It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I never had any clue what the hell that meant. I just passed it off as a cheeky literary paradox that had no real meaning, but was fun to say in a posh English accent. In Mclaren Vale, it finally made sense to me.
It was getting near the breaking point. Every day we heard the same thing. “Ah yeah, work should be full on next week.” How we began to despise that term. “Full on.” Full on BS was more like it. Although we tried, we couldn’t really blame anyone; it was the reality of the situation that had doomed us from prospering. The same drought that had burnt half the southeast had wreaked havoc on the crops of South Australia. We heard that grape losses were as bad as 70% in the state. The fruit on the vines was shriveled and sunburnt – they were no longer grapes, they were raisins. And raisins don’t make Shiraz.
But the backpackers had come all the same, desperate to find work where there was little. They came in the hundreds, all with the false hope of steady pay. The caravan park was full, but it didn’t matter, since many of us no longer had the means to pay. A lot of backpackers slept in their vans and cars. Some even started living in the field beyond the campsite. They’d sneak in to use the showers at night then scamper back into the darkness. Rumors began to circulate that some of the Germans were eating food out of the garbage bins behind the Coles Supermarket. South Australia had become California circa 1937.
A few times a week we would get a couple hours of grape picking. The rest of our time was spent sitting idly around camp, making cup after cup of tea and discussing our plight – the talk had become routine. Day in and day out, we had different versions of the same conversation. Boxed wine and the nearby beaches were all that kept us sane.
My best friends there were two British couples. I shared a campsite with Matt and Clara. They were from the West Country, where people tend to speak like Samwise Gamgee (although they didn’t). They had a two-room tent, a car, cooking equipment, a plug in fridge and even a TV. We cooked, made tea, ran errands and watched crappy daytime television together. They sort of became my “surrogate parents” as Matt put it. I loved hanging out with them and we got along great (with the exception of the time I ate all of Clara’s candy she had saved since Christmas). Mike and Tina, a Welsh couple I met the first day picking grapes, were equally as amiable and generous. They often gave me rides to work and shared our love for cheap box wine. After they moved into our caravan park, the five of us became a little family (my role was admittedly the unwitting hapless child).
One afternoon we were all camped out by the sea. Another cloudless day fried the beach. We sat in our usual spot under the boardwalk where I buried my feet in the cool sand, they smoked and we all pondered. Weeks of being optimistic about work hadn’t amounted to anything. Now the talk was going the other way, and I dreaded to hear it. “Maybe we should head towards Melbourne now.” Matt would say to Clara. “But Matt, we haven’t made any money yet,” she’d protest. Matt exhaled another drag. “Well we’re just spending money here and wasting time when we could be out seeing things.” I just kept looking at my feet, watching the grains of sand funnel between the gaps of my toes.
“We heard there was more work up in the Riverlands, we’re thinking about going there.” Mike chimed in after a long moment. “Yes, but the hotline said there was work here too. What if it’s the same up there?” Tina reasoned. “And in the Riverlands you won’t have a beach to sit on when there’s no work” I added, betraying my own bias on the issue.
They had the luxury of such talk. Both pairs had a vehicle, and both would eventually head east to where most of the country’s work was located. I, on the other hand, had just come from that direction and was determined to go west, thousands of miles west. Western Australia fascinated me. There, the vast deserts of the outback met the Indian Ocean. The snorkeling was supposed to be epic and the beaches were full of naked mermaids… so I was told. But, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have any money. These two couples were about all I had. If they left me now, I’d not only be jobless, penniless and ride-less – I’d be alone. I’d have no one with whom I could sit under the pier with and air complaints.
I rose to my feet and declared I was going for a snorkel. I walked out onto the warm sand and soon stood at the edge of the water. I waded up to my knees and looked around. “How often,” I thought, “does one get to be in such a place like this; a sunny beach, with a fetching expanse of sea reaching out to the western horizon, and have such feelings of despair? What a pity.” I sighed and turned my back on the sea, I stretched out my arms level to my shoulders and fell back into the ocean. I let the cool water find its way to every inch of my body. For a few moments I lay still so I could only feel the gentle motion of the tide. I had every intention to be this dramatic. It worked in the movies? Surely when I rose out of the sea my problems would vanish with the tide and everything would be different.
Alas, I came up for air and found the same world around me. People were still fishing from the jetty, toddlers were still escaping frantic parents and my friends were still lounging in the shade of the boardwalk. The drought hadn’t stopped, the grapes weren’t more plentiful, and the same moneyless ATM lay just up the road. Reality hadn’t changed.
My outlook, however, had changed, and what difference that can make. For the first time in days I allowed all the negatives of the situation to take a backseat to the positives. Only two weeks beforehand, I had learned (and I’m using this word generously) to surf. A week before I saw my first ever highly venomous snake in a local National Park. Maybe I wasn’t working everyday like I wished, but I was in the company of some of the finest folks I’ve met in my travels. And for god’s sake, I was standing on a beach in Australia!
These were the reasons I lived in a tent, washed my body with hand soap and stuck through the hard times to pick grapes. These were all the reasons I now look back at my time in Mclaren Vale fondly. I knew I’d have to part ways with my friends eventually, and decided to enjoy the remaining time I had with them.
With this in mind, I cracked a smile and headed back towards the boardwalk. Then, while walking across the white sand, I came to the conclusion that Charles Dickens wasn’t so full of shit after all.
Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing (so if you find any mistakes from now on blame her…)