Australia’s Summer Plant: The toughest thing I have ever done

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Taking a break in the intense heat. Photo by Sarah Dilley

Trapped in a suit of my own sweat, I scan the tree line, looking for an escape. My body is dragging, sinking towards the earth and I start to panic. My breathing has become desperate and laboured. In the extreme heat and humidity I feel like I am locked in closet full of bulky coats collapsing in on me. The sun is a hellish cyclops staring down at us, unblinking.

I trudge slowly through the tall grass, three calculated steps at a time, before I plunge my spade into the parched soil. I reach for the tray attached to my left hip and pull out a lone pine tree seedling. I bend over, slide it down the blade, kick the hole closed and do all of this again – almost 2000 times per day.

I am walking through a clearcut – a gaping hole in the lush gum tree forest that surrounds. Rolling green hills tower above – powerful and imposing. A thick mist starts to spill over top, like a  science lab beaker billowing steam.  Here in far North Queensland, Australia it is the summer and the wet season.  When the rain comes, it is sudden and furious. We crave it like a drug, desperate for a hit. It is our only reprieve out here while we create handmade plantations. When the dark grey clouds approach, all eyes turn to the sky, hopeful. Then, we feel that first drop and all senses become heightened. Suddenly, the skies open up and the rain falls heavily, gradually building in intensity. Over the deafening sound I can hear one of my co-workers let out a primal yell. Others echo him, like a pack of wolves. We hold onto these precious minutes before the shower dissipates and we once again become prisoners of the sun. Life out here is intense, hard fought. This is summer tree planting in Australia – the toughest thing I ever done.

I am no stranger to tree planting. I have worked in the Canadian forestry industry for 10 years and spent six seasons as a treeplanter. It is a production job – meaning you are paid a set rate per tree that you plant. I have made anywhere from 6 to 28 cents per tree, planting anywhere from 1500-5000 per day. I started planting in Australia in the winter season from May to August in 2016 to help fund my future bicycle travels. Despite a four year gap between my last contract in Canada and the current one, it was a success. After five weeks cycling in New Zealand I decided to try Australia’s summer planting contract. I had heard many stories from past planters that made me apprehensive, to say the least. This ranged from the entire crew suffering from foot rot with the constant rain to staph infections that required hospitalization. And of course, the heat and humidity which became unbearable after 10am. I also knew that I didn’t perform so well in the heat myself. I was nervous, but I figured that I would eventually adapt.

The crew begins to arrive at our accommodation in Lucinda, Australia. I have driven up with my foreman, Sarah from Brisbane – about 1500km south. We are a multinational group, with the majority from Germany and Canada. This includes two 10-year veteran planters from the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. I hear that one of them has a personal record of 8000 trees in a single day.  I am also happy to see some familiar faces from the winter planting contract. It is a big, airy beach house. There is one unfortunate condition – we can’t swim in the ocean because it is box jellyfish season. We are also warned against walking along the beach because of saltwater crocodiles that have been seen occasionally in the area. A general rule for wild swimming in Queensland is not to jump into any body of water unless in has been determined to be croc-free. Of course, there are also deadly snakes and spiders. Out there though, this turned out to be the least of my concerns.

The heat seemed like it was inescapable even when I wasn’t working. Sometimes I would jump into a cold shower at night fully clothed just to be cool enough to fall asleep. Eating also became a struggle – all I wanted and craved was fruit, despite the fact that I was probably burning about 5000 calories per day.

Every day the weather attacks me like a sort of demonic force. Each day out on the “block” feels like a feat of survival. We begin work around 6am in attempt to maximize our production before the real heat sets in. Even at 6:30am I am already soaked in sweat. Every bit of my skin is covered and I wear a large straw hat to protect me from the oppressive sun. I am also donning two pairs of socks to stop the friction and prevent blisters, thus preventing a possible staph infection. I go full force in the morning, because it is the only chance I have to make money. Right around 10am, things start to deteriorate rapidly. The sun starts to come out and my body becomes weak and heavy. I feel like I am dragging chains. I start to feel nauseous. I am drinking electrolite sweetened water constantly, but my state continues to worsen. The heat becomes trapped in the tall grass that I push myself through. Every time I plunge forward into it I feel like I’m drowning. Now I am walking in slow motion and my spade feels limp in my hand. Then, I start to experience what I later realized was a bit of a panic attack. I am having trouble breathing. I can see a truck in the distance and start to walk in that direction as fast as I could. I get to my foreman, Sarah feeling scared and desperate. She tells me to get in and takes me to a creek where I lay still in the cool water and let it run over me for about 30 minutes, motionless. She gets me some more electrolites and slowly the life comes back into me. I eventually return to work.

I am not only one struggling. When the heat becomes too overbearing, I hide out  in the trees with a few of my workmates. We share fruit and salty snacks amongst each other. Our bodies slump lifelessly against the stifling bark of some small gum trees. Out there, I watch facial expressions twist and contort into pain as tired bodies toil like slaves in the noon day hell. Sometimes this turns into vomiting, sometimes tears emerge. But, they press on – motivated by the handsome pay check that we have all come here for.

One afternoon I took a break in one of the utes (Australian for truck) with the air conditioning blasting. Fifteen minutes later, my co-worker Gabe stumbles in. His lips are pale and he is coated in sweat, his eyes lifeless. Gabe has been a tree planter and crew leader for 10 years in Canada. When I watch him plant, he moves through the land like a well-tuned machine with barely a break between movements. Now, he sits in the front seat completely drained and in shock. “This is crazy,” he says, “I have never needed to take breaks like this… when I plant, I don’t stop. Never in my life have I had to do this.” He repeats these phrases several times over the next half an hour in frustration while trying to comprehend what is happening to his body.

On one of the hottest days we worked I walk past several of my co-workers on the ground slumped over from heat exhaustion. I take off my wide brimmed straw hat and start to fan them. Our tree runner Rhys stops by and dumps some water on their heads. At this point, I have forgotten that I am out there to make a wage – work has become secondary. I am here to help others survive. We are here for each other. It was a profound feeling to finish the day with and it was the most unforgettable of my time spent out there. We went to a fantastic swimming hole afterwards, which were plentiful in this part of Queensland. We waste no time, jumping in fully clothed, some with work boots still on. As soon as I hit the water, my body immediately forgets what it has just been through. The toils of the day are washed off and drift away with the gentle current. I stop and look around at the beauty around me. This elegant, pristine river closed in by a motherly embrace of eucalyptus trees. This is my Australia – a country that has made its way deep into my heart.

With these joyful moments that I have with my crew, it becomes apparent that we are all in this together and are there to support one another. On many days where anger and frustration started to take over, my wonderful foreman Sarah would pull up beside me in her ute. Her giant and warm smile immediately shattered those emotions that I had built up around me like a glass cage. And I was often given reminders by crew mates who were there to support me and remind me: hey, it’s just a job.

So, if you, the reader are looking for the ending of how I persevered, overcame adversity and finished the season, you may be disappointed to find out that I quit. I gave it everything I could – five weeks of it. It took a heavy took toll on me mentally and physically and I saw no improvement. I also had financial obligations that I wasn’t able to meet.

This was a very tough thing for me do – to realize that I had reached my limit. I have spent my entire working career outdoors in all four seasons in Canada. I have worked in every condition imaginable – even at the opposite extreme of -40 degrees celsius. For me, this was easier than working the summer in Far North Queensland with 38 degrees celsius and 80% humidity.

I believe that bravery doesn’t always come in the way of perseverance. Sometimes you have to embrace doubt and accept failure in order to come out stronger. But I don’t necessarily see this as failure. I learned a lot about myself out there and understood what it meant to reach my limits mentally and physically. Sometimes it is important to tap into that primal instinct to survive in extreme conditions – something that the modern world often shelters from us. And at the end of each day, planting trees in an Australian summer, a remarkable thing happened. The day’s hardships were quickly forgotten about and smiles emerged. We looked to each other and without words we acknowledged what we already knew.

We got through.

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The crew (minus myself) Photo By Sarah Dilley

Thank you to Sarah, Hutch, Rhys, Joe and all of my incredible crew members for being so supportive and such awesome human beings.

On Solitude

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Mongolia. A land so vast, empty and silent. Where earth joins sky in a endless horizon. Where the only sound to disturb my thoughts is the rhythm of my breathing against the crunching of my tires through forged tracks of sand. These wavering lines stretch endlessly in front of me, swerving in unknown directions towards an indefinite goal lost in the steppe.

It is a cold morning in May and I am loading the last of my panniers onto the bike before continuing towards the salt lake of Khyargas Nuur. The early morning sun starts to reveal itself, creating a play of shadows and colour across the landscape. It will be three days before I see any real human settlement. My main company are a large heard of goats and sheep strewn across the steppe. The odd time I encounter local men in traditional robes on horseback or motorbikes, who stop for a brief chat that is mainly carried out through hand gestures. Riding a bicycle through Mongolia can be a lonely existence. But this feeling of loneliness is not detrimental to my state of mind. Instead, I feel a powerful and spiritual connection to the land. With so much silence and so much space, it allows for a pure, uncluttered mind.

I am often asked why I have made the decision to cycle solo. When you are solo, I believe that travel becomes more challenging, more raw, more real. Without someone by your side to provide a sense of familiarity you are forced to give yourself 100% to the the unknown. In this way, I believe that deeper connections are made with the local people, even without a common language. But one of the biggest myths of female solo travel is that is simply isn’t safe.

In many places of the world, a solo female is often seen as vulnerable and this way more people want to be there to shelter and protect you. In Mongolia I was often invited into yurts because the locals feared that my tent and my clothing wouldn’t be warm enough. In Pakistan I was taken into a family home as a stranger and within minutes I became a “daughter.” And in Tajikistan I was fed and given endless cups of tea to comfort on a cold night. For me, safety was never a large concern with my decision to travel alone. On the road, I have encountered a much more powerful demon – loneliness. Not the elevated kind that I experienced in Mongolia. Sometimes you meet people on the road that you develop strong connections with. These encounters are fleeting, leaving you satisfied or creating a longing that you hadn’t felt before. It is then that I start to feel real, unwanted loneliness.

I can remember one beautiful, crisp day riding the rough sandy road of the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan. I was tracing the outline of the Pyanj river and on the other side was Afghanistan and the towering, spectacular Hindu Kush. For me, this was adventure cycling at its best – it had everything that I wanted to experience. But my mind was as far away from the present as it could possibly be. I had met someone months ago, when I had least expected it. When I was reminded of the beauty and warmth of companionship, I suddenly struggled to be alone. It really started to hit me in Tajikistan – and I loved and hated him for it.

That night, in a low state of mind, I started to search for a homestay or a place to pitch my tent. I pushed my bike down a small dirt track and saw a woman standing outside a square block Tajik style home. I approached her, making the gesture for “tent”. With a warm smile, she beckoned me into her home and pointed to a room where I could stay. After unloading my stuff she took me into the main living room and sat me down on a mat in front of a table. She then took off her jacket, put it over my shoulders and propped up some pillows behind my back. Next came bread, butter and a pot of steaming hot green tea. Even though we couldn’t communicate through words, there was something deeper. This woman brought me more comfort than she will probably ever know.

While I didn’t speak Russian, she continued to talk to me as if I were fluent. For most of the night, she didn’t leave my side and I was warm and fed. Soon I met her husband and little boys. They put on some traditional Tajik music and started to casually dance. This was a family that had so little and was willing to give so much to a total stranger. Without a common language, it is difficult to make deep connections with someone, which leaves you longing for familiarity. But that night, in that little home in the Wakhan Valley, I was reminded of the beauty of travelling on my own. I temporarily felt like a part of that family as I gave as much of myself as I could to this new and strange world. At that moment, I no longer felt alone.

Loneliness is a being that lives inside all of us, suppressed by the noise around, waiting to be woken in the silence. When you give into this silence, immersed in your own thoughts, you really begin to discover your true self. For me, meditation is riding my bicycle along a deserted road through the mountains, through only space with not a soul in sight. I am happy, at peace. But then more serious thoughts begin to emerge – how long can I continue this life on my own? Will I ever meet another to share it with? These are questions that have no immediate answer. So I ride on, and let these thoughts temporarily escape from my mind, throwing themselves into wind that pushes my wheels forward.