International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Picking
arrived late, tired and dishevelled at the Prince of Wales Backpackers
in Bundaberg. We trundled into this large courtyard/compound that
had high wooden fences so that you could not see outside. Sat around
a few tables were a few other backpackers who issued us friendly
but slightly knowing and in some cases cautionary greetings. Enquiries
like So how is it here? were met with muted derision
and raised eyebrows.
Unless they were
winding us up these veterans of the Prince of Wales did
not exactly seem enthused about the place. We were too tired to stay
and chat for very long, all of us just wanted a soft pillow and comfortable
bed to get hopefully at least five or six hours sleep before our shift
began the next morning at 4am!
After checking in with a less than friendly proprietor manning the reception
we walked to our dormitory. We passed a wall that had a large painting
of the famous Lord Kitchener image used to recruit soldiers in the First
World War. The Your Country Needs You one, a stern looking
Edwardian soldier with his waxed moustache glaring at you is not the
best of sights late at night. What significance Lord Kitchener had on
the Prince of Wales was a mystery to me. Underneath his image was the
legend painted in bold black letters P.O.W. (Standing for
Prince of Wales and not Prisoners of War) we exchanged amused looks
but I was already wondering what I had let myself in for.
Once inside our dormitory I could not help but think of old war films
like Colditz, The Great Escape and the plethora
of Vietnam ones. It was packed with bunk beds and lots of passed out
backpackers snoring and farting to their hearts content. Dirt was everywhere
and the smell of about twenty pairs of sweaty boots, socks and T-shirts
was not exactly what we had imagined or needed! I called the bottom
bunk and tried to get some sleep.
A speaker in the dormitory waked us at 4am sharp. I later learned that
there were speakers everywhere in the backpackers so that the owners
could make announcements. They really were going all out for that Prisoner
of War camp motif. Expecting jackbooted guards to burst through the
door at any moment I wearily got out of bed and rubbed my eyes. I think
I had managed maybe three hours sleep at most so was not feeling my
About half an hour later Ben and I were picked up by an obese middle-aged
man with wild red hair and a gift to litter his every sentence with
expletives. It was uncanny; he seemed incapable of saying something
without swearing. Not exactly of a cheerful disposition (who is at that
time of day) he dropped us off at this huge farm in the middle of nowhere
(or so it seemed) so that Bubba and the boys could offer us both to
their Gods as a sacrifice. Sorry, I made that last bit up. But the atmosphere
did have an uneasy air about it.
Four local lads eventually joined us. Three who were mates and seemed
to delight in saying things like:
And then he kicked him in the ead!
Nah, thats nuthin mate, I saw Big Jim throw this (expletive
deleted) through a window by his (expletive deleted), the (expletive
deleted) deserved it!
Yeah, but this other bloke he was a fakkin nutter, so Terry
ead butts im and stomps on is ead whilst es
on the floor!
Cool! Terrys a fakkin legend mate!
Delighted to be joined by such urbane and enlightened raconteurs Ben
and I exchanged private looks that said Great, what next?
The fourth local seemed okay, he had brought his dog along with him,
a small mongrel that seemed to be suffering with paranoia and schizophrenia.
The slightest noise or maybe even a slight gust of wind would prompt
the dog into fits of crazed and demented barking and whimpering.
Dont mind her. Shes just a bit peculiar. He
explained, spitting some sputum onto the ground.
Not long after these introductions and pleasantries were made one of
the farm staff drove us off to our field of watermelons. The sun was
soon glaring above us and we took our positions ready for a days work.
The less said about the watermelon picking the better. It was debilitating
work out in the heat. We would stand in a rugby line out and pass a
watermelon to each other down the line where it was eventually thrown
into a huge crate on the back of a trailer pulled by a tractor.
After a few hours one of the locals dropped out with some excuse or
other, maybe he had a pressing engagement to regale the local pubs
clientele with stories of someone who got his fakkin head kicked
in. this made it tougher work for the rest of us. A few hours
later and our water had ran out and we were all becoming dehydrated.
Ben lost his hat and took a few hefty hits to his head from stray watermelons.
He was lucky not to get sunstroke, later in the afternoon after several
hours of learning why the Aussies are so good at rugby Ben muttered
to me Ive had enough mate. This is crazy doing this in thirty
five degrees with no water.
I agreed and better sense prevailed and we called it a day. The others
looked done in as well. Not a bad haul but we both decided that a sharp
kick in the testicles was more welcome than another day picking watermelons
so we were reassigned once back at the prison camp, sorry I mean the
It was quite a dejected evening; Jon had fared much better than us.
He had spent the day picking tomatoes, the lucky so and so! He had met
Graeme a lad from Kent who was a witty raconteur with a broader vocabulary
than the locals we had spent the day with. At this point humour was
badly needed. The camaraderie at the table that evening gave us a much
needed lift and within the space of less than 24 hours we had become
just as cynical and sardonic as the backpackers that had greeted us
off the bus the night before.
© Daniel Cann April 2009
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