The headlight’s yellow glow washed over the frosty grass. I walked from the bathrooms, into the glare, a bundle of filthy clothes under one arm. My bare feet shivered as I stopped in front of the car. Rubbing a fingertip along the long scratches on my arms, I felt the early scabs forming. Walking to the shadows at the back of the vehicle, I swapped the clothes for a pair of dusty flip-flops. I turned the key and the lights vanished. Slamming the door, I heard creatures scatter from the trees behind. Turning to see their silhouettes rise against the starry sky, I watched the bats soar into the night as my belly groaned. A rustle in the darkness caught my attention. I looked down to watch my brother emerge from the tent, crawling past a box of empty bottles on his way. They clinked against each other as Paddy found his feet. With an exhausted grunt, he spoke, “Ready to eat?”
When we set off from Ireland, the vision of ‘living the dream’ didn’t involve any part where we would be sleeping living in a tent, surviving the frosty Queensland winter on kangaroo beef and cheap rum. Once the morning chill had bowed to the rising sun, we’d spend the day fighting through thorny trees for citrus fruit as sweat, blood and rum streamed from our sun-scorched skin.
I don’t know if I can do this for three months. It feels like we’re wasting our whole time in Australia. We’ve ruined it for ourselves.
I struggled to counter Paddy’s dejection. A few days in, I had to admit that this wasn’t what I had expected.
Fruit picking in Australia is not for the feint of heart. For some it’s a rite of passage but for many others, it is a means to an end. There are a few ways of extending your stay in Australia but the most straight-forward is to complete three months of regional work to qualify for a second working holiday visa.
What is regional work?
In a nutshell, it’s working in the arse-end of nowhere. There is a list of possible jobs and locations that qualify but for the most part, you can expect to live in the sticks and work hard for little money. Some unfortunate people have spent months doing hard labour in the wrong areas and found out that it all counted for diddly-squat in the end. Captain Hindsight can’t save you so plan ahead to avoid breaking your back for nothing.
Among the most popular regional jobs are roles in farming, mining and fruit-picking.
Nowadays, the mining industry is a little harder for the unqualified average Joe to enter, unless you have some good contacts or happen to be skilled at the art of talking absolute bull.
Those who manage it can expect long shifts and super-remote locations in exchange for the fascination of watching their bank account explode. The average backpacker won’t end up there. Instead, they can avail of the seasonal opportunities at various fruit farms around the country.
How to find fruit picking work
- Search Google for a crop calendar – make sure it’s current and updated.
- Find out what fruit or vegetable is in season and where.
- Get your ass there
In our case, we learnt this the hard way.
Arriving from South East Asia, we got hit with sticker shock. Paying $40 for a dorm bed and $15 for a breakfast bagel will do that. After our fourth morning at the bagel place, we began to worry about our dwindling funds. Murphy’s luck had us land in Perth off-season and in our panic we snapped up jobs at a roadhouse on the Nullarbor Highway. This didn’t count as regional work but we needed the cash.
Eventually, we realized the golden rule; you have to be in the right place at the right time.
For us, that was Queensland in March. We set our targets and booked into a campsite in the town of Gayndah before flying to Brisbane. Big sis was there to shelter us before we set off into the wilderness again.
What’s it really like?
Gayndah is a small little town of one main street and a few thousand people. The job centre hooked us up with a huge family-run orchard on the outskirts of town. The son, Matt, was our boss and exuded authority that made his 24 years hard to fathom. He also couldn’t understand a word we said. Irish accents seemed to perplex him.
In the beginning, I thought we would never make it. Three months seemed like a life sentence after just a few days. Each section of the orchard is priced differently depending on the size of the fruit. Matt supplied us with the tools of the trade and instructed us not to pick the smaller fruit.
Clear the trees, fill the bin, leave the small fruit. Simple mate!
Like headless chickens, we shared a lane, running from one tree to another, grabbing low-hanging fruit with no strategy.
Our first full day’s work earned us something like $30 each.
Exhausted and dejected, we drove 45 minutes back to town in the twilight. A ice-cold schooner at the local watering hole was essential and ever-so-sweet. Then we faced the grim, over-congested campsite that housed backpackers from all the other farms. We sat in the car, eating drying pasta directly from the cooking pot, watching movies til we drank enough to fall asleep in what was most definitely not a two-man tent. Unless those men happen to be dwarfs.
Hundreds of fruit bats invaded the park about 3am, which made the blind bathroom dashes through the darkness quite terrifying. We woke at the crack of dawn, crushed against each other, sweaty, shattered and hungover. Crawling over the sprawl of empty bottles at the front of the tent, we drew looks of disdain from an Aussie neighbor, who snarled from his caravan. Clearing our mess, we pulled on filthy work clothes and jumped in the car, ready to brace another long day of demoralizing fruit picking in the sweltering sun.
We were having car trouble too as the heating failed turning the frosty windscreen into a opaque wall. The accelerator also required operation by grabbing the cable under the steering wheel. One morning, Paddy had to drive with his head out the window while pulling down on the accelerator cable. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.
Was this really what we came to Australia for?
After a few weeks we moved to the powered campsite at the farm. We invested in a bigger tent and some comforts to settle in for the long haul. At the campsite, there were many motor homes and caravans, which belonged to the older Aussies who had made fruit-picking a career. At night, the buzz of their TVs and cheers from their clique barbecues would carry through to the kitchen blocks where the small knit of backpackers played card games.
With the stew munched, we retired to our tent as night approached. Tired and thirsty, we settled into our airbeds and cracked open the third case of beer that week and indulged in the daily treat – a newly downloaded movie. Several beers later, the ready-to-drink cans of Jim Beam & Coke would come out. The nightcap finished heavy eyes and a final dash to the bathroom was the curtain call.
The winter nights and the cheap electric heater did not agree.
It was impossible to find a happy medium and many nights we would wake up to one extreme or the other. Also, our airbeds had developed slow punctures. Some nights we would wake up to find they had morphed shape beneath us. Our upper bodies shivered on the cold hard ground, while our legs would be in the air, with our feet being toasted by the heater at the tent door.
Was it worth it?
It got better. We adjusted and we got better at picking. The veterans told us tales of picking up north, where we could carry huge, heavy bunches of bananas on our backs and get stuck in the boggy mud and water as rats and snakes emerged from the bunches and long grass. No thanks, I think we’ll stick to the oranges.
Oranges were the norm but lemons featured at least once a week and in exchange for facing more thorns, we earned more money. The best however, were grapefruits. One Saturday morning, Paddy and I filled 15 bins between us in just five hours. At $40 a bin, we set off for town to do the weekly shop and beer run in high spirits.
Incredibly, there were a couple of pros in lanes of their own who beat us most days. I watched some of them at work and was mesmerized as they buzzed around a tree like a Tasmanian devil, clearing it in double-quick time on their way to a $400 a day.
Suddenly, we were saving $700-800 per week. Little tip, if you want to do some picking, choose fruit over vegetables. It’s easier on your back as you’ll spend more time reaching up instead of bending over. Plus, it smells better and if you get hungry while working, fresh oranges are way better than a raw onion.
How long is enough?
This tends to be a murky area that confuses a lot of people. The common belief is three months is long enough but technically it’s 88 days work.
As the frost wore off, the tropical climate of Queensland did what it does best and we got regular days off, staring out from the tent into the rain. Our target of finishing the entire quota in Gayndah was under threat.
Others left and chased the sun, seeking out the next chapter on their fruit picking journey.
Hey Matt, can you check the books to see how many days we’ve done?
What’s that mate?
We need 88 days.
I need to know how many days we’ve worked. We need 88!
Did you just call me an idiot?
What? No, I said we need 88 days of work!
I can’t understand what you’re saying mate!
In a faux-American accent, I rectified the misunderstanding and got our answer. We were shy by some 20 days and Mother Nature had brought the picking season to a premature end. Luckily, Matt had some pruning work and liked us enough to keep us on.
I liked to believe I was the best damn tree pruner on the east coast. Paddy will tell you that I murdered half the orchard. In any case, it was much easier than fruit picking I got paid handsomely for it.
We desperately wanted to hit Brisbane for our sister’s birthday at the end of July. It had been four months and we had watched many others come and go as the campsite began to empty. Our car had broken down on a beer run. We later sold it to a junker and used the money to buy two crates of beer. By then, a super cool couple from Quebec were the only ones there longer than us. Hitching a ride to work with them for the last week, we knew it was time to go.
In the end, Matt did us a favor and repaid our loyalty by splitting a few of our longer days across several dates in the book, thus bringing us from 80 to 90.
Four long months of living in a tent were behind us. Bordering on alcoholism, we dumped our filthy work clothes and everything we didn’t need including our busted airbeds, overused pasta pan and the terrible little dwarf tent. Free at last, we spent the night in a motel in town, enjoying the comfort of a bed for the first time in so very long.
Our skin was a healthy golden brown and our bank balances were brimming. Best of all, we had done it. The fruit picking had paid off and we had the second working holiday visa in the back pockets. A vacation down the east coast of Australia lay in wait. It wasn’t easy, but the juice was worth the squeeze. Time to celebrate.
“Jim Beam?” said Paddy.
“Sure, why not?” said I.