Australia: Off the Grid

My god, how everything has changed. You just never see these things coming.

After writing the last entry on this website ten days ago, I picked up my bags, bid goodbye to a couple of hostel friends, and set off down the road, alone again and rather happy for it. I’ve had a couple of adventures in my life, but it’s been a while since I’ve made a decision as potentially life-altering as slinking off into the outback to find farm work. I was nervous, I was excited.

I took a bus out of Byron and rode it one and a half hours to a tiny town called Casino. There, I used a payphone to call the mobile phone of a man I knew nothing about beyond the fact he was called Phil. I stood in the cool dark outside the bus station and clacked the buttons, and listened to the phone ring. There was a click, and finally a friendly voice answered with a relaxed Aussie accent and apologised for being late.

Within five minutes he had arrived at the station in a pickup truck, and I was relieved to find Phil was a smiley guy in his thirties who sometimes ran favours for the hostel I was to be staying at. I won’t write the hostel name here, because they want to stay off the grid as much as possible, but it the translation of the name means something like ‘family’. Phil  and I stood chatting together under the stars and he told me about his life while we waited for another newcomer to arrive, at which point we’d whiz off into the outback together, and whatever lay in store there.

Phil was fascinating. His dad left home when Phil was 6, and was never seen again. His family tracked him down some twenty years later by searching police records around the country. They found that he’d been an alcoholic, wilfully homeless, and had moved from to town for two decades sleeping rough. He’d eventually settled somewhere in northern Australia and had taken to calling himself the Colonel. Phil’s family eventually caught up with his dad, but they were four years too late; he’d passed away. The family explored the Colonel’s old haunts after, and were amazed to find an entire community that knew the man. Phil learned about his father’s life through an alien town full of shopkeepers and bartenders and police officers.

After half an hour the other newbie arrived; Erika, from Canada. She got off her coach from Sydney and greeted us both with a hug and a calming smile. I don’t know what it was, but I immediately felt safe in the company of these two strangers, out under cold stars in a quiet rural street, fifteen thousand miles from home. We got into Phil’s pickup, slinging our bags under the tarp in the back, and went grocery shopping. Phil encouraged me to stock up, as where we were heading there would nothing at all.

I stumbled back to the car with arms full of pasta and eggs and bread, Erika with organic vegetables and giant marrows and leaves and spices I’d never heard of. She worked at the hostel last season, and had giddily arrived back for round two. As we left Casino behind, both Phil and Erika filled me with tales of an enormous campsite, a loving community, and rodeos and local eccentrics and all-nighter bush doofs.

We drove through the night for another hour, heading some two hundred kilometres from the shoreline. Few other cars passed us on the roads. We barely passed any houses, just silent pines and winding road and dark fields that rolled on and on forever. At 9pm we reached Tabulam, a dusty cowboy town with 470 residents, one café, one pub, one grocery store, a post office and a tiny school. Erika encouraged us to pull into the darkened school grounds for a moment. We sat and watched as she hopped out of the car and filled a cardboard box with fresh vegetables plucked from the school allotment; the headmistress gave her permission to take whatever veggies she pleased.

We drove on another twenty minutes, weaving through a great arcing driveway some five miles long. We passed the entrance to the blueberry farm I would eventually be working at, and a little further on we found our hostel, all alone in the woods. The pickup took a left off the dirt road and down an even dirtier road, jiggling over bumps and rocks. As I craned forward in my seat I could see a bonfire through the trees and, as we neared, people dancing. We pulled up, with Erika so overcome with excitement that she leapt out before the truck was stopped and ran away across the grass to greet everyone.

I wandered over to the group, glued to Phil’s side, with him the only person present who knew who the hell I was. I passed the dancing fire people and followed Phil inside a cosy-looking cabin, into a small living room with a lit fireplace, a stack of guitars, and a circle of ten or fifteen people sitting on the floor playing cards and rolling around laughing. I met the owner, a big lovely Kiwi called Malcolm, and he hugged me. “Welcome home, brother,” he said.

I opened the wine I’d brought with me and passed it around, and a flurry of faces and names surrounded me. I was shown to my room, which is a four person room I would be sharing with three other Brits – Ben and Seth, 27, from St Ives, Cornwall, and Hattie, 23, from Worcestershire. We got talking immediately on that first night and I loved all three of them instantly. Our senses of humour are exactly the same, and we’d read the same books and been to the same festivals and liked the same music. Since my travels began, I don’t think I’ve gelled with anybody as well as those three.

That first night passed by quickly enough, and at 8am the next morning I was woken by a punch in the ribs from Malcolm. “Come on buddy,” he said. “We’re making bacon sandwiches!”

Malcolm and I took his Jeep into Tabulam and collected breakfast ingredients. Malcolm knew every single person we passed in the town, and strolled through the local shops waving to friends and wishing everyone a lovely weekend. He told me about his life on the ride back to camp, and the origins of his vision of creating an eco-friendly hostel community way out in the middle of nowhere.

The hostel is off the grid, completely. All water we use is recycled rainwater or bore water, which is pumped up through the ground. All power is drawn from solar panels or, should they fail after a cloudy few days, a generator out the back. To take a shower or wash up, you must flick a switch that turns the water pump on. Electrical appliances can’t be left on charge when not being used. We have wifi for two hours a day, one in the morning and one hour at night. There are four pigs in a pen out back that need feeding every day. Once a week Malcolm takes the proceeds from the hostel and uses them to pay for a soup kitchen down in Tabula.

There is always music playing here, blasting out from 7am as all the backpackers that have been given work at the farm wake up and head to the fields. There is always someone willing to lend you their food, their ears, their money, a cigarette or a glass of goon. Everybody here takes turns to cook and wash up, and everybody plays cards or drinks or watches films cuddled up together every night.

It was a culture shock moving this far out, but that was ten days ago. I absolutely love it here. I’ve barely touched my mobile phone in days; besides immediate family there’s nobody to talk to anyway. I’m not working yet, because there’s an issue with my working visa application, but hopefully it won’t be too long until I can start working on the blueberry farm with Ben and Seth and Hattie every day, earning cash that will allow me to further travel Australia once the summer arrives.

This little hostel on the prairie is home to perhaps 50 backpackers right now, and across its 100 acres there are endless half-finished projects to get stuck into. Ben and I found some bowling balls last week, and have been planning to build a makeshift bowling alley outdoors using plastic bottles filled with mud and painted white as pins. Around the peripheries of grounds there are permaculture sites in the process of being built, and bush turkeys roam free, harassed daily by the border collie, Chaka, who wiles away the hours chasing his own shadow and catching falling leaves.

My first few days here were a haze of goon, all day all weekend. It felt like I was 16 years old again and back at Leeds Fest, sitting round with smiling mucky people in the sun, day drinking with a tinny radio on. Since that first messy weekend at camp I’ve taken to helping out around the place, cooking for friends, running errands, tidying the kitchen, and doing mad trips into Casino for new supplies and extra wine. It’s a completely different world out here, a self-contained universe with different rules, but don’t miss my civilisation at all. I was scrolling Facebook the other afternoon when I came to the realisation that I’d never once opened the app and felt happier for doing so, only a little more sad, nostalgic, or like I was missing out on something.

I went to a rodeo with the gang on Saturday night, and watched leaping bulls fling cowboys into the dust. Pickups and trucks had been driven from miles around to watch the show, all parked on the grass willy-nilly with Stetson-clad country types leaning against them sipping cans of VB. A hammered Ben decided he wanted to try riding the bull and we tracked down the event organiser – who looked just as you’d imagine, with a massive white Stetson and huge tan overcoat – but sadly (and probably for the best) Ben’s request was declined. We hit up a house party after in a nearby town where we drank beers around a campfire and I arm wrestled an enormous beefy mechanic and lost spectacularly.

I’ve been writing quite a lot, and working out most days. I’m eating less meat, and I’m ditching the cigarettes. I’ve started learning Spanish because I think it’s a beautiful language. I watch the sun set every evening, and I never get tired of how it turns the treetops golden. My days have never been so long, and my mind has never been so quiet.

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