Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"If it aint broken don't fix it"

Apples Apples Apples Apples. I do not care if I ever see another apple in my life. Who would have thought that apples would have occupied the majority of our time as backpackers? I think I need one of those “no fear” shirts – eat sleep pick apples.

The next chapter of Pacific wandering has been written for you from the rustic hills of Red wood valley. A place that is twenty years behind the progressive world; where people still burn garbage, recycling doesn’t exist, tractors are more common to see on the road then cars, working class men wear blundstones and short shorts, destruction derbies occur nightly and if you can pick 10 bins of apples in a day you’re a national celebrity. This passage highlights life as prized apple pickers and includes summaries of our latest tramps.

Apple picking is a battle against time, the tree and will. The concept of apple picking is similar to tree planting. Anyone can pick or plant at leisure but when taken seriously a simple job can become as technical as a match of tennis. You have to pace yourself, plan movements efficiently and maintain a rhythm while picking only the highest quality fruit. Every hour QC personal inspect your bins and if 5% of your fruit is either bruised or does not conform to the grade parameters of size and color….no money for you. When in prime picking conditions it’s possible to pick 8 to 9 bins in 9 hours. A bin consists of a 4’x4’x3’ wooden crate that holds roughly 3250 apples so on a good day our hands pick roughly 29,250 apples. This is the highest paying orchard in the region therefore money is good but not nearly as good as Paul McCartney’s former wife Linda who earned 700 pounds per hour of marriage.

You may be wondering how the apples get from the tree into the bin? This is done by means of a bag that hangs from our shoulders in the front of our body. When the bag is filled with apples (roughly 250) it weighs up to 50lbs. Many times throughout the day we catch ourselves stretching for a single apple while standing 10ft high on a ladder with a full bag wondering……is this apple really worth it? Neither of us has fallen but there have been many other casualties among the picking community.

The picking community consists of illegal immigrants (classifying both plane and boat jumpers), refugees, locals and backpackers. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph there are celebrity pickers among the community. Fortunately Nick has been blessed with the presence of two of them this season due to his high pay rates and flat orchard. I am surprised that these dark horses are not endorsed with sponsored picking bags and clothing because they certainly work harder than any other person I’ve seen.

Marquee picker number 1 named Lao. He is in his early 40’s and has been picking apples since his plane jump the late 80’s. He still has not managed to learn English but he has changed the world of apple picking. Apples are generally picked with both hands but Lao only picks with one….which is something Chuck Norris would do. His famous one handed picking method - which has now been adopted by many - allows him to hover from tree to tree, picking apples at mind-blowing speeds with low bruising rates.

Marquee picker number 2 named Ken. Ken (Age unknown) earned his celebrity status for his due diligence. He is always the first on the orchard and the last to leave. He does not leave until he has the high bin output of the day which is usually 10. Ken has also adopted the one arm picking method and this method coupled with due diligence makes him the most famous picker in the region.

Simon and I each picked tens bins on the first day of our last week – stimulating a buzz within the community - but guess what……Ken picked 11.

Being a tree scientist I feel much guilt about my daily occupation. The tree stands there defenseless while I rape and pillage it, disrespecting its purpose of existence while I make money off the fruits that took a year of continuous work to produce. Hopefully my karma will not be affected.

Our living conditions have improved immensely from the previous working stint. Rather than being shacked up in the no door, bug infested, chemical ridden old tomato packing barn, Nick gave us the keys to the apartment next door - in appreciation of our return. The move has made leisure life much more comfortable and enjoyable. We now have different rooms for sleeping, eating and TV watching but we still have to walk outside to the kitchen and washroom. It will be a special day when I can cook a meal, watch TV, use the washroom and not have to walk outside. Shane is no longer our flat mate. He has solved problems with his Misses and has moved back to her van, opening up one of the rooms to a few orchard bunnies to keep us on our toes. Like all other backpackers in NZ they were germens. Simon has such fluent English that when we introduced ourselves to the girls we said were all from Canada. Now whenever “googanheiming” paralleled an English conversation, Simon could report to us as to what they were gossiping about. Pretty sly eh? The plan backfired a few days after initiation when they were having a conversation with Nick where he implied that things must be going well because Simon is a Germen. Their resentment soon dissipated due to the pheromone emissions of us hard working boys.

Within three weeks (working 6 days a week) the red apples had all been picked and there was a 6 day break to allow the green varieties to mature. It was during this break that we decided to tackle the infamous Able Tasman track around the north eastern peninsula of the south Island. The Able Tasman is the most popular tramp in NZ. Normally we try to avoid the more poplar tramps because they are less challenging, more developed and of course full of people. Our bodies were exhausted from the backbreaking labor so an easier tramp was more realistic and also the Able Tasman is said to have one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. The track is classified as an easy 5 day 51km trek but we minimized it to a 3 day tramp. Our experience is beginning to show as it only took a few hours (during the morning of the tramp) to prepare our packs. Since our route was altered to three days and tides had to be taken into consideration it made for a more fluent hike to begin the tramp at the ending point and work our way back to the beginning. It was a wonderful boat ride in the water taxi to our starting point. It was more of a tour than a shuttle. The driver explained the history of the national park and took us to black seal and indigenous bird breeding grounds. Upon first impression the idea of a water taxi was great but as the guide progressed, fellow passengers were being dropped off and picked up from at all the popular points of the track to picnic, kayak, or catch rays. Now we knew for sure the track was going to be congested.

Overall the trek was quite anticlimactic. Each day we tramped along a wide, hard packed path, passing beautiful sandy beeches along the way. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous but it didn’t fluctuate much from the first five minutes of the tramp. Each morning an evening – when we had the beech to ourselves - we would swim in the luke warm turquoise waters of the pacific. It sure was a remarkable way to start and end a day of tramping. The most challenging part of the trek was our second day where we covered 26km – our furthest distance in one day. It’s not something to be too proud of considering tiny Asian woman were walking the same track equipped with thong sandals carrying there supplies in save-easy bags. I really didn’t want to mention this…….but there were even flush toilets.

In between hikes, during the Easter holiday picking break Stephen and I stumbled across a destruction derby track during an attempt to find a short cut into town. The sign read ‘race tonight at 7pm’. It was ten past and without hesitation we entered the gates. Just with our luck it was the south island championships and the place was packed. The air smelt of deep fryers and high octane full. Stephen and I realized after the first couple races that we were not there to watch the cars spin around the track, smashing into one another; we were there to people watch. This was much more entertaining. Toddlers were dressed in beer shirts carrying soft sided coolers packed with their parents piss. Teenage daughters were strutting around showing maximum cleavage and ass cheekage, bearing printed words on their shirts reading “place hands here”. Truthfully I thought places like this only existed in the outskirts of Victoria County. It was well worth the $20 dollars.

The next day we were pondering as to what we could do over the remainder of the Easter holiday. Spontaneously we decided that it would be suiting to climb the highest peak in the region. After an afternoon of research at a local information centre, we had our sites set on climbing Mt Arthur (1800m) in the morning. Coincidentally this was a mountain that I gazed at many times while on pursuit to the Sunday market with Steve. The Mt Arthur track was a two day 35km trek including two climbs above 1500m - more of our cup of tea.

Up with the sun, we packed our packs and hit the road. Not a soul was on the trial. The beginning moments of the trek lead us along a hard packed track of leaves and various decomposing matter with beech trees on either side glistening in the wind. The sights and smells brought me back to forests of New Brunswick. After all it was Easter Sunday and the familiar setting catalyzed a Stewart Mclean narration in my head.

It was a Sunday morning……..the air was cool and smelt of fall. It was Easter and the revelations brought me back to a familiar place in an unfamiliar setting. This moment reminded me of being a boy, walking though Northern New Brunswick forests bearing my grandfathers gun, hutting partridge with my father. It didn’t matter if we got a bird because mother would have a dinner of turkey, roasted vegetables and her famous blueberry crumble prepared for us when we got home. Oh I can taste the crumble now…………
After hours of steady ascends we rose above the bush line where the vegetation was like nothing I have seen. I had read in the information centre that during the ice ages much of the North West South Island escaped the severe climate which destroyed plant life elsewhere. And in many places especially on warmer north-facing slopes, plants took refuge from snow and ice and survived. Therefore there are many plants and grasses found in this area that are not found in any other places in New Zealand or around the world.

We spent the evening in a hut above the bush line. I love being in high altitudes because the temperature is cool, water boils quicker and sunrises and sunsets are always more nostalgic. For the first time we brought the Settlers of Catan board game with us and I was crowned with the first high altitude victory. Around dusk a few younger guys rolled in with strong Canadian accents and believe it or not they were from NB. Both of them attended UNB and had mutual friends with Stephen. My god it is a small world.

The tramp the following day was remarkable. As always the sun was shining and the terrain was like a camels’ back. Six hours from hut departure we reached the peak of Mt Arthur. The orchards of Red wood appeared like the contrasted squares of a checker board. It was as though I climbed a mountain 10 times the size of Chamcook because we could view the stomping grounds of our NZ home.

Currently we are finishing the last few days of picking before we continue traveling the south island. It has taken many apples to get to the most anticipated point in our travels thus far. I must say I have seen so many consecutive sun rises and sunsets than at this point in my life. Last night we conducted a formal meeting and decided on our final itinerary. We have four demanding multi-day tramps in all the hot spots of the south island, leaving us two days to sell our car and get organized before our flight to Saint John on May 2nd.


Yesterday evening we finished the first hike of our voyage south in Mt. Aspiring national park. It was a very demanding 3 day tramp that had some of the best alpine views we have seen. When at high elevations (around 1800m) glaciers were around every corner and avalanches on neighboring peaks would send bone chilling vibrations every ten minutes. A detailed log of the hike should be posted soon. Tomorrow we are going to begin a two day tramp up a sister peak of Mt Cook (the highest peak in the south). Today is a day of rest and communication in the small town of Wanaka. Stephen and I are cooking a big stew and discussing potential outcomes of the NHL playoffs.

Thank you for reading