We came to Perth prospecting for jobs, just like everyone else. The East had been beautiful and lush but unless you wanted bar work in a bikini in the not-so-paradisiacal Surfer’s, you weren’t going to find much paid work as a backpacker. We spent our dollars on a flight across the vast country and marvelled at the geological possibility that you could fly for so long and still not reach the sea; internal flights mean something entirely different down under.
We landed and found our hostel by taxi, feverishly tugging at the door into the fluorescent 24 hour reception like moths. The night sounds of the city swept around us as we tried to sleep off another time zone change.
Whilst we searched for paid work in the city, we took up a farm stay in a nearby village, which turned out to be several hours drive into the middle of nowhere. On the bus journey, a drunk lobbed his beer bottle out the back window and verbally abused us for looking. We all got off at the last stop but he already didn’t know us. We were beginning to understand how a place like this could drive you mad with thirst.
Our hosts showed us our caravan and how to tend to the sheep, ripping the only vaguely green looking brambles out of the ground on the roadside, and feeding it back through the fence. You had to climb over the giant concrete water pipe that stopped the people here dying from drought. It was considered something of a heritage gem- a tourist attraction. Every morning I scrambled over it to reach the sheep and thought of what heritage meant back home. Then came the building project.
We swept out the shell of the house they were building, used angle grinders to smooth off the corners, shooed out the sheep and stood in a metal bin with goggles and paper mask, a garden rake in hand as a giant metal gauze trembled back and forth sieving out the largest stones and collecting the finer dirt underneath. This would be made into more bricks, mixed and moulded and dried before another phase of farm workers would assemble them and grind down the corners again and sweep it all out.
Here, in the dusty little cluster of sheds and caravans hunkering down miles from Perth’s vast shadow, we learnt how to deal with the hot and the dry. We learnt to squash the baby red backs that you found crawling up your arms, and to live frugally. We were shown how to boil omelettes in plastic bags, how to use the same teabag several times, and to use the internet in the night.
There are some people who can live like that indefinitely; sheltering in the middle of a dustbowl, suckling off a concrete pipe and building dreams out of dirt. We struggled. After a timeless dusty blur, we wished our hosts farewell and drove away to the big city to find our fortunes. We left behind the man named Ugly, who lived alone in a converted lorry in their yard. We left a family living out of two ramshackle containers with a small cactus garden out front, hemmed in by netting. And we left a labyrinth of mud bricks made of hours of labour that we would never see finished. It was an Australian lesson in scale. We drove on into the blistering heat haze.