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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Australia: Catching up with the Expats

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They look like a group of ants on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was one of them – 134 metres up in 37 kmph winds. There’s a good view up there but peering down at the traffic below your feet is an unusual feeling. The climb was a gift from one of my relatives in Richmond, NSW. I hadn’t seen him since I was three years old. That’s the problem with Australia – it lures people away. In his case, he left Britain after reaching retirement age in the RAF. The former Spitfire pilot wasn’t ready to give up flying just yet, so he decided to join the RAAF where he could take to the skies for a few more years. Of course, not everybody’s family came here by choice. I heard a story about a woman called Mary Reibey from Lancashire. In the late 1770s, she disguised herself as a boy to try and get on in life and was arrested for stealing a horse. Apparently, that was enough to be sent to Australia on a convict ship. She married a junior officer from the Britannia and as the years went by, they made a fortune in property and cargo. After her husband passed away, she took charge of everything and even set up the Bank of New South Wales in her own home. Mary Reibey’s now on the back of the $20 note.

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Not bad for a horse thief from Bury.

I learned something else during my first week in Australia – kangaroos are huge. I spotted my first one hiding in the woods:

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He was scratching his bottom against a tree. It wasn’t the scenic first encounter I was hoping for.

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Look closely at this door. It’s down a side street in Melbourne. It looks like the exit from a restaurant kitchen but it’s actually the entrance to a swanky bar. Experiencing Melbourne nightlife is a bit like being Alice in Wonderland. You can go through random doors and walk up several flights of stairs before finding a rooftop terrace with fantastic views or exotic bars with eccentric themes. The friends who showed me around this city also left Britain for Australia. No horse stealing, just looking for a new way of life.

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When I arrived in Queensland some very trusting friends let me drive on the beach at Cooloola. It felt amazing touching the waterline and not being entirely successful in missing the bumps (I helped clean the car afterwards). Miles later we reached the cliffs. We climbed to the top and I heard a loud exhaling sound:

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It was the first time I’d ever seen a whale playing in the ocean. A pod of dolphins then arrived wanting a piece of the action and it let out a moan. It was magical.

We then took a walk around Noosa National Park. It’s amazing what you can find when you look hard enough:

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And it’s amazing what you can discover when you’re hungry enough. Think of all the dockland areas you know that need to be redeveloped and then take a look at this:

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This is Eat Street Markets in Brisbane where rows and rows of ship containers have been transformed into mini restaurants and the pallets and reels have been turned into tables and chairs. Here, a forkful of food can transport you to France, Singapore or Mexico and you can listen to live music under the stars.

My next stop was the Great Barrier Reef.

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This was a very nosy Maori Wrasse at Miln Reef. It was a privilege to meet him and hundreds of others after turning up uninvited:

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It’s breathtaking but it needs to be protected. The latest threat is from a huge mining development. Read this: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/great-barrier-reef

Cairns was my final stop before heading up to the Northern Territory for a month. It was time for more WWOOFing – this time, in the Australian bush.

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.