back across picturesque fields to your caravan park where simple joys of life, such as a good dinner, cigarette, and the company of friends will make you feel alive again. You will share a good laugh with others, enjoy a cold beer, and remind each other that you are here only temporarily.
You will forever cherish a special connection with the persons you will befriend while working in Australia. Words cannot convey the feeling of frustration and impatience you might occasionally have, and you will question the sanity of your decision to work in the pumpkin field for a disrespectful, arrogant farmer, and his self-destructive son.
When you stand inside a 6-foot cardboard box, choking on the air full of itching bits of straw while pumpkins keep pounding down in your hands, your whole body will be subject to resistance caused by doubt. Moreover, if you follow the tractor while blindly tossing hundreds of pumpkins into the arms of your mate in the 40-degree sun, you will face two choices. Either feel miserable or make the best of your condition with your friends. Fool around, crack stupid jokes and don't ever think twice about what you're doing at the moment. Your mind can only spoil your mood if you ponder over your state.
One look around and you will see that you are not alone. The majority of workers in Kununurra are no different, backpackers who ran out cash, have no work visa but want to see the world. Therefore, you will support each other naturally and, as in the course of this, become the best of companions and friends. Towards the end of the week, you will receive a paycheck that will make you feel good and pay for beer. Another day gone before your departure.
When I finally left Kununurra I genuinely felt as if I had served a jail sentence. The sensation of freedom was augmented by the comforts of which I had nearly forgotten. In Darwin, I slept in bed, swam in the pool, ate restaurant food, and knew little what to do with so much time on hand. The experience of lightness and freedom was so liberating that for a moment I felt disoriented. Before I knew it, I was on the aeroplane to Bangkok, Aussie dollars exchanged into American currency, looking at Australia disappear underneath the clouds. I couldn't care less about Kununurra and its farmers...

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