New Zealand South Island; Fruit Tramping, Gold Mining and more (1 Viewer)

Wawa

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There is a thread back here somewhere about me being on the North Island in 2015. It was pretty lukewarm. I biked past a lot of farms and orchards and neverending fencelines, then got a job picking kiwifruit with a buncha people I never warmed up to much, stayed three months pining away for wild open places, blue sky and trains, then left the country.

I had an amazing summer back in the states, and almost didn't even come back for the rest of my working holiday visa months, but when winter hit and work dried up in Norcal, I changed my mind pretty quick, and decided to go back to New Zealand and look for work picking cherries.

I found a pretty remarkably cheap flight ($600 LAX to Christchurch), hauled ass hitching from Hayfork to LA in five days with a folding bike in tow, and sat on airplanes and in airports for 40 hours. Thats five in flight meals. When I got to Christchurch it was dark and pouring and I had no idea what time it was supposed to be. Everytime I tried to lay down, security would pop up and tell me to sit on a chair. Shitty. Eventually the sun came up, the rain stopped, and I got the fuck out of Christchurch.

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Mural in Christchurch

Hitchhiking in New Zealand is really easy; unless you have a bike. Work was in Alexandra, too far to ride in a hurry. I got a short lift to Temuka from a guy in a refridgerated truck, but no luck after that. A fellow in a pickup actually stopped, looked me over disapprovingly, growled "won't fit" and sped off. Like hell - out of Bakersfield, CA a woman stopped for me in a mini cooper and it only took five minutes to load up. YOU HAVE A TRUCK.

Well, buses are pretty cheap here, so finally I just bought a ticket to Alexandra. There, I went to the office of a company called Seasonal Solutions, which is supposed to hook backpackers up with work. It's crap, but I didn't know that yet.

That night I found a spot to sleep by the impressive blue-green wide Clutha River. Stealth camping in agricultural New Zealand is all about struggling to accept the challenge of it instead of just being frustrated at their heavy handed laws. They have a concept called "Freedom Camping" but often this only applies to "real campers" in self contained motorhomes. There is little acknowledgement, and no effort to accomodate non-motorized travelers. Those nice DoC campgrounds folks talk about are often far from main routes and intended for recreation, not an easy overnight stopover.


It's not all bad, though. The laws are harsh but enforcement seems low. Not many cops around, and people tend to be nosey, but not hostile. Here is a good tip for getting a sleep in the populated parts of the south island: look for the rivers. There is almost always public access, unsigned and sometimes hidden. Floods are major here, so the riverbeds are wide and you can walk down the gravel until you see a good place to climb back up onto a bank out of sight. I've been warned not to try this in fiordland, since the floods there can come anytime with no warning and reshape the whole riverbed.

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Stealth Camping along trails and riverbanks. Both of these look pretty low key, but there always managed to be someone around until dark, then more people around in the morning.

Back to the story.... the people at Seasonal Solutions said I had at least a week until cherry picking would start, so I decided to ride down the rail trail and kill some time. Central Otago is like Northern Arizona in New Zealand. Its high and dry and golden, with streams and springs and huge mountain ranges. Its the kind of place I love, and sheep and fences or not I wanted to try and enjoy it.

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Sleeping in a trail shelter on the Central Otago Rail Trail.

....Continued in next post
 
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Wawa

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The rail trail led me to Ranfurly, and one of the great chance encounters of life. I meant to go to the bakery, but walked past it and started a conversation with this fellow named Mark. I honestly don't remember what about, but he invited me in for tea and he gave me some advice on access points to get more into the backcountry.

He told me about growing up in Alexandra and out in the bush, hunting, trapping for a living, gold mining, working in dozens of fields from geothermal plants to security. He told a chilling story of the evidence he found of secret research facilities screened by an energy plant. He's been a prize fighter, a police arms supplier, and is best known as the local mechanic and woodcutter. A fucking hell of a character. I ended up spending two weeks at his place; he invited me to come along gold dredging with him and his buddy Don.

Gold dredging is something I knew fuck all about. The dredge shared by Mark and Don fits in a truck bed, barely, and we made a wild dash through fields and gates and fences to get it into the water without anyone getting too close a look. Permits? What? We wrestled the thing downstream through rocks and rapids, to the spot it would stay tied in for the next week.

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The dredge!

Mark found me a wetsuit. It was 2mm and shortsleeved, and the water was awful cold, but I didn't really want to pay for a new one either. I spent most of my time on the surface anyway, running ropes around, fetching gear. It takes about 100 pounds of lead weights to anchor a person down in the current and make working in it possible, so getting in and out of the water is a big proruction. A few times a day I'd go in and move rocks for a spell while Mark moved the dredge or took a rest.... for someone with no diving experience whatsoever, it was intense.

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Looks like a nice time in a gentle river. IT WASN'T.

Everything seems bigger and further apart underwater; like I'd be bellycrawling underwater so far, trying not to tangle all my ropes and lines and gear, just to get to the trench where Don had the suction hose. Then, I'd trying to keep oriented, clear debris out of his way, and watch for rockslides. As we dug deeper, the trench became lined with embedded boulders the size of sofas and tables that had to be watched very carefully. Sometimes the water would cloud up, and I could not hear the difference between rocks falling, and rocks being sucked up the tube. It was great and I woke up excited every morning.

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No biggie.

By the end of six days, we'd turned our riverbend into a large pond. We'd dug a good 20ft underwater, underneath cold, strong rapids. We ate like starving dogs everynight and drank a lot of whiskey. And yeah, there was quite a bit of gold down there. On the seventh day we hauled the tools and dredge painfully back up the river, and Don left.

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Melting some gold dust.

I stayed another week, delivering wood and going on jobs with Mark. He showed me how to wreck, fix, or hijack a tractor. I started to feel like I should probably get back on looking for cherry picking - I'd heard bad things about seasonal solutions in the meantime, and worried I'd not be able to find work. So I said a sad goodbye to Mark and left, headed towards Cromwell, cherry epicenter.
 

Wawa

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Arriving at Cromwell felt like Hayfork in November. Small town, absolutely bursting with young travelers. Dozens sat in front of the grocery store using the rare free wifi. Parking lot clustered with battered campervans. Lots of dreadlocks and people speaking french.

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En route to Cromwell

By this point, I had secured a job at an orchard called Fortune Fruit over the phone. They'd been picking for weeks, but like all orchards have a high turn over and are always needing fresh pickers.

All I had been able to learn about the place was that they have a campground on site and I was expected to start the next morning at 6am. With a stop in town for supplies, I made it up the long hill and into the orchard by 9pm.

Right away I liked the orchard: at the end of a long dirt road, high on a plateau over the huge Dunstan lake, surrounded by snow flecked mountains. The tent camp had probably a population of around 80 pickers and packers, set into a grove of pine trees. For $8 a day we had showers, a kitchen, and daily shuttles to town.

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Arriving at Fortune Fruit

The next morning I got my ladder, harness, and a brief set of instructions, which amounted to "pick at least enough to match minimum wage, don't fuck up the trees, and try not to fall off your ladder". All pretty easy - compared to kiwi picking, cherries are not hard work. It was actually pretty enjoyable.

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Let me explain a bit about my last job, picking kiwifruit, so I can better explain why this was so much better. First of all, we worked for a contractor instead of the orchard. Everyone found their own accomodation and transportation. We worked at different orchards every day - sometimes several in a day. Lots of downtime, driving, sitting in vans in the rain. We worked in teams and were paid as a team, so your "teammates" had a vested interest in looking over your shoulder. Someone was always complaining, or trying to humiliate slower pickers off the team. We had strict rules, set break times, mean looks if you had to go piss too often... the full kiwi bags weighted 60 lbs, the trellises were tall, and you spend all day with your hands in the air repeating the same motion.

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Picking kiwifruit in 2015... with a helpful diagram by a fellow picker

Now, picking cherries, each picker has their buckets tallied up individually. There is no motivation for pickers to be up in eachothers business. Generally the whole team was friendly, accepting, hella chill people. We'd work from 6am to 3pm, and if it rained or got so hot the cherries got mushy, we'd just walk back to the camp. If you wanted ice cream for lunch you could walk to the freezer and get it. If you don't want to stop for lunch you don't have to. If you want to set up a speaker at your tree and blast french punk rock, cool. Work barefoot, bareback, buzzed, dancing on your ladder smoking cigarettes? No problem, as long as you are filling buckets.

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Fruit Tramp Camp

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The kitchen in full swing

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Wild spinach, giant puffball and apricots from around the orchard.

All in all, It was great. Having to move and position the ladder broke up the repetition of picking, as well, and the buckets were not so heavy, so I never really got that sore or tired. We were paid $3 per bucket for strip picking; the fastest pickers could do around 100. I'd do 50 on a good day.

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Helicopter being used to dry the cherries after a rain.

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Kitchen wall

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Picker hands

At the last bucket call, we'd finish up, drift back to the camp and line up for showers. In Janurary, the sun dosn't go down until nearly 10pm, so the pickers would still have a long day to do whatever sounds good. Cook food before the packhouse crew comes to trash the kitchen, go fishing, swim in the orchard pond, go to town, get stoned, play with the dogs, stuff your face with cherries. It was work, but also pretty idyllic.

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Edge of the property, looking down to Lowburn and Lake Dunstan

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The orchard pond and cabins.
 
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This is awesome! Thanks so much for sharing! I really enjoyed the pics, cheers. I was considering going to new Zealand this season and doing some bike touring and seasonal work. but my plans changed and now I'm stuck in Vietnam now as I somehow got myself a super hot Vietnamese girlfriend, so I think I'll stay here a while! Hehe.

But for real I think next year I'm gunna have to head out to NZ. Such a beautiful country.

I have a few questions, how are the bugs? I heard there's no mosquitoes in NZ? True or false? I did hear the have biting flys though? I'm sure you know all about the bugs since you did a lot of stealth camping. Gimme the scoop

You said you could make $3x50=$150nz a day, how many days long is cherry picking season typically?

And did they let you keep any of that gold? Or pay you/feed you for dredging? Just curious :)

Once again thanks so much for sharing. This is really cool
 

warlo

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I hovered trough your article and seems quite awesome, but shit, have to go now. Will read it later. Anyways, just wanted to comment on the "drying cherries with a helicopter" what??? :p helicopters are the most expensive machinery to keep on per minute, so those cherries must be really expensive and tasty :p
 

Dmac

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Great story, lovely pictures! Hedgehogs are so cool, I used to have one as a pet :D. I hope we get to see more from your trip.
 

Wawa

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The bugs: Sorry, they're pretty bad.

There are mosquitos, but so far I've not hit awful mosquitos. I've been told they can be pretty thick.

The universal, persistant biting insect is the sandfly. It is the size of a gnat, and swarms like one. Sometimes they comes in ones and twos, sometimes in the hundreds. They bite hard enough to sometimes leave a visible red mark or spot of blood... then you get an itchy bump like a mosquito bite. For me, the bites often only lasted a day, but it depends on your sensitivity.

Fiordland and West coast are legendary for awful swarms of sandflies, but they are pretty much everywhere. They like wet conditions better than dry, and despite their name, they seem to prefer grass to sand. They're worst in the morning and evening... even in the dry Central Otago climate, I'd wake up thinking it was raining, but it was just the sound of hundreds of sandlies bombing my tent. Wind drives them off.... and unlike mosquitos they cant bite through clothing, so long pants sleeves and a headnet will utterly defeat them.
 

Wawa

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The orchard I was at picked for about five weeks. Some orchards are less, some more. Some do color picking. Most people picked more then 50 a day.

About the helicopters... yeah thats what I said. Big money in cherries.
 

Odin

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Thanks for sharing!
I dig those hedgehogs and the scenery.
Though, I am left wondering what is next to the car seat in the picture overlooking the edge of the property?
 

Matt Derrick

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man, this is a really great story, thank you so much for sharing it! we don't get a lot of reports back from New Zealand, so I think this will definitely help a lot of people.

If it's cool with you, I'd like to turn your story into an article and move it to that section of the site (the discussion thread will still be here though). the only thing it's missing is an ending!

maybe if you could write 2-3 paragraphs about what happened after this and when/why you left?
 

Wawa

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Aye, this is still a bit in progress. I am planning to add more as I go. Right now I'm getting ready for a hunting/fishing/mining/boat trip on the west coast, so that'll be the next chapter. I see what ya mean about it kinda cutting off though. Thinking about it
 

Matt Derrick

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Aye, this is still a bit in progress. I am planning to add more as I go. Right now I'm getting ready for a hunting/fishing/mining/boat trip on the west coast, so that'll be the next chapter. I see what ya mean about it kinda cutting off though. Thinking about it

oh, well if you're continuing this as an ongoing thing, please keep going, we can make it an article at some later point if you want.
 
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SHE, isn't a man, dude. Awesome flicks and read, took up a part of my evening in sporadic shifts. A lady on her own; much props honestly and glad to see you were enjoying it without modern media or acceptance all at once.
 

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