First impressions are everything. Well in most cases…
It was midnight and I had just travelled 15hours from Sydney by train and bus. I was standing at a lonely, badly lit station wondering who Nigel was and how was I to know when a large best up old white van, you know the type that you’re told kidnappers drive as children, pulled into the station beside me and stopped. The passenger window rolled down and I nervously asked “Nigel?” “Yup” he nodded and the side door slid open. I lugged my bags into the van, after a few attempts shut the door and we took off speedily down the road to Mildura City Backpackers. My brain questioning my decision to come to Mildura and what I had just gotten into the whole drive and that was that. First impressions. The official start to the next chapter of my Australian trip. Farming in Mildura.
The first thing I learned is that farming is one of the most unpredictable industries you could possibly work in – weather, markets, staffing, the farmer’s mind, all of it makes everyday different and changeable. The second, that white vans and trucks are as common in Mildura as yellow taxis are in New York. And the third, getting your 88 days for your 2nd year visa takes a lot longer than you expect.
Mildura began with a safety net of a brilliant crew of English lads and ladies who I met at the Blue Parrot in Sydney and travelled down to Mildura with. Over the course of the next six months the group waxed and waned, changed and branched out from being solely English to include Italians, Germans, French, Taiwanese, Irish and Dutch. I learned a few words in German, Practiced my French, adopted the hostel cat Katherine and learned to make and ate food from all of these countries and found an unlikely adopted home in a small town in Australia.
Mildura was founded in the late 1880’s by two Canadians from Ontario, the Chaffey brothers. Masters in irrigation they opened up the area to farming and settlers and being on the Murray River, riverboats allowed it to become a thriving community. The river, in my opinion, is still the focal point of Mildura. Proof of the pudding – The Murray River steamboat tour on the H.M.S Melbourne is listed as the #6 thing to do in Victoria according to Lonely Planet and the bi-monthly Sunraysia Farmer’s Market is based on the riverside and is well worth the effort of rolling out of bed on a Saturday morning if only just to stroll the stands and people watch. There’s a running/walking path with grassy areas to plonk yourself on to soak up the sun, read or just take in the local pelicans who will stare you down with their beady eyes to see if there is any food on offer. A rowing club, outdoor stage which hosts a variety of shows a year, two great playgrounds complete with BBQ’s, there is even a small island hosting a sandy beach with thousands of birds and a host of recreational fisherman! Moving away from the river there are some tasty restaurants, a local brewery and three ice cream shops! My personal favourite being 48 Flavours (their snickers, peanut butter, salted caramel and chocolate frozen yogurt are amazing), a strange number of hairdressers, a cute little cinema and a Cotton On! Not to bad for a smallish town.
Over my time in Mildura I have worked at a table grape farm, a zucchini farm, in vineyards pruning the vines, at a packaging factory and had a hand at pea picking and sorting garlic. If I walk away with anything, on top of knowing how to tell a good zucchini from a bad one, what’s a small or big bulb of garlic and the whole process of growing grapes from grafting to packaging, it is how easy we have it by being able to go to a farmer’s market or the grocery store and buy the goods we need. The amount of work and people that goes into a single harvest of grapes, for example, is incredible and no small feet.
The majority of my time in Mildura I spent working at Palms table grape farm. Due to the time of year most of the jobs were centred around preparing the vines for the growing and harvest season but I moved into packaging towards the end. I quickly learned to find the element of fun in every job we did. Thank you Mary Poppins. First job – collecting the perfect magic wand or cutting branches for graftIng. Next was the Nursery, not a greenhouse as I imagined but an open field where the young vines are grown. Cutting the strings that hold them up, pruning them back to a single stick and pulling them out of the ground to be bundled into witches brooms or to sell and plant later on. The names of the grape varieties lent to that fantasy. Midnight Moon, Witches Hat… However, the highlight of my days at the nursery were my daily visits to “Magnificent George”, so forth named after the Roald Dahl book. A large chestnut stallion I befriended and renamed. Every “smoko” (I.e coffee break in every other country) and lunch I would run over with my bag of carrots or apples to exchange food for an ear to listen and he didn’t seem to mind the arrangement.
Covers were the next job. Creating giant plastic hot houses over rows and rows of grape vines, which have a bad tendency to come undone in the wind. When work was slow you would end up wishing for a little bit of wind to make more work fixing the hot houses. The girls job was to tie them down while the lads pulled the plastic over the top. I pretended to practice my surfing skills as we moved down the rows of vines on the trailers attached to the back of gators (small Lego like tractors) It’s all about the balance!
Through every job I did and even though I would aim to find the fun in every one of them it was the people that I lived with and worked with everyday that made Mildura what it was. Our days, when not farming were filled with ping pong, Joga (jack’s name for my mix of jogging and yoga) endless card games with some goon pong thrown in, BBQ’s, dinners and picnics by the river sided with impromptu football or volleyball matches. I somehow started watching Geordie Shore, had millions of baking and cooking adventures from learning to make Ton Yo Bing to German Christmas cookies and macaroons. Got loads of valuable tips on cooking or learnt how to sneak vegetables into dishes. We explored the local bar scene – Dom’s, Sandbar and the CiderTree, always hoping it would be a bit busier than the last time and as summer approached and backpackers arrived for the picking season things started to pick up. There were our daily outings to Coles grocery store to find the best deals or buy tuna for lunches and perhaps a nip into Kmart. Finally, lest we forget, Pizza Night. The clock would strike 6:30 and everyone would reappear from their rooms hovering outside waiting to dive in when they arrived. It was possibly my favourite night of the week, not just because it was pizza but it meant everyone sat out and ate together.
Mildura came a long way, thankfully, from my first impressions and through all the ups and downs that there were, the town won me over and the people I lived with and met there carved a permanent place in my memories and heart and I hope that our paths cross somehow, somewhere in the world someday.