Being a Swaggie and a Cane Cutter in Australia.
All my life I have travelled there is nothing more exciting than seeing New Places and Meeting New People. Making Friend sometimes only for a short time in exceptional Cases for a Life-time. I like to mention some of the Places I have been in this beautiful Country of mine. In Queensland; there was Mackay. Here I worked as a Cane-Cutter, the most backbreaking Job there is, so I was told. It started off by me hitchhiking. I left Brisbane as there were no Jobs to be had, anyway not for me and so I took to the Road and stood there with my Thumb out trying to get a lift to anywhere. As it was my Luck after a while I got a lift with an elderly Gentleman. He took me as far as Gimpy. On the other side of Town was a river and many People in my situation were camping there. While talking to two Fellows that were calling themselves “Swagie’s” which meant they were People that were Homeless and without Jobs much like the American Hobo.
Anyway these two Swagie’s told me that every two weeks I could go to a Police station and get what they call “Relief money” and they convinced me to go. When I got to the Police Station I was surprised to find the attending Constable to be very Friendly He gave me some Money after I told him that originally I had Jumped Ship here in Australia. He said showing me a piece of Paper “We know all about that, but were told not to arrest you unless you had broken the Law.” What I didn’t tell him was that I had just been released from Jail. They put me in Jail for not having a Job, I thought that this was stupid as when I got out I still didn’t have a Job. This gave me the Idea to hitchhike up North as there was Work to be had as Cane Cutters. Anyway after getting the Money I went to the Local Shop and spend all my money on Food and a Packet of Tabaco. When I got back to the Camp by the River I cooked a big Pot of Stew. I invited the two Fellows to join me, which they did with gusto. There was one Fellow there that was trying to fix his old Truck with parts that he gotten of an old Truck that was sitting in a nearby Paddock. With a lot of hard work against all odds we got the Truck fixed. Next job was to find fuel, but as that was expensive and cost more money than we had, we decided to use Kerosene.
After spending a Day trying to start the damn Truck we decided to go at night into the Town and syphon some Petrol out of one of the many Cars that were parked on the Roadside Kerb. Here I learned that Petrol tasted awful when it was my turn to syphon a Car. Anyway we got away with about a Gallon of Petrol. Next morning we put a little Petrol in the Car and when it started we added the Kerosene. The Truck engine ran but blew smoke that you could see for miles. The 4 of us took of driving North along the Back Roads as the Truck was not licensed and neither was the Driver. At the end of the Day we found an abandoned Farmhouse, in it was nothing of use to us but we found two cooking Pots. We lit the Stove in the Kitchen and cooked Stew again. We each had our own Bedroom that night. The next Day after traveling for a while the Truck broke down again. This time only 3 of us moved on. That Night we got to Rockhampton where we slept on the Cemetery, me on one of the Slabs. I always was a bit of a Clown. Next Day we got to Mackay and by this time I knew the Names of my two Companions to be Ben & Joe. Ben was the older more experience Person. He told us that First we had to get a Union Ticket, before we could get a job. Well we did that and soon all three of us were hired by the same Person. He seemed a nice Fellow and told us to call him Bob. Bob lived on his Cane-Farm between Sarina and Mackay. He was a Farmer with several Cane Properties around a 100 kilometer radius. When asked, we told him that we had all done Cane Cutting before. I am sure that he didn’t believe us, but didn’t say anything. As it was Weekend we settled into the workers-quarters and Ben tried to teach us all about Cane cutting. The Boss (Bob) brought over some Food which would come out of our Pay. After Dinner Ben showed us that first you take the Cane-Knife (Looks like a Machete) and put the Blade into the hot fire in the Stove. When it is Red-Hot you put your Foot (make sure you are wearing Boots) on the Blade and bend it at a approximately 45° Degree Ankle. Ben says it makes it easier on your Back when you are cutting Cane. Come Monday morning Bob told us that we were going to do some cutting and stripping to get some Cane that he could use for planting. Ben said to us to put on long sleeve shirts so that the Cane leaves didn’t touch our naked arms.
Smart-Ass me wore short sleeve, after all it was a hot day. I soon found out why you wore long sleeve shirts. The Leaves from the Sugar-Cane have tiny barely visible hairs on them and when they come of onto your arms, they never stop itching. Every Dope knew about it. Except me. When we had a break Ben showed me how to get them of your arm, and this was the only way. It was quite easy; you split a piece of Cane longways and then rubbed the inside over your arm and it would pick up the hairs and “Bingo” no more itching arm. By knockoff time I was F*&*&ed. The next day Bob said we were to drive out to one of his places about 80 klm away. Ben was the only one with a Driving License and so after getting Directions from Bob we loaded up and drove to this place where I do not recall its Name. But it was only a Fettlers Camp and some Farms. When we got there Ben explained to us that he was put in charge and that we would settle in that day and started work the next day. I was glad as I was still pretty sore from my first taste of Cane Cutting.
Next let me explain something. You don’t work for wages, no you are a Contract Worker and before starting you will make a deal with the Boss how much you get paid for cutting 1 tons of cane, you get paid extra for cutting the green tops of each stalk and you get more pay again for loading and carting the cane to the Railway siding where you load the Cane into Railway wagons to be carted to the nearest Sugar-Mill which was in Sarina. So first Ben explained that we had to cut 3 rows of Cane this Afternoon. He further explained that we had to burn off the leaves of the Cane and just leave the Stalks. This was to make it easier cutting for us, got rid of the Rubbish (being unwanted weight) also it got rid of Snakes, Cane toads and the Kangaroo Rat. Which is a small Marsupial about the size of a rabbit. We had lots of Snakes (Taipan) As soon as it got dark we lit-up. Hell, a fire like a cane fire is something special to look at. We had wet hessian bags to make sure the Fire didn’t jump our Firebreak. Next morning we started Cane-cutting. In the Evening when we stopped, I just wanted to die. My hands were a mess, I had Blisters on top of Blisters and I had trouble straightening-up. Ben said the best thing for the Blisters was to Pee on them, and Pee I did. By the time it was time to eat, I was sound asleep on my Bunk. Black as a Black fellow.
The next morning I was going to quit the job, but Ben talked me into staying. So I wrapped my Hands in Bandages that we found in an old First Aid Kit. That day I worked very slow, kept on peeing on my Hands. It took 2 weeks before my hands were healthy and hardened. Nobody said anything about me having to catch up. Every 2 weeks Ben went into town to pick up our wages and did the shopping. By now we had an Account at the Grocery store in town and we would pay them once a month. By now I also had learned to drive the Truck and did most of the driving. By the way, the Truck had no Brakes, but I learned that when I wanted to stop, to turn off the motor at the right time. After about 10 weeks on the job, Ben, as usual, went into town but didn’t come back. He had shot through with our wages. I asked the Boss to make out a new Cheque and pay us. He gave me a very firm No as an answer. Joe said he was going to leave too and left on the next train. After a couple of days, I decided to go into town too. I ask the train driver was there any shops before we got to Mackay as I had nothing to wear other than my tattered work clothes. He said yes, in a place called Kumala and he said he would stop a little longer to give me time to get something to wear. All they had in my size was some Kaki Clothes which I changed into on the Train. This was still in the first 12 months of being in Australia. So I was still quite “Green”. So when I walked to the cafe to get something to drink. I saw a good-looking Girl crossing the Street. So I let go with a “Wolf-Whistle” I got the shock of my life at her reaction. She just turned around and said; Get F*$#ked. I was lost for words for the first time. While in town I was talking to some Fellows about what happened to me, about not getting paid. They in turn told me to go straight to the Union. When I told them all about it they said not to worry and that they would make Bob pay me plus waiting time. I felt great. A few days later Bob found me where I was staying and paid me. He said no hard feelings, and would I come back to work for him till the season finished. He said he still had to do about 2 weeks of work in the Home Paddock. But first of all, I had to drive the truck back out to the Farm and pick-up everything. I didn’t have very much not even a change of clothing. I drove up at night and every time I saw a Vehicle approaching I moved right over to the side and stopped. Coming back the next morning was easier. I went back to work for him, but didn’t last long. Bob’s wife was trying to tell me how to load the Truck. So I told her to do it herself and quit. That was my first season at Cane-Cutting. I did three more seasons of Cane-Cutting after that I had enough. I stayed in Mackay for a few more years, married my first Wife in Mackay, there were 3 more to follow.