Working in Australia
Australia is known among travelers for the possibilities to make easy money. Many people from Europe can get a one year work permit – called working holiday visa – and wages are quite high. For me as well that was one of the reasons to go to Australia – to earn a lot of money in a few weeks and then continue to travel. In the end I stayed a whole year – but I worked just a few months.
Here and in the last article I want to write about two very different and extraordinary jobs I’ve done.
The hardest job in the world
I admit that this headline sounds a little sensational but still it has some truth. For five weeks I’ve been working in Australia as a treeplanter which is referred by many as one of the toughest jobs in the world. Good earning potential through hard physical effort – something I had heard of before and after I had crossed Australia by bicycle in early summer, I should probably be fit enough for that – I thought.
An old friend of mine from my hometown called me: He offered me to join his treeplanter crew for the last few weeks of the planting season. One guy had dropped out and they were looking for replacement. Two days later I find myself at a caravan park in a small australian town and the joy to seeing my friend mixes with the anticipation of what is waiting for me the next morning.
I have to get up at five a clock, one hour later is departure. I´m cramped with four other crew members in a large pick-up truck and the road winds up into the mountains. While the rising sun illuminates the sky in pink and orange, the glittering frost on the ground becomes visible – it’s winter and it is crisp cold. After an hour we reach our operational area for the day, a large deforested terrain.Old tree trunks, branches and rocks lying around, it looks like after a storm. My feet stuck in heavy work boots, long underwear and woolen hat against the cold, gloves on my fingers. Ready to go.
We are planting pine trees here, about 20 cm tall. The seedlings must have a certain depth and need to be stucked firm in the ground, the spacing is prescribed. It´s all mono culture what is planted here and after 20 or 30 years the whole area will be cut down completely. Probably most of the trees are processed into paper. These giant tree farms have already replaced the native forest and don´t offer much room for other plants or animals. Sustainability is something else, but after all, the trees grow for a few years and still produce oxygen.
I get a belt strapped to my hips so that I can carry plastic trays with the trees, up to 120 trees I can carry that way. In my hand a spade, then I can start. Usually the ground has been roughly plowed once and there is a ripline in which the trees have to be planted.
The workflow is like this: ram the spade into the soil and lever a hole, bend over and put a tree in the hole with the other hand, pull out the spade and simultaneously hold the tree straight, with the feet firmly kick the soil and check again if the tree is tight and firm and deep enough. Take two steps while already grabbing the next tree out of the tray and again ram the spade into the ground.
You need the right technique so that the trees are well planted and you don´t waste time while correcting them. The quality is checked and there are certain quotas to be achieved.
This process is repeated thousands of times a day, it’s physically incredibly exhausting. Payment is per tree and you have to be fast to earn adequate. The other planters are running over the field, in the beginning it is inexplicable to me how they can plant so many trees and persevere for so long. Hardly anyone takes a break and if they do then only to quickly eat a muesli bar or drink some water.
My clothes are quickly covered in mud and wet with sweat. By four o´clock in the afternoon we are back at the caravan park where three people share a room. I take a shower, eat something and fall into bed, completely exhausted.
On the second day my whole body hurts. There seems to be no muscle fiber that is not overstretched and sore and I don´t know how to get through the day. Every movement hurts, my hips are excoriated by the heavy belt.
It takes about one week until my body has somewhat accustomed to the hard work but the problems and pains don´t stop: blisters on my hands from the spade, numb and sprained fingers, sprained limbs, pain in the knees and in the back, in the joints, scratches from blackberrys and thorns. Everyone of the other planters has already had injuries, most of them continue to work, sometimes with the help of strong painkillers. For every day that you can´t work also means that you can´t make money.
Work is usually six or seven days in a row, then there is one day off. The working time is 6-8 hours, regardless of the weather. Sometimes the soil is frozen in the morning, the spade is hardly able to dig a hole. Even the trees are frozen and can´t be fetched from the trays. When it rains, everything is muddy and the soil sticks to the shoes, mud is everywhere. It happens two or three times that it rains so heavily (or even snows) that we have to stop and go home.
On my first day off I try to move as little as possible and to eat as much as possible. Of course one day is not enough for the body to recover from such extreme efforts. Other planters, which do the work since a few months, tell me of painful joints that make them wake up at night, from a constant state of exhaustion of the body. This job requires hard work and it is not a job that can be done permanently, at least not at this pace. All planters in this crew are under 30 and not Australians but foreign backpackers.
Why I love this job nevertheless
It needs not only physical fitness for this kind of job, a strong will and the right motivation is far more crucial. You have to be ready to give everything every new day, to exhaust yourself completely. You need to be able to see it as a challenge or even a game to try to plant as many trees as quick as possible. Power of endurance and the right mindset is needed.
Working together in a crew also makes you develop a sense of community, after work we cooked and discussed in the rooms together. For me this was again something special, because we were four people from Arnsberg, from my hometown. Actually most of the people in the crew were Germans and we talked German all the time.
Planting trees is hard work, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Quite comparable to cycling extreme routes but while cycling you need only your legs and here your entire body. However, like most of the planters I like the work. Throughout the day you are out in nature, you move, you are doing something and in the evening you feel what you have done and of course it also pays off financially. There are motivated and experienced planter who can earn AU$ 300 per day to mention here at least one number.
After five weeks the planting season is over and I’m glad that it’s over and I can recover. But I would have been also happy to continue planting and it was certainly not the last time I did that job.
Here is a video of the time: