On a good day, Manjimup is a 3.5 hour drive south of Perth, down two long highways. The first is lined with fields that stretch dusty and scrubby with stumpy trees east and west. Approaching Manjimup you become hemmed in by towering Karri trees which part for the small, sporadic logging towns they once attracted. The mills in many of these towns are now closing and they rely instead on the cultivation of fruit and vegetables as the main agriculture whilst the towns try their hand at tourism. Time will tell if these quaint towns will survive and whether the rows of squat works bungalows will be left empty with wild, overgrown square plots invading each other.
We found Manjimup in a cloak of darkness, its inhabitants already in bed. Entering the town beneath a huge timber frame, we crossed the entire town to the Kingsley Motel in 2 minutes. Charles and Andrew (owners of the motel) have given us a room in return for 5 hours work each a week. The deal is sweet and the privacy is bliss: it’s the little things like leaving shower stuff in the shower that I miss as a backpacker. I’m here with Kelly, a friend from Asia, and we’ve really landed on our feet with a Backpackers dream (if we ignore our lack of paid employment). Andrew told us he’d been in our situation, $50 in the bank and weeks to go before the harvests started, so he’s doing everything he can to help us out.
Day one, Andrew bundled us into his 4×4 to take us round the farms, packing factories and vineyards where he had friends but no one was hiring. The avocado harvest had just finished, apples yet to begin, vineyards need people trained in specific machinery and apparently the strawberry farms only hire Asians. Moving into the midst of farms, to put your face about, is definitely a good idea, but make sure you research the harvests so that there will be work wherever you move. We now have a three week wait until the apple harvests start in which to do as many press ups as possible and bulk our arms up; my scrawny arms have been laughed at when I tell locals I want to pick apples!
Working hostels are, if not always that nice, good for finding rural work. Manjimups’ (Normalee Manor) is 15 minutes out of town; several cabins in a clearing with a cult like feel overlooked by a whitewashed, chapel styled house. When we visited there was French rap echoing around the entire area which only added to the creepy aura. They will only take new residents when they have work available though, and so won’t take people in between harvests. Manjimup Backpackers is in the centre of town and the owner Abdul has lots of contacts through which he finds the residents jobs, still nothing is guaranteed but at least you’re closer to town, a pub and other backpackers.
The propellers roared into life and we bumped over a few stray rocks. The runway was running out as was my faith in the plane, but at last we took off, a little lopsidedly, and rose and rose, Manjimup revealing itself beneath us. WA is best seen from the air: the country is shrouded in forest cover that suddenly breaks to expose the patterned grape rows of a vineyard; the patchworked plots of urbanisation or the scrawny beige spreads of paddocks dotted with cattle or sheep. The canopy collapses for a few meters in places revealing a river snaking away through the tree roots. Used to the rolling hills of the Cotswolds, the land seems so flat: there is no vantage point to see beyond the closest barrier or trees. On foot you can’t look out in awe, but you can look up at the ancient, fire scarred trunks of the trees that claim this land with their prehistoric beauty.
A bush fire smoldered in the distance, white smoke pluming from the greenery, the first I’d seen and a reminder of the dangers that threaten life out here. We headed south keeping out of the smoke’s path and were soon over the real bush of Yugarup, inaccessible mostly; over the headphones Tyrone and Andrew reminisced about camping trips that were mostly spent trying to get into and out of the bush. Even with a 4×4 you’d struggle, the bush so thick in some places it can’t even be walked through. We followed Glittering sand dunes to the left breaching them at Windy Harbour, giving an exquisite birds eye view of the turquoise waves careering into the white sands, turbulent streaks of pristine white marking the violent swell that looked deceptively calm from our vantage point. The inaccessibility of the dunes and the cool promise of sharks made for an almost deserted beach: we saw a few fishermen settled with their ute in the sands.
We turned along the coast, the wind from the dunes buffeting the small plane around, forcing us higher. The river Warren broke free of the bush to spill onto the sands beneath us. The water seemed to have lost its momentum as it reached the greedily thirsty sands and didn’t look like it made it to the waves, but settled as a brown stain spreading wide left and right of the river’s mouth. I’d begun to feel quite sick with the turbulence and was relieved when the orange brown hues of the coast were replaced by the greens of the forest, marking our return north and homewards. Andrew joined the Manjimup Traffic reporting the plane, its height and that we were coming into land. I have no idea who, if anyone, was listening. A sharp bunk left and the runway was aligned between the two heads of our pilots as we dipped, flattened out and dipped again towards the tarmac. I braced for a bumpy landing, thinking it would be so much worse in something little bigger than a car compared to a commercial plane, but we barely felt a bump as we touched down and skidded to a halt.
Squeezing out of the plane my legs were jelly, as were Kelly’s and it was a toss up who was going to drive our old Holden Commodore, Dylan, down to the next town where we had a hopeful interview for a bar position. We’d flown over Pemberton, but finding it in the midst of the forests was much more difficult. Just 3 minutes from the town we took a (wrong) turn that began as tarmac but very quickly degenerated into not even a gravel road, just a bare earth logging track, littered with branches and shrubs. Wheel ruts deeper than our own wheels forced the underside of the car to screech along the ground in some places and we had to remove branches from our path or crevices where they had become noisily jammed in the car. Dylan smelled less than pleasant when we finally worked our way back onto more car worthy road and finally pulled up in Pemberton. The interview was a disappointment, as often seems to be the case here: everyone is incredibly enthusiastic for you to visit them, but once you’re there, there is never anything they can offer you other than to keep you on record. The job hunt runs on, but maybe our unemployment will leave us time to take to the skies again soon. There’s always a silver lining…