Tasmania: Howling at the Thunder

And just like that, Tasmania is finished. Five weeks of apple picking are done, and I have left. Spending tonight in a crappy hostel in Melbourne’s CBD, after flying out of Hobart earlier today. 24 hours and I’ll be with Jeanne once more, in Chiang Mai. Got a lot of airports to traverse in that span of time – it’ll be pretty shit. I’ll live. And then it’s all joy on joy.

My last two days in Tasmania were, I think, my favourite two days. On Thursday we had a long and tough day in the orchard and came home muddy and weary, picking up vegetables and chicken breasts on the way. As part of my leaving shin-dig I’d asked everyone to make a big family dinner with me – fajitas. We all chipped in, tired though we were, and the cottage was transformed for one hour into a busy little kitchen.

I chopped the peppers (red and green) and onions (red and white), the three chicken breasts and the mushrooms, and dished up the black beans. Seth fried them up with a tasty seasoning of spices. French Chloe made guacamole and a secret creamy sauce, and diced chives together with cucumber and jalapenos. American Chloe made tomato rice – an entire vat of it. Jemima set the table and arranged everything beautifully, and after that there weren’t any jobs left, so Luke drank a beer.

The fajitas were fucking fantastic and after we rearranged the sofas and made a little cinema, and we watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Seth’s laptop, all snuggled up with cups of tea and/or mugs of goon. It was chilly outside and the fire was roaring, and everything was lovely.

Friday came around and it was my final day picking. I will miss it. The work is hard but you get used to it, and there’s something so wonderful and cleansing about spending your days outside among the trees picking fruit. Everything is so tactile and natural and breathing; buzzing insects and dirty fingernails and wooden apple bins and tractor wheels churning up the mud. Soul food.

Then on Friday night we had a party. It wasn’t meant to be anything much, but we invited one or two pickers from the orchard and then one or two more, and what was meant to be a dignified last drink turned into a merry big mess.

There was me and Seth, the two Chloes, Jemima, and Luke – our house. Then there came Alexi, Florent, Justine, Thomas, Liam, Marvin, and another couple of people whose names I never learned. We sat around outside, surrounded by piles up crates of beer and goon, full tobacco pouches, and a tower of fresh pizzas that we bought from Huonville for $5 each.

It began like any other night – light conversation and polite chatter as new friendship groups merged. Where you from? Where you been? Where you going?

Liam (from a tiny Scottish peninsula which he tells me is the most isolated place in the UK – only accessible by boat or two hour clifftop hike) is a rather eccentric fellow; aged 23, he makes his own knives, loves shooting guns, and enjoys eating home-grown magic mushrooms and roadkill wallaby.

Marvin is a tall young German guy who recommended I go to Pai in Thailand, but warned me of the 700+ curves on the mountainous road to get there, and solemnly informed me that almost everybody vomits on the coach en route – so many that by the time the coach arrives it hums of bile. Might give that one a miss.

After a couple of hours Marvin and the girl whose name I forgot took out their poi balls – I guess poi is how you spell it? – which are glowing balls on strings that you twirl around you, one in each hand, mirroring each other. In the dark they glowed multi-coloured, and their beaming loops had us mesmerised, like moths flapping at a patio lightbulb.

Alexi stood up then, from the hammock he had been reclined in, and went to fetch something from the car. He’d brought his fire stick over – there’s probably a proper name but I dunno – and soaked both ends in kerosene. He lit them and stood back, and time perfectly with some funky psy-trance playing on the speaker, he treated us to an intense performance of twirling fire. The little man in the white toga who lives on my left shoulder was murmuring something about there being a fire ban, but the man with the big swooshy tail and red horns who makes his home on the adjacent shoulder blade was drunk and rowdy and drowned out all thoughts of safety and precaution.

Some time after the unprompted circus show, a cry went up from Justine and Florent.

“Oh my god,” cried Florent, in his thick French accent, “zere is a scorpion!”

It was about the size of your thumbnail, minding its own business, wandering across the patio. I’ve heard before that the smaller a scorpion, the more venomous it tends to be, so we kept our distance and left it to go about its evening. Shortly after we had another shock as a wolf spider crept out from some gloomy crevice across the cabin’s window. They both eventually disappeared from view and we carried on chatting and boozing as normal, in that nonchalance to scary wildlife that inevitably grows over the course of a year Down Under. If we ran for cover every time we heard a horrifying screech in the black of night or witnessed a spooky insect scuttling into the shadows, we’d never bloody get anything done.

Then everything got weird. Florent smoked a joint and went white as a sheet and disappeared to collapse onto the sofa bed we’d set up inside, shortly followed by Justine acting as babysitter. Liam paused his drunken monologuing about the intricacies of cooking roadkill and went to vomit loudly in the bathroom, before leaving with Alexi and the other pickers, and shortly after that Luke stumbled away to bed unannounced. That left Seth, Thomas, Jemima, myself and the two Chloes awake, all very very drunk.

We cranked up the tunes and threw on one of French Chloe (hereafter Kloe, because I can’t be arse typing French Chloe every time)’s songs – she brings her speaker to the orchard every day, and Seth and I love one song in particular that she always blasts: Udi Baba. UDI BABA. I don’t know what the hell the song is or where it came from, but it’s an Indian banger that has a funk that cannot be resisted. Kloe played it and we were all on our feet in seconds dancing. We thought it’d be funny to separate into boys and girls like in a Bollywood film, taking it in turns to dance and sing. Everything was pinwheeling colours and fat steaming sacks o’ daftest laughter.

Seth gave me a nudge to put on a song that I sang for him in the orchard in our second week picking – it’d been a slow morning and to cheer us up I’d given him a baroque rendition of Seven Drunken Nights, the old Irish ditty I love so much. We popped it on the speaker and I sang the verses, everybody else joining in and clapping along with each chorus. Then it was Mountain Dew and Sally Maclennane,  then Ricky Martin and Busted for some reason, and we put our arms around each other and sang Country Roads at the top of our lungs, and when we grew tired slumped in chairs and sang Elton John’s Your Song in a fuzzy-feeling hug-along, our voices echoing through the dark wooded valley beneath the starry sky.

The night rushed on and it was all silly games and messabouts, Seth was wasted and giggling to himself like a naughty brother giving me dead arms and twisting my poor nips when I wasn’t paying attention. He giddily challenged me to a punch-off and I declined a hundred times, well aware of what happened last time.

A great storm cloud drew over unannounced in the early hours of the morning – the first raindrop was followed within seconds by a downpour. We sat and listened to the rain; the speaker had died. I felt immeasurably happy with my leaving party. Then Chloe said:

“Have you ever tried howling before?”

We asked what she meant, and she threw her head back and howled like a wolf. Without further questioning, we followed suit. Six drunk fools, strangers only five weeks ago, sitting in the middle of a valley in the middle of a rainstorm, heads back, howling like wolves. I’ve never done that before. None of us had. It’s… it’s hard to put into words how that feels – just letting fucking go and caterwauling with the thunder. Cathartic, cleansing… I dunno. That was, for reasons I cannot explain, the perfect way to end my last night in Tasmania. Howling drunk into the rain with a handful of friends who love me, and I love right back.


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