My Year Without Ricciarelli – Geraldton Update

It’s been a couple of months since I provided an update on our time in Geraldton, so here it is.

Life has been progressing steadily here, a few of the ususal bumps and potholes to negotiate, but we are still loving our time here. Geraldton has been steadily growing on us the longer we stay. After a pretty horrific start weather wise, we can find absolutely no reason to complain about it’s beautiful Autumn and Winter weather so far. For the vast majority of days we have clear sunny skies, light winds and temperatures that always end up in the mid 20’s. In fact, it’s going to be 26C today! I’m still swimming most mornings down at Champion Bay. The water temperature has cooled a little, but it’s still a pleasant 22 deg C. The only exception has been a couple of cold fronts that have swept in from the SW bringing some much needed rain showers. Even so, this year we have only had 160mm rain, none at all in Jan and Feb. Locals tell us this is below average and to expect much more in July and August, but for now we will lap it up. I can see now why everyone deserts the SW in winter and heads north!

One of the storms that blew in from the south west

Today it’s another cloudless day as I sit here looking out at the ocean, glinting at me from between the houses over the road. Deb is on Afternoon Shift today so its just me and the pups enjoying the sunshine. Deb has adjusted really well to the new career and the shiftwork. It took a little while, as expected, but she enjoys helping people and often gets to “special” patients with high needs that get more intense “one on one” care. It’s been pretty chaotic at times, as she arrived here at the same time as the WA Covid peak hit. The impact was significant, though not really obvious to those outside the hospital system. The extra workload was huge and of course, staff shortages were significant as many caught Covid themselves being in such close contact with infected patients. But the hospital system managed to cope with the load by the sheer dedication of the committed staff. The feedback on the community social media pages was overwhelmingly positive which was great to see. Deb generally works 4 days straight and these are usually over the weekends, so this allows us a good three day break every week to enjoy the weather and explore.

Mid-winter’s day in Geraldton

Our daughter Nicole, who has been looking after our house in Margaret River, called in a couple of weeks ago, on her way to spending winter in Exmouth. It was great to catch up on all her news and share the excitment of her first winter camping trip north in WA. She has swapped her Mazda for a typical backpackers camping set up of a Nissan X trail, something a bit more suitable for Exmouth’s beach tracks. We were able make a day trip with her to Kalbarri where we enjoyed the new Skywalk and she and Deb walked the Loop Trail down from Nature’s Window into the Murchison River Gorge. Kalbarri is such a stunning National Park with both River Gorge and Coastal scenery, we are lucky its just a short drive north of here. Nic is now exploring Exmouth with a group of friends, and discovering the amazing beauty of Cape Range, Osprey Campground, Charles Knife Canyon, Ningaloo sunsets and sunrises, Yardie Creek, turtles, whales, whalesharks etc etc. We may never see her again!!!

Hanging around with Nic in Kalbarri

Unfortunately, you can’t spend too long in Geraldton without getting exposed to some of the annoying petty crime that the town is, perhaps unfairly, well known for. From our observations, most bigger regional towns in WA have similar issues, particularly petty theft and vandalism. Here in Geraldton, theft of bicycles and motorbikes seems to be very prevelant and rock throwing is an issue in parts of town. While Nic was here, I let her park in the carport and I parked the Camry on the street. We woke up Sunday morning to a smashed passenger window in the Camry, the only theft being a garish red wine bottle cooler Deb kept in the car! We were a bit surprised because we live in an area that doesn’t seem particularly vulnerable to these crimes. Annoying, and I’m definitely sure I could have spent the $435 on something more useful than a new window. Lesson learnt, always try to park inside the property if possible.

We’ve been lucky enough to have a few more visitors from Margaret River, passing through as they head north for long or short breaks. Nicky and Bryce, of Margaret River Gourmet Crackers fame (I have blogged about them before when I have run their market store for them) passed through with Sophie and Jade, heading to Kalbarri and Exmouth for a short break. We met for coffee on the foreshore and they presented us with a beautiful Farmers Market “Care Package” containing crackers, chocolates, honey and wine. They were followed closely by Dinell and Gil who are heading off for their first long winter northern getaway in their “new to them” caravan. They also bought us a care package of chocolates and Redgate wines, very much appreciated! They have ended up camped in Kalbarri for a few weeks while they work in a local eatery/brewpub. It seems there is still a big shortage of backpackers to work the winter nomad season this year so plenty of opportunities if you are keen for work.

Catching up with Nicci and Bryce

Personally, I’ve had a couple of health issues that have slowed me down a little, and landed me in hospital for a few days. I wasn’t lucky enough to have Deb nurse me, but was very well looked after by the other staff! Predominantly warning signs reminding me to not become complacent and to continue to look after my health as I age. A bit of weight loss wouldn’t hurt either! As a result, I’ve stepped back from my work with Margaret River Dairy and Mundella Yoghurt. To be honest, it was harder to provide them with the level of service I insist on, from Geraldton, and as we plan to repeat our winter getaways it was going to be an ongoing issue for me. Coincidentally, they were also cutting back on their project work as they consolidate their businesses, so the timing worked out OK for both of us. I hope to be able to continue providing support for my other main client in Melbourne, Process Partners, as their work is all on line and usually preliminary studies and procurement only. I also did some work for the AEC during the Federal election, but my observations on that will be the subject of another blog post in the near future.

So, life keeps rolling along here in Gero. We spend plenty of time beach walking with the pups, enjoying the forshore parks and lazy orange sunsets. We enjoyed the Geraldton Shoreleave Festival, a celebration of Geraldtons rock lobster and fishing industry with some great land based produce thrown in. We even caught up with our friend Kenny from Margs who was working as an event organiser/coordinator during the festival. The pups are also enjoying their time here, Sid particularly likes the warmth, but he has been complaining about the chilly nights recently. I think he’s the only one missing the fire this winter!

Late afternoon beach walks with the pups
Winter Sunset over Champion Bay

My Year Without Ricciarelli – Morning Swims

I’m floating on my back in the Indian Ocean. It’s calm. Dead calm, with just a ripple on the water from the light easterly drifting across from the beach. The sky above me is that gorgeous deep blue Australian sky, with a few wisps of streaky white clouds. The water is warm and wraps me a briney blanket. I can see a few birds flying low over the bay, searching for the tiny silver fish that skip quickly over the top of the water. A sliver of new moon rests directly above me. All I can hear is the gentle silence of the morning. I love my morning swims here in Geraldton.

Since moving into our little rental in town I have been going down to the beach every morning, joined by Deb when she is not on an early shift. I get there around 7am and join the other daily swimmers, many of whom are already in the water and swimming across the bay. Geraldton is blessed with a perfectly sheltered, calm and clean bay where swimmers of all capabilites can enjoy a morning dip. The town is located on a natural peninsular that projects due west in the ocean. As a result, and asissted by the extensive foreshore redevelopment, there are a number of very protected beaches where swimmers can take a dip in calm, flat water with a beautiful clean sandy bottom. There are swimmers of all ages, but mostly older folk who are enjoying the early start to the day. Some swim laps across the bay and tally up a few kilometers each morning, others, like me, swim a hundred meters out to a pontoon for a rest, then swim back. A few just enjoy a brisk session walking through the waist deep water close to the shore. There is a lovley older couple who gently swim most mornings and chat to all of us. He will be 94 next week!

Champion Bay looking to the SW. You can see how well protected it is from the prevailing SW winds and swells. We swim from the beach right at the bottom of the photo. Photo courtesy of City of Greater Geraldton

After swimming, I often grab a coffee from the Jaffle Shack Pop Up Cafe on the grass next to the beach and relax while watching the sun rise over the Port. Despite it’s urban/industrial outlook, it’s so beautiful at that time of the morning. Lots of walkers and bike riders enjoying the foreshore, and workers calling in to grab a pre-work coffee. And I can catch up on all the days’planned shipping movements in the Port, but that’s a post for another day.

Early morning shadows
There is even a wheelchair walkway
The beautiful calm waters of Champion Bay

My Year without Ricciarelli – We found a Rental!

It took us 5 weeks, but we finally found a rental in Geraldton! We expected it to take a while, and it was such a frustrating process. We’d seen how desparate the situation was in Margaret River as dozens of locals were turfed out of their long term rental homes as owners sold and new owners didn’t renew leases. There is obviously a huge shortage of rental properties all around the country at the moment. We had hoped Geraldton would not be as bad, but unfortunately it was.

It seems that when you don’t have a recent rental history, you own your own home, you work for yourself and own pets, then you are at a distinct disadvantage. Real Estate Agents are overwhelmed with responses to their adverts so they are quick to remove applications from the “Maybe” pile to the “No” pile! The entire process is very disjointed and quite disheartening. You would think that with all the apps around today, applying for a rental would be easy? Not so. Each Agent seems to use a different app or system to accept applications, so you need to have them all set up and running, complete with 100 point identity checks, references etc Some agents still use paper forms! It starts when have to register for an Open For Inspection. Then you queue up with 30 other families for the Inspection. The house is open for a maximum of 15 minutes so you have to quickly run through and make an assessment. Agents won’t accept applications unless you have inspected the property, and some properties are advertised weeks before they set up an inspection date. You have to get your application in ASAP to be considered. Then you are only allowed to apply for one property, with any single agent, at a time. We mistakenly applied for two properties at the one agent and were told very clearly we had to make a choice of which one we wanted to pursue. If you miss out on being offered the property, it can take a week or two before you are told.

We had no recent rental history so had to use our old travelling House Sit references as evidence of our ability to care for a house. The fact you own your own home doesn’t seem to help your cause at all. We reached the final stage a few times, being advised that our application was being sent to the house owners, only to be advised we had missed out. We assumed it was because of the pups, even though every place we applied for stated “pets considered”. And you have to send photos and descriptions of your pets as part of the application! Of course, the agents will never tell you why you missed out! I honestly don’t know how people with limited finances or poor litteracy ever get a rental property in todays market.

We looked at a lot of houses from the roadside and knocked back plenty of properties because the location was ordinary or the house just looked unsuitable. Geraldton has a few suburbs that are definitely not where you would want to live so we had to quickly learn where to avoid and where was suitable. We looked at new 4 bed project homes in the outlying suburbs, old weatherboard houses in the centre of town and 1960’s cottages, all of varying quality and condition! We wanted a place with space to store the van, but that was just a stretch too far, anywhere that took us and the pups would have to do. We were getting desparate and starting to consider staying long term in the van if we could find a suitable parking spot.

We eventually found a lovely little duplex right in town, at Beresford, just a short stroll from the beach. Its just high enough to get a view of the ocean and we can see the navigation lights for the port entrance blinking at night. It’s a 3 bedroom duplex, and there is just one other main room, a combined kitchen/dining/lounge room. A single bathroom and laundry completes the unit. Outside we have a single carport with space for the second car and a front patio. The front garden is lovely green grass and the backyard is completely dead grass and sand. We feel special that we have great examples of the only two types of yards seen in Geraldton, green grass if you can afford the water and bare sand if you cant! Actually, there is a third option and that is gravel if you don’t want to ever mow any grass! Our duplex neighbour is Don, a lovely retired farmer from Binnu who grows mangos, paw paws and grapes in his tiny backyard. We moved in a week ago and its a really perfect size for us as a short term home. Thankfully it also has an air conditioner as the summer heat just continues on. The pups are happy to have a backyard to play in again after being tied to the caravan for the last 5 weeks. And the location is proving to be perfect, easy walk to the beach, very close to all the shops and a 6 minute drive for Deb to get to work.

Note the green grass in the front yard!

Our beautiful backyard, complete with crooked, rusted, low clothesline. Also note the asbestos fence!

My Year Without Ricciarelli: Geraldton Caravan Parks

Our first task when we arrived in Geraldton, was to find a suitable Caravan Park to stay in while we searched for a suitable rental property. We needed a park with reasonable weekly rates, comfortable and close to town. We had previously stayed out at Oakabella, a farm stay north of town. However, this was not really a suitable park for a longer term stay and too far for Deb to drive home late at night on rural roads. We thought that a town that promotes itself as a tourist town would have a good selection of parks, but how wrong we were.

The offerings are actually quite woeful. I don’t know if it’s a function of the town not really being a popular destination, or if it’s just that most people see Geraldton only as a stopover on the trip north. Perth people holiday in the SW or the southern coast in summer, then head north in winter and probably don’t consider Geraldton warm enough in winter to warrant any more than an overnighter. It’s surprising because there is a lot of bricks and mortar holiday accomodation in town, and from all reports, these get booked out in school holidays.

The nicest park in town would be the Big 4 at Sunset Beach, but their off peak rate is $48 per night for a powered site and they refuse to offer a weekly rate. All the other parks were charging around half that price for weekly stays. Blair Gardens Caravan Park is a big complex aligned with a retirement village, located right in town, adjacent to the Port, however it gets a pretty bad reviews in WikiCamps. It has many, many permanents, small sites and according to WikiCamps, crime seems to be an issue. There is a park 7km south of Geraldton at Cape Burnley, but again its poorly reviewed in WikiCamps and my observation was that it was very cramped with lots of permanent shacks. North of town, at Drummond Cove, right on the North West Coastal Highway is a Kui park, but it is dusty and unkempt. The last resort (pun intended) was Geraldton Caravan Park, where we ended up staying.

It’s located 10km north of town and a little inland, and used to bear the grand name of Batavia Coast Caravan Park, which is itself confusing as it’s not really on the coast. In fact it’s about 4km inland but you can just about see the Indian Ocean from the road outside the park! As far as caravan parks go, it’s pretty ordinary. I know it’s the middle of summer, but there is not a single blade of green grass on the property. In fact, there isn’t even much brown grass in the main section of the park either. Most of the sites are gravel and many have those old concrete slabs that were in fashion in the 1970’s, except now they are cracked and falling into disrepair. Between the lack of grass, the 40 deg C days and the winds, its been a dry and dusty stay.

The park was apparantly quite run down a few years ago and new owners bought it with good intentions to upgrade it. But the amount of work and money required here is significant and I guess the owner now realisies it is beyond his means. So it survives without a lot of attention being paid to improving it in any way. It’s not all bad, the amenities are old, but big, have plenty of hot water and are kept quite clean. There is a pool, which is handy in the hot weather, but it would be nice if the long gone shade sail could be reinstated. The young couple managing it for the owner are lovely and always respond quickly if there are any problems, such as the showers drains backing up and flooding the amenities mid shower, a regular occurence. But, it is also well priced which is an advantage when you need a place to stay for the medium term.

There are a lot of permananents living here and a lot of medium term transients. Unfortunately, most of the permanent sites are ramshackle humpies, cobbled together from very old caravans and assorted scrap metal and timber fabrications. And very untidy. The medium termers are the usual mix of long term travellers who have stopped for work in Geraldton, and locals who can’t afford to stay anywhere else.

The only consoloation is thats it’s probably the best of a pretty bad lot here in Geraldton. It’s nice and quiet being away from town, and our neighbours are all friendly and quiet. That is, with the exception of “Foghorn”, our nearest neighbour who loves to sit up late every night “chatting” loudly and non stop to her hubby, who can’t get a word in edgeways, in a voice that would wake the dead. Thank goodness we have finally found a rental, but that’s a story for another post.

My Year Without Ricciarelli : Geraldton – The Town

Let’s get to know Geraldton, the town we will call home for the next 12 months.

Geraldton is located on the coast, 400 km north of Perth. It’s the biggest town north of Perth in WA, with a population of around 40,000, 10% of whom are indigenous. Geraldton is a major west coast port, exporting iron ore, grain, minerals and livestock. It is also the home of the largest crayfish fleet in Australia. The Geraldton Fishermens Cooperative is the largest processor and exporter of rock lobsters in the world! Geraldton has a Mediteranean climate, with warm to hot summers and mild winters, which makes it an attractive location for tourists and holidaymakers. We can attest to the hot summers – in our first 3 weeks here we’ve had 8 days over 40oC, not much fun in a caravan! Geraldton is also the gateway to some of the best of Western Australia’s famous wildflower displays, and has spectacular beaches that attract surfers, kite surfers and fishermen.

Geraldton Foreshore and Port. Photo courtesy of City of Greater Geraldton

The region is home to the Yamitji people, who have lived in the area of over 40,000 years. The coast had certainly been seen by the Dutch navigators on their way to the Dutch East Indies to collect spices for sale in Europe, but the first European known to have visited the land in the region was George Grey, who made two failed expeditions to explore the Kimberley region. On his second expedition, in 1839, he was shipwrecked at Kalbarri, an event that gained him recognition as the first European to see the Murchison River! He decided to walk back to Perth and on the way walked through the future Geraldton town site. In 1848, Augustus Gregory’s expedition discovered lead in the Murchison River north of Northampton, and a mine was established and named Geraldine, after the family home of Charles Fitzgerald, the 4th Governor of Western Australia. The town of Geraldton was surveyed on the nearby coast where a port could be suitably located to ship the lead, and gazetted in 1851.

The hinterland was settled by farmers and the town gradually grew, eventually becoming the major northern port for the state. In the 1890’s, it became the major port for the northern WA gold rushes in towns including Meekathara, Cue and Mount Magnet. In the early 1900’s it was established as a fishing port, attracting immigrants from Northern Europe. Since then, the town has continued to grow, servicing the significant wheatbelt to the east, expanding the rock lobster export business and adding iron ore exports from the nearby Karrara mine.

One of the beautiful, protected town beaches

Geraldton township is a lot like any other coastal port town in Australia. The port dominates the skyline and is right next to the central business area. The shops and businesses are spread out and jumbled, it can be hard work trying to navigate between destinations. Many of the shops occupy very old buildings, and there is very little high rise. Lots of shops are shuttered and long closed. You certainly wouldn’t describe Geraldton as a “modern” town by any means. The most attractive part of the town is the extensive foreshore development, a beautiful network of beaches, bike paths, lawns, picnic areas and playgrounds, much of which was built on land reclaimed form the old railway yards that used to dominate the centre of the town. And many of the old historic buildings have been well preserved and put to new uses in the township.

Even the town beaches have views of the Port!

There is a lot of history to discover in the region and I hope to bring you more details as our year progresses. The infamous Batavia shipwreck occurred just offshore on the Abrolhos Islands in 1629 and is well documented in Shipwrecks Gallery at the Western Australian Museum in Geraldton. There are many impressive old buildings in the town, the most spectacular being the The St Francis Xavier Cathedral, designed by the famous Western Australian architect-priest Monsignor John Hawes, built between 1915 and 1939. Geraldton was home to Randolph Stow, born in the town in 1935, and attended the town’s school. He is best known for his evocative and semi-autobiographical novel, The Merry-go-round in the Sea, a book I studied at school in Sydney many years ago. There are reminders of his contribution to Geraldton’s history around town. One of my favourite places in Geraldton is the HMAS Sydney Memorial, which I have mentioned before in an earlier blog. Heading South – Reefs, Beaches, Shipwrecks, Wildflowers and Cold Weather! I’m sure I’ll get back there and write some more about this magnificent memorial, as well as the many historic buildings around the town.

It’s true that Geraldton also has a distasteful underbelly. Much of the town is impoverished; working class suburbs that are now the home of the unemployed and the ill at ease. Crime is a problem, but I don’t believe it’s any worse that other big regional towns in the country: Bunbury, Kalgoorlie, Esperance, and Broome all have similar issues. Capital cities arent exactly safe places either. Drugs, alcohol and unemployment are present in all regional communities unfortunately. Geraldton gets a bad rap – when we told friends we were moving here some of them looked at us as if to say “why would you move there??” Everyone seemed to know someone from Geraldton who had moved away! But we try to look for the upsides wherever we go and there seems to be plenty of them in Geraldton.

Town Views

I’m looking forward to sharing this next 12 months with you as we explore Geraldton and experience another part of this great country. I’ll leave you with some lines from Randolph Stowe’s 1957 poem about Geraldton, “Seashells and Sandalwood”

“My childhood was seashells and sandalwood, windmills
And yachts in the southerly, ploughshares and keels
Fostered by hills and by waves on the breakwater…
Brief subtle things that a child does not realise,
Horses and porpoises, aloes and clematis – 
Do I idealize?

Sunset over Geraldton

My Year Without Ricciarelli – Geraldton

2022 will see us making a significant change to our lifestyle. We will be moving to Geraldton for 12 months. This will mean that I will no longer be able to attend my beloved Margaret River Farmers Market every Saturday, where I routinely purchase the worlds best Ricciarelli from Claudio Biscotti, a local Italian Pastrychef with extraordinary skills. Hence the title of this blog and all my posts from Geraldton this year. I”ll miss my weekly trip to the market, but life is about always challenging yourself and doing different things.

How did we end up making this move? It started back in the beginning of 2020, when Deb decided she needed a change from nearly 40 years of vet work. She wasn’t getting the same enjoyment from her work since moving to WA. There was not a lot of suitable work avaialble close to home, and the regional practises here are small, owner operated practices. And life in the consulting rooms has changed for all vets and similar professions – clients are all Google/Facebook experts these days and that has devalued the years of training and expertise professionals have gained. After considering a few options, Deb decided that she wanted to retrain as a Nurse. The TAFE in Bunbury offered a Diploma course and were doing all they could to attract new nurses to the profession with the arrival of Covid. As a result, she applied and was successful in getting into the course and started training mid 2020. 18 months later, she has completed her training, including lots of practical work in hospitals, and was ready to start her new career.

Why Geraldton? The government was offering opportunites for new nurses to enter a 12 month structured program for new graduates and Deb thought this was an ideal way to get full time employment while practising her new skills in the workplace. Geraldton is also a big regional town that services a large indigenous population, an area of public health Deb was keen to learn more about. Geraldton is also a town with beautiful beaches and a lovely warm climate, so it presented a great opportunity for us to do something new and different. She was successful with her application and in late January we headed off to Geraldton in the van, ready for a change and some new adventures.

So here we are, parked up in a caravan park on the outskirts of Geraldton. Our first week was challenging, 4 days over 40

So here we are, parked up in a caravan park on the outskirts of Geraldton. Our first week was challenging, 4 days over 40

So here we are, parked up in a caravan park on the outskirts of Geraldton. Our first week was challenging, 4 days over 40 deg C, very hot in the van. This last week has been much cooler, still much warmer than Margaret River, specially at night, but quite bearable. We’ve enjoyed some nice swims and found the best coffee in town. Deb has started work and after a weeks induction is finally on the wards and assisting patients. We’ve started our hunt for a rental, along with, it seems, dozens of other people. I’ll update you on our house hunt and other aspects of life in Geraldton over coming weeks.

Ready for work at Geraldton Regional Hospital

LOST! – Workman’s Beach, A Model Low Cost Camp

I wrote this post a long time ago while we were travelling, but it ended up sitting in my draft folder and was never posted. I’m posting now because I became aware that this fantastic low cost camp in a prime tourist area was closed permanently in January this year. The advice from the Gladstone Regional Council states “Gladstone Regional Council has made the decision to close the campgrounds following multiple safety and security concerns and continued incidences of non-compliance with conditions for camping. So, once again, the few grubs ruin it for the many. 🤬

It saddens me that such a great facility is no longer available to the travelling public, because some travellers can’t/won’t abide by simple rules. This camp didn’t have a full time caretaker, but the rangers visited frequently and worked hard to ensure everyone complied with the usual camp etiquette. The losers are us regular, law abiding, caring free campers who just want to enjoy the natural environment in peace and quiet and “leave no trace”.

A fierce debate rages on caravanning internet forums regarding caravan parks: Zealous free campers hate them with a passion and go out of their way to badmouth every caravan park they see. Many other travellers are very happy to use them exclusively. Caravan park owners get blamed by the zealots for the closure of free camps and increasing restrictions on free camping in popular tourist areas. I personally don’t buy it. Most free camps get closed because they get abused by campers who leave mess and rubbish and even set up permanent campsites. Councils get sick of the constant maintenance so end up closing the camps. I’m sure there are some cases where local caravan parks actively complain about the establishment of free camps by shires (hardly surprising really if the local shire purposely undercuts the parks and evades local by-laws) but I’m not convinced there is an organised conspiracy by park owners to shut down every free camp in the country as is frequently claimed by the zealots. There are still thousands of free or low cost camping areas avaialble if you take the time to look, just dont expect to find them in prime tourist areas. There are also plenty of great caravan parks around that offer great facilites at reasonable cost, its just a matter of researching and finding them.

Now one camp that we found seems to break all the normal standards for low cost camps in high volume tourist areas. Workman’s Beach at Agnes Waters is a brilliant camp. It’s located just 1 kilometer from town, and competes with 4 caravan parks in the immediate , high volume tourist area of Agnes Waters and 1770. What’s more, its run by the local shire and run brilliantly.

Workman’s Beach

For starters, this camp is not just set up on some useless spare land with no facilites, this camp has been well planned and has excellent facilites installed. Camp sites, there are around 30 of them pushed into the bushland,  are clearly marked out and delineated by timber borders. There is an excellent amenities block with composting long drops, hand basins and adjacent picnic tables. There is also a cold shower located in a screeend, paved area next to the amenities. There are no other facilites, but the camp is only a 1km walk from the shops in town, a very short walk to a gorgeous beach and access to a number of walking trails through the adjacent coastal dunes and headlands.

Campsite amongst the palms
Camps laid out in the bush
Shower facility
Amenities block
Picnic area 

All this is supplied for a nominal cost of $9.20 per person, per night. The two council rangers patrol the camp frequently, at least twice per day. They collect fees, monitor maintenance and keep an eye on any behaviour issues that might arise. The day we arrived, they had just kicked out a backpacker who was disturbing other campers and generally flouting the rules. The presence of these rangers ensures that everyone can enjoy a peaceful and relaxing time at the camp. The shire has picked their rangers very well, both guys are fantastic ambasadors for the local area, very knowedgable and very relaxed, but also happy to put their foot down if the rules are disobeyed.

The campers we saw were a mix of families, nomads and backpackers. The camp is naturally popular with backpackers, but we expereinced no issues at all with them and, as we usually do, found them great to camp alongside. There were a few campers who looked “permanent”, but again they were friendly and  caused no problems.

As far as we could see, there is no backlash from the local caravan parks, they were all very well patronised and each had their own point of difference to market to campers. All in all, a fantastic initiative by the local shire and a great example of how private parks and low cost camps can co-exist and together, benefit the local busineses.

Missives From Margs – Aussie Backpackers

While I was grape picking earlier this year, I met up with a lovely young Aussie couple who were travelling around Australia in their van. It’s rare to find backpackers travelling the country at the moment due to Covid. No new ones arriving and last seasons travellers have mostly returned home now. Even Aussie backpackers are few and far between as crossing borders can be challenging at times.

Holly and Tom were in Margaret River during grape picking season so decided to top up their bank accounts by picking for a few days. They are from the Geelong area and have taken 6-9 months off to travel around Australia, catching up with some friends on the way. I overheard them telling another picker that they had to pay $40 for a caravan park the previous night as they desperately needed a hot shower to remove all the sticky grape juice after a long day picking! They had been staying with friends for a few nights, but didn’t want to outstay their welcome, so a caravan park it was. As our caravan is parked at Boyanup for Deb to use while she is studying at TAFE, I offered them our back yard for the night with access to a hot shower and facilities. They jumped at the opportunity!

They pulled up and into our yard, and were excited at how private and flat their park was! It almost felt like we were on the road again, chatting over a drink in the late afternoon, sharing stories of our travels and helping them plan their next stops. They had both left their jobs after banking their savings, to enjoy a long holiday. They were travelling in a Hyundai Iload that Tom had modified for their trip. He proudly showed me his modifications and their set up for free camping. Their joy at the freedom of travelling the country in their van reminded me of how much I loved our trip and how it would be great to be travelling again. Their enthusiasm was infectious and reminded me of why I enjoyed chatting to the younger travellers so much on our journey.

Of course Sid was very excited to have some company in the backyard and he enjoyed playing with them while they did their washing (they were very excited to have access to a clean, free washing machine!) and prepared a meal. The next morning, after a solid sleep in, they headed off towards Perth to continue their adventure.

They were not heavily into social media, unlike most young travellers these days, but we exchanged phone numbers before they left. We have kept in contact occasionally, last I heard they were heading up Cape York, having spent a great time cruising up the WA coast and across to Darwin. Chance meetings like this are one of the things I love about travelling. The common bond of travelling into new regions provides the opportunity for meeting and talking to new people and the sense of shared community that brings. And it also reminds me of how wonderful most of the younger generation are, and how spending time with them helps to keep me young!

Holly and Tom set up the the backyard with Sid checking them out

Missives From Margs – Grape Picking

Food production and manufacture is in my blood. It’s not just that it has been my career for over 45 years, but I’ve also enjoyed growing it, cooking it and devouring it. Of course, food includes wine! Living here in Margaret River has given me a great opportunity to explore these interests further, whether it be engaging with local food producers at the local markets or getting out enjoying chatting to local winemakers and enjoying the fruits of their labour. This year, Covid presented me with a great opportunity to get involved in the making of fine wine at the ground level, by joining the grape picking workforce.

Here in Margaret River, as is common around most of Australia, grape picking is traditionally done by backpackers. The Government provides an incentive: in return for their labour, they can extend their holiday in Australia by another year. All they have to do is work in agriculture or remote areas for a defined period of time and they will qualify for their 2nd year visa. Unfortunatley, 2021 was a very different year: there were no new backpackers in the country due to Covid travel restrictions. Most of last years backpackers were still in the country, but as they no longer needed to qualify for a visa extension, many were not avaialble for working in the vineyards. This dilemma played out across the country, there was a severe shortage of fruit pickers and it had a huge impact on growers. Here in Margaret River, word went out via social media that pickers were needed urgently and locals were encouraged to apply, even offering flexible working hours to attract Mums during school hours! Even with locals help, a lot more grapes than usual were machine picked this year because not enough pickers could be found.

My consulting work was pretty quiet at the time, and as autumn is a beautiful time to be outside in the fresh air, I decided to sign up and experience a new side to the wine industry. I answered a post from an acquaintance who works in one of the cellar doors and was directed to a small, local labour hire business who services the wine industry with labour for picking, pruning and general vineyard maintenance.

Picking starts early with the aim of getting the fruit off the vines before it gets too hot and the fruit quality deteriorates. So early starts were in order so that I could get to the vineyards, often 30 minutes from home, by 6am. My first impression was that there were not many of us! I was used to seeing big groups of pickers, 20 or so, descending on a vineyard like locusts, removing all the fruit and heading home by 10am to while away the rest of the day. At least that was what I saw the backpackers doing when we camped with them during our visits to Margaret River prior to moving here permanently. But with only 8 or so pickers fronting up each day, picking was going to take a long time. A very long time! Some days I didn’t finish until 3pm and I was pretty well exhausted by then. Picking itself isn’t particularly hard work. You have to find the bunches, cut them off and drop them into a bucket. You work in pairs, one each side of the vine and move along together, trying not to cut each others fingers off as you go. The buckets held 10kg grapes and had to be filled to the top. Draging the bucket along wth you was the most physical part of the job. When the bucket was filled, you placed your ID number in the bucket, placed it under the vines and started your next bucket. Pretty simple job really, but there were a few complications. Some vineyard managers keep their vines nice and tidy and prune excess leaves and canes away from the bunches to keep them exposed to sunlight and air. Others didn’t bother with that and at times I found myself crawling on all fours under long vine canes trying to find the grapes. Then there was the rot! This vintage we experienced some unseasonal summer rain. When combined with hot days, this lead to botrytis rot (mould) developing on the bunches, a very undesirable situation for table wine grapes. There was much panic amongst the winemakers as they rushed to get their grapes off before the mould did too much damage. As a result, as the vintage progressed, we had to cut more amd more grapes out of the bunches so that mouldy grapes didn’t get into the fermentation process. We also had to remove mouldy bunches and drop them on the ground. Another issue was unripe grapes. Not all bunches ripen at the same time, but vines are normally only picked once, so any unripe bunches had to be dropped to the gound as well. But apart from those complications, it was pretty easy work, but the days ended up being very long due to the picker shortage.

There was something really beautiful about being out in the vineyard as the sun rose, mist rising off the damp vines. It was calm and peaceful as we pickers quietly moved along the rows harvesting the precious grapes. Sometimes we would have black cockatoos wheel over the top of us, screeching a greeting or perhaps warning us off. There was an air of purpose as we quietly worked along the rows. Sometimes we’d chat to our picking buddy through the vines, and it was a great opportunity to meet different people and share our stories. I picked with artists, backpackers, tilers, unemployed and housewives, and each had a different story to tell. Later in the morning, the tractors arrived to start collecting the buckets and the air became filled with diesel fumes and growling engines. As the day wore on, the number of pickers reduced, making our day longer and longer. People had other work to go to, kids to collect and some just decided they’d had enough.

It was intersting to me to experience the difference in the grape varieties. We started off picking the chardonay, a premium variety here in Margaret River. The predominant clone here is the Gin Gin clone and it produces small to meduim sized bunches of grapes with widely varying grape sizes, quite unsusal. But the taste was intriguing, apple, citrus and tropical fruits and very sweet. The picking was generally easy as long as they vines were not too overgrown. My favourite picking was the Sauvignon Blanc. Big, fat bunches of grapes, 750g bunches were common, and easy to find on the open vines. We were lucky to be able to pick some of Cullens organically grown grapes from their Mangan vineyard, the most perfect vines and bunches I have seen. Later we moved into the red grapes, merlot, malbec and even some pinot noir. Cabernet Sauvignon was the last to be picked, and tasting these premium grapes was a joy. Deep red in colour and rich in dark berry fruit flavours, its no wonder this grape variety has made Margaret River famous. I also experienced leaf plucking. Because of the damp conditions and some rapid mould growth, some vineyards had to remove excessive leaf growth to allow sun and air to circulate around the bunches and hopefully prevent any further mould growth. This is a cost winemakers prefer not to incur, but sometimes the seasonal conditions make it imperative.

Peefect Sauvignon Blanc bunches heading to the winery

I picked for the labour hire group most of the time, but also managed to get some work directly for the vineyard. The difference was significant and a lesson well learnt. Labour hire work was mostly paid on bucket rates. That is a set rate per 10kg bucket picked, using your ID number and card to tally your buckets when they arrive in the winery. Rates started out at $4.00 a bucket for the premium chardonnay grapes, but pretty quickly dropped to $3.10 then finally $2.80 a bucket. To put that into perspective, my last day picking I worked over 9 hours for $95.00 dollars. Around $10.00 per hour! Now I wasn’t the fastest picker, but I was far from the slowest. I paced myself against an experienced picker and was probably only 10% slower. In addition that day, I had to drop mouldy and unripe bunches onto the ground. Every one of those bunches picked and thrown on the ground was not paid for! So I’m not surprised that pay rates are such a contentious issue amongst the seasonal workers. Quite a few pickers walked off at lunchtime when they calculated they were only getting paid $10 an hour. The supervisors and vineyard managers try to justify the rates by claiming if you pick quickly you can make good money but thats just a gross exaggeration in my opinion. At $2.80 a bucket, you’d need to pick 9 buckets an hour, or one every 6.5 minutes to earn $25.00 an hour. If you were picking nice big clean bunches of Sauvignon Blanc it would be possible, but small bunches of merlot, full of rot and unripe grapes its just not possible. Picking directly for the vineyard however was so much better. I picked at Glenarty Road, a small family owned and run vineyard and farm south of Margaret River, near Karridale. Fixed rate of $25.00 per hour, very friendly staff to work with, morning coffee, morning tea (freshly baked croissants) and lunch (fresh rolls with farm produce) provided. And the chance to pick grapes alongside the winemaker and learn more about the craft. Talking to some smaller wineries since then I have discovered that they always try to get their pickers directly and always pay an hourly rate. If I pick grapes again next year, I’ll be going direct to the wineries and avoiding the labour hire operations for sure.

Did I enjoy the experience? I sure did. There is something very primal about harvesting natural produce from the earth. Being outside in nature, breathing fresh air and enjoying the natural environment is so much nice than working inside a factory. I loved being able to meet and chat to new and diverse people too. Again, very different from my professional role in manufacturing.

The pay? I understand the logic behind bucket rates, incentivising fast pickers and penalising slow workers, but the system is too open to exploitation. $10 an hour is exploiting workers, specially backpackers who have little choice but to accept what is on offer. A fairer system should incorporate a minimum rate as well as the potential for faster workers to earn more. I was happy to work for $25 / hour for the experience, but $10 / hour is stretching the friendship!

Would I do it again? Yes, definitely, but I’d only work directly for vineyards instead of through a labour hire company. So much nicer being directly in contact with the owners, grape growers and winemakers. I really enjoyed my experience and have a better understanding of some of the challenges and joys, faced by our local wine industry.

Missives From Margs – It’s Been a While!

Time travels fast when you’re having a good time! Not that the last 12 months has been all that easy for many people with the Covid disaster turning our world upside down. But even with all the Covid disruption, the last 12 months has still been pretty busy for us here in Margaret River. Here is a quick update and I hope to produce a few more posts over coming weeks.

We were very lucky in WA to have only minimal impact from Covid with restrictions and lockdowns. In fact, by winter most of our life was back to normal, venues were open , cafes operating normally and Covid was mostly something that affected our families over east. We did have a small lockdown again early ths year, but otherwise its been relatively trouble free. The joys of living in the most isolated part of the country! The chaos occuring elsewhere in the world seemed to be a long way away, but we still felt saddend by the enormous toll it was taking in Europe, USA, Brasil and India in particular.

The biggest impact Covid had on us was the cancellation of our planned trip to Africa in June. Deb had spent countless hours researching, planning and scheduling a dream trip: A 28 day custom planned Safari to see as many of Africa’s wild animals as was possible at that time of the year. We were devastated to have to eventually cancel the trip. We kept hoping that we would be able to travel in 2021, but as it became clear that was not going to happen we reluctantly cancelled. We really hope that sometime in the future we will be able to make the trip.

My work was affected quite considerably as my clients grappled with how best to plan for their business futures. They stopped spending money on new projects which meant my work dried up for the short term. Luckily, they have started planning new projects again and work is starting to build up again, albeit slowly. A bonus was my old employer in Melbourne was suddenly overloaded with work from their food clients and they have reached out to me to give them a hand. Interstingly, much of this new work is for smaller, locally owned food businesses that are preparing to expand: maybe a result of Australians looking more closely at buying Australian Made food products again!

One unexpected affect of Covid for us was that it inititated a big change in Deb’s career. After many, many years of caring for peoples pets, Deb needed a change and decided to re-train as a nurse. She had started volunteering at the local St John’s Ambulane Service and really enjoyed the training and interaction with patients. Here in WA, St Johns are contracted to provide the full emergency ambulance service to all regional areas, so this is the real deal. Whilst much of the work involved patient transport, there were also plenty of interesting call outs to accidents and mishaps which made the work very interesting. This obviously whet Deb’s appetite for nursing and when the calls for more nurses were made during Covid, she decided to step up and apply. She was finally accepted (one of only 15 trainees) into the Diploma course at Bunbury TAFE and has been attending there since June last year. The course is full time and the duration is 18 months, so she is nearly two thirds of the way through. Whilst much of the study is almost identical to the skills she already has from her Vet qualification, there are no exemptions and she has to pass every asessment just like all the other students. She is loving learning again and applying her new skills in the practical placements. Once she qualifies at the end of 2021, we are hoping she can get work in regional WA, maybe eventually in remote communities where we can both travel and experience more of this great state.

As the TAFE course is full time, and Bunbury is too far away for a daily commute, we have set the caravan up at a friends place in Boyanup, just out of Bunbury. Deb stays there midweek, while I look after the pups at home and do my mostly online work. Its tough being apart for so long each week, but after the course is complete we are looking forward to starting travel again.

So that’s a quick summary of our last 12 months here in Margaret River. Of course, so much more has happened in this ever changing world. We both had some major surgeries to hopefully keep our bodies working relatively pain free (Deb had shoulder surgery and I had back surgery), there were more family visits, lots of swimming, Cape to Cape hikes, coffees, grape picking and of course, plenty of wine tasting and exploring the beautiful SW of WA.