Outback Australia: Making charcoal and the scrapes

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When it comes to backpacker jobs call me Bertie Bassett because I’ve done all sorts.
Of all of the jobs that I’ve had however, nothing quite compares to what I do now.
For the past few months I have been making charcoal in the Australian outback. The days are long, the work is horrible, physical and dusty and the weather is crazy. Basically wood is cut up, we gather it onto trucks, tip it into pits, cook the wood in the pits for about a fortnight and then dig out the resulting charcoal, sort it into bags, sew the bags, stack them and then wrap them in plastic ready for delivery. It sounds simple but each element is hard, dangerous and has its own meticulously regimented method of being done. Everyone has constant injuries, there is no health and safety and yeah, it’s not particularly pleasant.

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Digging

The location:
821 Kms west of Brisbane (a seven day non-stop hike according to google maps) is a settlement called Wyandra, look it up, it’s a tiny little place with only 116 residents (116 according to Wikipedia, my boss said in reality there are only about 40 people that live there permanently). Another 25km into the wilderness outside of Wyandra is where we live.
There is a small group of us that live out here (so far the minimum has been 5, the maximum was 9) the couple that run the business stay in the house and the rest of us that work here stay in “dongers” or campervans on the grounds.

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Water:

To get clean water we need to go on ‘water runs’. A water run consists of driving for about 20 minutes in a rickety old truck to a hole in the ground with pumps and tubes sticking out of it. On the back of the truck is a massive tank that is filled directly with the water, hot enough to cook in, pumped straight from the boar. When you pull up to the pump, one of you will then climb up on top of the truck and then up onto the tank. The hose is guided up to you with ropes then you put the nozzle into the top of the tank, tie the hose to a strap, let rip and then you wait on top until the tank is full enough. The whole process of driving out, filling the tank, returning and then plumbing it all in takes (on a good day) about an hour; however often there are problems or if it is too dark then we won’t go.

It’s a ballache but better than the alternative. If there is no clean water in the tank we switch to using river water. This wouldn’t be too bad if the river wasn’t slow moving, shallow and didn’t have water with the look and feel of a poorly prepared cup-a-soup (one day we had neither option so I washed myself in my boss’s bathroom with water from a saucepan).

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A ‘water run’ at sunset.

Food and supplies:
The nearest supermarket is a two hour drive away, actually if you need pretty much anything (clothes, a toothbrush… medical attention) it’s a two hour drive to Charleville, the nearest place that is big enough to call itself a town. If shit gets really serious there is an airstrip nearby that we can use but I’m yet to see it get any action.

Stress:

Like every job there is inevitable politics and any grievances do become heightened because we are such a small group and you are all working long hard hours. Often the person you least want to see is the person that you spend your entire day with. For the most part though I’ve managed to keep out of the politics, but of course some days the job is nothing to do with charcoal, it’s about putting up with all the gossip and the ballache around you.

Chargrilled fingertips and a lost fingernail.

So, why put up with all of this bullshit?:

Aside from the finances (realistically I don’t have time to look for another job before my VISA expires) the main things that are keeping me here are the people (cliché but very true), the fact that I can feel myself getting healthier by the day and the general sense of adventure and camaraderie. It feels like what I always imagined Australia to be. I open my door in the morning and some days I see kangaroos hopping away, or emus, it’s amazing. Before I came into the outback I was firmly trying to enter the tedium of Melbourne city life (working for a smarmy solar panel sales company run by a guy with a popular haircut) and yeah, I didn’t realise how shit it was until I actually left.

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Picture taken by Ben Chandler

Another good thing about working here is that it’s actually legit’. I’ve read and heard so many stories of backpackers being swindled by farmers, often for thousands of dollars. It’s not uncommon and it’s all over Australia. The farmers know that the backpackers need to work for a certain amount of days to earn their second year so they treat them like shit and often pay them nothing (or close enough to it) for their hard work. Scum. Luckily I was only scammed once (3 days of pay) out in WA but I’m really happy to be somewhere with long term consistent work (the pay cheques are sporadic but at least they are actually right when they do come).

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Picture taken by Ben Chandler

Every day is a new challenge, a new adventure. If something could possibly go wrong it will but that just makes everything that much more interesting. The work is shit but yeah, that’s why they pay you to do it, right? I love a story as well and this job is certainly a rich source.

Here are a few of my stories and photo’s that I’ve gathered so far:


The explosion:

It was an afternoon just like any other, the plan was to load ten big bags of charcoal (each weighing about a tonne) onto a big flatbed truck ready to be taken to a different site for crushing. The only issue was that we didn’t have a forklift on site, instead we were using a huge digger with forklift bars attached to its front (it looked like one of the shitter Robot Wars contestants, just on a massive scale). After a sketchy start the digger seemed to be working fine, it’d turn on, go for a bit and then it’d mysteriously stop and the engine would grumble to silence. But each time, first try, it would turn on again with no issue.
Despite working for a few short bursts the engine of the digger dramatically sputtered, choked, and it was clearly dead for the final time; like the last moments of a villain in a film when they spring back to life wielding a gun before getting shot in the head and we know that this time they definitely won’t be coming back. The battery was going to need a jump.
We got all of the stuff ready and I stood there holding the jump leads in my right hand, poised and ready to pass them over when the time was right. My boss, Ian, was teaching me how to do a jump start. I lent over the battery and stared at the connections with vacant intent as if to say “I’m listening, you’re a great teacher”, I was giving loads of open mouthed feedback as well, “Oh yeah… ahh okay… gotcha…right on… yep… of course… yeah that makes sense”, I think it’s called “active listening” although I think it just distracted me from actually listening.

The lesson continued, “Okay, brown to the positive, this clip goes here…”
BANG!!
All at once it sounded like Velcro ripping, a pop of a champagne cork and the loud cracking thud of a large tree branch falling onto concrete. The sound pulsed into my head, recoiled around in my skull and then left all in a fraction of a second. My eyes stung as I opened them, my skin crawled with a scratchy heat, my ears were ringing and I had a weird gritty taste in my mouth. I kept getting that strange sensation that happens whilst swimming when you come up for air and the water leaves your ears, like somebody opening a pressurised submarine door in the centre of your head.
“Ian!? Ian! What the fuck!? Are you alright?” My language went a bit Hollywood in the confusion.
“Are you alright?” He calmly mumbled in reply.
“Are YOU alright Ian?”
We asked each other if we were alright another five times or so in rapid succession without replying.
He got up and we stumbled over to a tap, ears still ringing, on the floor was a dirty old jacket that we wet and used the muddy sleeves to wash the battery fallout from our skin. I looked down at my T-shirt and it looked like i’d been shot with blacky-green paint from a novelty shotgun.
“Now, what did we just learn?” Ian said in a calm voice.
“I don’t know Ian, what the fuck was that!?”
“Those leads must have touched together, the ones you were holding, they touched together and the battery’s exploded…”
“Oh fuck”
“… You’ve got to keep them apart”.
We returned to the scene. The top of the battery had blown clean off, revealing it’s sci-fi interior, lots of coiled metal marinating in a thick shiny black soup.
“I always wondered what the inside of one of those was like” Ian said with a smile as he patted me on the shoulder. “We’re lucky lucky boys”.
Then we just continued on; Ian pulled a battery out of one of the other machines, plumbed it in, jump started  the digger and we were back in business. All with the zen focus as if nothing had happened. It was amazing. Just another day at the office.

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Baby-toothed Joe takes a tumble:

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This is Baby-toothed Joe. He is a local cattle musterer whose adult teeth never came through; leaving him with a frightening gum:tooth ratio. He has three stock phrases:

“Ahzit gowan!?” (Hello, how are you?)

“Year” (Yes)

“Muzz’rin” (Mustering cattle)

Every time I see him he sidles up silently beside me whilst I’m working, settles himself so he is facing my direction and then he blankly stares into the abyss with quiet melancholic eyes.

A typical conversation will be as follows:

“Alright Joe, how’s your day treating you?”

“… Ahzit gowan!? …”

“All good thanks mate, are you having a nice day?”

“… Year …”

“Cool man, what have you been up to?”

“… Muzz’rin …”

“Ahh mustered cattle eh, I bet that will taste nice ha ha ha… … mustard…”

“… Year …”

“It’s really hot today, why are you wearing a big coat and Ugg boots?”

“ … “

“I suppose it feels cold for you ha ha, the climate where I am from is colder than here so this feels hot for me ha ha weather.”

“… Year …”

 

Anyway, as hard as I try and capture this moment I can never quite get across just how funny it actually was. Basically, Baby-toothed Joe fell over, that’s the story. I was busy putting some plastic wrap around a stacked pallet of charcoal bags when he settled in the area in front of me.

“Alright Joe?”

“… Ahzit gowan!?”

He stared as I shuffled backwards around and around the pallet uncoiling the plastic and stretching it around the bags to hold them in place. When it was wrapped I nealt down to tie up the loose end.

“I’m a bit dizzy now ha ha, being a world class rapper isn’t as glamorous as they make it out to be in the music videos ha ha ha”

“… Year …”

Then he tried to turn to walk away but the heal of his Ugg boot caught one of the unstacked bags of charcoal at the side of the next pallet. His face locked into a look of strained panic as he scampered awkwardly backward. One step. Two steps. His feet slapped loudly against the floor to try and right himself but he was already angled well past his centre of gravity. Three steps. Four steps. Five. I don’t know how he had generated so much momentum from a stationary position but I swear he took about ten steps backward before his arms flailed up over his head and knocked his cowboy hat off as he clattered down hard on his backside.

“Ooooff!!!”

He was now quite a distance away but I heard all of the air leave his body (whistling through his little teeth) as he thudded to the ground.

With an expert poker face I called out, trying really hard not to burst out laughing.

“Oh fuck!? Joe are you alright mate!?!”

There was a longer pause than usual as he reached for his hat.

“… Year …”.

 

‘The pit’:

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This is the Call of Duty map that we come to everyday to make charcoal.

The crash:

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This is the aftermath of what happened on my first day. My boss, Ian, was driving back after a hard day and hit a cow. The car was a write off and they had to return later that evening with a gun to “finish it (the cow) off”. Brutal.

‘Mr Blue’:

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Picture taken by Sarah Smith

Innocent looking fellow isn’t he?  He has a constant smile although behind that face there is nothing but fire and rage. I like the guy, don’t get me wrong, he rides nicely in the cab with me when I drive the trucks, he sometimes has a little game with me when I’m putting my shoes on but yeah, I’m fully aware that if he had the opportunity he would relish in killing me without a moment’s hesitation.

Bugs:

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If you sit or lie down anywhere outside ants will crawl all over you like disgruntled Lilliputians. This is a picture of a mug of tea that was left out between breaks.

 

Innuendos:

In-your-endo! My bosses are Australians. Australians from a different generation. This, combined with the nature of the work we are doing, makes them a rich fountain of unintentional gold dust. My favourite so far is:

“Ahh it’s warm, I’d love to teabag in the sea right now… how about you Ian? Wanna teabag in the sea?”

25 seconds after it happened:

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This picture was taken moments after a very important machine had been dropped from a forklift.

 

The end:

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Thanks for sticking this out until the end; and to all you barbeque lovers out there (Australians), next time you are having a lovely outdoor cook up with all of your friends, spare a thought for the time and effort that has gone into making the charcoal under your grill (and that there is a chance that your meat was once mustered by Baby-toothed Joe himself).

Safe travels!

Jack Tidball

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