You can really tell a lot about someone’s personality by the way they behave when they’re picking grapes in a hot, sweaty, time-restricted environment. Whether they slyly snip the juicy bunches at the end of your panel when you’re ‘not looking’, knowing fully well they’re costing you money by doing so. Or whether they leave them. Whether they give you the last empty bucket in the row, even though it means they’ll have to wait a minute to get another one – potentially costing them money. Whether they inflict their music choices on everyone, or have the decency to bring headphones. It’s really a lesson in people, if people watching is your kind of thing. (It’s definitely mine). That said, of course there are lovely people there as well as bad, and we have been fortunate to meet some really good eggs, which certainly helps the time pass more quickly.
If someone had told me a year ago I’d be getting up at 4:30am to pick grapes in Australia for an unknown number of hours a day (it ranges between 2 and 10, and you don’t know how long a day will be beforehand), and earning a grand total of, on average, $50 per day before tax for my time and effort, I’d have laughed. Wages in Australia are known to be great – minimum wage is just over $17 per hour (that’s £10.50). I thought I’d be rolling in the dough by now. In reality, I’m the poorest I’ve ever been in my life and I’m not sure how I’m going to get out of it. The east coast is slowly slipping further and further into the distance…
I’m going to rewind a few weeks now and update you on happier, richer, more carefree times, before we signed on to slave labour in the vineyards! Rob and I had got a bit of cabin fever in Margaret River before we found work, so decided to go on a little road trip to a town called Albany in the south of WA, stopping at a few places along the way.
We spent a night sleeping in a small rest stop off the highway, thanks to our app ‘WikiCamps’ which lists all campsites, caravan parks or just general places to park your camper or erect your tent around the whole of Australia. You can set it to list free camping spots only – a huge help to those of us not in a position to pay $40 for a night at a caravan park. The next morning we woke feeling pretty sweaty, so we quickly set off in search of food and fun. We stumbled upon the quaint little town of Pemberton. All the buildings are made from wooden slats with porches stretching around them, and there are only a couple of shops on its main street, one of which we managed to get some cereal and milk from for breakfast. We wanted to explore the surrounding area, so we journeyed along a road with humongous forests either side and came to a clearing with a toilet block and a path leading into the woods. Following the path for 100m lead to a wonderful sight: before us was a glorious freshwater lake we could swim and bathe in to our hearts’ content! The best things in life are free, especially when they fall into your stinky laps when you need them most.
Our first official destination was Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, which we actually stumbled upon by accident and then had to get a closer look. It was only $9 entry each which we felt was pretty fair. It was built in 1895 and is situated at the most south-westerly point of Australia. It is met by two seas: the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. There were 3 lighthouse keepers who lived in little weather-beaten houses right by the lighthouse with their wives and children, so there was always someone on duty when the others were sleeping. I learnt a lot about what the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families would have been like back in the day (rugged, tough and isolated) and have a newfound respect for them.
The first thing we noticed when we got to Albany was that it’s so much more accommodating to backpackers than Margaret River. Being a wine region, Margs can be a bit snooty and big for its boots – for example, it’s illegal to free camp anywhere within the Margaret River/Augusta Shire and anyone caught doing so by the rangers is lumped with an automatic $100 fine PER PERSON in the vehicle. There are also no free showers anywhere apart from cold ones at the beaches which you’re not really allowed to wash in. There are signs in every public toilet advising there’s a $500 fine for anyone caught washing their dishes, clothes or selves in the sink. To use the library’s free wifi, you have to sign up with all your personal information and provide photo ID. It’s pretty intense.
Albany is totally different. It’s almost like backpackers are encouraged to come and stay! There are actual free campsites all along the coast down there where a vehicle can stay for up to 7 nights at a time. They work on a first come first served basis, so you’ve gotta get there early in the day if you want a spot. The site we stayed at was called Cosy Corner and was right on the beach. We actually stayed for 9 nights because we got along with Keith, the camp warden who signs everyone in/out. It was amazing waking up with no mobile reception, going for a swim in the sea or a jog along the beach and wiling the day away reading and tinkering on the ukulele. I also had the pleasure of watching a guy play a massive bongo drum on the beach when I went there at dusk to sit and ponder life for a while. The sound was magical; before I knew it I was in a trance-like state staring at the waves with amazing tribal imagery running through my mind. It’s a moment I feel blessed to have experienced.
Albany also provides free wifi in the library – no signature on the dotted line required – and hot showers for anyone to use in the middle of the town centre. These are an absolute godsend to anyone living on a budget and out of a van. They’re not the cleanest, especially the later in the day you go, but who actually cares? You don’t sign up to live in a van and travel the world if you’re scared of slightly grubby places – and the hot water makes certain you leave feeling squeaky clean.
One of the greatest days in Albany for us was when we visited Albany Wind Farm. I’d said I wanted to go there since before we even left the UK, so it was great to make that happen. In spring, there are gorgeous colourful wildflowers blooming everywhere around there. We weren’t there to see those, however it was a glorious hot day when we went and there was a lot of wind as you’re right on the coast (ideal place for a wind farm, hey?) so you can really see the wind turbines in action. There’s a lot of information dotted around, about the turbines, wind power and nature which we found fascinating, and also a nice walk along the cliff edge where the views are astonishing. I was so in awe of our planet that day.
We met some real characters whilst in Albany (when do we not, right?), one of which was a nice guy, 30-ish from Cambridge (UK), called Sam. We spent a drunken night at the White Star pub, followed by a jaunt to THE official worst club in the world with him (Albany’s only one – with no competition I suppose it doesn’t feel the need to improve?) and decided to get some greasy after-hours munch. Hungry Jack’s burger joint drive thru was open but refused to serve us without a vehicle. Thinking we were so clever, we acquired a discarded shopping trolley, me in the trolley with legs flailing and Rob driving – complete with revving and screeching brake noises. Sam was lurking behind asking for a ‘Whopper Meal’ (wrong restaurant, mate) and I was demanding chips-cheese-and-gravy (also not on the menu). We must have been there trying to get fed for 40 minutes. Needless to say, our attempts were futile and we ended the night with grumbling stomachs in our respective vehicles.
The next morning was a bit fuzzy but we decided to “carpe diem”. After a tasty brunch and a steaming mug of tea, Rob and I drove to a place recommended to us the night before called The Gap, which is a natural rock formation overlooking the lively swell of the ocean below. Where the sea has eroded the rocks, it has left a 25 metre drop down – it’s quite impressive and the waves are captivating to watch. With the sea spray, wind and slight drizzle, it was the perfect hangover cure and we left feeling rather invigorated!
Then, it was time to return to Margs. We missed our mates and were desperate for work to begin as we were running very short of cash. We waved goodbye – but not forever – to Albany and set off on our merry way.
This brings me back to the present day. Work has begun and we’ve hit the ground running. We’re earning anything from $2.30 to $3.00 per 10kg bucket we pick, trying to balance enjoying ourselves (cheaply) with trying to save to make it to the east coast. Picking isn’t easy, but it’s certainly character building – which is what I keep telling myself whilst I’m doing it! I’m going to sign off here, and leave you with a few pictures of the friends we’ve made at the vineyards so far!
Until next time…