Harvest Bootcamp

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I’m in a 50-ton truck, thundering down a long dirt road between the fields. Darkness is approaching and so is the thunderstorm that has been looming over the horizon for the past hour. Two kangaroos hop along my truck. I hope they don’t get in front of me, I haven’t dared ask, but the boss would probably prefer me to run them over than to endanger his cargo in any way. The truck’s V8 turbodiesel is roaring, but the wind becomes louder. Dust suddenly blows from behind me, obscuring my sight. I don’t want another mishap with the truck going off the road, so I will have to try to balance driving extra careful with getting the wheat in the back dry and secure before this storm hits.

I’m in the Australian outback and I have just finished my first week on the job. But let’s go back to how I got here and what I’ve done after the 4 days in Noosa and the week at Jaylin Downs.

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I had a night to spend in Brisbane before I could catch my bus to the new job, so Lynette whom I met on my last day in Sweden, helped me out by arranging my stay with Stefan, a Swiss expat who also rides bikes. He picked me up, his wife made some lovely dinner and he showed me how he feeds his pet birds, very cute to see.

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The bus drive to Moree took 8 hours, though time seemed to go by quickly. The bus barely stopped for more than 10 minutes.

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In Moree I was picked up by my employer’s wife and taken to the supermarket first. It was a bit hard to estimate what groceries I needed, but I’d soon learn. I was shown my home for the coming weeks, ‘The Cottage’. You don’t really want to see the inside, it’s old and dirty and nobody ever has time to clean or maintain it.

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The farm is machinery central. He has some horses, but they are only for the kids. The crops here are sown, treated, processed and stored with nothing but big machines. Some of them are very impressive like this Challenger tractor that’s almost two stories high.

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My coworkers are Mike and Chris, two funny 20-year old guys from Denmark. They’d been here for 2 weeks and knew the ropes already. I’d soon find out how important that is…

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Our job would be mainly to help out with harvesting wheat and chickpeas. Darrel, the farmer sounded like a nice guy on the phone and seemed so at first, but I started to get a bit of a different impression of him after a day. He bluntly told me I’d have to ‘learn to shut up’ when I tried to interrupt him when he explained something that was not clear to me.

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I soon realized everything I was used to doing from my previous job and that helped me there, being social, being interested and asking lots of questions, understanding why things are done a certain way, are not appreciated by him. At all. He wants us to listen only, ask as little as possible and just do what we are told. When he’s not clear, we should probably figure it out, even though he will get furious when we don’t do it exactly the way he intended. It’s all a bit difficult to deal with when you’ve never done this before and it’s all new to you.

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His intentions for me are to drive and unload trucks of wheat, taking them back from the fields and putting the wheat in the silos. The first days I did more unloading than driving, since on day 2 I had a bit of a mishap with a truck. After driving it for 15 minutes max, he was telling me to go faster, and an error of judgement ended with the truck being put out of action. It was pretty dramatic but I was fine and he just had a few small cuts from glass shards. I thought I’d get fired for sure, but I got another chance. He’s probably never going to like me after that though.

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Mike drives the harvester, a huge machine that’s as big as a house and sounds like an airplane. He sits in that thing for hours on end, spearheading the harvest by taking it off the fields.

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Chris drives the tractor with the ‘chaser bin’, the second stage of the operation.

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The harvester fills up with wheat, when it’s full, Chris drives along Mike and he dumps all the crops into the chaser bin through an extendable arm.

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I wait at the edge of the field, by the road. Chris comes by me every other lap and fills the truck up, after which I take it back to the silos. Simple enough, even though I was never given this overview and wasn’t allowed to ask a thing; I just had to look, listen and learn or risk getting scolded and shouted at.

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Now I don’t get to drive that nice red truck from an earlier picture, understandably. Instead, after the mishap with the automatic gearbox truck, I had to learn to drive this monstrosity. A Western Star truck that’s at least 30 years old and has Series 92 two-stroke cycle diesel V8 engine with probably some 400 horsepower. The scariest, most difficult thing I have ever driven in my life. It weighs 10 tonnes empty, and up to 50 when loaded.

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It’s got 10 gauges, but only 4 of those work, and only 3 of those are lit up at night. The interior is dusty and smelly, a bird and a mouse probably lived in there for a while. I’m not supposed to touch about a third of the buttons and I shouldn’t open the back door to the sleeper cabin since it’s very hard to close.

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The biggest challenge was learning to use the truck’s gears. It’s got 10 gears (or at least I think it does); 6 positions on the stick and two modifier buttons. Darrel wants me to drive it absolutely perfect, shifting at the right time, never using engine braking, etc. It’s been really hard to get into the idea of not using brakes much, but throttling off early and coasting before corners. It took a whole week of getting shouted at, my job threatened and all kinds of insults thrown about my driving abilities to get it down right, but I’ve done a full day now without getting any remarks or lectures, so that’s good I think.

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Now the job Isn’t that hard work all the time. I often have to wait for 15-20 minutes, sitting around until the truck is filled. I have to do about one truck per hour when we are harvesting, so that involves unloading and staring at flowing wheat for 10 minutes. There’s always the threat of Darrel coming by to check on us and see if everything is as perfect as he wants it to be, which keeps us on our toes.
All vehicles are equipped with an UHF radio for communication, so Darrel can always be called over. Luckily he’s not too difficult about us talking some nonsense over the radio during the long hours. We even have nicknames for each other, like in the old trucker movies; Rubberduck, Love Machine and Terminator.

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The biggest issue is that the hours are just ex-tremely long. In 7 days I have worked 92 hours, most of those with not much more than 20 minutes official break. We get brought food, but on the worst days we only saw a sandwich over a period of 8-10 hours and get dinner after we finished at 10pm.

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After a few days i figured out to start taking my backpack with some snacks, energy drinks and my camera along. The two boys don’t ever get to leave the field during the day, but I drive back to the silos every hour, which is pretty close to our place. So I sneak back to the house for a few minutes and grab some Coca-Cola’s for the guys. So far the boss hasn’t caught me doing it, but I’ll just say I had to go to the toilet or something if he does.

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I get to have a chat with Chris every hour or so, before he has to go out for the second load. We exchange stories about what I got shouted at for this time again, and try to predict how early and late we will have to get up and work.

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One annoyance in the outback here is the amount of flies. I’ve never experienced this, but after 10 minutes there’s dozens buzzing around you. These are not like the flies in Europe, they’re either much dumber or much hungrier, but they sit everywhere; your eyes, mouth and ears. We have some insect repellent but it doesn’t help at all. Today we got a fly net for our heads from the boss though, and that works really well; I was thinking of buying one myself before even.

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Now I know the boss might seem like a terrible guy, he’s probably the most unpleasant and harshest person I’ve ever dealt with, but that might say more about me. I do respect him in a way, and I understand why he’s like this. He’s been running this farm for 30 years or more and has had to figure it all out himself. He can operate and repair every single one of his 50+ machines and always seems to be aware of everything going on. But at harvest time most of his profit happens at very short notice so he’s under a lot of pressure and since it’s very hard to find experienced fulltime workers, he’s stuck with employing unskilled backpackers like us three. We don’t have a clue at the start, might have personalities that clash with his and even break some of his stuff. Every year again. I would get tired of it as well, but then again one of my goals the past year has been not to get angry, annoyed or negative about things so that I perhaps don’t end up like him for example. That’s why I just let it happen and come over me, Ijust say “Yes sir” or “OK, I get it”. It’s really a bit like army bootcamp I guess, me and the boys under the angry commander.

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I came here with full intentions of sticking out the 6 weeks we’d be employed for, I knew it would be rough and difficult, and at least I’d get well payed for it, per hour. So far I’ve made back almost half of what coming here and taking the VisitOz course cost me, in just a week. But not having any spare time whatsoever (save for the 2 hours we quit early because of the rain, in which I type this) is getting to me. Should I harden up and stick it out, or is even all that money not worth not having any life at all?

4 replies
  1. Stef
    Stef says:

    Good story Laurens just that hairy guy with birds on his head is a bit nuts. Good on you for sticking with that job even if it is hard you know what they say? What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger I believe Nietzsche said that. If you travel past Brisbane again come in to feed the birds and you know that the bed is always made and ready to accommodate strangers especially the travelling kind.

    Reply
  2. Don
    Don says:

    Hi Laurens,

    I ended up here while looking for updates on a shader from your ‘old life’ and have enjoyed this a lot more than what I was doing 30 minutes ago. 😉

    My first thought is you should stick it out. When I think back to my time in boot camp, there’s a change in everyone after a few weeks – both the boys and commander. I think you’d find it interesting, based on your skills in observing both your surroundings and people. a second thought is that if the money is really good, it will allow you to continue your journey even longer.

    Most of all, thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Bart Van Mullem
    Bart Van Mullem says:

    Mooi verslag. Ge moet boeken schrijven…. met veel mooie foto’s. Ik heb er van genoten. En ja, inderdaad, je zult er alleen maar sterker uit komen.

    Reply

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