The Perfunctory Traveller Takes to the Country

by Mou Run /
Mou Run's picture
Jun 08, 2010 / 1 comments

Murray Bridge is a fluvial town always dreaming in shadows.  Wedged between the buzzing metropolitan Adelaide to the west, silent and expansive farmlands to the east and tailed by the magnetic wine region of McLaren Vale, the town is also overshadowed by the Barossa Valley – another irresistible wine district that extends a long arc in the north. In this location, the town only smells tourism passing through its arterial bypasses and narrow bridges to these places and I have always found myself guilty of following the beaten track.

I first visited Murray Bridge on October 18, 2004 – only two weeks after my first arrival in Australia – to work a night shift harvesting iceberg lettuce on a farm on the outskirts of the town. There were many migrants, all men from Adelaide on this trip. We gathered at Hindmarsh Square in Adelaide and took off at 8pm, driving into the cavernous Princes Highway meandering through the deep faults in the Adelaide Hills to our destination.

When we arrived – just a few minutes to 9pm – the sky was clear and moonlight was shining over rows of iceberg lettuce thinning into the dewy haze of riverine night. We received our instructions from the proprietor and one experienced worker standing on bare earth in a yard where an ill-assorted collection of farm vehicles were parked in such a fashion as to guard the dilapidated shed-like farmhouse we were standing in front of. There was a vending machine at the house’s entrance and it made disruptive vibrating noise twice while we were receiving our instructions. The first one got everyone silent; the second went unheeded.

Work began at 10pm. The experienced harvester, a tall, thin and hairy fellow with a heavy Eastern European accent provided us with gloves and demonstrated the collection and the bagging process. As soon as we started to work the temperature began to drop. I was only wearing good leather shoes, jeans, a shirt and a tweet jacket I got from charity discount store, St Vincent de Paul, and I came in these totally unaware of how the night would unfold. There were other people in my situation but they showed no concern.

At about midnight, I started shivering. My jaws were trembling and my hands were getting numb but I was determined to go on. As it got colder and I became weaker, I decided to give myself an hour to quit. I stopped glancing at my watch. Before another thought of quitting, I felt the cold breeze of dawn blowing in my face.

“It’s dawn!” I said to no one in particular.

“No, it is a breeze from the river,” Said Akech, the man who signed me up.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was 4.57am. “It is dawn,” I said, this time softly to myself.

In less than two hours, sunrise started torching the dark sky that the moon had deserted. With the light of the day came the courage to keep going.

In the cold of that night, a few people cracked and gave up working altogether. They left the open field – where we picked up the lettuce, bagged it and store it in a giant harvesting vehicle that followed us – to snuggle on a corner in the farmhouse under piles of nylon curtains they had removed from the windows. We found them there when the shift finished at 8.30am.

It was still cold then, even with the sun hanging in full glow just above the horizon. As we stood there waiting for the farm owner, one African guy tried to get something out of the vending machine but the machine swallowed his money and stood there in stubborn silence. He got really angry and kicked and shook the machine. Still it stoically maintained its stubbornness.

“This is useless!” He shouted throwing his arms in wild rage. He then looked around and casted his eyes down from our stares.  “I better sit in the warmth of my car”, he mumbled.

That statement made everybody spread out to their cars like a dismissed parade. We waited in the cars until the farmer arrived about 30 minutes later. I have no idea what went through his head when he saw nobody but a convoy of cars with engines running.

This experience comes back to my mind every time I have passed through Murray Bridge. Looking back, nearly six years later, I decided to slow down and really see the town on my recent drive to Melbourne.

The town takes its name from a narrow bridge built for trains and vehicles in the later part of the 19th Century. The bridge and the Murray River are the two touristiest things about the town; the things which locals would always refer tourist to, whether to see them from another vantage point or to see them at a different  time of day or night.

But on this occasion, as I was driving away, I noticed something different. Most Australian towns over a century old often have a European flavour, at least in the town centres. It is a fact that I have observed even in some small outback towns of populations below 500.

Murray Bridge is home to about 15000 people and does have books recounting its epic history. But in all those years and burgeoning population, the town remains characteristically Australian in the same way that Canberra has a more native feel than the other cities.

The streets of Murray Bridge are lined with gumnut and other native trees. There are no pretentious statues and monuments in squares and median strips but there is plenty of space, a few sporting grounds and a fairly egalitarian layout out of the town – no misplaced mansions as is common in small coastal towns and small towns in the eastern states.

A very natural Australian town, I think.



Comments (1)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    13 years 3 months ago

    run - this is an incredible story. i can't even imagine the beginnings you had there, yet you paint them so well that i can almost feel the cold. glad you've found a home.


    Jessie Voigts, PhD


Leave a comment