I stand alone in the dark. Cars, pick-ups, other vans drive beyond the drop kerb. Cars come out of the holiday park. Still I wait. I check the time on my phone. It’s been 20 minutes. I look down the road. No lights. I run back inside. Back to the toilet block. Every morning it’s the same. The van is never, ever on time. I jog back out to the roadside. Still nothing. And then the tall dark roof of the van front lit by headlights stops ahead of me. Sometimes there might be other people in there, sometimes I’m the first one. One morning Dave, who never seems to do more than three days a week, asks me “Are you making good money yet bro?” “I’m making ok money.” Which is true. “You’ve probably got cash coming from home eh? Are you related to a Majesty or a Highness?” I laugh, but sadly no I am not. “Are you one of those secret millionaires?” He checks again. Is this why every one has been so supportive? Do they think I’m going to give one of them a million dollars once all the trees have been planted? Is that how Secret Millionaire works? I have no idea but I hope this doesn’t change anything. We stop at the BP on the edge of town to fill up with fuel.
From one service station we cross the road to the Mobil. In a carpark behind the shop, the change over happens. A handful of people get out of a car and join us. The van might be full, there might only be four of us. The road out of Bayview is straight, running along the beach until it hits Tangoio where it becomes a snake. We get caught behind a logging truck. On the way out they’re empty. On the way back, loaded with logs. I’ve done this enough times for the Final Destination 2 fear to have finally passed. I don’t know how the logs are secured but they are. Next comes the silver waters of Lake Tutira. Or are they black? Or blue. A mirror for the sky. Someone snores further back. My own eyelids begin to drop. Some mornings I snooze, others I watch the world wake up. The sky burns orange. Chalk rubbing clouds glow pink. The van slows through the village of Putorino. Nearly there. Ratu switches on the radio. We turn off the main highway. The road twists higher into the hills. Pine trees stand to attention along the ridge lines. Younger trees, planted 3 or 4 years ago puff up out of the ground. Fog floods the Mohaka River valley. We ghost past the sleepy houses of Willowflat. “Light vehicle, Willowflat Bridge to the Airstrip.” Ratu announces over the radio.
We have arrived. All of us sitting in the van, waiting for someone else to move first. So many stops, so little communication. Is this where we’ll be planting today or will we move on again? Ratu pulls up on the handbrake, kills the engine. This is it. Josh is always the first one ready, spade in hand walking across the hillside. I pull on my boots, strap on my harness and take off after him. I stumble over the tree stumps, trip on branches, get tangled up in blackberry brambles. On the floor in front of me are the bleached bones of a rib cage. A goat? A pig? A deer? I don’t know. There is life out here, and death too. I try to be one of the first to start, get those 10 trees out before I start getting cut off. The others catch up, overtake. I get bumped down the line. Walking without planting. Then planting again. Spade up, down into the ground, Push forward, pull back. Open up the soil. Grab a tree, push it down, pull it up. Stamp the hole closed. Go again. Spade up, eyes down. A small green diamond with black eyes looks back. A frog hops away. There are a few piwakawaka here too. In the pockets of native bush other birds sing out. I’m only just behind on the first box change, which costs me more time. There are no full boxes left at the pickup. Stop, wait, take a break. Some days I’m still ahead of the late starters. I might get on to box two before them. For a while it stays like this, only just behind. “I’m only on 4,” Josh tells me. He’ll be finished and be on to 5 before I finish three. I’m easily out-planted by experience two to one.
In the beginning us new fellas left our food and water in the van. After a few days I started putting snacks in my pockets and a water bottle in my planting box. There is no lunch. No smoko. You break when you want. If you want. I don’t stop much. I need to spend as much time as I can putting trees in the ground. After box two I’ll have a cereal bar. A snack was easily accessible from my cargo pockets. Until the blackberry thorns tore the crotch out of my trousers. The water bottle coated in mud from the tree roots, if it stayed in the box. One day I reached behind for a drink and there’s nothing there. Only trees. The van is miles away. I might as well plant my way back, which takes me to the end of the day. This is dehydration. There has to be another solution. Roland has a backpack with a water bladder. $24 from K-Mart. That’ll take some convincing to come off my back or get covered in mud.
By the end of week two I’m one of the only people to have turned up every day. Anial told me this would happen. “See how sick the local boys are?” The only thing they seen to be sick of is digging holes. By the end of week two I’m comfortably putting 400 trees in the ground. Next week I need to find the time, the energy to put another 100 trees in the ground every day. Not long after I start planting for the day Anial calls me over. Uh oh is my first thought. “I had a chat with Dave yesterday, you’re turning up every day so if you can plant 5 or more boxes each day I’ll pay you $35 a box.” The normal target is 7 boxes, which the rest of the experienced crew knock out comfortably. I may never reach the regular target. Now I’ve got to keep pushing. Making sure I’m hitting box number 5 with enough time to get them planted.
The third box takes a lifetime. Someone tells me it’s 12:30. Only or already 12:30? Still time to get to number 4. If I pick up box three early enough I know I’ll get to 5. I start asking anyone I pass if they know what time it is. If it’s earlier than 11 I know I’m good. The first time I pick up my 5th box I don’t have time to plant it. Everyone else finishes up. I’m stuck in the clay hammering the shovel down and digging no deeper. Nim comes over the top of the ridge and takes my shovel, takes my harness and sends me back to the van. Four and a half I guess. The next day I pick up a 5th box and get most of it planted. But then I hit clay again. Anial takes the shovel and shows me how to get the hole deep enough. I try and fail. There’s nothing in my shoulders. No weight behind the drop. Mike takes my shovel for a while. He dig the holes and I put a tree in it. The next day I pick up my fifth box again. This time I get close. Roland grabs a handful on his way back. He’s got to get another box so he might as well put a few more trees in the ground along the way. On the Friday I plant my fifth box alone and am first back to the van.
The cry goes up from one of the hidden valleys. “Donkey!” Not a literal donkey but another person. Loaded up with six, maybe as many as eight, boxes of trees. They would carry them from where ever the van left the trailer to where ever we are expected to run out. Someone is running out of trees. The shout is echoed. No idea if other people have run out too or if they’re just joining in the fun. I’ve realised there’s a method to this. 100 trees in a box. A tree planted every 3 meters. You should run out after 300 meters. You should know when you’ll run out. It never works like that. The straight line doesn’t exist. Not for me anyway. Where is the line? It all looks easy from the road. Four meters away should be someone else’s tree. I lose them. I check and find I’ve come a long way off. The contour never contours. The boundary sets the line and the rest of us compensate. The line is never straight. When I reach the pickup I still have a handful of trees. They get pushed in the top of the next box and I go again.