Australia: WWOOFing Again

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It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. This is Thompson’s Farm at Batchelor in Australia’s Northern Territory. The last time I was WWOOFing, I was picking buds off vines. This time, I’ve been picking watermelons off vines. They’re slightly heavier. 12kg heavier in fact.

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The trick is to look for one that’s already caught the sun. There should be signs of a yellow patch on the skin. You then give it a tap. If it makes a noise like a ‘ping’ or a ‘bounce’, it’s good to go. If it’s dense, it’s overripe. If it’s hollow, you have to turn it around for a closer look because something else has obviously got there first. Watermelons are a delicious feast for white ants, cockatoos and wild pigs. I’ve had to chase off wallabies who love the shoots.

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You can understand why these ‘sugar babies’, (as they’re affectionally known) are so popular. There’s nothing better than sitting on the back of a truck after a hard morning’s work and eating a slice of sweet, juicy melon warmed by the sun. We’ve called it ‘testing’ although that doesn’t really make sense, because the rest of it can’t be used. Do you see the cunning nature of our work?

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We’ve also been picking bananas. They’re covered in plastic to keep the moisture in and the moths, rats and spiders out. The first step is to feel for a full fruit. Then, if you open it up and it looks like some of the bananas are turning yellow, it’s time to cut off the bunch.

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You leave a few inches on the stem so that there’s enough room to hang them and get the bananas fully ripe.

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Once the fruit is picked, it’s time to cut down the entire tree. This is because one tree can only produce one bunch. It’s surprisingly easy – the trunk is fibrous and mushy. You just have to get out of the way when it falls.

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Laying down irrigation lines is dirty, dusty work on a hot and windy day – and it has been hot, with an average of 34c. I love the rich red colour of the soil but up until three years ago, some of this couldn’t be used. Years of chemicals had taken their toll. That’s why the Thompsons started using organic farming methods instead. They now use soil enhancers like gypsum, agralime and chicken manure. The main pesticide is neem oil. They also use potassium silicate, which feels like small shards of glass. The results are good. The watermelons can now grow up to 12 or 15 kilos. Five years ago, they only reached 8. The yield from courgettes has tripled.

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They’re a favourite with the cows here. Any bad fruit or vegetables that we’ve picked has gone straight to them. They’re the happiest beasts you’ll ever meet.

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The farm shop has been another satisfying part of the volunteering – proudly displaying the produce you’ve carefully planted, picked or packed. Customers talk about how much better they taste than the fruit and vegetables they buy in the supermarket.

The farm manager and his wife are expecting their first baby in November. He wants the soil to last long enough for his own children to grow vegetables here. That’s why the organic way works for them.

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Cute Crawlers and Creepy Crawlies

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They’re famously slow, but it’s surprising how quickly Giant Tortoises can move once they’ve spotted their breakfast. This was feeding time at the Galápagos National Park and I was lucky enough to volunteer there as part of a conservation project run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation on San Cristóbal. I like this picture. With that backpack on, I look like a tortoise myself.

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The volunteer work has been one of the toughest on the trip so far. It’s based at a biological station in the middle of the forest. Mosquitoes are rife. There’s 90% humidity too. Using a machete is like trying to swing a golf club in a swimming pool – but it’s necessary. Conservationists here say some birds are extinct or endangered because trees like Scalesia have gradually disappeared. So, we’ve been cutting down invasive plants like mora (blackberry bushes) so that endemic trees can be planted instead. The only problem is that these thorny thickets tower over your head. It’s a challenge. Another challenge is getting up close and personal with all the wonderful creatures that nature has to offer. Let me introduce you to my roommate:

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It was the largest of the little gang that was awaiting my arrival. I asked another volunteer if there were any poisonous spiders at the station. “No,” she replied, “although they did find a type of black widow in somebody’s boot.” That would be a ‘yes’ then, surely?

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The conservation project also works with local landowners to help them develop organic farming methods, so that they can sell their produce to restaurants and hotels. It also promotes sustainability by growing its own fruit and vegetables. We’ve been picking pineapples, passion fruit, oranges and bananas but some fruit is best left alone.

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This is one of the smelliest you’ll ever find. Its called noni fruit and it smells like rotting cheese. Despite it’s aroma, it’s loved by many. It’s said to have medicinal or anti-ageing properties and this little specimen apparently costs $60 in the shops.

So, in the middle of a forest, with no shops and temperatures of 80f, how did they manage this?

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It was my birthday last week. It may have been one of the hardest projects so far, but I felt very lucky indeed.

What is a WWOOFer?

You’re a what?” That’s a question I was asked a lot in Napa and Sonoma. The other was, “Does it have anything to do with dogs?”

Sadly not. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. The idea is that volunteers help out on the land, learn about farming and support the organic movement. In return, the host family provides food and accomodation.

I looked for a vineyard in California and found Random Ridge Winery. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Imagine getting up every morning and walking out to this:

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My main task was suckering. The vines were very lively after a warm winter, so trunk after trunk, row after row, I gently brushed off the unwanted buds and cut off the extra shoots at the bottom. It was a bit like Bonsai on a ten acre scale.

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Random Ridge doesn’t use herbicides. It’s all down to tilling and mowing and using rock phosphate instead. All the wine is bottled without using fining agents too. On this part of the trip, I’ve tasted about fifty different wines. When it’s organic, you can tell the difference. I like to believe it’s because the vines get a lot of care and attention. That’s why after the first week, I was excited to see this:

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Clusters were forming on the Sangiovese. It emphasised the fact that everything I did would affect the way the vines grew the following year.

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Not surprisingly, I also enjoyed driving the truck around. This was another job at the vineyard – going up and down the rows so that we could clear away the dead wood. I’d almost got away with it until I heard, “Stop feathering the clutch.”

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As for the winemaking itself, I’ve learned that there are so many variables that can affect the way it tastes – from the rocks beneath the vine roots to the way the grapes are picked. Do you use wood barrels, if so, are they toasted? Is it Californian oak or French? Is it fermented in a stainless steel tank instead, or a giant concrete egg? Do you use a cork, silicone or screw top? I will never sip wine in the same way again. I’ve also made friends for life.