Argos

I love my job.

A lot of people I encounter tell me that I’m a pretty happy chap, and I guess this is true. Sickening as it is the current happiness in my life is due to many reasons: I love my girlfriend, the discovery, early in my life, of the joy of cold mead, and for the simple fact I’m not living in Aleppo. My contentment may be the reason I love my job, it’s possible I’d be likewise satisfied in any number of horrible places, like Yarmouth, AKA Great Yammy. But part of my happiness is surely down to my work. If I enter glum I’ll leave content and if I enter content I’ll be buzzing come end.

I’ve just finished a shift that should’ve left me tumbling all day in a righteous pissyness. I’d failed a few deliveries two days ago and so I needed a perfect run today, yet the van was playing up and I had far too many drops to make. I made good speed and was just about to turn the tide of work when a tire blew out, back left, putting me out of action for the rest of the day. More deliveries failed, yet, for all I tried, I couldn’t stress. That’s mainly for three reasons.

That the work is honest. That the work is manual. And that the work is a privilege, more importantly a privilege I’ve earned.

A possible fourth reason would be that I hate doing nothing, I have to be doing something at the minute. Otherwise I don’t trust myself. Because it’s not that left to my devices my days are boring, but that I’ll try and amuse myself by doing something stupid. Some new sensation to experience. Case in point, last night. I wasn’t working and so decided to do something that scared me, something that taught me about myself. I wanted to know if I still had a phobia of needles, syringes exclusively…. I have to type quickly as my head grows light already. So, last night I watched a documentary about blood doping, (the award winning Icarus).. Got to about seven minutes in (fantastic seven minutes) and then, raa. I’ll have to type it quickly.

“thethickertheliquidthelargertheneedle”

Genuinely that was difficult to write. Needless to say it was impossible to watch. My body felt like I was travelling in too high a gear, sending shivers of feedback through my feet up to my feet. I stood up to leave the flat and get some air, my head instantly stalled and some time later I woke up on the floor. I stood up again, and fell again. My limbs comically helpless in slowing my descent.

So work, when I have it, keeps me away from pushing and prodding my mind and body into strange, and uncomfortably rewarding places.

The work that I do at Argos is rewarding in it’s own way. The company has its own spirituality, reinforced by the many people who are members of both the brotherhood of electrical items, toys and toilet seats, and the Evangelical Christian churches of Norwich. After the desperate, cosmetically fervent godlessness of University, it was a joy to discover that those who gravitate towards retail by headset tamper their work life with the other almighty catalogue. I had never been an Evangelical church until I worked at Argos. I was invited by my colleagues, and taking my girlfriend for security, I accepted. I was surprised by the noise of the house music, the free sweets for turning up, the zealous focus and celebration on the church’s finances. But I was mostly suprised by the number of employees from Argos! There were guys who used to work in my store, who worked at other stores, who had family in management and some who were applying to work at Argos. I spent the night half expecting that I’d have to put on my headset as the church leaders unveiled a gilded catalogue and demanded I “pick a page from twenty to… one thousand three hundred.”

I’ll cut that one short for fear that Argos’ public relations/internal security team (the dreaded shrinkage & compliance) will deem it industrial agitation.

Argos, or the Argos that I know, has three integral departments to its operation, a holy trinity if you will. And, like at work I become I slightly different person, in each of these departments I become a slightly different worker, as the nature of employment requires. There is first the front of house, the Shop Floor. Here I am the navigator “Do you need any help turning the pages Sir? At this hour the laminate can be sticky.” Here I am also the till boy, where the correct procedure of selling goods is equally as important as selling financial services, “because what if I told you that you could pay nothing for these items until mid-November?” This doesn’t come naturally to me, but with low prices come furiously sharp profit margins. If more than one expensive electrical item is returned in a week the store would make no profit from selling goods, mainly due to overheads of staff and the phenomenal rent of shop space under the Castle. Thankfully something like 80% of Argos’ profit comes from FS; the £2.70 care taken out on a toaster, the credit scheme for the LCD television. It keeps the company and myself afloat. So I sell.

But it is the second department that I can really immerse myself in. The Stockroom. Though the shop floor is fifty meters below surface, in the bowels of the Castle mound, it’s lit with bulbs that mimic sunlight, and is filled with songs that incentivise purchase. Here you are permitted to only see the face of Argos, but behind it lie the internal organs of the stockroom and they possess a captivating beauty I struggle to describe. I can well describe the physical aspects of the room. It’s a vast, dim, concrete chamber on two levels, ribbed with shelves three meters high. Each shelf bursting with consumer satisfaction from Alpha Alpha to Zulu Zulu. Here I am a picker, rarely visible, save for the raising trails of dust I pull from the shelves as I run between them. The yellow lights flicking off as I depart. The voice in the headset gives me vague clues as to where I’ll find what some else wants. The headset is often silent, her voice catching in the corners and alleyways of the stockroom where the lights have failed. Other times she’ll suddenly boom through the headphone. Working in the stockroom for any length of time has a very real effect on the senses. Seeing so many different types of packaging would be underwhelming if they were cardboard bound. But each was unwittingly destined to be seen by potential customers, and so the shelves are walls of screaming colour and font. I see enough wide eyed cartoon creatures and superheroes, specifically designed to arrest attention, that soft headaches often roll through the stockroom in which I keep the memories of what I’ve seen at work. Because to pick isn’t just to fly down the aisles, but to fly whilst also interrogating every item to decipher its catalogue number. There is no real order to the best stockroom, bins are next to barbies are next to clothes, chairs, televisions, books. But that”s not to say there aren’t distinct districts of the stockroom. Aisle 10 is the community of age restricted items, blades bustle from toe to scalp as sets of poker cards deal themselves in the darkness behind the power tools. The corners of aisle 8 are time stamped, each item shuffled front back as the film exposes itself to the slimming tablets as they degrade. It’s difficult to pass through here without the smell of protein powder sticking to the hair. This is the only aisle that consumes itself, all others sit, plagued with dust, hoping we’ll run past and pull them from the threat of ‘return to manufacture’. This is not the only aisle that smells though. Aisles 65 to 70 are the largest flat pack, often soft wood, and, as demanded items, are all usually still fresh cut and sweating sap. Whenever I go down to these towering subterranean pinelands I am reminded of Tasmania. But unlike the central wilderness it is much easier to escape claustrophobic intimacy and breach the canopy in Argos. All I have to do is reach for the step ladder and I can climb through the skyscrapers of confined commerce and rise above the dusty shelf tops, where I can peer to the other end of the concrete chamber. The stockroom can also present a darkness usually alien to retail. With the lights out you can achieve a true pitch, one I’ve only ever found in the flint mines of Norwich and opal of Andamooka. Small sensory events like these bring back long forgotten memories. Re-entering the city surface in the glass lift after time spent in the stockroom delivers a similar experience to climbing the rope ladder up into the outback. Even at cloudy dusk the sun is always staggering, bright enough to stand you still for fear of falling, or walking into the road.

In the loosest of links. The shop floor is reconcilable, the familiar father. While behind it sits the the holy ghost of the stock room, shelved with memory and experience. The third department is a fledgling son, Fast Track Delivery. Here we have a little bit of both till Joe, and picker Joe, but most of the time we can find Joe Stuttle, sitting back listening to the radio as he drives through the sunlit lowlands of the Eastern counties. And it’s in this role, the role I initially applied for, that I’ve changed the most. Being without a car for four years has been bliss and more importantly dirt cheap. Yet throwing myself back onto the road has been such a happy liberation. All sorts of people from all sorts of places order all sorts of things online. It’s a privilege to visit silent industrial estates at night, to give children their toys and to spend time talking to the many people who order online because of health or mobility reasons. (Though the care homes and residential houses are warrens of blind turns and locked gates.) Another van driver can come up to me and say “Trowse Newton”, or “Costessey” in despair at a certain time and I’ll have a fair idea of what they mean. For the first time ever I know every song in the charts and can can listen to each for the sixth time in one shift, every time enjoying it more. I’m outside, I’m doing honest manual work at speed and it’s work that involves responsibility. I sign my name in the tread of my tires, in every reflector and click of the handbrake. It really is good work, if you can get it.

 

P.S. To briefly describe a puncture on the A140.

I heard a large motorbike coming up on me from behind. I was doing fifty on a main road. I couldn’t see the bike in the mirror but it was clear for them to pass so I edged slightly to the left. The motorbike got louder and louder. But didn’t pass. It got much louder still and I started to lose full control of the steering. I put on my hazards, braked and pulled over. The tire had hit a large screw fallen from the underside of another vehicle. Decompressed and shredded, ribbons of thick white cord spilled out of three inch cuts at every hour of the wheel’s clock-face. The tire from four to six lay in a thin rag, pressed between the metal rim and the road. When the wheel was taken off the rim it was full of tiny black curls of rubber, like finely blended licorice, I have some in my hand now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Re-introductions

I logged into WordPress with the intention of deleting my blog. I copy and pasted some of my better entries onto my hard drive for nostalgia, and was about to close the domain when I started re-reading some of the comments I’d received, back in the simpler years of 2013-2014. Buoyed by slight praise I resolved to only strip my name from the blog, fearing even the sanitsed adventures could hinder employment.

A lot of time has passed in between posts. Many things have happened in these three years, I have moved in with my girlfriend, graduated, and found what I consider to be a happy working life. But I find myself unable to avoid the loss of one of my grandparents, a loss that’s had great affect on me. It’s what this post is structured around, and indeed the reason I’m continuing to blog, under my name, on this site. I’ve been told that my grandfather enjoyed reading my writing here, though he perhaps objected to some of my more choice language.

It is also very difficult to remove my name from a blog whose URL reads https://joestuttle.wordpress.com.

My grandfather’s life has also seeded within me an idea for an adventure that he himself undertook, and which I hope to start next year. An adventure of a size to throw my experiences in Andamooka, and the Tasmanian wilderness, into deep shadow. But more of that later.

To re-begin with, let me tell you about Argos.

Tired

“Strange things are happening to me” Randy Newman

Nothing strange is happening to me, I just love Mr Newman; going to rain today, sailing no more… Classics. I am tired though, always, in the daytime. I’m in a box in Al’s Toy Barn waiting to be unpacked. Sat in this fish tank of a kitchen, vast panes of glass and the air of worn familiarity my fish used to get with each other, treading water in their own corner of the tank after the novelty’s of a new betta or tetra has worn off. Might see if I can drag an old boat wreck from the bottom of the lake into this kitchen, hiding in the rusty holes whenever night security/prospective students/pizza guy/anybody looks through the window. “Where they are put in boxes and they come out all the same”.

Trains from £9 to London Liverpool, flights from £8 to Geneva Switzerland. Bus to Norwich city center £2.80 (return).

Fin & Thanks

I am home and awake during the day-time. Though I wish I was still wandering among forests of skeletal gum trees, chasing possums in the red dust as kookaburras and cockatoos scream together, or perhaps going on starlit walks under the southern skies, wishing on satellites when shooting stars were few, maybe just hunting fish with spear at dawn, standard. For now I’m happy painting my old room. Crushed stem and timeless white. Timeless.

All I have from one year of travel fits into a shoe-box (apart from the freddo mold that’s too big for the freezer drawer). In the box are stuffed some faded cinema tickets (Robocop!) and receipts, a soap bar of magnesium, half a candle, a fly net and 3 hats. My (sister’s) phone is at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean along with a years worth of pictures, videos, names, memories and three terribly hilarious, world changing blog posts about Australia that I’d been writing since the week I arrived … They were so good. All I really have are a handful of over-filtered, over-saturated pictures on instagram and two scars. Thank god I don’t have a terrible memory. OH NO WAIT!

So I cling to my memories like a child with a soggy, threadbare, patchwork blanket: like a day drinker to an empty glass. Metaphor corner here. I try to remember why I wrote nothing, not a single damn word, about Young or Sandy Bay (I’m reading this back an hour later and I can’t remember where the fuck that is, sandy bay? WHERE?!) or Perth or the two months I lived in Sydney. I didn’t even take any pictures, the memories are slipping, I lose them everyday. Like the time somebody punched me in a pub on Elizabeth street in Melbourne and I punched them back in my first and only bar-fight. Or the time that a middle aged man wearing both his name and gay pride badge watched me through a crack in a public toilet cubicle while fondling himself and I followed him around Sydney until he got scared and turned around and apologized; he said he had “cancer bad” so I couldn’t hurt him. I couldn’t hurt him, I couldn’t try. “Don’t judge all Australian’s on me”… Painfully true story. It’s 24 carat gold memories like these that are slowly slipping through my fingers… I’ve already forgotten what gelignite smells like, though the smell of flyblown sheep will take a little longer to lose. Fantastic… I can’t tell myself about the girl I met at Sunset Bay but yet the smell of a bloodied twitching sheep, skin and flesh writhing with maggots… Selective.

I had a diary but it was stolen on a train from Harden by an Aboriginal girl who was so so very nice to speak to. It’s over.

The most important thing is to give thanks where thanks are due:

THANKS WHERE THANKS ARE DUE

in no particular order

 

The bus driver who pulled up next to me and gave me a free lift to the airport because “you’re sweatin to death mate”.

 

The man at the doughnut place… Krispy Kreme, who gave me a free pink glazed treat as I’d never been before.

 

Hardman – the strong: To throw a pale English boy into a tin shed full of highly unionised, weaponised ex-cons in the middle of nowhere, introduce him to everyone and then calmly share with him of all your drug habits and criminal tendencies, then to calmly instruct him on how to take down a runaway sheep without losing time: only Hardman. My teachers had trouble making me pick up a pen, but to not only make me work 8 hour days of literally back breaking labour, sorting out blood and shit, but to do it whilst teaching and explaining the most genuine patriotism and love I have ever seen. But then my teachers weren’t muscle and scar bound chemical lovers named Hardman. Nobody loved wool more than Hardman; Lenny and the clan appreciated the new builds with air con and amps and properly boarded floors but it was Hardman with his painfully scary intensity who worshiped at the old temples of the early 20th century, the wood and timber shearing sheds with hand pieces powered by hand and muscle not petrol. He swore he could tell between the AAA grades of wool by fucking smelling them, he was in the top 3 most Australian Australians I ever met, by Australian I mean friendly yet terrifying men of the land who smoke bonds and drink tooheys and kill animals and are at their happiest when doing all three at once. He was scared of nothing, he’d lived in one town his whole life yet could quote Dickens at JUST the right moment to crack up the whole shed. On the shearing floor he was a machine with a broom, a robot whose only concern was dags and fleece, when the clock started he was a blur, dancing wildly around the room, throwing lumps of sheep shit and screaming curses as he pirouetted, trainers soaked in blood. He terrified me into respecting Australians. Thank you Hardman for teaching me more than the tips and tricks of the trade of sheep shearing, thank you for teaching me the mythos and lore of Australia.

 

The transport officer in outer Perth who let me travel for free back to the city, thank you.

 

The pretty dutch girl who lent me her car in which I explored the Southern Alps of New Zealand, the finest drive I’ll ever know. Whenever I need to make myself happy I close my eyes and remember powering your Subaru through twisty Alpine chicanes, past endless lakes of the purest blue, over snow capped mountains and into bliss… Motoring nirvana.

 

Thank you Jake and Jerry and your brother too for… For just being top human beings.

 

Ananda and Adam – the aspiration: In a wooden house surrounded by grape vines in the the middle of Tasmania is a wonderful couple, they have wonderful children and grow wonderful organic produce that I’ve slaved on. There wasn’t one day of the month that I volunteered on their farm that I wasn’t both deeply envious of their life and deeply happy that I  could spend time with them. “Have a go on the ute mate, she’s wild, yeah borrow the kid’s bikes Joe, head over to JC’s shack in the hills Joe, he’s got some special plants he needs help with, are you looking at my fucking wife Joe, my chainsaw’s out of gas Joe but my regular saw aint”. Nothing was too much trouble. They had everything I ever wanted and do want; for the rest of my life I will aim to live in Tasmanian wilderness, in a house full of backpackers, smoking, drinking and occasionally cutting down a forest.

 

The subway guy who gave me a free sub on my birthday when I asked for a free cookie. “All the salads?”

 

JC – JC: I can’t really explain, if he knew I was giving him a presence on the internet in this, my little way, he would slit my throat. A weed growing madman, who one day while walking in a desolate forest decided he would build a house right there with his own hands: running water from the mountain, electricity from the sun. Pay JC in batteries or pencils and you’ll receive a homemade seat by the homemade fire, a homemade beer and a joint of homegrown, “fuckin possums stampin on my fuckin leaves”. The only news came from the radio and he didn’t believe me when I explained the internet to him twice, JC was probably a step further into wild-man living then I’d ever dare go, completely off the grid, his sewerage system was pretty much just throwing his own shit into the treeline. But the idea that to have someone else build a house for you, that not being able to provide shelter with your own hands is shameful, to live and die alone and not give a dingo’s ass about it. Who can look around themselves and know ever item they can see was crafted by their own hand? He built a fucking dovetail resin sealed canoe (that didn’t float and never would). JC would drink Ray Mears’ blood let alone his piss. It goes without saying he is also in the top 3 Australian Australians I met. Anybody who can drink 4 dirty dirty beers, smoke a half ounce of homegrown, chase a possum while singing waltzing Matilda and after discuss the finer points of Aboriginal land rights and the American Enlightenment deserves huge respect. JC thank you for showing me that the only tools we ever need to make a happy life for ourselves are at the end of each arm.

 

Lukas Pille: you drove me at breakneck speeds into the Blue Mountains, for this and some of the crazy apartment times, I thank you.

 

Karl, Kim and Lauren: your scroggin nourished me as did your constant vitality and hilarity. I’ve neglected our friendship horribly but thank you for everything.

 

I can’t thank or apologize enough to the Swedish girl who changed my trousers when I was drunk.

 

Thank you to the ladies and men of the various catteries around Australia that always let me spend the afternoons playing with kittens.

 

Thank you to the old couple in Hobart who spent an hour drawing me a map when I was lost on my bicycle. The present I gave was terrible especially considering I ate most of it. Thank you for praying.

 

Thanks to the driver that took myself and two pretty girls from Milton Keynes to Split Apple Bay in remote New Zealand but merci also to the French family who gave me and two pretty girls from Milton Keynes a lift out of Split Apple Bay half an hour later during the torrential rains, we flooded the back absolutely soaking destroyed it, je suis desole.

 

The fisheries officer who let me off 3 charges – the forgiver: “You have the right to contact your consulate, you have the right to remain silent”… Is there anything worse to hear in a foreign country aside from “run for your lives they’re using phosphorus shells” or the sound of automatic gunfire growing increasingly close? I don’t think so…

1. My catch was undersized.

2. My catch was over number.

3. I was using the wrong knife.

All in all I was in for a fine big enough to send me home and then a bit more. This was serious shit, fisheries over there are a little more… paramilitary then they are in England. Scary guys, webbing, muscles, binoculars, aviators and ponytail or two. But, he let me walk. Thank you officer.

 

My legs thank the lady at Hobart bus station who essentially let me travel the distance from Edinburgh to London, for £5, with a bicycle. 

 

Sam Wood and Max Hoffman from Ride & Seek: Thank you both for driving me down to Melbourne in what is still the longest time I’ve ever been in a car, I couldn’t of spent that 500 or so hours with two nicer guys. Thank you Sam for lending me your “beaut” of a road bike, she was so very smooth on the flats outside Sorrel, I traveled miles and miles without pedaling once. Yeah… I’m going to say it, the 8 or so days living out of panniers were the highlight of my whole year, my legs still hurt. Thank you both for the experience of a life, not much would make me happier than going on a bike ride with the two of you right now.

 

The couple that took me two minutes to Richmond before their car broke down, you were arguing so much you’re probably still there, but thank you.

 

The man who took me 30 minutes closer to Richmond, I hope your recycled oak barrel skateboard kickstarter gets off the ground.

 

Theo, who eventually took me the hour or two into Richmond, thank you for playing smashing pumpkins all the way, it was glorious.

 

Scott, Warren and Amanda – the locals: I met Scott on a bus in South Victoria, he’d just finished work at the camper-van assembly plant and I told him I was planning to camp on the beach of the island where he lived with his friend (Scott) and friend’s wife (Amanda) and daughter. An hour later Scott and Warren cycled past me setting up my tent and invited me to stay in their house, this kindness was so unexpected, so very unusual to me as a close-minded, perma-apologetic Englishman that that night I slept with my knife beneath my pillow. But it was a genuine, Australian, warmth and for one month they fed me their Chico rolls and battered Mars Bars. I slept in the spare room, a double bed beneath the Southern Cross flag. We watched MKR and Housos and they lent me rods for drift fishing, florescent lures for squid fishing, knives for Abalone fishing and then they let me use their gas powered lemon cannon. How can I describe the difference in emotion from being alone for three months to having good, close friends pick me up from remote islands by jet-ski? I met Scott on the bus when I was fleeing from Melbourne after a particularly shitty time but when it was time to leave the house, I couldn’t… And I didn’t, I came back twice. The man took me to his fucking mother’s table to eat shark! A complete stranger, I spoke to his friend on a bus one night and he took me into his world showing me things most locals had never seen let alone clueless backpackers. I’m not able to express how thankful I am to these people, hospitality to a stranger but to the furthest degree. Perhaps things did get a little racist sometimes and out of hand, perhaps we did do some silly things and perhaps we did shout things at people and get into trouble fishing but it was true blue Australian “fun” for good or bad and I thank them for showing it to me.

 

The subway guy who gave me a cookie to give to a friend when I told him I liked his hair.

 

The lady at Woomera kinema who let me see Gravity with the RAAF guys for free, it was… Weird. They wouldn’t stop fucking nit-picking. “Well how would you hear anything eh?”

 

The man who caught a salmon for me and slit its throat an all, it was the finest I’ve ever eaten.

 

Wild John the bushman, you risked your tight BHP job to pick me up, your lift might’ve saved my life.

 

A member of the Australian federal goverment who explained something something fiscal blah blah budget, blah blah auditing to me in between twisted stories of sex and backpackers. Thank you for the lift and the hokey pokey chocolate.

 

The South African who taught me how to crochet my first chain. Thank you.

 

Thanks to the owners of the worst hostel in Christchurch for driving me around your ruin of a city and telling me the most horrible stories.

 

Jake Chu – the friend: Jake Chu Jake Chu… Where to start? I love Jake Chu. Imagine your first day leaving a provincial county in country England on your own, you fly for 12 hours, arrive in China take a 1 hour bus and promptly get lost with no internet or map in the most densely populated city on Earth, on EARTH, IN CHINA… AT NIGHT. Trying to find any police that spoke English or a passer-by who would speak to you. After maybe the worst hour of my whole year, accepting my future fate as a rent boy in a downtown Opium den a man reached down into the gutter where I was sitting and put his hand on my shoulder, that man was Jake Chu. He had just finished his day and after 8 hours of work found nothing abnormal about walking to the MTR station with me, getting the train to Causeway Bay and then walking another half hour with me to the very door of my hostel. When I thanked him and offered to buy him a drink he smiled and said “You don’t know where to drink, sleep tonight and tomorrow we see Hong Kong”. I’m not going to say he saved my life, but I will say he saved my travels. The idea that every stranger, every unknown man and woman is a friend. The idea that in the one city where nobody will look you in the eye, there is someone to take you by the hand and buy you pork buns and introduce you to his friends and show you a secret cocktail bar on top of a skyscraper, where you can buy ginger G&Ts for around £2. There is someone who will pray for your soul and make you believe in God and friendship. Someone who after meeting you twice  will meet you a year later with a bag full of presents for your family. I cannot say enough about how if any person on Earth deserves a heaven it is Jake Chu: but for a single example, the last time I saw him was an hour before my flight to Heathrow from Lantau, in the month where one flight was still lost in the sea, one flight was stolen from the sky with missiles and another simply crashed, I need Valium to fly in the calmest conditions… Jake and his friends held me and calmly informed me my flight would be carried home “upon the wings of angels”, we prayed until I nearly missed my flight. I haven’t taken drugs to fly since, I’m starting flying lessons again in one month. God bless you Jake Chu.

 

The Israeli gentleman who took me to Mt Aoraki, Dire Straits sing alongs and photo-stops. Thank you.

 

The pretty girl from Kingston, Hobart. I was your first hitchhiker, you were my first… hitchhikee? driver? friend? It was awkward but magic, “I won’t tell your mum if you don’t tell my dad”.

 

Christopher Green for crafting my tatty opal stones into the two most beautiful, exquisite rings I have ever seen, you are a jeweler extraordinaire, not, as I called you, “a shit merchant”. Thank you.

 

Jane and Michael – my oz family: Thank you Jane and Michael. You welcomed me like blood in an unfamiliar country, dissolving my fears. Thank you for taking me from Sydney to Young and thank you thank you for the experience of rural life on the sunny South-West slopes of NSW. One of the most beautiful places I’ll ever visit in my life. Thank you for putting up with my chronic idiocy and losing myself in Canberra. Jane your services as a matchmaker and friend finder are superb, your pictures, your house, your family and the farm are beautiful. You’ve made the cherry capitol a part of my life forever. Michael I wish you best of luck with the business and the conversation we had in the journey from Sydney gave me the best grounding on your country I received. If I could listen to your music and drive in an old Holden I will have lived a good life.

 

Lance – the partner: Lance thank you for helping me find my colour, thank you for helping me discover the underground kingdom and all the glorious heavenly treasure it hides. Happy mining my friend and partner. Also thank you for lending me that beautiful rope ladder, I feared for my life on every single broken, slippery rung. The last top 3 most Australian Australians.

 

The £10 POM who drove the getaway car when I robbed the Cadburys factory.

 

Adam – the officer: Adam… I’m at least 85% sure it was Adam, is an officer in the Salvation Army Fortress in Perth. This softly spoken young man would take me on his active community outreach onto the dimly lit Friday night alleyways and abandoned buildings of Perth in a dangerously powerful Holden full of hot chocolate and lasagna. Sometimes he let me drive. I thank him for shining a light on the dark side of Australia; the racism, the bigotry, the stupidity and the unspeakable cruelty that the Abbot government and most previous governments have treated the Aboriginals with. He destroyed my blind innocence. He is a soul created to give love to everyone he meets, through anyway he can, I tried to help him with the soup and sleeping mats side. Adam showed me that, not as some kind of sick tourism, but that people visiting Australia are not being shown the true history or the true state of Aboriginal affairs today. I thank him for showing me the stupidity and the pain we ignore when we think of the Land Down Under.

 

The drunk man who gave me a lift on Bruny Island, I hope you’ve no more run-ins with the only officer on the island, but you’ve got a problem. Thank you for the hitchhiking advice though “Never be afraid to stick up your thumb Joe”.

 

Kiwi customs and border security: thank you.

 

Malcolm and Anne – my kiwi family: My mum emailed me when I arrived in New Zealand to tell me that her Father’s sister lived in a small beachside town in Hokitika called… Paraparauamu… Parapara… Paratown I don’t know, something or other. Family is family but I didn’t expect the welcome I received: literally, geographically, as far away from England as anyone can be: sick, no phone, camping by the roadside, walking for miles, feeling homesick and tired I knock on the door… It opens, “Hello there, you must be Joe. It’s roast beef and three veg tonight if that sounds good?”. Such kindness, such gorgeous hospitality. Words fail me.

 

Thank you Aiden for making me tent pegs.

 

Thanks to the man who gave me a lift from Woomera to Roxby Downs through the wastelands, keep growing that copper (yes you can grow copper, weird eh?)

 

THANKS OVER

 

This is a fucking shambles of a list eh? I tried to thank everybody that’s picked me up by the roadside but gave-up halfway and the thanks that I have actually given fall abysmally short of how I feel… Even the idea that I’m writing a list of thankyous is slightly stupid: I’ve come home not won an oscar. But I really do think it needs to be done, even though nobody on this list will ever read it. So many people helped me so much in so many ways that to not mention them would be simple bad manners.

June 2014

It’s late June 2014 and I’ve just returned from the sea, my wet shorts hang above a lone candle in the centre of the tent, replacing the usual scents of magnesium, matches, piss and rancid butter with the stink of salted seas. Too humid in here to light my secondary candle, the match-heads are just flying off the wood and pinging off the walls. I did it. Great stuff. But now my tent not only contains two burning candles but two hundred match-heads… And the butane tanks of course.

Hard, drying and hot candle wax is splashed across the floor, mostly to fill in the holes that the bastard ants make use of to plunder the butter (table spread actually) but also to entomb the many bastard ants who are then trapped in the killing field when I seal the exits shut. Poring hot wax on ants is fun in a terrible guilty, Caligula, Damon, devil child kinda way. I make new candles with all the wax from the floor that isn’t barring doors to the soil, but it contains so many dead insects that the flame never stops guttering as the heavy bodies of the green electric ants are dragged into the vortex of wax and up along the burning wick. These candles get pinched out ten minutes before I sleep as for ten minutes after the candle goes out the Mosquitos outside drone in a furious outrage that their midnight sun has gone in. There are so many Mosquitos, it’s like a mouse constantly screaming every time a torch goes off or the candle flickers or my leg casts a shadow over the tent wall. There’s a fat black widow spinning in the tent window.

In the middle is the aforementioned dryer, one hook and a candle or two, used for swimming trunks, or if it’s monsooning really bad (it often is), my sleeping bag gets hung up to steam while I wait patiently. In one corner is the flammables and reading material and some empty and some full bottles that I piss in (the Mosquitos in the creek where I’m camped do their best so I really can leave the tent after it rains, I get bitten so bad I feel faint from blood loss) in another corner are stacked the perishables, food and beer, in another my feet and then my little square of a head in the last corner. That’s my tent. I hope you forgive me for painting this picture but I’ve spent… No more than five nights, in the last two months not sleeping in this smelly little tent. She is my world at the minute, therefore it is another state to

Someone’s just called me. Just called my phone… I don’t know the number, they didn’t say anything. This is very interesting, to me, very interesting because… Nobody has called me in at least eight months. I forgot this was a phone, I genuinely forgot it could give and take calls. I can’t call ten back as I have no credit. I’m getting distracted. I’ll be asleep in a minute, spent the whole day swimming and try not to nap after eating two tins of cold ravioli.

I just saw a sea eagle.

Never mind… I’m writing this because I’m going to throw my $40 Tent away at the end of the month, she has too many holes in the floor and her sides, the outer layer has rotted pretty bad from the humidity and it’s all crusted in a fine veneer of batshit. It’s had its day. I got my monies worth and my tent got to see snowstorms for the first time and was so excited she decided to let all the snow and hail in to play with me while I was sleeping. She’s seen slow dawns over nuclear wasteland, fumbled drunken midnight set-ups on desolate Tasmanian beaches, she’s spent more days strapped between the backpack and the backpack lid then she’s spent bungee-cabled onto my friend’s bicycle, but it’s better to walk with a 3kg tent on your your back then try to pedal up a hill with 3kg on the back wheel, providing serious front wheel lift. People have left gifts in her for me, weighed down her corners when I lost my pegs, helped me set her up when I was feeling lazy. She had an old moustachioed Italian opal miner knock on her door looking for me which is a statement that stands on its own. She’s only admitted one guest (which is actually pretty remarkable as my tent does smell like figs, death and lemon-juice bile) and even though the guest was gorgeous it still felt wrong sharing my two-pole home. Her home (my tent) has been the gardens of houses for sale, land for sale, national parks and world heritage sites for sale (fuck you Abbott government), under mountains, on one of the “top ten most beautiful beaches on Earth”, in a public park, in a rainforest, behind a pub when I was too drunk to walk (woke up to find I hadn’t put the outer-layer on top and I’d managed to put two tent pegs actually through both layers of the tent and out through the floor into the ground). She stayed behind a hostel for a week and was so appalled at the hard ground and scared by the cyclone that she told me to leave without paying. She’s made state television and once a small black cat crept in and slept with me while I was in a morning haze, wondering what there is to do in Christchurch. The tent, unfortunately, has had a dead baby possum inside her and probably retains a few of the maggots though she’s been microwaved and X-rayed at customs and quarantine so many times they’re probably now super-maggots with lasers for eyes and a raging hunger for baby flesh, and I really don’t want to be responsible for introducing that to England. So she stays.

If anyone that reads this wants her along with a sleeping bag that stinks of my piss… She’ll be in the jungle. Pegged and lonely and waiting my return.

*sound of brushing teeth

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Colour

I’m done. Finished. Finito.

The two boxes I needed ticked are well and truly tickéd.

I entered Australia with the sole intention of trying my hand at sheep shearing and mining. Wool and minerals. Australia’s two main exports The twin backbones of this great nation, true blue Australia (I also worked in services which actually is the largest export ahead of wool and minerals but fuck services, boring, homogenous).

Andamooka, I’ll need to write another post just to paint a picture of the place (put it on the list with Bruny and Young and Sydney and the rest), just let me say the Wild West and you’ll have to imagine it as such until that post comes. A town where the flag gets lowered to half mast whenever someone dies. Where dingos and blue tongues lizards scrap in the desert sands.

I don’t need to rush around every state to try and see it all. I personally prefer to know one place real intimate than to have been to five and remember none… And boy do I know Andamooka well. Like the back of my scarred and dusty hand.

Its open cuts, its shafts. Every inch of this fucking town I’ve scoured for opals; the backyards of abandoned shacks, under discarded washing machines, under discarded cars, along the sides of roads, underground and above.
And have I been rewarded?
No. Is the simple answer.

I have not made my fortune. I cannot buy myself a silky sleeping bag liner to hold me at night let alone a yacht full of strippers… That’s not to say I haven’t made money, I have. It’s just more along the lines of a cold beer every day as opposed to shouting a round for the whole town and washing my filthy self down in Dom Perignon. No. Though I’ve had a taste of Daniel Plainview’s life it’s been the part before he finds any oil and drinks people’s milkshakes.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

what is it?

opal is a form of silica, chemically similar to quartz, but containing water within the mineral structure. Precious opal generally contains 3-10% water which acts as prisms, refracting the light and producing the characteristic “colour””

This opal is found at a level between 3 and 10 metres down, a former seabed a couple of million years ago. Though that’s horse as there are often two levels in one place and hills make finding the level a good deal more difficult than “between 3 and 10”. The water is trapped in cracked rocks, fossils, dead plants and clay, left for a few million years and the trapped water reflects light in all the Richard Of York beauty.
In the rocks it forms normal standard opal, crack it open with the pick and you’re rewarded either with beautiful crystal opal ($$$) or potch, potch is opal, just not pretty or copious enough to sell, it consists of mainly one colour instead of the spectrum and is often in thin veins in the rock. This is the majority of what I find.

However Andamooka is unique in that the opal is not only in the rock, but has leeched into clay as well. This is called matrix and is a different kettle of fish.

The matrix is clay containing opal, when dry it looks exactly the same as clay, white and porous, making it pretty difficult to identify, especially when it’s hidden inside a mountain of white porous clay. When wet however… When wet it also looks just like clay, until the sun hits it at THE perfect angle then you see the teensiest tinyiest play of colour, the smallest glint of green or red flashing as the sun shines over your shoulder. Always over the shoulder. “You can’t see a rainbow by stating at the sun” as my partner often informed me.

Take your clay and boil it in sugar water or cola then boil it in pure (98%) sulphuric acid. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
This turns the sugar into.. Carbon? I think, not sure. It makes it black anyway. The colour now stands out like nothing you have ever seen. I prefer it to crystal, the pure stuff, by a long shot.
This particular trick is unique to Andamooka and was slyly employed in the 80s to fool buyers into thinking they were purchasing the rare black crystal opal from NSW. Someone found out, people got in big trouble, but the process remains as a way to highlight the colour play.
I found the matrix but getting the acid is proving more difficult as shitty biscuits state government requires to jump through all sorts of loops to buy an transport it. Also 20 litres weighs what felt like genuinely at least 100kg and I’m not in the mood for carrying that in my backpack. Boiling it requires both incredible stupidity and the ability to replace anything the fumes touch… Tent, clothes, skin, lips, the lot.

Red colours in opal are the least commonly seen and command the highest prices, blue vice versa.

how do I get it?

There at two, no three ways to get opal: buy it, mine it or noodle. I’ve done the latter two (though I’ve been tempted to chuck everything in and just pay for it often enough).

Mining involves either working with a partner, as I have, or going alone and buying a lease. The lease lasts for a year and consists of four white posts in the ground, 100ft by 100ft, I think. Nobody else can use this ground, however keep your damn mouth shut boy or else the whole town will buy leases surrounding yours. Not because they think you’re onto something and want to snoop around, oh no. Overburden is the ten metres or so of dirt you have to remove to get to the opal, no matter I it’s tunnels or open cut the dirt has to go somewhere. If you have leases surrounding yours, you have nowhere to put the overburden without it falling onto other leases. This means you can’t dig. People sit around each other’s claims for years without digging, in a stalemate, however you have to be at your mine for a certain number of days a month to keep your lease, all this means is that the men drive out to the lease (or normally get someone else to) and then drive back, as all that the wardens look for is tire marks.

I should really say now that nobody seemed to want anyone else to succeed, in fact quite the opposite. If any one asks if you’ve found any opal, the clever thing to say is “what’s opal?” It’s a pretty dangerous atmosphere, to not get sidetracked Andamooka is a lawless community, self governed, that consists of East Europeans with vast amounts of Gelignite; it has a history of murder and sabotage more colourful than the opal. Though nothing is more colourful than opal. It doesn’t help that the town is essentially dry, nothing more is coming out the ground, the heyday is over, gone, no more good times.

The “level” is the line of seabed where the opal is hidden. You can dig shafts down to the level and then tunnel along when you find it, alternatively you can mine open cut, where you excavate down to the level with bulldozers and work along it with picks. These are the two options for the miner. Open cut is easier and safer, if more costly in terms of machinery; bobcat parts, diesel, picks etc… Tunnels are more fun.

It’s also worth saying that unlike most mining, opal mining is individual, a sole undertaking by only one or two people. For example the BHP mine next to Andamooka (2 hours away) is run by one of the larger companies on earth. They use planes and sonar to sound the ground and identify gold and uranium and whatever else they’ve got under there. With opals the only way to find it is dig, and digging with no real hope of finding anything is a job nobody would ever take a wage for. The people of Andamooka find the opal, cut it polish it and sell it, or try to sell it.

Noodling is pretty much just walking around and looking for opal on the ground. It’s both easier and harder than it sounds. Some of Andamooka’s most beautiful finds were from tourists walking down the high street and seeing a flash of colour on the red dirt road. I did… Okay with it but not laughing naked in a bed of plastic Australian dollars okay.

The whole town is a mine, houses are built ontop of, and often in, the honeycomb of tunnels and cuts. The great piles of earth removed by the bulldozers to make land for dwellings contain most of the actual level, leaving finding opal merely a matter of walking across the right mountain of sandstone or through the right back garden and the sun catching the colour. The matrix in particular is a common find within the town as opposed to the mines as before 20 years ago, miners had no idea what to do with it, so they simply threw it away. I found this mostly outside the windows of old miner’s houses.

But noodling isn’t mining, it’s a tourist thing and I was determined not to be a tourist. So I waited for Lance. I met Lance in Bruny Island. Just south of Tasmania. He had made a 2 metre tall flouting buoy with a ladder on one side and a trampoline on top, anchored maybe 100 metres out at sea it was the perfect instrument to turn my bellyflop into a dive. I used then went to thank the man who made it. The house was identified by the makeshift wind vanes, slides, parts of aeroplane on the roof and just general Dickensian Australiana beauty of the place. I met Lance, we talked about opals and he invited me to Andamooka when the weather was bearable (below 50C).

5 or 6 month later, true to our words we meet and talk for an hour before donning hardhats, boiler suits and fetching the rope ladder. Lance has a white Range Rover from the 80s, he’s cut the back off it and turned it into the longest ute you have ever seen. He had a friend who bought the extra extended long wheelbase Range Rover from UAE, the longest Range Rover you can buy; Lance’s was more than a metre longer. It’s the car of my dreams.

If I start to write about the tunnels I won’t stop, but, I need to write about them.

We go down old tunnels looking for pillars the old miners left for roof support, we destroy the pillars to see if they’ve missed any opal. Going down old tunnels also helps when looking for slips in the earth, faults. These faults can be followed onto imminent ground for Lance to buy his lease when I leave.

So we drive up to either lunatic or tea tree (some of the opal fields) lift the rusted tin sheets off the hole and look down, the way you look down off the top of a cliff, pursed lips and pulse thumping. After we were down Lance says he’s surprised I did it in the first place, most would of chickened, I didn’t tell him how I close I was to not going down, or how scared I was looking down the shaft, or how my first attempt to get onto the steel pole placed across the hole which holds the rope ladder nearly made physically sick. It’s a long way down. On a 10 year old homemade rope ladder that swings and flexes with every step, in a tunnel that had been left for 40 years, down into dust and darkness. Past the zone where the air turns from fresh to stale. It’s been five minutes, you’re still climbing. You pass nests full of dead birds, Lance shouts up that sometimes you’ll find a pissed off snake at the bottom that fell down and hasn’t eaten for days. You’re still climbing down, take a break and rest your back against the crumbling wall of the tunnel. You can’t see shit. Keep climbing down. It’s maybe 10 degrees higher than the above ground temperature if the tunnel doesn’t hit another tunnel with an open shaft, if the tunnel is a nice tunnel it meets another shaft and the air flows through, these are 20 degrees below above ground temperature, fly free and gorgeous. You hit the ground, the underground. It is. The best.

I can’t describe the vibe I get 15 metres below. The pitch, true darkness that only gets lighter when you close your eyes. The silence, not just absence of noise but sheer denial of it, it’s crude to talk, the atmosphere of an empty church still lit by candle but carved by pickaxe. The smell of dust and damp and weight and fear. Something beyond sense. The feeling I get when I’m underwater, lying on my back and blowing bubble rings at the surface, surrounded and confined and unable to breath properly, like drinking or dreaming going underground is a true loss of control. When you stand in your garden there is the one single assurance that the sky will not fall down and crush you before you realise what’s happening. Lance comforted me by saying “there’s no quicker death”… Thanks Lance.

The first thing you do is check the walls for cracks, these mean the tunnels is unstable, the tons of sand above are a shifting away and wanting nothing more than to slump and crush and bury. To Lance it means hit the crack with the pick as that’s where the opal hides. I don’t argue with Lance. The next thing is to light a candle, though a head torch is brighter it can’t tell you if the air is running out, or where the exit is when you get lost; and you will get lost. Oh you’ll get lost.

Your body will keep you breathing automatically, the candle will go out if the air gets used up, all that remains is to find the level and chip away, all day all night. Lying on your back in a two foot high tunnel, packed so tight you’re only reminder that you are looking up is the dust and rock drifting down onto your straining eyes. Nothing exists aside from that line of rock that may possibly hold your fortune. In itself opal mining is dissociative, meditive, transient kinda work: coupled with the atmosphere of beneath ground and you quickly forget planet earth. Forget food or friends or day or night or politics or sun or sex or iPhones or humans or life. You forget yourself…. It’s bliss.

It’s too hot for overalls but you emerge from the shaft to find the sparks from the pick have burnt holes in your shorts and fragments of flying rocks have cut you to ribbons. You can be wiping your sticky blood off the rock time and time again without realising you’ve been cut because the red blood isn’t red crystal opal. So I t doesn’t exist.

Nothing matters and nobody cares. It’s not escapism it’s oblivion. It’s what I like about camping and lifts and hiding in car boots and good books.

Then you see colour and your. Brain. Just. Goes.

what the FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUIUUIIIIARGHWHAT

for 4 hours or years or months or forever you’ve seen white and only white, constantly seeking for the tiniest flash of blue or yellow. Then a rainbow jumps out and kicks in your fucking head.

Before the air or dust gets to it the opal is at the hight of its beauty, the zenith of natural magnificence and splendour. Polished and cut under jewellery shop lights it will look like rusty dog food in comparison to the first time it’s exposed under shaking torchlight. Blues and greens and reds. That’s the one I found. Tiny, near worthless. But if I have a kid they will never match the beauty of that one tiny stone.

then what?

You try and sell it.

Nobody wants to know. Even if it’s the nicest piece they’ve ever seen. Supply is rich and demand is scarce. All the miners are sitting on rings and necklaces and boulders and pendants and buckets of matrix. Nobody wants to buy it. No tourists go to Andamooka, it doesn’t matter if you can set it your self and polish it an cut it yourself if you have nobody to sell it to.

I sold some and then kept the nicest bit I found to turn into a ring for myself, in Adelaide I had the stone cut in half and the half of it paid for the stone to be cut polished and “tripleted” (placing the stone on a black glass backing with a glass some on top to magnify the colours. It’s green and blue, slightly like my eyes I noticed as I examined it nightly in my tent, but turn it just slightly and red will… It’s nice.

Getting the stone set into a ring is the next ripoff but what can you do?

OPAL MINING: TEN OUT OF TEN

But leaving town was the most difficult thing I’ve done in a good while.

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Far North Tropical Queensland

I’m writing this to distract myself from the storm. Last time a cyclone hit North Queensland, it nearly crushed my tent and I was camping in New Zealand. This is true but it’s not going to get me to sleep, the winds also make the already stupid candlelight reading an impossibility, though the howling gusts have stopped the Mosquitos from coming through the holes in my tent, ill stuffed with socks, and it should also be praised for blowing away the stenches of piss and French onion soup that are the last camp followers present after I drink alone.

I will say that though it seems I’ve fallen for camping in a big way, Queensland’s not the state for it. The humidity has begun to rot the outer shell after one week. After braving the snow off the southern alps, having to scrape the salt off the walls after gales from the Tasman sea, the time I left it on a radiator and it caught afire or even the simple fact it was only about £20; I fear the wet air of the sunshine state will murder my sweet tent… If we survive this storm.

Just to allay your fears mother by now I may have run from or been told to leave the local park and gone to camp ground. I have a cash in hand job potwashing until the man from Adelaide sends me my opal. So by now I’ve probably grown tired and bloody of all the pests below and gone to some $20 a night dorm. Also I think the candle wax in my phone is working its way through the innards. Email is down, the charger won’t go into walls anymore the headphones don’t work, home button’s long dead and the wax is under the screen in different patterns everytime it gets warm and cool again: I had the brainwave of standing it upright and leaving it in the sun so now I can see most of the top half of the screen. Sorry Rhian, it survived jetski storm, waterfall, toilets, vomit and snow but I fear a candle is crippling it. I’ll try and find a “cyber bar” to skype with you next week. It seems to be playing silly buggers. In lieu of skype.

“Hey mum, how are you and dad and Rhian and the cats, my fish? Still dead?! Norwich look nice? England faring well? What’s all this UKIP shit I keep hearing about, the Australians are laughing at you guys… Can’t wIt to see you all again, I’m eating well and am happy and my skin has yet to peel an reveal the English boy beneath. I want nothing for my birthday save for cake when I return in August… Icing AND the cheesecake biscuity base you know I love? Is that possible? If not then shop bought hungry caterpillar will more than suffice. MUCH LOVE”

Camping in the park: I’d camp in the jungle but the water ain’t so good, the park is essentially just a section of rainforest left uncleared anyway, true rainforest at that, not the temperate forests of Taz or New Zealand. There are no winters or summers here, only wet and dry, currently it’s wet season, very wet season.

foes

The ants are not much company. The small black ones with a red head are standard fare garden biting ants. The lime green electric ants are something else, they want to get under my skin, watching one on my shin it was biting and then trying to slide into the bite, pulling herself down and along with the legs, failing, then biting again.

In the outback the ants were more than an inch long and the millipedes at least 10, but they were visible. I had both in my tent and during the pre-read check with the torch you can weedle them out of the corners and smash the fucking carapaces to dust with Game of Thrones. I can’t see the smaller ants, so I rise most nights in sharp pain to punch and slap the darkness and return to troubled sleep.

There are… Spiders. They look like spiders, almost. Maybe more like a prawn, small and see through, maybe an inch or two long but only a cm wide. They scare me the least… Since the huntsmen of Liffey no spider can scare me. That’s not to say they are friends as if they bite me I will die. However my longest and deepest phobia has been usurped by others.

Principally crocodiles. Not fun ticking crocodiles or crocodiles that hunt mice on the bayou or crocodiles that guard mad lion kings from foxes in green doublets. Not Disney crocodiles. Crocodiles that will bite me and break my back as I try to unzip my tent. 7 metre long crocodiles that will drag my tent with me inside it down to the ever present mangrove swamps to drown me. I have seen a crocodile in the wild and it was was nothing like a bird or a reptile or a snake or a lizard. It was just teeth. The first night of camping here I had a near panic attack and fled my tent to the nearest hostel wearing only my PJ bottoms, white knuckles clutching my wallet. I may have been reading too much Game of Thrones or maybe had too much time on my hands waiting for these shyster opal jewellers or mayhaps it was the price of that night in the hostel… But the day after I returned to my abandoned camp and set to work fencing and staking, using the Bowie knife to fashion countless stakes to ring my perimeter. I started ditching as well but my blisters and calluses from mining have reopened and they really hate the salt water swim that is my shower. I can sleep with a staked enclosure. Not soundly. But I can sleep.

Silverfish, my sworn foes. I don’t know much about them but I think they’ve been drinking blood from my neck, because there are no Mozzy bites. We shall see.

The park rangers. They grow more suspicious every day. I know they’ve found all my baked bean tins in the bins and gone out looking for my camp, I doubt they’ll find it. I should put a warning up about the stakes but then that’s proof. Maybe they’ll let me stay in appreciation of my fortifications, instead of the more likely hefty fine I have avoided thus far. I leave no trace, I only cut an burn dead wood. Why they so mad?

The town of Port Douglas is itself my enemy. A tourist trap of cheap jewellery and digery… Didgereedoos? Dijere, didgeridoos. I have yet to met anyone who lives here, there are hotels and empty holiday homes and why go to the beach when the palm resort had the second largest pool in the Southern Hemisphere and why look at the parrots when you can buy plush toys of them for your mewling chubby children.

The Mosquitos you can’t imagine. I bleed. I swear in the mornings I feel faint from loss of blood. Yet the toe curling pleasure of scratching them raw has been denied me by those I met in Sydney who had been bitten in Queensland and scratched them. Permanent scars. I already have some on my ankle from jack jumpers in Tasmania (really shitty ants), I don’t need any more scars.
dengue fever is also imminent unless I slink back to a hostel. Though at this terminus of most traveller’s journey from Sydney up North through 4000km of East coast party hostels and nightclubs I’m more likely to catch something in a dorm room.

my friends

The bats, AKA the flying fox all stars. I’ve seen bats to make me stand awestruck in Sydney, as they obscure the setting Sydney sun on their way back to roost in the botanic gardens, but it was the scale, the multitude rather than the size that impressed. These tropical ones are… I’m not even sure they’re even bats. The locals call them flying foxes and they must be bigger than the biggest fruit bats. I thought they were just really large bats flying curiously low; Then one actually flew low.
I can’t describe.
I could say the wingspan must be at least a metre and a half, that they bend palm trees when they roost in them. That they could easily kill me on my long walk across the fields behind the beach to tree-line where I camp. That when they walk on the ground on winged arm and hairy feet the leather bound elbows rise above their heads like hinges of some nightmare clockwork spider.
But they just watch.
At night they warn me of people coming near, drunks in the park or rangers maybe, they climb down the trunks of the palms, tiny hands clasping the bark like a monkeys, brown fingers with tiny peanut knuckles. The bats won’t take my bread but they appreciate the offer, well they have yet to drag me screaming out of my tent so I like them.

The parrots are my friends only in that I have as many foes that I need to court the favour of these preening fools. They squawk and scream all damn night but are constantly beautiful and have a pleasing habit of causing you to look up when normally you wouldn’t. Parrots let you notice rainbows and sunsets and other things that most miss for their shoes, papers and phones.

uncertain allegiance

The Jelly fish have yet to make an appearance. Foreshadowed all along the coast with bottles of vinegar hanging from every warning sign I do not know how to complacent to be now the nets are down. Some locals still won’t swim in water.

The crabs. Tomorrow I will catch one of the monster black crabs that hide in the rocks on the headland and cook it. Then we will see if I’m still scared of them or if they’re more scared of me.

Review: Jetboil Zip

I’ve done some other reviews, one for an emotional Spanish language film about Columbian drug mules called Maria full of grace (don’t swallow grapes kids) and one for the new Robocop (which I enjoyed far too much). But I didn’t post them and they got deleted to leave space on my sister’s phone to take photos of rainforests. Oooooooh, so lush and green.

The rain that must come along with the forest has confined me to my tent for the second day. I took a funny picture of me in said tent but have nobody to show it to.

But to the JETBOIL. JETBOIL. I’ve tried to use my shmexy little black camp-stove in the tent before and though I slept well I suspect the fumes to be detrimental to my health. So due to the rains it was cold beans for breakfast and two tins of cold rice pudding for dinner with not much to do betwixt them, aside from penning this review for my jetboil. But first; who is this fabled ser Jet of Boil I speak of?

technical specifications

It’s like a stove… But more like a little kettle, that runs on butane… No that’s not it.
He boils the water. He is my little water boiler. The “jet” prefix relates to the time it takes to heat up your cuppa, the speed being: pretty nifty. Like a jet. Imagine a jet engine; fire, turbines, hot chocolate, exactly. Maybe one minute, if that. But now we musk ask ourselves, is the mythical sub-minute boil… Too short?

To explain. With a kettle you know you have a good two three minutes to think about Dolly Parton and tree snakes and who makes trains and what blind people fear before the water’s a bubblin. You start to drift away with the jetboil however and dark in incestuous warlock magic that powers the fire means that the mug is boiling over already, spurting boiling hot chocolate over your fingers as you attempt to kill the beast, scalding your delicate crotch as pink and purple gas flares singe your eyebrows (true story). So after that you watch it like hawk, and if there’s one saying that has a semblance of truth in this crazy world it’s that a watched kettle takes fucking years to boil.

But what does it look like?

It resembles a small black mug with a plastic lid. Take off the lid and inside the tripod, burner, pan stand, matches and butane tank are stored. Take em all out, put em back together and you have a little camp stove. Lego fun for the child in you, the ability to cook noodles for the big strong manly man. Fill the mug with water or beans or stew or don’t use the mug and fry some bacon or cheese or whatever the hell is on the turn at the supermarket. I’ve turned it from a hard boiled Easter egg machine, cracking one out every two minutes to a coca cola burner to try and carbonise some opal; it’s uses are many and varied. MANIFOLD. It boils things, quickly. The little lid has tiny holes in it so after your pasta is ready you can simply tip the whole thing upside down which will either drain out the water OR make the lid fly off and vomit all your penne and sauce into a steaming basil scented mud-puddle around your trembling sorry feet. STILL GOOD!

But what does it really look like?

Sexual. If the batmobile was a gas cooker full of steaming rolled oats. It’s the closest thing to Michelle Pfeiffer that most of my generation have ever seen. LEATHER. It’s all black and metallic and assembling it kinda feels like you’re putting together the pieces of something manly, like a gun, to murder someone with.

But will it get me girls?

I’m not saying the all powerful jetboil zip has seduced a girl into to sleeping with me… But that is essentially what I am saying. That did actually happen.
This is maybe more to do with a four day power cut meaning me and my mighty jetboil were the envy and providence of a starving, sallow faced hostel populace, unable to function without wifi or microwaves. But I believe that the dangerously arrogant yet playful aesthetics of the unrivalled jetboil zip had a hand in the union, as did, apparently, the way I peel a hard boiled egg… But no accounting for taste eh?

But what to cook Joe?

Recipe #1

Honeycomb off tree. Rum. Rolled oats. Boil.

Recipe #2

Blackberries from side of busy road. Rainwater. Rolled oats. Boil.

Recipe #3

FUCKING BAKED BEANZ TIME!!!!!
BEANZ BEANZ BEANZ
BEANZ MEANZ MOAR BEANZ
CRABBE AND BOILLLLLL

Recipe #4

Saltwater from the sea. Cous cous. Boil.

Recipe #5

Rolled oats. Boil then lightly burn for varied consistency.

So… With all ‘o’ dem recipes the limit is your imaginations!!! The proof really is in the porridge. Just don’t try to cook anything that burns easily. Kim Jung-boil only really has two temperature settings: jetboil and off…. Cooking meat with the jetboil is possible, if you like your steak either jetboiled or raw…. But better than public BBQs that everyone pisses on eh?

Intersting. Do you have any sad jetboil stories Joe?

Well as it happens… I first saw a jetboil summer (sth hemis) 2014, on the tent strewn shores of Lake St Claire in the great Tasmanian Wilderness (great start, story goes downhill from here). It was being wielded by a young, hippyish chemist grad from Melbourne, cycling round Tasmania with his long red hair, red beard and jetboil in tow. That night he cooked me some pasta in this strange apparatus and then we had oats with rum. He instructed me on the basics of making liquor (something I’ve always wanted to explore since the cider worked so well. Apparently the key is with tomato paste)… Well the next night we ate something different, I’d run out of my own food 3 days previous in the mountains, but this time he let me attempt to tame the Jetboil myself, it overboiled of course, this was in my green days, before I learnt to master the gentle caress of the controls that really set apart the jetboil men from the boys. But I’ll always remember him saying “this instant mash is so good with cheese, I’ll tell my mum” but more importantly, when I apologised for over jetting the jetboil he said “don’t worry… You can’t hurt it”, with a sorrowful glint in his eye. That very same night, whilst being pestered by a possum, I realised that I couldn’t hurt it, we all need camping appliances that can hurt us more than we can hurt them, this is the jetboil. But I saw beyond that too, for all the jetboil’s hardness and tough hide, if it were but more human and loveable, less distant and utilitarian: it would be the greatest friend you’d ever know. This was the reason for the cycling chemist’s sorrow.
The cyclist gave me a book of the most hauntingly beautiful and prescient short stories by… Someone de la… Not sure, shit. He wrote his name in the cover and told me if I ever stayed in Melbourne to live in his beachfront house in St Kilda so I could learn the finer points of moonshine. I gave him the man who was Tuesday… Or Thursday. My memory lapses. Either way he cycled off into the middle distance, I didn’t have any tent pegs so he had weighted the corners of my tent down with rocks and left me a cigarette, I never had a chance to thank him.
Months passed and I eventually found myself in Melbourne and so looked for the young man’s name: to no avail. I had lent the book to some also forgotten girl in Hobart along with the name inside. So it lies to the jetboil I purchased on the cheap, to carry on in perpetuity the memory of Aiden… Something or other.
True story.

yeah… Great. What do you give it out of ten though?

10 CANZ OF BEANZ

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Adelaide

I’m leaving Adelaide on greyhound, drunk on free wine and blushing after Mercedes’ kiss on the cheek. Mercedes is her work name.

What a city.

Everytime I veer slightly from the hashtagged, beer ponged path of the traditional backpacker I’m rewarded. Forget Melbourne. Forget the East Coast. Adelaide is a hidden gem and I hate hate hate that phrase.

After twelve hours in Christchurch airport and nineteen in Melbourne airport I arrive in sunny South Australia. The festival state, though I’ve missed the festivals. It’s Friday and I’ve three days to play with before the ten hour bus to Roxby Downs, then to Andamooka and then, hopefully, to my fortune in the opal fields.

Unfortunately there was a festival in town, tasting Australia, where for a paltry $3 one can buy an empty glass and walk around a field tasting sweet reds and dry whites and fancy roses from the Barossa valley and claret and cider and beer and candied honey from Kangaroo Island and oysters from the Eyre peninsula. I reused my glass every day. This is unfortunate because I can’t remember much of anything this weekend aside from the fact that I love Adelaide.

REASONS

Everybody knows everybody.

I had a greenstone from Hokitika NZ I wanted turned into a pendant. The leather string was free from the girls at spotlight, they recommended me to a jewellers who provided me a free parrot clasp who sent me to the “bodybuilder”. A hulking watchmaker hunched over cogs too small to see, he tied the knot at the back.

The girls at spotlight (haberdashers (I think that’s the right word)) gave me a discount on crochet hooks and yarn, the city wide free wifi let me sit in one of the many secluded parks perfecting my chains.

The library.

As I travel around Australia and New Zealand I’ve been reviewing each and every library I visit. Though I normally love libraries the visits have increased more than usual as the library is the refuge of the stinking backpacker; free wifi, silence, maps and comfy seats.

Now the state library of Victoria takes some beating; Ned Kelly’s tank suit, every scrap of history relating to anything interesting Australia wise, xboxs’ and gamecubes. Launceston library in Tassy had the prettiest librarians, Sydney had the most comics, Christchurch let me pretty much live there for ten days.

But Adelaide library. As libraries go, they don’t get much better. The tech lab contained no less than 3 3D printers and 3D printer guns… A 3D printer, mum, is a printer that forms hot plastic to create an object: kayaks, sculptures, pistols that fire. Anything. I created a ring with Adelaide inscribed on it, the librarian used a calliper to measure my finger, they then printed it and have it to me, gratis.

The high street.

Every day it was another spectacle. African mask making and dance lessons, football training, $3 for as much wine as it takes to make you partake in the African dancing.

The people.

Friendly bordering on the point of too friendly, which is just right. A conversation with a complete stranger is never more than ten meters away wherever you are in Adelaide. I’ve met such an assortment of interesting characters I could write a sequel to Nicholas Nickelby and then some.

I’ve just been kissed and waved onto the bus by Mercedes, a member of the oldest profession who I met half an hour ago while tasting a particularly fine Pinot Grigio for the fiftieth time. She’s from Cambridgeshire originally and a month younger than me… Like all Australians, she’s fantastic. Talkative, friendly, desperately self assured.

When I tell the friendliest people on earth that I’m off to Andamooka, usually in a food court when I’ve drunk too much, they do one of two things.

a. Urge me not to go, or at least go bearing arms or a knife “it’s the Wild West” “you don’t understand” “it’s diferent. Out there.”

b. Laugh at the baby face freckled English boy and ask where I’m really going…. Return to a.

But I’m on the bus now, it drops me off at one in the morning at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere, irradiated desert from nuclear tests on one side and not much else on the other. Riches ahead and underground. I hope.

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Generalised Zealand

Kia Ora.
I tried to cover the Land of the Long White Cloud as a diary, made it halfway fore it blew away in a cyclone (the power was out for four days, I write this blog on my sister’s phone and after I lost momentum n gave right up). I also met a succsession of pretty girls and even prettier mountains that served to sidetrack me. I’m not even sure the purpose of the blog, nor the interests of the reader, are geared towards personal details of what I’m doing and thinking… Generalised observations of faraway places are instead what’s on offer.

New Zealand. Atearoa. (all spellings are guessed at (pronounce every vowel when speaking Maori))

I’m not going to say “10 out 10” or “top banana” or even “11 out of 10”; rather to fair NZ I say… 9:1 in exchange of 1:9.

Simply put, I’d rather of spent 9 months in New Zealand and 1 in Australia. I don’t regret that it’s the other way round, I don’t regret much in fact I’d go as far as saying I don’t regret anything. But it would’ve made life so much easier.

In defense of Australia there is far far more to see here than in New Zealand, it’s just the distances between the experiences that’s the humdinger.

From where I am now in Oz (Andamooka) it’s a 5 hour, $150, coach journey to leave the desert, another 5 hours will take you to the nearest city. Fair dinkum, to Australians that’s a short drive. But in New Zealand Every 30 minutes would reward you with another spectacle of nature (not that red dust isn’t interesting it just loses its interest and quickly). A 5 hour drive in New Zealand would take you through; alps, glaciers, volcanoes, grass-plains, lakes, sounds, stony beaches, sandy beaches, dolphins and more. One day the sun will blind but the next you’ll be fighting hard to keep the snow out of your tent.

New Zealand is god’s gift to travellers. Small, compact yet varied, with postcard photo opportunities at every turn. Hitchhiking is second nature and half the time you won’t even have to bother raising that thumb and painting on that smile before someone stops. Every village has a hostel and a log fire. National Park car parks with Nissan Sunnys packed full of German blondes are a guaranteed sight and camping is pretty much allowed wherever there is no private property, though the DOC huts are so cheap and well located there’s no reason anyone who visits the country shouldn’t frequent them. I recommend Brewster for the views and White Horse for the walks.

It’s not perfect. There are, like Australia, a shize ton of Germans, but that’s okay after you get used to the fact English is the second language of every hostel and campground. They cook good apple cake; more importantly they share said apple cake.

The cities, though all “funky” and distinct, are often small and lack the beauty of Sydney or the pull of European cities.

Culturally sure the Maoris have come out of colonisation infinately better than the Aboriginals, infinitley (it seems auto-correct spelling has given up today), but the culture/tourism seems tacky at best. Gives perhaps a shadow of the beauty of what their culture must’ve been. It’s clear there are also real problems with alcholism and the terror raid debacle still seemed to really REALLY cause grievances with Maoris I spoke to. On an unrelated note Maori TV is the best station in New Zealand.

Wildlife in New Zealand is comically absent compared to the Zoo across the “ditch” that is Australia. Though on the other hand, not much can kill you while you’re swimming, or asleep, or gardening; which always a positive.

So if it’s not the animals or the Ayrans or the hangis or the fauna that attract… What makes New Zealand so magical?

The Geology. The land the earth the… y’know. The place. Not what’s on it or in it or what the cafe culture’s like in Wellington or where you can rent a jet-ski on a sunday in March.
It’s the hills. The thermal pools and gently smoking calderas, puffing bouts of yellow sulphur smoke into the azure sky. I never really liked geography at school but I appreciate a good vista as much as the next human being. The snow capped Southern Alps left me breathless. Genuinely. I spent one month in a state of constant awe.

Sudden downpours, lightning storms, avalanches, volcanic eruptions and my first cyclone (Ita she were named). The smell of sulphur and the taste of glacier water. These things are all present and correct in Australia, probably, but within a half hour drive? Perhaps in Australia the beauty is increased by the distance between great sights, so far though the inaccessability of places in Oz like the Flinders ranges means the average backpacker will never get to see them.

I’m happy that in my month in NZ that I saw everything I wanted to and more, the country redifined my conception of natural beauty but also the power of nature.

Fuck it.

NEW ZEALAND 10 OUT 10!