The Park Land – Part 2

Continued from: https://serioustravelblog.com/2017/10/05/the-park-land-part-1/

The proprietor led us to our van.

It was an old caravan with an annex, hidden behind the undergrowth.

Initially all we saw was a short flight of wooden steps amidst the green and at the end of it, the glint of a glass sliding door.

‘Up until a week ago, there were 5 Malaysians living in this van. Lovely boys, very dark, almost black.’

Now I understood what she meant when she said ‘Asians’.

She was talking about ‘Malaysians’.

There were many immigrants in Australia hailing from ‘Asia’ including: Indians, Nepalese, Burmese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Thais, Laotians, Cambodians…

Here, however, the agricultural workers were from Malaysia.

I had travelled around Malaysia a few times, the first time in 1979, and later, in 1993 and 2002. It was a society precariously balanced between three large ethnic groups, the Chinese, the Indians and the Malays. The Chinese had migrated during the British colonial regime; the Indians, most of them Tamils from the south of India – and indeed, dark skinned – had been brought over as indentured labourers to work on the rubber plantations. The Malays, the original inhabitants, ruled the roost. But the drive and the energy which had made Malaysia a prosperous nation (by Asian standards) came from the Chinese and the Indians. The Malays filled the ranks of the army and the bureaucracy and dominated the political system. The nation’s wealth was created by others. It was the Chinese and Indians who were especially keen to migrate to Australia – and who comprised what the proprietress called ‘Asians’.

I asked: ‘How do these people get out here? On what kind of visa?’

There was a bit of a story behind it. They came out on a working visa. Their aim, besides sending money back home, was to eventually get a residence permit. This was the holy grail. Their flight out and all the paper work was done by a contractor who took a cut from their wages.

My alarm bells went off: who was the contractor? How much did he take?

The spectre of gross exploitation loomed large in my mind.

She took me outside on to the wooden steps and pointed in the direction of the next caravan; coincidentally there were a lane between our caravan and that one so I had an unimpeded view. 

What I saw was another dilapidated caravan with an open, outside area under a roof where an elderly Chinese woman, wearing a soft, padded jacket, was cooking a meal in a wok. It was a familiar sight in south east Asia where the climate was hot; the cooking done outside and the meal eaten inside. But this was a different climatic zone; the summers were hot, but the winters could be very cold. At this time of the year – May – the days were mild, but the night time temperatures were dipping to a few degrees above zero. It was mid-morning and still very cold and there was this lady, true to her cultural ingrained habit, cooking outside.

‘She’s the contractor. She does all the paper work and organizes the visas. When the plane comes in, she drives to the airport in her old Toyota and picks them up and brings them back here.’

The contractor was hardly living in opulence. She was living the same life as the workers she contracted, albeit with the luxury of having an entire caravan to herself. At a guess, the money she made was being sent home. She, and the proprietor, were the most important people in the caravan park. And that caravan park was a world unto itself: a park land.

 

Inside our van it was scrupulously clean. In the annex were two old couches, an ancient fridge, a table with a lamp, and a double bunk. In the caravan proper, there was a gas stove, sink, small table and at the other end, two small double bunks.

Out the window, taped up, was a view of the empty land behind the caravan park, where the few residents who had vehicles, left them parked – and where we parked our old car – and some clothes lines.

After getting our stuff out of our car and installing ourselves in the van, we set off on our bikes.

 

A tourist draw card, the town of Rushworth was a well preserved former gold mining town. Rushworth got its name indeed during the times of the ‘gold rush’, when gold fever brought immigrants from all over the world to seek their fortune in the wild expanses of Victoria.

The wide main street, with a large grassy median strip, was lined either side with buildings hailing from the late 19th century including shops, a bank, a town hall and, the ubiquitous pub. It was easy to see why so many tourists, many of whom stayed at the ‘normal’ caravan park, spent time wandering around Rushworth taking photos.

It was in the immense native forests outside Rushworth however, where the most graphic evidence of Rushworth’s past could be seen. In disparate places, surrounded by tall eucalypts, were grave yards hailing from the gold rush days. At the height of the rush, many of the original trees were cut down to supply timbers for deep mine shafts and makeshift huts. The rush, a kind of mass delirium, created a desert scarred with deep shafts and tall piles of rubble. Then the delirium passed. Some people came out of rich, most were left disillusioned or dead. The mines were abandoned and nature reclaimed the earth. The bush, timeless, relentless, healed the scars left in the wake of the white man frenzy.

Only the graves remained.

Little areas of earth, like islands, were kept free of the encroaching wilderness. The resting place of the dead was sacrosanct. They too had their story to tell.

During our excursions into Rushworth’s native forests, sometimes following unsealed back roads, other times, narrow tracks, we encountered the graveyards and invariably stopped and had a look around. Most of them had information boards, recounting basic facts about the harsh lives which the fortune seekers had endured; the freezing winters and boiling summers, the diseases, the high infant mortality rate; the men that died when their mines collapsed or contracted lung diseases from constantly breathing dust. The graves which had epitaphs told the story of people who had come from all over the world to seek their fortune – not only from Europe and America, but also China. The most poignant graves were the unmarked ones – piles of earth marked with small rusted crosses.

 

 

 

 

There were established routines in the park land.

In the early hours of the morning the sound of cars starting up rent the silence when the Asians left for work (some of them had bought cheap second- hand vehicles which were invariably full of people when they left). Around mid- morning, the elderly Australians appeared, walking around with the help of a walking frame or stick – some had neither and instead, hobbled along – heading to the amenities block or standing around chatting. Late in the afternoons, the Asians returned from work and it was a long wait then to get a turn in the shower.

There was no way of really knowing what was going on in the park land. It was a shadow land.

Was it not a disgrace that there were elderly citizens in Australia who had to live in beaten up caravans?

Why couldn’t a prosperous western nation do better than this?

Yet, talking with some of the residents, it was apparent that they were satisfied with their lives.

If the government tried to move these people out of their caravans and into a decent set of living circumstances – serviced flats for example – the chances were, they would choose to remain where they were. It was an enduring puzzle: try to help the disadvantaged in our society and time and again, you might well be confronted by their opposition. The culture of poverty was a force in itself, blinding as well as binding.

And then the immigrant workers. 

Sometimes, early in the mornings, as the young men climbed in to their old cars ready to drive out to their work, I would see the contractor talking to them and jotting down things in a small note book. How much did the contractor woman take, how much did they pay her from their hard- earned wages, what was the precise nature of their obligations to her?

No outsider would ever be able to answer those questions. There was a culture of silence and it was impenetrable.

For the immigrant workers, the lowest rung on the socio-economic ladder in Australia was their chance to move upwards – but would they really get there? Or just end up being exploited?

In the 19th century, the immigrants came to Australia lured by the glitter of gold; in the 21st century, it was the right to live in a western consumer society.

 

On our last morning in the park land, I asked the proprietress about the trees and the undergrowth. She told me that 30 years previous, when she and her husband established the caravan park, it was empty land, completely bare. They were young and idealistic then. They had the ground ploughed and then moved in tons of sand and created a good top soil. They had green ideas long before these became mainstream. They had a vision for a kind of garden of Eden.

In the early years, their caravan park was a highly desirable destination for tourists. There were plenty of areas where towed caravans could be parked or tents erected. There were many new caravans permanently parked which could be rented, and these were very popular.

For some reason, they had failed to move with the times. Perhaps the establishment of the other caravan park – it was a part of a big national chain – had cut into their profits. Their caravans became outdated, too small; people wanted en suite cabins and small houses. As far as accommodating cars and caravans, matters became more difficult on that front too, because cars got replaced by SUV’s and the caravans by huge mobile homes. It was not a big caravan park and the roads in any case were narrow.

Their caravan park went into a downwards spiral. A lifetime’s work was threatened by bankruptcy. There was no choice but to start taking permanents: elderly people who had a steady income in the form of the basic pension. Then the Asians appeared and the economic viability of the park was assured.

In the meantime, the trees and shrubs, planted in the bloom of idealism, grew up and out, whilst an increasing number of birds made their home there and filled the air with their song. Concealed behind the green, inside aging caravans, Australia’s elderly lived alongside Asia’s young; hope and hopelessness lived side by side.

 

On the first night after we left the Park Land, we stayed at a normal, middle class caravan park. It was a big change after staying for a week in the Park Land. There were rows of immense caravans, mobile homes, and SUV’s: a wall of metal and glass and a lurid testimony to a society of conspicuous consumption. Everywhere I looked I saw big vehicles and big waistlines. Surrounded by this display of luxury, I fell prey to an incipient mood of boredom.

I slept well that night.

Early the following morning, before sunrise, I woke up and lay on my back inside our small dome tent and recalled a strange scene I had witnessed at the Park Land – and forgotten about. It must have been about 9am – it was very cold. The workers had already departed so I knew that the men’s section of the amenities block would be quiet.

A bright sun, hanging low on the horizon, was illuminating the tops of the trees, but the rest of the undergrowth was in shadow. Still half asleep, I descended the steps outside our caravan and made my way to amenities block. Experience taught me to be careful. The amenities block being partly concealed by foliage, I knew I had to concentrate to avoid walking right passed it – and then having to double back, something which was very tedious when it was so cold.

As I neared the block, watchful for the break in the wall of green, I stopped before someone appearing from the women’s half of the amenities block, which the was first entrance on my left. The great majority of the inhabitants of the Park Land were men. I wasn’t used to seeing anyone appearing from the women’s half of the amenities block.

There in front of me was the contractor, dressed in her jacket and long trousers, grey hair tied back, hand under the elbow of an elderly Caucasian woman, helping her out of the amenities block and back to her caravan.

I began the day on a high note – and not only because we were moving on.