A breath of fresh air

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Oceania » New Zealand » North Island » Hawkes Bay
August 2nd 2010
Published: August 3rd 2010
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Sometimes it only feels like yesterday that I was excitedly and nervously dropped off at Gatwick airport to begin my trip around the world on the kind of freezing winter’s morning the UK specialises in. In reality it was almost three years ago and counting. I guess names, places and even experiences become a blur when everyday is an experience for such a long period of time. Change becomes a habit and if you’re not careful it becomes difficult to remember that everyday you’re living a dream. Experiences which would otherwise become cherished memories become easily forgotten. Feeling the mist of an unnamed jungle waterfall softly cooling your face in the tropical heat; smelling the sulphurous toxicity of an active volcano burning your nostrils as you creep into its crater; seeing tribal people freely living their ancient way of life in their native lands - the like of which will not survive the world’s unstoppable rush for modernity. Many people say they travel for the experiences. Experiences however, are relative to the norm and when you’ve been travelling for such a long time the norm isn’t home anymore, but the opposite.

Only two things in life are certainties. One; that time will inexorably bound onwards and the other; death. I’ve heard that countless times and to me it’s always meant one thing; that life is what you make of it. I guess the last three years of my life have been a response to both. You only get one shot at life and I’ve been doing my damned best to ensure I get the most out of it!

After two crazy, hectic and tiring years exploring the vastness of Asia I found myself craving the unthinkable. Somewhere like home - a sense of normality. From the barren windswept plains of Mongolia, to the indomitable mountain peaks of Western China, the city slums of the Philippines, the relentlessly roaring streets of Vietnam and the lush steaming jungles of Indonesian Sumatera every day had been different to the point where I almost stopped noticing it. Well... almost... but not quite, and I was determined not to let that happen. What I felt was required more than anything was a ‘recalibration’ of normality, but I was also simultaneously aware that I didn’t want to return home anytime soon.

November signalled not only the start of my tenth and last month travelling without work but also an end to possibly the most exciting year I’ll ever live in my lifetime. From the tiny aeroplane window I watched New Zealand’s rugged shoreline slowly emerge from the obscurity of the horizon, revealing a look I found instantly familiar and in some ways comforting, despite the fact I’d never been there before. Arriving on a cool, overcast spring day it seemed every breath of fresh air I’d been hoping for, both literally and metaphorically.

There were a few things I was particularly looking forward to about living in a westernised country again, namely things being easy due to the lack of a language barrier, not having to negotiate for everything I want to buy, a chance to relearn how to speak English again after speaking a mixture of Pidgin and broken foreign languages for so long, and the chance to take up some kind of sport again. The last perhaps seems a strange inclusion but with running and cycling the only sports I ever took seriously, Asia was not best suited (unless you want to die from pollution or heat or be knocked down by a car twice a day!).

The first days in New Zealand

Staying on in Malaysia to meet up and travel with my sister after almost two years away had been absolutely amazing on the one hand, but almost financially ruinous on the other. We arrived in New Zealand with a full £1000 less than we had hoped to arrive with, hence a lengthy stint of frugality was required were we to obtain everything we needed to get on the road.

Our first trip to the supermarket had seen us unwittingly arrive at the checkout with an entire basket of items packaged in the blue and white stripes of Budget (the New Zealand equivalent of Tesco Value) after scrutinising the price of every item to work out which was the cheapest per kilo/ litre etc. After travelling around third world countries for so long we had forgotten just how expensive food could be. Tomatoes $10 per kilo! $4.00 for 2 litres of milk! $5 for a kilo of rice! Two people could eat dinner in a restaurant for $5 in Indonesia! But as I kept reminding myself, this wasn’t Indonesia anymore. This was Auckland - the city with the highest cost of living in relation to earnings in the world. Better get used to it.

Prior to arriving we had decided to try and get a campervan to travel around in - the idea being we could save money on accommodation. After shopping around for a couple of days in Auckland, with few choices on offer we found ourselves the proud owners of a white 1989 Toyota Hiace with a scant 220,000kms on the clock and bed in the back. Ten months later and with an extra 15,000kms on the clock I’m happy to say we made an excellent choice. “Gumnut Cottage” hasn’t missed a beat (touch wood). It has however, consumed many thousands of dollars in fuel - give it some beans and she’ll burn 65 litres in 400kms (250 miles) which equates to about 17MPG. Ouch!

In addition to the van, seeing as this was going to be our home we also needed everything from bedding to cutlery, crockery, cooking equipment, storage boxes, etc. By the time we had acquired everything we were literally flat broke and pondering how to resolve our predicament. Short of using the dreaded credit card I was literally psyching up the courage to phone home and beg for mercy when I received the best email I’ve ever received; the tax rebate I’d applied for (a mere 4 months ago) had finally been completed and the amount was such that we wouldn’t have any problems for at least a 6 weeks. It was in fact the biggest tax rebate I’ve ever heard of anyone getting. To be honest I think they must have done something wrong. Not that I care anymore, the money is long gone now! It literally saved the day - and some embarrassing phone calls to boot.

Finding work

With our financial situation less than rosy, work was our immediate priority. All prior plans for travel were pushed aside as we plotted our next move. After much deliberation we decided Hawkes Bay on the east coast was our best bet for finding work quickly and headed that way.

Hawkes Bay is one of the major agricultural areas of New Zealand as well as its second largest wine growing region. Arriving at the start of November didn’t stand us the best chance of finding work as in our naivety we didn’t realise that nothing is in-season at this time of year. Almost every place
Me and my 'pain cards'Me and my 'pain cards'Me and my 'pain cards'

Every bin of apples you pick you get given a card as proof that you picked it. Each bin takes approximately 1 hour of hell to pick and by the end of the season I had over 250!
we visited looking for work had the same message; “come back in a month”. I went with the theory that if I asked enough places, left enough telephone numbers and badgered enough people for information we would find work soon enough. As expected by the end of our second day we had managed to secure ourselves 10 days of work thinning a three acre peach orchard in preparation for summer.

Ron and Jessie, the owners of the orchard and lovely people, had been running their 150 acre orchard for their entire working lives and at the ages of 70 and 75 were still fighting fit. In fact until we arrived they had been planning to thin the entire peach orchard themselves! Seeing as my knowledge of modern agriculture equated to approximately zero, thinning would be the first thing I learned. I’ll briefly explain: Fruit trees generally produce a huge number of fruit at the start of the season. This is because the trees attempt to multiply using the numbers game, i.e. more fruit produced equals a higher chance of reproductive success. The problem with this, in agricultural terms, is that if you left the tree to try and bring every one of those fruit to fruition then every fruit would be small and lacking in sweetness. By lightening the load of fruit on the tree, or thinning - sometimes more than half of the fruit, you enable the tree to grow each of those fruit to a decent size and sweetness acceptable within the marketplace.

The job was tedious and repetitive and after the second day we’d really had enough but we were in no situation to be picky and persevered. We relished being able to work outside though, despite the massive swings in weather that we were starting to witness. November weather in New Zealand can both unpredictable and volatile. We would come to witness on more than one occasion the temperature drop from a sunny 18C to a cold windy 7C in less than 10 minutes. You would literally go from sweating to shivering. At times like this every orchard worker in the area would have their heart in their mouths fearing hail showers which wreak havoc on their orchards by denting and bruising the newly formed fruit. Damaged fruit is all but useless for anything but fruit juice as it would never pass the quality control measures required to sell the fruit.

Having now seen and eaten fruit damaged by hail it made me realise just how fickle modern consumerism can be. I suppose I would have been part of that too in the past, unconsciously rejecting fruit at the supermarket if it wasn’t the perfect size and shape despite the taste of the fruit being identical.

Ron and Jessie turned out to be fantastic people and fantastic hosts after allowing us to park up our campervan on the orchard while we worked there. They later revealed that we were the first people in their 50 years operating the orchard who they had allowed to stay. In fact, despite the fact we only worked there for 10 days, we’ve since visited them a few times and periodically send them postcards to let them know what we’re up to.

While working on the peach orchard we also managed to secure an interview at ‘Johnny Appleseed and Yummy Fruit Company’. One of the largest fruit growers in New Zealand. The guy who would be interviewing us, George, was described to us as ‘an ogre on the outside, but nice underneath’. This would be the beginning of one of the more, let’s say ‘interesting’ chapters of our time so far in New Zealand.

Reflector sheet land

In a nutshell George was a cunt. The obscenity of that word which, back in Britain we almost dare not utter, has a slightly different usage here in New Zealand hence I now use it freely and frequently. While in Rome and all that.... Veering from the subject slightly, but some examples of how you might use said word here include; “ah, Steve! He’s a good cunt isn’t he”, or “what are those two cunts doing over there?” or “I went for a beer last night with one of those cunts who works on Mike’s orchard - nice guy actually”. I however, do not use this word in relation to George with the flowery definition they attach to it here down under.

Our job was simple. We would be working with a team of people, mostly backpackers, doing possibly the worst job on the orchard; putting kilometres of white ‘reflector sheets’ between the rows of trees in the orchard and moving and removing them as required. Imagine sheets of white tarpaulin, five metres wide and a hundred metres long and you’ll get the idea. Don’t think the fruit in your local shop arrived bright and rosy red courtesy of nature alone - the purpose of the reflector sheets is to reflect the sun’s rays upward from the ground, effectively giving the fruit twice the sunlight and ensuring an even colour across the whole fruit. Exciting stuff.

The job was quite physically demanding, but worst of all it was boring, repetitive and it was impossible to escape from the tearing heat of the summer sun, which thanks to a large hole in the ozone layer above New Zealand is especially menacing. You could apply factor 60+ sunscreen five times a day and still end up sunburnt. By the end of summer Caroline would be the most tanned she’d ever been in her life and I would be blacker than a Ukrainian coal miner from Donetsk. Sometimes I would glimpse my skin next to the fake mahogany wardrobe in our caravan (yes, caravan - I’ll explain later) and not be able to discern a noticeable difference in colour.

The team of backpackers were a truly fantastic group of people hailing from Germany (Mirko & Alisa, Florian, Jürgen & Ilka), Belgium (Glenn), Argentina (Ivana, Gustavo, Christian, Luisa), England (Paul) and the Czech Republic (Petra & Zbynek), mostly of a similar age to Caroline and I and bound by a passionate disliking of George; ‘die Fuhrer’. George was 69 years old with the physical condition of a 40 year old. Originally from Scotland he had lived in New Zealand for most of his adult life. He’d been married numerous times, the latest of which was to a Thai bride whom he had a home with in Thailand. His life basically consisted of working with white sheets in New Zealand for 8 months of the year, and then with the money he’d accrued during that time, going back to Thailand to spend his savings over the next 4 months. Repeat. He said he planned to do this until he was eighty years old, which I’ve no doubt he will. They say nice people often die young - the implication being that bitter, nasty people live longer. If ever proof were needed that bitterness is a fuel for life, George is that proof!

During his stints in New Zealand he had only one desire, which was to work as many hours as humanly possible. From Monday to Saturday he worked from 5am until 7pm daily, almost all of which was wasted time. As a supervisor it would have been difficult for him to justify his presence at work if his team weren’t also present, hence we found ourselves working 6am to 5pm or 6pm daily, six days a week too. Make no mistake, in a country where it seems almost everyone earns minimum wage and people talk only of ‘working more hours’ if they want to earn more money, I guess we had landed on a our feet working for a man whose sole purpose in life was to invent as many unnecessary tasks as possible just to keep us working. In the 3 months we worked for George, before it all came to a catastrophic head, we averaged a scant 57 hours of work a week. Great for money, but devastating for life.

Hawkes Bay is a truly fantastic place to spend a summer. The days are long, the sky almost inevitably blue and the sight of fresh produce all around you is pleasing to the soul. The beaches nearby are excellent, and being New Zealand you’re never far from your own piece of wilderness to spend the day moseying through. Because of our crazy working hours we were always awake for sunrise, my favourite time of day, and almost every day culminated in a spectacular sunrise which I’d view across the orchard from atop the huge five metre high stack of empty apple bins next to our caravan with glass of ‘vino tinto’ in my hand. The benefit of working so long and hard every day was that every second not spent working was savoured like the last supper.

On our single free day of the week, along with other members of the team, we’d travel to nearby beaches, drink beer, swim in the sea and fall asleep in sun listening to the sound of the waves gently crashing in the distance. We would often end the day with a barbecue and bonfire on the orchard with no shortage of alcohol - living an existence in many ways beautiful in its simplicity.

Crunch time

Eventually the team’s relationship with George deteriorated, culminating in me having a huge argument with him which lasted over half an hour. George is the kind of guy who is capable of mustering so much hate and aggression that most people tend to walk away at the first sign of conflict with him, so I think it took him aback slightly when I unleashed full fury at him. I had been expecting this moment to come for weeks by then, so I had a very clear mind about what exactly I wanted to say and how I was going to approach it. Emotion is the enemy of rational thought so despite every attempt he made to get an emotional rise out of me, I simply listened, thought about it and responded with complete calmness and professionalism - never raising my voice and never swearing. Every time I ignored his attempts to make me angry, this in turn made him more and more angry. I took the position of a teacher trying to calm an irrational child, and after he had been soundly defeated in every point of the argument I tried to close him down on a way forward into the future. When he realised it was never going to end, unless on my terms, he kept trying to walk away from the argument until at one point he said to me “you should have been a negotiator”. In retrospect I can safely say he lost the argument on every point and more importantly he knew it.

For the two weeks that followed the mood in the team was considerably lightened, and though George would now occasionally speak to us (a development), it was obvious our relationship was never going to be rosy. Nothing would have made him happier than to sack us, but he knew under New Zealand employment law he had no legal right to do so - especially having told us and other members of the team that Caroline and I were the hardest workers he had employed for years. He had asked us to leave during our argument however we had no intention of obliging him before we had found ourselves new jobs. We were, after all, there to save money. By the end of the second week though we had managed to arrange work with a different manager of the same company and let him know we would be leaving - in the process giving him the decency of one weeks’ notice as he had personally requested. For our courtesy (our contractual obligation was only one days notice), he arrived on the orchard before we could start work the following day and sacked us. Instant dismissal. The only job either Caroline or I have ever been dismissed from in our lives and for no reason whatsoever.

He would have known this was unfair dismissal under New Zealand law, but perhaps assumed that with our new jobs already lined up we wouldn’t be prepared for the hassle of taking it further. Well, he was wrong. You might get the impression I enjoy conflict from reading the above however the truth is far from it. I am a person of principle though and I won’t shy away from conflict if I know I’m right. Mum’s lesson number one; ‘don’t let anyone walk all over you’.

I arranged a meeting with his superior; the managing director of the company. I did this not to ask for anything, or even to get our jobs back, but just to have the opportunity to let him know how Caroline and I, as well as the rest of the team had been treated by George. I won’t go into specifics, but let’s just say Caroline and I got paid our days notice without having to work it and George got into a lot of trouble. Enough trouble that he would never utter another word to us from that day forward, such was the bitterness of this 69 year old man. I almost felt sorry for him. In the mean time other managers around the company began congratulating me on being the first person to stand up to him in a while. I think that tells you a lot about the man in itself.

I personally think in situations like these it’s important to reflect and try to learn from it. Learn how you might have played the situation differently; learn how you might have chosen your words better and learn how you might have stopped the situation escalating as it did. I took lessons in all of these aspects however, the one overriding lesson I took from this experience is that some people are just not worth wasting your breath on. It sounds like a ridiculous conclusion I know, but it’s an honest one.

A fresh start

Our jobs enabled us to live on the orchard of the company we were working for free of charge. The office had showers and toilets and to begin with we were sleeping in our campervan. The arrival of Ivana and Gustavo, an Argentinian couple who would go on to become our good friends, signalled the arrival of our caravans. They, like us, had been living in their vehicle but found a local company who for the princely sum of $50NZD (£22) a week would rent you an ancient and dilapidated caravan for the season. Our caravans were veritable dust buckets of decrepitude, but far more comfortable for long term living than our campervans.

So now we were living in a caravan, driving around in a white van and selling pieces of lucky heather at the weekend, we decided to invest in some old fairground rides and bought a big sound system to play De Luniz “I’ve got 5 on it” while I shouted “the louder you scream, the faster you go”, or some bullshit like that over a tannoy. I also found my hairline was creeping down my forehead and I kept getting a strange urge to fight in bare-knuckle boxing matches.

Besides bare-knuckle boxing, I also found time to work picking apples for the orchard we lived on. Mark, our new manager was a super friendly guy and we instantly got on well. As luck would have it the picking season had just begun so Caroline and I, along with our German friend and legend Jürgen who had decided to leave George with us, joined a team of fifty Samoan pickers who had been hired for the picking season.

Time is apples, apples are money

Apple picking. What an amazing job! Watch how apple picking is portrayed in any film you’ve ever seen. They only pick in late afternoon because the temperature is cool and light pleasing to the eye; tractors potter along at a snail’s pace and a team of people amble along without a care in the world. Picking an apple here, an apple there as takes their fancy, they’ve plenty of time to stop whenever they see fit and contemplate the ills of the world. Such an idyllic picture.

Well there are people, there are apples, and there are tractors but that’s where the similarity ends. Apple picking is a brutal job of the highest order. The most physically demanding job I’ve ever done or likely will ever do. Most people either can’t or won’t last a season picking apples. That’s why they employ teams of pickers from Samoa. The locals aren’t stupid enough to do it.

A Day in the life of a picker

You wake at 6am before sunrise to get ready for work, aching and sore from the previous day’s work. The cold morning air bites at your skin and for a moment you shiver, yet quickly stop shivering in anticipation of the day ahead. The sun rises at 6:45am, so around ten minutes before sunrise you’re in your orchard row sizing up the apples and psyching yourself up. The second the sun’s rays grace the morning sky picking begins.

You have two choices when picking; take an hourly rate, in which case you’ll be paid minimum wage ($12.75 per hour) but the rate at which you work doesn’t matter, or alternatively you can take contract rate. Contract rate is normally around $30NZD (£13) per ‘bin’ of apples. One bin is a crate approximately one cubic metre is size and can hold something in the region of two thousand apples. So that’s 1.5c per apple, though it’s best if you don’t think like that. 1.5c... 3.0c... 4.5c... 6.0c.. 7.5c... maybe... 10.5c... I... 12.0c... should... 15.0c... hang... 18.0c... myself...

You pick the apples first into a bag which you carry around your midriff and a full bag weighs approximately 20kg. You pick both the tops and the bottoms of the trees, so more than half of your day is spent climbing up and down a two metre high set of ladders as needless to say it takes longer to pick the tops. If you pick like a psycho, and I am a psycho, you can pick a bin in 50 minutes. If you work all day, don’t take breaks, don’t stop for lunch and only drink water as you walk between the trees you can pick as many as many as 10 bins per day. So that’s $300 a day (£130), all for a mere 2 years off your life expectancy. It’s like running a marathon, but hotter, sweatier and less comfortable. I was frequently eating over 6000 calories a day and still losing weight. I forgot to mention by the way that the average daytime temperature was over 30C; access to shade was zero unless you stopped and climbed under a tree, and the wind was non-existent as the trees do a fantastic job of sheltering it from you.

By the end of the day picking, after eight hours of sweating so profusely the pores of your skin feel sore and with every sinew of your body screaming at you with agony, it’s now time to go home and replenish your body in preparation for the next day’s picking. Often I would have to drink in excess of five litres of water in an evening just to rehydrate myself - despite having already drunk more than six litres throughout the day.

Picking is a competition and I’m a competitive bastard when I want to be. Time means apples. Apples mean money. Simple. The fastest pickers earn the respect of their team, but also management who in turn give the fastest pickers the best opportunity to pick a lot of fruit by giving them the best rows of the orchard to pick. I don’t do half measures so I knew what I was aiming for. It didn’t happen immediately, but by the end of the season I was the fastest picker on the orchard, held the record for the most bins picked in a day (14), the record for the most bins picked in a 5 day week (46) and had earned more money than any other picker. I weighed 77kg by the end of the season having started it at around 85kg and can safely say I will now die 2 years younger. Minimum.

Towards the end of the season summoning the motivation to take that first apple from the tree each morning was becoming harder and harder, knowing that the second I took it signified the beginning of eight unremitting hours of hell. To have possessed the ability to just tell myself to take it easy would have been a fine thing - like I said though, I don’t do half measures. It’s not in my makeup. The money was fantastic for a job in manual labour, even by British standards, but I can safely say I will never take up a picking bag again in my life. Ever. That chapter is well and truly over, though I’m glad to have tried and I’m a much harder man for it.

Working with the team of Samoans was great fun and they were great people to be around.
The state of my t-shirt after pickingThe state of my t-shirt after pickingThe state of my t-shirt after picking

This was actually the third t-shirt to suffer the same fate throughout the picking season. The picking bag and tree branches rip your shirt
They were almost incessantly happy, never complained and never got downhearted or stressed out. You might think they wouldn’t be good workers coming from a tropical island living life at a tropical speed, but trust me; these guys would work most people I know in to the ground. They know the meaning of hard work and that’s why the orchards employ them. I’ve taken a few of their phone numbers and we’ll be going out to see them before we leave this part of the world guaranteed.

Caroline picked for the first week of the season before landing herself a cushy job as a quality controller, i.e. making sure we were picking only the ripest fruit from the trees. The money was less but picking is no job for a woman and I was happy to encourage her to take it.

An end to our time in Hastings

Relieved doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt by the beginning of April - the end of the picking season. By the extremely physical nature of the job it felt like the end of a prison sentence and I could think of nothing better to commemorate the occasion than to burn my picking bag - to cast the shackles free so to speak, though sadly it wasn’t to be. We had come to Hastings to save money and that’s exactly what we had done, and to a much greater extent than we ever thought possible. Our purpose all along had been to save up enough for a ski season and now it was finally within touching distance.

The summer had been absolutely beautiful. More beautiful than any summer I can remember living before and living on an orchard was the perfect way to spend it. Our work hours had been long and consequently we hadn’t managed to take in much of the surrounding area, save a trip to Tauranga and Mt Maunganui for New Year with Mirko and Alisa, a German couple we made friends with, and a trip to Tongariro National Park to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with Gustavo and Ivana. That’s another trip though and there’s always the future to take in a bit more of the North Island.

The last few weeks on the orchard had been lonely with only Caroline and I living there, and all the other backpackers having moved on to other places and countries. With the days becoming ever shorter, the mornings ever colder and the orchard now bare of its harvest, our time on the orchard was well and truly over and now the South Island, Queenstown, skiing and snow capped mountains awaited.

Part 2 to follow......... (Some time in the next 6 months....)

Additional photos below
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3rd August 2010

hi, how are you two doing? very glad to read the uploading news about you two. travelling is both enjoying and expericing !take care and keep being brave and enjoying your wonderful travelling life.
6th August 2010

Hi to you both ...been waiting for this for ages.....just love hearing your news xx
7th August 2010

thanks babs. the one about me learning to ski will be even more interesting. hope all is well! caroline
8th August 2010

oi oi
Good to have a blog from you after so long and glad to hear you're still on the road! The apple-picking sounds like absolute torture though!
9th August 2010

been a while I know! still have blogs about Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines to write........ if I ever get around to it! you back in Russia now?

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