A Travellerspoint blog

Angle grinding

sunny 33 °C

This morning caught us by surprise: the flame of the poinciana hidden by night, the coolness that happened when the sun turned its back, the sharp cleanness of everything as we walk around the little paradise, and me at how much coffee I need to be functional. Task one is always picking red flowers for Mike and Tanya's spa business... surely only imaginary people begin days by picking flowers?

Hanging from a gutter, a honeyeater's nest is forming. Its builder hovers to and fro so quickly I have to be patient and wait with my camera, poised.


Today we continued transforming fallen logs. Did you know that angle grinding can be addictive? I got quite into it today... there's something very satisfying and soothing about helping a tree slough its skin and show off its heartwood, and sending white clouds into the air and making a lot of noise while doing so. Even if you do get attacked by marsh flies that rise to the drama of the occasion by exploding into red showers of your own blood when you swat them... I also got to start applying a layer of oil over one completed masterpiece. Again, weirdly satisfying - or not so weirdly. It feels good to actually do and make something physical. Mike commented that 'especially the girls get into this kind of stuff', probably because 'the girls' don't usually get to do this kind of thing at all.


(A lot of old anger here, and hurt. I'm tired of being 'a girl' even among purportedly liberal people, who smile politely if I try to worry my little head about science, and annoyed at myself for succumbing to the art vs technology divide - I'm 'this kind of person' who 'doesn't understand that kind of thing'. Learning to use handtools and finding out how to make things myself is partly an exercise in demystification, in realising that the world is a pile of materials clever apes can rearrange, not a hopelessly complicated machine fuelled by magic and managed by Mentats).

After work, a leap in the pool followed by a trip to town. We're doing this whole Whitsundays thing soon - a 3-day cruise on a boat, a tourist thing. It makes me a 'girl' again, worried about the meeting of my body with a bikini. I'm like a big, wide log. And no matter how many times I tell myself it's stupid, I can't take the edge off and grind the thought away.

Posted by wanderingwolf 04:15 Archived in Australia Tagged australia women working Comments (0)

Hilltop Paradise

sunny 33 °C

Well, I said goodbye to Al and Lydia, and beehives and chooks, and this week I'm doing some woodwork relating to cyclone recovery near Proserpine, Queensland. A couple of cyclones roared through Mike and Tanya's property last year, and this means a lot of land-clearing and repairs.

This basically means I get to stomp around a small wood using gigantic saws and an angle grinder - an actual power tool, complete with a universal token of masculinity, luminous orange protective ear muffs. If that doesn't sound macho enough, picture me attempting to haul a log up a hill using a length of rope. I think it makes a stirring image, don't you agree?


Once again, I found Mike and Tanya through HelpX, which more people should know about – especially travellers trying to get their 2nd year visa. Food and accommodation are expensive in Oz, and paid fruit-picking and farmwork is often a lot of sweat for few dollars. HelpX allows you to volunteer your time and effort and live and work with people who'll treat you like human beings, involve you in their lives, tell you the best places to visit and provide you with food and board.

Mike's a British expat; Tanya's from Ukraine. Among other things they run a spa business, and live at the top of hill in a house Mike built himself. In what Mike says is a heat wave, everything lacks the colour it should have, but to my eyes the slope fits the review of a previous Helper as 'paradise': stone paths zigzagging through a forest of trees that drip orange and red petals and unripe fruit, from bananas to mangos, between which the clouds clump under the sunset like blue mountains. Rich and I live in white-walled cabin that feels like a luxurious hotel room, but through our window in the mornings there might be wallabies to join the steady stream of geckos.

The worst thing is the heat, the relentless humidity... but Mike's answer is a swimming pool. If we get too hot we can have a dunk. Rain clattered down today, and Mike kept making happy noises. The cane toads hopped out to celebrate.

Mike left the UK when he was 26. He doesn't regret it; he explained how “no one could understand how it is here” when he went back for a visit, this man sitting in the sun by his pool in a house he built on a hill, a little Eden around him. He remembers wet and struggle and cold. But I smile politely, and still remember home.

Posted by wanderingwolf 04:02 Archived in Australia Tagged australia working Comments (0)

Buzzing around some trippy toads

sunny 38 °C

Inside, the air is warm soup; outside the wind is the breath of a dragon. In the shade the temperature measures 34. The last couple of days have begun in cloud and relative cool, preventing us from getting at the bees – an overcast day works them up, Al says. By the late afternoon the sky is clear, some tatters of cloud high above, and the land seems to gasp as the heat lessens. A minute after showering you're bathed in sweat again.

Minus bees, we check on the chickens, change their water and feed them a mix of grain with a tiny amount of sulphur, which apparently kills parasites.

The Light Sussex and Black Orpington breeds Al is crossing

The Light Sussex and Black Orpington breeds Al is crossing


Today, between two layers of mesh on their pen I find the blackened, scorched body of a cane toad. On my first day here Al casually kicked a better preserved, freshly dried one aside.


(Cane toads are huge brown things with venom sacks on either side of their heads. It's apparently common to find a dead snake with a cane toad in its mouth; certain birds have learned to eat only the rest of the body. Humans being humans, old hippies took to licking cane toads as the venom's quite hallucinogenic).

As soon as a gap in the clouds allowed us, we got into the bees. This mean carefully removing the frames, layer by layer, from a hive, so we could move them into a new, clean box. The safety suit sweltered as soon as it was on, and behind the veil I instantly developed an itch. Al showed me how to use a smoker – basically a small device that contains some slow-burning wood. Bees will fly away from smoke, and we used the smoker to get them out of the way. We carefully levered the frames out using a metal stick, trying not to crush too many bees in the process.



Al pointed out the larger drones, and even found the queen for us – hiding in the bottom layer. She was harder to spot than I expected – a bee with a long brown abdomen, a bit larger than the other bees around her. She was just over a year old (so well within the accepted commercial age of a queen, which is about two years) but seemingly not laying much. A couple of frames were heavy with honey, but not many of them were capped (so, filled completely with honey and sealed in with wax). It's been too hot and dry for the last year or so; the bees are hungry.


We also saw a few dummy queen cells – the special chambers the bees build in order to create a queen. The queen cells are big, roundish structures that stick out from the rest; inside, the chosen larvae will eat a special 'royal jelly', grow and develop the ovaries that the worker bees won't. Apparently the workers choose and create queens; the queen, meanwhile, decides which eggs will be workers and which will be drones by measuring the size of the cell she lays into. Bees are pretty fascinating critters. I'll miss them when I buzz off.

Posted by wanderingwolf 22:26 Archived in Australia Tagged australia working Comments (0)

Imperial spanners

sunny 36 °C

This week promises a fiery assault from the skies – temperatures around 38, 39 – and so we are up and at work early, raking out the chickens' pens. A light Suffolk hen is spread like a pancake over her egg; she barely moves when we take off the top of her special laying hutch. All her focus is on the egg.

Getting Rural

Getting Rural

By 9am the heat scorches our backs as we tear grass and weeds from a vegetable patch. After a few hours Alan literally hoses us down, spraying us with cold water from head to toe – it feels amazing.

We stop when the heat gets too much. The wind feels like a furnace blast and we retreat indoors. I write; Rich programs. Alan mentions runes in passing, and ends up getting a Tarot card reading from me when he discovers I can read them. I realise I feel no desire to delve for myself – there's an ease about the present, and any worries I have I feel capable of tackling without additional help. Out of curiosity I do a quick past-present-future spread, and smile at the Tower in my past, and the Ten of Cups in my present...

A small aside here. Admittedly I've travelled less in the UK now than I have in Australia, but I've been a bit surprised by how common belief in Tarot cards, runes, astrology, crystals, etc is in Oz. People veer suddenly from talking about tracking wild pigs and the workings of four-wheel drives to strange dreams and 'chem-trails'. A lot of what can be a useful way of talking to yourself (personally I think Tarot is more about separating out aspects of your mind and discovering what you think – and anticipating the future your present thoughts direct – than communicating with anything mystical), and a lot of stuff that makes me think, 'riiiiight'.

Al gets us helping with some DIY. I feel monumentally useless - perhaps ornamentally useless - as I examine metric vs imperial spanners. 'Imperial spanner' would make a good insult, I think (perhaps, because I'm a pom - a Prisoner of Mother England - I count as one). It's hard to remember that you have a different world to this one of things you don't understand - tools and trees, considerations about seasons, vehicle parts, batteries, some practical arrangement of the immediate that makes things easier. I'm not useless, I want to say. My world is words and gradients.

The weekend involved little more strenuous than cutting up the soap and baking sourdough bread – and enjoying 'beer o'clock' at 5. Life is tough!

Posted by wanderingwolf 03:20 Archived in Australia Tagged australia working Comments (0)

Bees 'n' bush in Queensland

sunny 31 °C

So, it's been a while. Maybe I'll go back and fill in the giant gaps, and go on about India and New Zealand and all the time I've been in Australia so far, but it's easier to talk about the immediate.

I'm in Queensland, land of the bush, reddish brown flatness under a dome of blue sky, low mountains in the distance like painter's fancies. Like human skin there is more colour here than you'd first imagine – the purplish gold emerging from the undergrowth with sunset, startlingly large and bright butterflies floating on the wind, oases of green wherever there is water, bowing poinciana trees heavy with flame-like flowers. What at a glance looks like dry brown grass yields subtle shades of magenta and orange.

I'm trying to get my 2nd year visa, which means doing 3 months of specified regional work during my first year. Through HelpX found Alan and Lydia, a couple who keep chickens and bees, plus a vegetable garden, a couple of hours inland from Townsville. My main job, in return for food and board, is to keep the bees and chickens happy. Yesterday was the first day. Alan introduced us to the bees by driving us out in his ute via a road shared with miners. “LV, Silverleaf,” he kept saying into a radio, and explained that he was letting the miners know he was there, in a light vehicle, near a place designated Silverleaf for the trees that grew there – another moment of surprising distinction. And miners in roadtrains appeared over the hill and bore down on us, trailing clouds of dust... I felt a flash of appreciation for a kind of old-world, working aesthetic, the beauty of big shiny machines, advertisement-blue skies, unpromising land opening up to those who try.

Alan keeps about 25 hives – white wooden frames sitting in a patch in the bush where he'd hoped there would be flowering trees. The weather's been bad for the last couple of years, and the lack of rain has stolen a lot of life from the region. The trees don't flower at all, or when they do it's out of season, and the bees aren't interested. Alan talked dourly about this for a while, and it all sounded very King Lear – I kept expecting him to prophesy fratricide and regicide, strange portents and ghosts walking.

Otherwise, Alan told us a lot about the life-cycle of the hive. As we topped up their water he told us about how the queen flies out of the hive only a few times in her life, mainly to mate, and that the mating happens on the wing. The drones pursue a perfume of pheromones, and the one that catches her goes out in bang – apparently unable to ejaculate without exploding! (Sounds a good way to go, at least...) The queen mates several times over a few days, and has such control over the sperm stored inside her that she can select which mating will produce bees, selecting darker partners in the winter months.


After topping up the water we found we were stuck – the ute's two batteries were dead! Alan called a friend out to give him a jumpstart. While waiting we discovered that some ant colonies were preying on the bees, snatching at them as they landed to deliver pollen – and poured what smelt like diesel down the little ant-holes we found. Eventually a narrow-faced man appeared in another ute, after a morning of apparently working cattle. Denim-clad, topped with a white, classic-looking cowboy hat, this guy was maybe the most Australian thing I'd ever seen.

Back on Alan's property we watered the chickens, checked their feed and chased off a few who were getting 'clucky' – meaning broody, and wanting to nest over one small white egg. Alan explained the different breeds, and how he was trying to come up with a new soft-feathered chook after some destructive experiences with game roosters (fights to the death were common). I think the new project is a cross between the large and docile Sussex chooks and black Orpingtons. We had curried eggs for lunch, before doing an extra task – making soap!

Making soap involves adding (very carefully) some caustic soda to some hot water and heating some animal fat mixed with palm oil, before cooling both down to around 38 degrees and combining them with some essential oils and flavourings. Alan showed us how to cool them, mix them and pour them into a wooden mould. The result is left for several hours and forms a luckily temporary, unattractive jelly-like crust.

The initial mix of palm oil and animal fat

The initial mix of palm oil and animal fat

Al shows us how to mix and churn the combo with caustic soda and water

Al shows us how to mix and churn the combo with caustic soda and water

Making pretty colours in the mould!

Making pretty colours in the mould!

Time for beer, and more red meat than I've had in several months, and Al's stories of hitchhiking, penniless, to Darwin, sleeping in a swag in the middle of nowhere, getting woken by curious stallions, and selling a gun for 25 bucks. Al's white dog, Minmin, chases after bush turkeys to the laughter of kookaburras (a malicious-sounding guffaw). Geckos stream across the walls. The only vehicles that pass our road (which Google doesn't know about) are utes and, once, a shining couple on a motorbike, who decided they were going the wrong way.

Posted by wanderingwolf 16:07 Archived in Australia Tagged australia working Comments (0)

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