Taking a Bite Down Under
South Island, New Zealand
Wasps. Waving arms. Falling apples. Swearing. There are highs and many lows to apple picking Down Under.
We had been touring NZ’s ‘must sees’ and hostels for two months now. Life on the open road was fun at first but having no place to call home was taking its toll. With our savings taking a steady nosedive – a stint at apple picking was our best way to go.
Hostel notice boards pushed the South Island’s most northerly tip as a fruitbowl of sorts. Dollar signs rolled in our eyes when we drove past Moteuka’s wall-to-wall orchards. Locals liked to stare and some could give Grizzly Adams a run for his money. But its countryside was a fruit pickers paradise. We knew we were up against a hard slog at first but the thought of getting our hands on some hard-earned cash fast spurred us on.
The Federation of Fruitgrowers of NZ gave us a list of local orchards. Luck was on our side. The first number we dialled needed two extra bodies. I had a niggling feeling that my lack of leg and slight build might raise a few eyebrows when it came to my picking ability. And of course, it did. Steve hinted at my ‘downfall’ politely. I thought it was a little cheeky coming from a man who barely skimmed one inch past my own head but I grinned and fed him my ‘Me! I’m able for anything,’ sales speech. Most pickers worked in pairs and being with Brian, my boyfriend, helped my chances. Steve put us on trial and told us a good picker could fill up to 6 bins per day at NZ$33 a pop. Over NZ$200 each, per day while working in the Great Outdoors and away from the glare of a PC – it was all too easy.
It was Mike, a red-blooded Kiwi, who launched new recruits into the world of apple picking. He was the orchard’s supervisor and said the knack behind picking the perfect apple boiled down to a precise twist of the wrist. A piece of cake or so I thoughtï¿½my first attempts were disastrous. Every apple came away from the tree without its stem.
The lesson didn’t stop there – Mike went on to explain the workings of his tractor’s gearbox and its quirky personality. And with that, he jumped from his seat and told us it was ours until the end of the harvest. He pointed to two apple rows he wanted stripped bare and set off down another row shouting where the long drop loo was.
Like the blind leading the blind, we plundered our way at 20 mph to our first row. The picking was pretty fast for the first three hours. By the fourth it went a little slower. And by five in the afternoon the picking was almost in slow motion.
In every row pickers battled with ladders while others squatted on their honkers picking hard-to-find juicy blinders. Some stayed picking until dusk but we opted to stop after our eight-hour stint. Our chalet on the orchard grounds was a little rough and ready but having a cheap place to call home for the next few weeks was heaven.
Jim, aka Russell Crowe sound-alike, was the orchard’s champion picker. At 6ft. 4″ he didn’t need a ladder and at the best of times he could grab five apples without dropping one. Fully equipped as if going into battle, Jim wore a back brace, kneepads, and gloves. He even came with his own bucket. Jim boasted about putting 12 bins behind him in any one day during his prime. For the rest of us, six bins between two pickers was hard enough to manage, but we persevered.
Every morning, we started out with great enthusiasm but within hours the monotony would kick in. The ground was a wet floor of squashed apples. And wasps made a habit of flying straight at me when I would reach for that one lone apple at the treetop.
How our limbs ached! We became picking machines. On five-minute breaks I began to eye up my next pluck happy victim and by night apples starred in my dreams. Our daily high was starting up the diesel tractor and dropping off our pickings at the packing shed.
When the apple season came to an abrupt end, we were amongst the fastest pickers on the orchard. We became used to the damp scent of apples first thing in the morning and the rumbling sounds of apples being poured into the wooden bins. Mike asked us if we wanted to stay and earn our crust kiwi picking. “No thanks!” was our unanimous response. Although we found the work exhausting, we enjoyed our stint in the Great Outdoors. With our pockets not much fuller, we set off for Christchurch, only too happy to hang up our apple stained jeans.