Friday, November 17, 2006

2nd-8th November (Down on the farm)

I had an excellent time in Melbourne, Karen and Christophe were very hospitable and it was so nice to be with friends, it was like a relaxing break from travelling, so thank you Karen and Christophe for making my first impressions of Oz so good. My next stop was at a dairy farm about 2 hours north of Melbourne at a place called Merrigum (near Shepperton), I had met the farm owners, Glenn and Linley when i was in India and they had been nice enough to invite me over. So for the next few days i was treated to more friendly hospitality and fun on the farm.

Whilst I was at the farm, some of Glenn and Linleys family members came and went, their daughter Shelley, her partner Lance, sons Darcy (3) and Finley (18 months) were around for a while, and another grandson Nathan showed up for a while. Everyone was very friendly and it felt like I was getting a real slice of Aussie family life. Glenn reminds me a bit of my old grandad, he is a bit of a grumpy old man who complains about all the noise the kids make, he has a strong accent so that sometimes I have no idea what he is saying but I just know it is funny. He refers to everyone as pricks!

My typical day at the farm started at 05.30 when i would get up to milk the cows (Glenn had already herded them over to the milking shed by this time), wearing my overalls, boots and essential peaked cap i would put the suckers on and off of the cows as they lined up in the shed. By about 07.00 the artificial insemination people would turn up and stick a hand up a couple of cows arses (they are a NZ couple on a working holiday and gave me a contact address in NZ within 5 minutes of meeting me). We would wash down all the cow shit off the yard (I am highly trained in this area), feed the youngest calves some milk and watch as they greedily suck at the rubber teets, feed some grain to the older calves, then head to the house for breakfast. During the day there may be some odd jobs for me to do; i learnt how to drive the tractor and shifted a load of hay bails which really made my hayfever flare up but was great fun. Shelley took plenty of photos and video footage of me at work. Paul and John, my country bumpkin cousins would be impressed to see the townie at work, covered in shit and sneezing like mad! Around midday Glenn and I would have a couple of stubbies with lunch while sitting in the shade of the back garden. Afternoon milking was around 15.00 and I would use one of the motorbikes to herd the cows towards the shed. More beers and food for the rest of the day - bliss.

One day we went to Echuca, the oldest inland port in Oz, where Glenn, Linley, Shelley, the kids and I went on a paddle steamer, had a picnic (with beer) and some ice creams.

One day, i skipped the morning milking but went with Lance to chop firewood. Lance taught me where to make the cuts and wearing leather chaps I chopped a tree down with a chainsaw and managed to make it land roughly where i was aiming.

If Linley's scales are correct I have lost three quarters of a stone since I started traveling, I'm pretty sure I'll be putting weight back on in Oz though.

There is quite a lot of time to think on the farm, this is the kind of thing I think about: Isn't it strange that over thousands of years the cow has evolved with udders and milk to feed it's young and that over several decades man has evolved a massive industry with hi-tech machinery in order that we instead of the calves benefit from this evolution? Also, with artificial insemination and selective breeding, we make sure that future cow generations will be fatter, have bigger udders and produce more milk. Some cows have teets at eye level when I am in the pit, some hang lower, some are down below my chest level and very close to the cows hoofs. Rather than stooping down to see what I am doing, I have to feel for the teet with my index finger at the rim of the sucker. Some teets are so thick it is a struggle to get them in the sucker, some so small that the suckers don't want to stay on. Sometimes the cow fidgits and tries to kick but their movement is quite restricted and it is quite easy to move your hands out of the way - the bigger danger is the shit and piss, the peaked cap is indispensible! Oh, and I did bang my head so hard that I had pain in my neck for 2 days. Yep, there is a lot of time to think!

As Glenn says, being a dairy farmer doesn't take a genius, but he does have a lot to think about; to buy or sell cows, field rotation and irrigation, breeding, disease etc. Australia, is facing another year of drought, there are very many vast areas of brown dry fields and farmers going out of business or killing themselves, Glenn is lucky he still has a reasonable supply of water for irrigation and I think he has a pretty good life. There is a fair amount of time available to 'sit back and lick your ears' as Glenn would say.

After giving some serious consideration to hitching to Sydney, I booked a 4000km pass for the greyhound bus costing 620 Aussie dollars (about 2.5 dollars to the pound) and booked three nights in Sydney's central youth hostel association(YHA) for 105 dollars. The first few hours of the journey were flat and mostly brown fields but gradually became more hilly. About an hour from Sydney I saw the first housing estate with two storey houses.

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