From City to Country
A lot has happened since the day we left the city lights of Brisbane, and City Backpackers (a hostel where we had been staying forthree weeks.)
It’s a bit of a roller coaster, with expectations slashed and lessons learnt but I’ll start from the beginning…
Koogie Downs Strawberry Farm is a place one of us had been in contact with (bearing in mind we were a four at the time). The farm offered a job strawberry picking with good hours, good pay and accommodation. We would need to pay $250 up front for a bond for our accommodation, which we would get back upon our leaving, and rent was $120 a week. Seeing as our hostel was $168 a week and we knew upfront bonds were a normal requirement for most types of accommodation, we thought it was a pretty good deal.
The lady Frèdèrique had been in touch with sounded pleasant enough and we packed our bags to leave. We all needed money at this point – I had just been paid by the call centre but I knew it wasn’t going to last long so felt happy in the fact that I would be earning good money along side ticking off some days for my second year visa. Sarah was in the same position but Janneke is probably leaving for good at Christmas so a second year visa was definitely not a priority for her. We had been warned about strawberry picking – many said it was backbreaking work and very tiresome. Being the young fools we were, we decided we could easily rise to the challenge.
So anyway, we arrived at ‘Palmwoods Station’ after an hour or so on the train from Brisbane. We were in a place called Chevellum, in the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. The station was deserted but the weather was lovely. All of a sudden, a van screeches round the corner and out pops this dishevelled grumpy man (I would find out later that we would have to call him ‘Grandad’) who wore tattered clothing and nothing on his bare, dirty, hobbit feet. He mumbled something about putting our bags in the van but made no attempt to help us. We hauled our packs in with us and set off. We thought it bizarre that the man made no effort to greet us or even make conversation in the van. He did not smile once.
We arrived ten minutes later at Koogie Downs. The second we stepped out of the van, a grumpy old lady (‘Grandma’) barked orders at us, ‘Where’s your $250 bond money?’
‘Hello, nice to meet you too.’ I thought.
The elderly lady was sitting down at a small desk with four piles of paper. Contracts, waiting to be signed. There wasn’t a moment to waste as we soon found out when we were shouted at to bring our bags out of the van ‘quickly’.
I tried to make conversation with the grumpy old lady but she steered the talk to contracts and signing and money. The atmosphere was tense, hostile and completely unwelcoming. We looked at each other in total disbelief.
We asked politely to see our accommodation before handing over any money. Well, this caused some type of outrage amongst these bogans. F’ing and blinding, the old man acted like we had just set fire to all his strawberry fields. He barked at us to put our bags back in the van and snapped at us when we weren’t quick enough. ‘You’re wasting my time!’ He screamed.
He took us at full speed to the accommodation barracks and told us, ‘Out of thousands of backpackers, you are the only ones who want to see the accommodation. You must have stayed at some real shit holes to ask a stupid question like that.’ He stood angrily whilst we surveyed the kitchen, bedrooms and showers. Luckily, we saw a friendly looking girl there (her name was Chloe) who came up to us and told us it was a good farm and that luckily we never have to deal with ‘Grandad’ and that the rest of the team are so nice. Bloody better be to compensate for this, I thought.
The barracks looked liveable and pleasant enough and the friendly girl followed us up back to Grandma, talking to us about how fine the farm was and her good experience of it. Although we had a terrible first impression of the place, we were caught in a bit of a trap. We all needed money and we had nowhere else to go. We had packed our bags and we had planned to stay a month. It was a daunting thought to head back to Brisbane or the nearest town after just a few hours. Plus, we were tough cookies! We had dealt with horrible people ourselves in life. Why would this be any different? Chloe said it was a good place and we peered our heads around the warehouse to look at the rows and rows of strawberry fields.
So we signed the contracts and paid our bond money. Tomorrow we would start work and we headed to our room feeling deflated but hopeful that things would surely get better. That night we had a taster of how the month would pan out – work, shower, dinner, bed. Repeat. We watched as all the backpacker workers trundled back to the barracks and did exactly that. The kitchen’s power got turned off at 8.30pm. Everyone seemed to be in bed at 9pm.
After an uncomfortable night on a boney old bed, 6pm arrived and we made our way to work. We were each given a trolley with about 6 trays stacked on it. We were directed to a line each and told how to pick a strawberry correctly. After no more than 10 minutes, I felt my back seize up. We weren’t allowed to crouch down or squat as this reduced picking time, therefore you must bend from your hips. Every time you stood to take a swig of water, it felt like your lower back was on fire. On top of this, the whole family stood watching us, occasionally throwing nasty comments about how bad our picking was.
Two and a half hours we picked. Nothing in comparison to a normal five or six hour day picking and so absolutely nothing to complain about. Janneke was down to pack in the afternoon (they could only train one person a day) so she stayed on whilst we headed back to the barracks. Upon return, Janneke let us know that instead of churning out masses of punnets, allowing us to earn a lot of dollar, she would be lucky if she made $21 for nearly five hours packing.
In the end, it was the set of circumstances that informed our decision to leave. I think it would have been fine if we were getting paid well, and the job was shit, or even if the pay was crap but we were loving what we were doing. Seeing as neither held true, we made the decision to pack our bags, say goodbye to our hard earned $250 and get the hell out.
I stand by the fact that there is no excuse to treat members of staff the way they did – like numbers not people. But I do think that we went in with a somewhat spoilt attitude. Having had no Australian farm experience to date, I think we were expecting it all to be rosey cheeks and tans and eating strawberries all day. Our experience at Koogie was a harsh wake-up call to the reality of living and working in farm environments.