warning this is a hella long post. It is a combination of three articles I wrote for a travelling website. For other juicy tidbits please use the blue link above, or scroll to the end of this behemoth (about 5000words)
The following is a tale of my experiences during my working holiday in Australia. It will probably come in three parts due to length. I hope you find it interesting, and can learn from a few of my mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself.
So if you are reading this you might be contemplating, or about to set off on a working holiday in Australia. You have probably read some Lonely Planet approved articles with company sponsored messages detailing the best places to go and spend your money. If you haven’t then you may want to, shouldn’t do any harm.
However if you follow the advice from all the travel articles you read then you aren’t going to have a unique experience. Thousands of other people will be doing the same thing as you. Im not saying that is a bad thing, it takes all sorts to make an interesting trip. I met a guy who had spent his entire working holiday packing vegetables and getting drunk in the beer garden of the same backpackers, in the same town, night after night. Or the guy who spent most of the day playing video games on his laptop. They are important parts of the journey, they are the filler that keeps the backpackers solvent. Even if their only example is to serve as a warning to others then they have still fulfilled an important role. Question is, do you want to be that guy?
The problem with following other peoples advice is that they might be stupid, or boring; or the worst, boring and stupid. Following their advice might be a terrible idea and you won’t know until it is too late. This article contains no advice whatsoever you will be happy to know. I will tell you about my adventures and, most importantly, what I learned on the way. Then you can draw your own conclusions. You wouldn’t want to follow my advice anyway, I do stupid things all the time, as you will soon see. I might actually BE stupid….
I won’t bore you with details about the various visits I made with my family, but I will set the scene a little bit. In 2009 I was fresh out of my undergraduate degree (In Zoology at Aberystwyth in case you care) and my parents had booked a holiday out to Oz. We have family out there that we have not seen for aaages. Anyway I jumped on the opportunity with more zeal than a Westborough Baptista on a gay rights parade. My parents and siblings left after about a month.
I was living on the sofa at my cousins house in Brisbane, and had anyone asked, I was looking for work.
As you are no doubt aware, 2008 was the time of the big financial cock up that left the worlds economies in tatters. This means than just as I arrived in Australia, there were suddenly no easy jobs to be had. So what did I do? I sat about reading Ian M Banks.
Needless to say I did not get a job. After about a month, when I finally realised my predicament I bought a car from a bogun who, without any irony whatsoever, lived in a suburb called Logan.
The car was $1500 and functioned properly for all of a week. I spent my twenty second birthday driving north to a place called Bundaberg where I had been told there would be farm work.
That car was both the stupidest and the smartest thing that I did. I had spent the last of my money buying it. On the way to Bundaberg one of the radiator pipes came off and sprayed my engine coolant all over the road, the central locking stopped working and the little needle that showed how much petrol there was didn’t show how much petrol there was.
If I had been smarter, or had any friends at that point I would have shared the cost. However it got me to Bundaberg, mission one accomplished. I went to the first backpackers I found, I cant remember the name now, but it has writing all over the common room walls. If you find yourself there it is a good place, please say hello to the fat receptionist lady for me, she saved my ass.
Sometimes people find themselves in situations which seem too good to be true, or their pressing problem is solved somewhat miraculously. Its when situations seem to conspire to give you just what you need at just the right time that some people look up and praise the lord. I don’t know who to thank for my luck, but without it I would certainly have been packing myself shamefacedly off to my Nana’s house to await deportation for being a penniless vagrant.
I learned that sometimes you have to make things happen, but for everything else you only need to be available to take the opportunities presented to you. Not to get too ‘new age’ on you, but when I say ‘available’ I mean to be in the right frame of mind to just go with the flow. I cant describe it better than that. Partly its about not having plans all the time, and its partly about not evaluating why you want to do something, but just doing it.
I met so many lovely people there its unreal. A quick apology though to the Korean guy who I asked if he was Chinese, he was so polite but so obviously offended. I hope they weren’t at war or something.
The only source of entertainment in Bundaberg is alcohol, but when you have twenty or so people with you, all from different places with different ideas, different senses of humour, but who share a common situation, you can just enjoy the ride. That backpackers, despite being categorically shit, was one of the best places that I could have been. If I was going to run out of money and be stuck with a broken car at least I would do it surrounded by interesting and friendly people. I met this awesome Canadian guy, cant remember his name so lets call him Tom. He was a demon on the bucket. He would busk in the town centre by drumming on a couple of buckets. I think he attained the status of local celebrity.
A little bit about Bundaberg before I get ahead of myself. Its full of rednecks and farmers. If you go out at night wandering around you WILL get beaten up. Just a word of warning. The rum is good though, and there is likely to be some work around. I don’t know if dental insurance is illegal there or what but the people certainly didn’t have any. If you are from the US you probably think all us brits have awful teeth anyway and that we shouldn’t be judging these yokels. Well I tell you, the state of their teeth horrified me. Yes, actual physical disgust. It was the same with the bogun from Logan now I think about it….
Anyway, I eventually met Tom again in Melbourne. He was squatting with some very dodgy people and doing god knows what. But he was a prime example of someone having a very unique time, and he was happy, so who am I to judge? He was shy and suffered from low self-esteem, but he would talk to anyone and never seemed to say no to an interesting adventure, that was the secret to his success. I also met some utterly delightful German girls who went off to adventure in a (fully functional) car of their own.
So my situation in Bundaberg quickly became dire. I had a matter of days left and couldn’t afford more than another few days stay at the hostel. There was also no work. Like I said before, the cost of failure was too much to contemplate. I could not ask my family for more money, if things went tits up then I would be going home after little more than a month. After stressing out for a bit I followed a whim and took a walk. I thought the sea was only a couple hours walk away. It wasn’t, but luckily after a mile or so I got a hitch with a dude wearing an awesome tache, whose Ute (pickup) smelled very strongly of cannabis, I knew I had found a nice guy. Some good advice I was given about hitch hiking is that you should ‘pay’ for your ride with interesting conversation. He dropped me off by the beach and I went for a walk.
So where am I going with this? I have rambled on for more than a thousand words detailing some stuff that happened to me more than four years ago, why should you care? Well the main point I have had in the back of my mind this whole time is that my adventure up until now had precisely no planning what-so-ever. I was moving from necessity to necessity without any backup or destination. Yes, it was a bit stressful at times, but every second was immensely enjoyable despite that. The thrill of not knowing what was going to happen next, whether my adventure was going to be over in a matter of days or not made every second count. Its a shame that you probably can’t duplicate that feeling artificially. If you have a safety net of cash then its never going to feel balls-out exciting every moment.
At the risk of sounding like the end of a South Park episode, I learned something during those days. I learned that having a plan is not always a good plan, I learned that opportunities present themselves pretty much constantly, and I learned to trust my whims and intuition.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that you waste all your money eating posh salads in Brisbane until you are so poor that you have to buy a dysfunctional car from a rotten toothed bogun in the hope of getting some work. What I did was plain stupid and if I got the chance of a do-over, I would make some different choices. A slightly more tame, but longer working holiday is certainly more preferable than a quick and exciting crash and burn. I was just lucky, as you will see.
But again I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Eventually I got a days work on a farm, and shortly after another job even further north, and I swapped my car for a van with a beardy weardy I met at the beach. Im approaching my word limit, but rest assured that the next third of the story involves even more stupid-yet-clever decisions, including me coming within a metre of instant death, twice.
So where was I?
On the beach after a hitchhike. There was a chap there selling handmade necklaces. He just rolled out a blanket and had put his items on it. We got chatting, I think I saw him sell perhaps three in the hour or so we were talking. Not bad for a day chilling out in the sun.
He was telling me about how making and selling jewellery was pretty much the only job he had ever had. He used to cruise around the coast selling at festivals and fairs. I was amazed that such a lifestyle was possible, and obviously slightly jealous that someone else had thought of it first. Anyway he offered to give me a lift back to Bundaberg in his van since he lived there anyway, which was a good thing because it was only at that moment that I realised that I had no other means. One more instance when luck strikes at just the right moment.
On the way I mentioned that I really wanted a van. He said that he was looking to downsize to a car. I was amazed! What are the chances that I meet the one guy in the whole town that would want to swap a car for a van?
However to understand my burning desire for a van I will have to take you back to another chance meeting that took place while my family was still about. I was staying in a backpackers for a few nights in a town called Yamba. It’s a beautiful place and the backpackers had poker so I wasn’t stuck for things to do. However I didn’t count on the fact that after 7pm there is no chance whatsoever of purchasing food. It is a small town and everything shuts. So there I was after the poker night with barely half a bag of trail mix for dinner. I was asking around if anyone had any idea where I might get something more substantial. It was then that I happened across a sandy haired bloke hanging around outside, he was the epitome of an Australian surfer and he was looking for tobacco. Now, I don’t smoke anymore, haven’t done so for years. But at that time I was in the middle of on and off quitting, so I was still periodically bothered by tobacco cravings. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking will know that despite the best will in the world, sometimes you find yourself outside a newsagents with a pouch and a lighter thinking, “how the hell did that happen?”. Well exactly that had happened to me earlier that day.
It turned out that he and his friend were just about to make dinner for themselves. We traded food for tobacco (I was glad to see it go, Australian tobacco is uniquely vile) and got chatting. Long story short, he and his friend had quit their jobs, bought vans kitted out with beds and just gone surfing. They were on their way down the east coast. Instantly I succumbed to a burning desire to own a van, which neatly brings me to my utter surprise when the necklace selling beardy wanted to swap.
Several things happened rather quickly after that. Beardy and I ‘swapped’ our vehicles semi-legally by lying to the Transport Office. If you remember from the last article I had managed to get a days work packing vegetables on a farm which topped up my finances nicely. I had also secured a fortnight of farm work further north in a place called Townsville. So off I popped in my newly acquired van.
Incidentally ‘beardy’ was possibly the only example in the world of a ginger person who can call them self an aborigine. He was the result of some unholy union between a ginger man and an aboriginal woman. Perhaps he is more rare than an albino, somehow having the ability to survive direct sunlight while simultaneously getting immolated instantly at the merest hint of UV. I don’t know how that works, I was too excited about my new van to ask.
What happened as I drove out of the backpackers is possibly the clearest example in my entire life that listening to my intuition is the best thing I could possibly do at all times. There was another person leaving at the same time as me, but on foot. I wondered if he needed a hitch as I drove past him. Luckily I stopped and asked because he did, almost the whole way to Townsville actually.
Why was this so important you ask? Well in my naive little mind I had completely neglected to consider how much petrol would be needed to cover the thousand miles between where I was and where I was going. I had about two hundred bucks.
If there are any Australians reading I guarantee they snorted derisively. Driving a thousand kilometres in a knackered old van on two hundred dollars? Not a chance. I only realised how lucky I was after the first day. So I was lucky enough to sail on past the second or third moment when my journey could have come to an abrupt halt. Im not sure which would have been worse, being stuck in Brisbane with no money, or being stuck in some random patch of desert with no money and an empty van. At least in the desert there would only be kangaroos laughing at me.
It took three days to get to Townsville. Some of the most eventful three days of my life. It took so long because neither me or my co-pilot were in any hurry, and the scenery around there is glorious in some places. My inaugural journey in my van was awesome, for the first day at least I was totally blissing out and carefree. I had a van, I could park and sleep where ever I liked, go where ever I liked. It totally lived up to my expectations.
Then it over-heated. In retrospect it should have been pretty obvious to me that the loose doohickey next to the engine really needed fixing right there and then. But neither me or my co-pilot had a clue, and after the van had cooled down again it started just fine, so I was not worried.
It turns out that this doohickey was the alternator, its job is to charge the battery. Not a minor function by any means, but also not an immediately fatal one. So our journey continued nicely. We stopped off in a beautiful national park overnight and wandered about on the beach until sunset. Absolutely glorious.
Then the next morning, again rather predictably in hindsight, the engine did not start. We got a jump and continued on our way, I was still oblivious to the cause of the problem and its implications.
The next major point of the journey was when I dropped off my co-pilot and I was left with the problem of how to restart my van and get the last few hundred kilometres to my farm. By this point I had precisely no money, but I had also not been paid for my days work on the farm. The situation there was that the farm pays the hostel and the hostel delivers the money to the right people. You remember how I said last time how the fat receptionist lady saved my ass? I phoned her up and begged her to put the money in my account. As far as I know she made the trip specifically to help me out and I am eternally thankful for that.
With the money I now had I could take the battery out of the van and take it to a garage where they could charge it. I still had no clue that the loose doohickey was the cause of the problems, though I should have guessed. Perhaps I was not in the best frame of mind for pondering subtle things while being so close and yet so far from paid work. In situations like that the only thing you can think of is finding solutions to the immediate problems. It was late afternoon when the battery was charged enough to start my van, and I drove away will all haste. Bear in mind that the van was so old that ‘all haste’ was 80kph, any faster and it started making strange sounds.
I had to fill the tank up while the engine was still running. Luckily there was no massive explosion and no one tried t nick the van, as it had all of my stuff in it. I managed to drive in the wrong direction for half an hour, which only added to my stress levels since my job started the next day.
Afternoon was drawing into evening when I realised the other problem about having a flat battery. The lights don’t work. I was a hundred kilometres from my job, I had next to no money, I couldn’t stop the van without a guaranteed jump start in the morning. My only choice was to drive into the growing darkness. On the way I stopped off at two garages asking whether they had jump cables. Neither did. What happened next is so stupid that I am almost embarrassed to talk about it, and rest assured that had there been anyone else in the van I would not have done it. But since it was just me and I was off my tits on adrenaline, and solely out of necessity I continued to drive.
Eventually it got so dark that I could only see the road because of residual light, the sun was gone. I was flooring my little van, poor thing, but it was hurtling me along at an astonishing 120kph. I was sitting with my face against the windshield to see as much of the darkness as I could. The road was just discernible thanks to the white lines painted down the sides and the centre. However I was under no illusions that I was completely invisible to oncoming traffic. I was so high on adrenaline, so goddamn high that it felt like I was flying. But the most terrifying part was when on two separate occasions when there was a lorry coming the other way. Fortunately they were the only two vehicles I met during that half hour or so that I was driving after sunset, but their lights completely obscured my vision. I couldn’t see the road. The only thing that kept me alive was how accurately I judged the distance between the left most light and my own van. Too close and I would be dead, too far I would be off the road and likely dead shortly after. At 120kph there are no second chances.
If anyone had overtaken coming towards me I would be dead. If I had misjudged ANYTHING I would be dead. If there had been an obstruction in the road I would have hit it. But at the time I wasn’t thinking of any of that, I was concentrating on keeping my van on the road. I have never concentrated so hard on anything, ever.
I apologise to my parents for risking my life so stupidly, and like I said if there had been anyone else I would never have done it. I took responsibility for my own life rather lightly, but I don’t have the right to do that for anyone else. I don’t know how much of my life quota of luck I expended in that single half an hour, but thank goodness I’m still alive.
Just as it was getting pitch black I pulled into a small village, there were some people chatting outside a house that had a jump cable. I don’t think I deserved anymore luck, but there it was.
Again I am approaching my word limit. I hope you have enjoyed my tale so far. The next and probably final instalment is a little less on the outrageous side, but nevertheless should be interesting. These first two articles cover only the first two months of my trip, and I was there for ten months in total. As you can see things chilled out a bit after this.
Please don’t do what I did. Get an iota of mechanical knowhow before you buy a car and save yourself the trouble of dying prematurely. I am quite certain that if I had known how to fix the doohickey when I first saw it, none of this would have happened. But that’s hindsight, hey?
So after roughly two months of hijinks I managed to get to the farm only half a day late. This was after my van finally copped it while driving up a small incline. The engine blew out and started pouring smoke and the accelerator pedal stopped giving me any acceleration. It rolled to a stop a mere thirty kilometres from the farm so I loaded all of my possessions into my rucksack and hopped on my skateboard. It seemed like I had little choice but to skate the rest of the way, but luckily about two kilometres along the road I managed to get someone to call the farmer who came and picked me up. Like I said I got to the farm half a day late. I was so relieved to finally be there after such adventures. Life immediately went from very complicated, when I had to travel in a broken van, to very simple, my first job on the farm was digging a hole.
That was where the craziest part of my adventure ended. I was alive and working. I couldn’t really ask for more at that point.
If you cast your mind back to the beginning of my first article I mentioned that taking advice from people can potentially be a problem, because they might be boring or stupid. Well I think you know enough about me to decide for yourself whether you should be taking my advice, so I will proceed to give some. Instead of laboriously detailing the remaining nine months of my stay I will blast the main points of interest in bite size chunks, like a wood-chipping machine for facts.
Farm work, if you can get farm hand (general dogsbody) work, or picking, has the potential to be very rewarding. As everywhere it depends on the people you find there. I was lucky enough to meet some quality Australian blokes, seasoned farm hands, but also a bunch of backpackers. In general farm work is great because you don’t have much opportunity to spend the money you have earned. Just try not to drink all of your earnings, it’s too easy to drink a six pack every day after work.
If you are wanting to get from one city to another an option is to relocate camper vans for the rental companies. It costs about a dollar per day, but you have to pay for the petrol. The downside is usually you don’t get many days, so you will have to drive a decent distance each day, but its still a good option in my opinion. It’s more interesting than sitting on a bus anyway. I found an absolute gem while relocating a van from Brisbane to Sydney, such a little gem that I am a little disinclined to tell you about it. But I will because I like you. There is a tiny little National park along the coast between the two cities called Bongil Bongil. It is sparsely populated and in a slightly awkward place which means it is also deserted. The beach is miles long with absolutely no-one there, perfect for ‘skinny dipping’ with a significant other. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink… 😀
Brisbane is the city I spent the most time in. I worked for a environment charity called the Wilderness Society. If you have a thicker than average skin and a passion about the environment I recommend that you get yourself an interview there. The hours are short, the pay is good, and you get a warm fuzzy feeling every time you add another soul to the ‘save the planet’ armada. I campaigned hard to get part of Cape York protected. A month after returning to the UK I got an email saying that the campaign had been successful! The feeling of joy I got from having such an impact was comparable to finding out that I had passed my degree. Not only is it a job that you can come back to, as in if you are good and want to take a month to go traveling, your office will welcome you back with open arms. But also its a job you can do in any of the cities, so getting a transfer should be simple too. I really cant recommend it enough, I worked there for five months in total after taking out three weeks to go back to the farm and pick mangoes. On a tangent, I hate mangoes now, they smell like work…
I cannot say enough about Brisbane. The atmosphere is wonderful. I never thought a city of two million people could feel like a small country town, but it can. The place to be is West End, seriously, get yourself down there and make some friends. Being British the thought of talking to people you don’t know randomly is a bit odd. In Britain if you tried to do that people are instantly suspicious, like you are about to try and sell them pegs. They will be genuinely worried that if they talk back you might follow them around for the rest of the day. But in my experience Australians are generally happy to talk with anyone, provided they aren’t a complete weirdo. I met some people who also worked at the Wilderness Society and we got a house about ten minutes walk from the main street in West End, the rent was cheap and the atmosphere was great if I didn’t mention it before. No one is a stranger to a backpacker needing a place to crash, as long as you are interesting, open and honest. While I was living there we must have had forty or fifty different people in various groups sleeping in our living room at one time or another. The living room wasn’t big you understand, the people came a few at a time every few days. We called the house the Turquoise Palace but that was a bit of an exaggeration. We partied all night, and when there was no work we partied all day too.
Another excellent aspect of Brisbane is that it is really close to Byron Bay and Nimbin. Only about a three hour drive, practically next door by Ozzie standards. Byron bay is only the coolest place ever, and I will let you do your own research on Nimbin to let you decide for yourself if you want to go there. Its full of hippies and other friendly folk.
I have nothing really to say about Sydney other than it is horrible and big and crowded and I don’t really like it. Melbourne on the other hand is an excellent place, very clean and extremely pleasant. There are also about a million sushi restaurants to cater for all of the asian students that seem to be everywhere. Fortunately I really like sushi.
If I have one regret it is that I didn’t organise enough farm work for myself to get the extension on my visa. On the downside farm work is boring as hell, but on the other hand, three months of it for the right to live in Australia for two years is totally worth it.
I hope you have an awesome time on your holiday, and I hope that you have at least enjoyed my articles. To summarise: Do stupid things, but not too dangerous. Only plan half of the things, leave the rest to chance. Be open with everyone that you meet, and don’t worry about dangerous spiders or snakes. I saw one venomous snake the whole time. Oh, and avoid Bull Ants. When an insect that is about an inch long spots you coming along, and then decides to go for you, you start to think that maybe it knows something you don’t. It is disconcerting. I also watched two of them from rival colonies literally fight to the death, they died with their jaws clamped round one another.
On that rather obscure note I bid you good day.