When I was growing up I lived in a small town in the heart of the North Yorkshire country side. It was a beautiful life, playing in fields and walking freely. I had a job all through high school and collage and lived as close to a free life as a school girl probably could. Having my own money meant I could buy anything I wanted (within reason) without really having to ask for permission from my parents. And when I passed my driving test and bought my 1st car, I was away! There was no stopping me. Given this you can imagine the feelings of constriction that wwoofing brought.
Super Gram and I needed to find a way for me to gain the 88 days of farm labor needed for second year visa as quickly and cheaply as possible. Wwoofing promised the perfect answer, a way to travel the country very cheaply with free accommodation and food whilst the days on farms could count towards that precious second year visa. The reality proved to be quite different.
Our first hosts were based in Far North Queensland and we loved it there. The hosts were lovely. We finished our 4 hours a day and then enjoyed downtime with the family and their friends, exploring the area and being taken to local beaches and attractions. The evenings were often filled with wine and cheerful chatter about the exciting places they had visited on their own travels. We thought we had found the perfect answer to travelling around this expensive country on the cheap.
Our time here soon came to an end and we set off with a spring in our step to our next hosts near Cairns. Our reality soon changed, and the experience of wwoofing changed with it. It became clear that these hosts thought of their wwoofers as cheap labor and had little interest in cultural exchange. After working for 5 hours we would then be expected to take care of the 2 young children whilst the parents were at work, for free and out of our own time as this was not considered to be work. When a parent arrived home we would return to the servants quarters at the end of the garden. To be fair the cabin was lovely and gave a really pleasant atmosphere through the day. However when it got dark the cabin had an eerie feel, and the lack of any power and minimal lighting didn’t aid this.
This family had no interest in taking us to any local attractions or anywhere, well, anywhere. We felt like naughty teenagers having to beg to go to the shops and keep quiet unless spoken to. The total lack of freedom was a complete shock to me. Never before had I felt so constricted. And when that was teamed with a total lack of thanks for any of our work or free child care I found it hard to enjoy my time here.
Its a one off, we told each other, other hosts enjoy the company of wwoofers and the cultural exchange that comes with it. So off we went to our next hosts in the Northern Territory. Here we were fortunate enough to stay with other wwoofers, a pair of French girls were working on the mango orchard over their summer break from university. Once again we found our host, a grumpy man with black teeth, a huge amount of self interest and not enough time with other people, to be utterly uninterested in any cultural exchange.
Again we found ourselves miles from civilisation with no form of transport. We managed to beg a lift into Darwin for a day so we could rent a car between the four of us to see the national park. Our host obliged and the five of us set off in utter silence the for the painfully long 40 minute drive. Again, we spent our time here tiptoeing around our host and hoping not to upset him.
Our saving grace came in the form of an email from a host up the road in desperate need of a couple of wwoofers that would finish up the last 4 days of my 88. The day after receiving the email they came and picked us up from the mango farm. We sighed a huge breath of relief as we climbed into the car and waved the mango orchard goodbye. Our next 4 days were wonderful, we worked hard and enjoyed some fantastic company. Here we were made to feel welcome and appreciated and were really quite sad when our time came to an end.
I chalked up a total of 54 days of wwoofing, with the rest made up from working on apple and strawberry farms in Tasmania. I stayed with more hosts than I’ve shared here. Whist 2 of the many hosts we stayed with were warm and welcoming we found the majority to be cold and simply looking for a form of cheap labor. For the first time in my life I understood the pain teenagers face through being trapped.
I think the main trouble we faced was not having our own transport. If we had a car we wouldn’t have stayed with the less inviting hosts for as long as we did. We would have had the freedom to explore in our free time and could have left whenever we liked
Through my travels in Australia I met plenty of backpackers that had spent some time wwoofing and they all had at least one horror story, from working 10 hours a day to being locked outside the whole day with no access to water. But they also had a wonderful experience elsewhere to balance it.
My advise to anyone hoping to spend time wwoofing in Australia would be to ask lots of questions in advance: what are the hours; what does the work include; what is the accommodation like; is there public transport available; how many wwoofers have you had and how long did they stay, and so on. Wwoofing can be an amazing experience and a chance to see parts of the country you might not have otherwise.
The most important thing is to work hard during your agreed hours and if you feel uncomfortable leave. With the time available for travellers in Australia being so limited its important to get what you want from that time. It is an exchange, so as long as you are putting in your part if you feel you aren’t getting enough back there is no reason to stick around and leave with bad memories.