Friday, August 29, 2008

Bio-Diesel, and Strawberries...Again!

Yes, again. I know what you are thinking, that's the second time I've said I was never going to do something and then, I've gone and done it...again! First it was planting trees, and now it's planting and picking strawberries! I must say though, this time it is under much better circumstances.

I'll start the story by relaying to you how incredibly convenient it is to be a working holiday maker (that's what I am) in Australia. It's virtually set up for travelers to make the grand circuit around the country following the multitude of harvest seasons while making money and seeing all the sights along the way. There are numerous caravan rental services that rent to travelers (some have really cool artworks on them), and even caravans for sale super cheap by the previous traveler-owners complete with kitchenware, chairs, tables and all! You can literally "work-about" Australia...that is, if you don't mind doing some hard work and camping in caravan parks of course. This time, we really lucked out.

The trip began on the Gold Coast (Queensland) with 30 liters of used vegetable oil from a Thai food restaurant strapped to the roof and about $600. Our plan was to get just about 6 hours north to Mundabera to pick some mandarins (something new!) for a week in order to have enough money to get all the way to Darwin (Northern Territory). We had probably just enough to get there in fuel, but not nearly enough for food and accommodation, so work was certainly in order. Our French friends had told us about the mandarin farm, and said they needed more workers, so we drove there confident that they would have jobs waiting for us...not the case. We were about a week too late, in fact, there were no fruit picking jobs anywhere nearby except, you guessed it, picking and packing strawberries. Here we are again!

We enjoyed the trip along the coast, and the newly converted bio-diesel truck was running just great, actually better than we thought. We stopped at any and every major town along the way in search of more veggie oil to convert to fuel for our big trip north. We managed to collect almost 50 more liters of used veggie oil, all from Thai food restaurants. We learned that most fish and chip shops use animal fat (YUK!) and that Chinese food restaurants didn't want to part with their used oil for some reason. We were sitting pretty now, with plenty of fuel to get to our destination and then on to Darwin. Then we ran into our first problem. On our way out to the job for the first day, (at 5:30 am) the truck began running a bit sluggish. The fuel to oil ratios mush have been a bit optimistic for the cool morning temperatures, and the fuel didn't seem to be getting to the engine properly. We didn't think we would make it to our first day of work at the job that we desperately needed. 2 hours and multiple stops to pump up the fuel filter later, we made it to the farm, and apologized to the owner...not the best first impression, but she liked us, mostly because we had previous strawberry experience!

Marg's strawberry farm is tiny in comparison to the last farm that we worked on. It's basically just Marg, her husband, friend, 2 kids, 2 pommies (English kids), and us working on the farm, and that's all they need. Instead of a mass production like at the last farm (shipping to grocery stores) Marg's strawberries all get sold on the side of the highway of this teenie tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. We must pick and pack thousands of strawberries everyday and I am still impressed to know that she sells out almost every single day with people driving from all over creation just to get a punnet or two of Marg's strawberries. It feels good to be a part of a local farmer's harvest season, and we feel like they actually care about us. The other bonus is that there is no bending down all day...well, not really anyways. We have little trolleys that we can sit in and wheel along as we pick, and then after picking for 3 hours, we pack them and cut the second quality fruit up for jam. It's a really cruisy job. We start at 6:30 and end usually before 1, and still have most of the day to do what we like.

The best part of the job is the accommodation... Just on the other side of the fence from the strawberry farm is a, shall we say, "hippie commune" just at the base of the National Park. It's more of a permanent fixture caravan park, no, it's a full on commune. The people that live here put on a big folk music festival called Winter Moon Festival every year which attracts nearly 2000 people. The property itself is beautifully maintained. Large trees of different varieties including citrus share the courtyard with the flamboyant and creatively constructed campers, and there is an incredible little organic herbs and green garden that we are welcome to help ourselves to. The place is painted in all sorts of festive colors with hand carved totem poles and lush shrubbery all around. We have a full kitchen, outdoor showers, and even internet access here. I don't think we'll have to pay much, they just said we'd settle up with them before we leave...pretty amazing spot really...and the owners are a trip! I bet you guessed that though!

I've got to quickly mention also the only store in town, just so you get an idea of what we are dealing with here. Everything in the shop is stored in old unplugged meat refrigerators, styrofoam boxes and deli shelving. I know, it's hard to imagine, especially when you see the range of items for sale there. My favorite odd commodity that I found in the shop was a library of trashy novels from the 60s stored in an old deli refirgerator. They also have a plethora of aged appliances, still in their original, yet sun faded boxes, and an impressive collection of "Microwave Tips" magazine which I'm certain went out of circulation centuries ago. They DO have just about everything you could possibly need though, including a chatty sales staff!

We've made pretty good friends with the Pommies, they're called Sofie and Ant, and they are a lovely couple. We have been enjoying each other's company, which is great considering we eat, sleep and work with them! It would be a bugger if we just didn't get along!

Another week or so here, and then we'll continue our veggie-adventure north to Darwin...we just hope the veggie oil and the Ute (truck) continue to run well. At least now we'll have some cushion money just in case... Better safe than sorry, right mom?

Friday, August 22, 2008

On the Road Again...The Veggie Train Part 1

I know this is sideways, but it's worth it anyways!

Today marks the first day of our Veggie Adventures in the Outback! Yesterday, we collected our first bit of used veggie oil. Mick spent hours night last night and this morning figuring out a proper filtering method for it, and now we are ready to go! We don't know WHERE we are going, but we do know HOW we will get there...on recycled vegetable oil...mixed with diesel of course.

We can run the truck on 20% veggie oil mixed with the regular diesel for now. As the temperature gets warmer, we can start increasing the percentage of oil that we can add to the tank, eventually saving up to 60% on fuel!

Does it stink, you may ask? Not too bad, actually. This first batch we picked up from a Thai food restaurant and it was actually pretty clean to start with. I have a feeling that we will run into some chunkier blends as we continue up north and have less options for oil collection.

This is basically a work in progress, and if all goes according to plan, we will be saving huge on fuel and emissions! This is something I've always wanted to do, so I'm pretty excited about it. I just hope it doesn't stuff up the engine! I wouldn't want to be stuck in the 100+ degree Outback with a dead motor! Wish us luck...

I'm a damn hippie, aren't I?




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Monday, August 18, 2008

Screw strawberries...what now?

Good question. I've been asking myself the same one for almost a week now. The strawberry situation turned out to be more boring than watching paint dry, and we weren't really making much money at all doing it. Towards the end, I averaged about $12 an hour! I never thought I would miss waitressing so much! I found myself dreaming about other jobs I could be doing, while dancing to my iPod and packing as many strawberries as I could as fast as possible. It was okay for a couple of weeks, but I think all in all, I actually got dumber from packing and picking strawberries. It was nice having all you can eat strawberries around all the time. We made some pretty darn good products including cheesecake, stewed strawberries for our cereal in the morning, and of course, strawberry banana shakes! Believe it or not, I actually still love strawberries (or strawbs as they call 'em in the industry!) but I certainly won't be picking or packing them again. There is one thing that is good about doing these types of jobs, you certainly figure out what you don't want to do with your life, and it gives you a bit of a kick in the pants to get motivated. That being said, now I will totally contradict myself:

So what now? Well, the initial idea was to head across the country and try to get a job in the mining towns, which has turned out to be a bit more of a lengthy process than we had planned. Basically, it seems as though a job in the mining towns wouldn't be feasible until the end of September, or even later depending on which one we would work at. I'm not ruling it out at all, in fact, I hope it does work out because it would mean really good money, but as of right now, I'm not quite sure how the cards are going to fall. If the mining town doesn't work out, I think Mick and I will be traveling to the Northern Territory, and picking Mangoes for a couple of months. You're meant to make pretty good money doing it, nearly $2000 a week if you are good at it, but I'd even be happy to make $1000 a week! If that is the case, I'll have a good chunk to keep traveling on (including getting home for at least Christmas...don't worry).

So, that's it in a nutshell (I feel like I should say: "that's it in a strawberry punnet", but that's too cheesy, but, I guess I just said it anyways!) I think we're headed to pack Mandarins with our friends from Italy. They live in the Alps in the winter and work as ski instructors and are traveling for their summer. We worked the strawberry fields together, and they've headed off to pick Mandarins, so I think we'll follow suit, at least for a couple of weeks, and see what happens. Fruit picking for a couple weeks, and traveling for a couple of weeks seems like the adventure cycle that I'm bound for, at least until we hear from the mining jobs. It seems to be my mantra these days, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see!

Confused? Me too! I guess I should embrace these times of uncertainty. There are so few surprises in life, at least in most people's lives! Not mine lately!