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