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Why WWOOF? [New Zealand]

in Featured/Kiwi Slices/Travel by

“So, do you have a job lined up for when you get to New Zealand?”

Over the Christmas holidays in Pasadena last year, I had to learn to suppress an eye roll every time I was asked the question, which came from pretty much everyone I went to high school with and their Mom. No, I didn’t have a job lined up, or even a place to stay beyond two nights in Auckland, but it wasn’t that part that aggravated me. It was what inevitably came next.

“Oh…well what are you going to do?”

Good question. The truth was (and, spoiler alert, still is) that I didn’t know what I was going to do, or where I was going to end up. That was part of the romanticism of the whole adventure – tossing all my things in a backpack, getting a work visa and IRD number, and just going off, working in exotic locations and doing things that I would never be able to do back home. I’m pretty sure I hoped to cut sugarcane at some point, which shows how naive I actually was.

Alas, there’s something to be said for romanticism, namely that it doesn’t usually transpire the ways you imagine. Sure, there were plenty of fruit-picking jobs across the country (no sugarcane though, unless I wanted to dart over to Australia), but there were plenty of clauses attached: long hours, own transportation an asset, living in hostels with other seasonal workers, and a time commitment of, in a lot of cases, a few months. How were you supposed to go pick a few fruit and save a few bucks, but still travel the country without getting stuck in that rut?

The job hunt (and what I found there)

The biggest issue with these jobs (and it wasn’t just the fruit picking gigs either; I looked into everything from childcare to office temp work) was the time. I had 7 months, and I planned to see New Zealand. All of it. It turns out, though, that most employers weren’t exactly keen on the turnover rate I romantically envisioned, which left me with a bit of a problem: what do I do? I’d saved for a year before I came Down Under, but I couldn’t travel for months on that, even if all I was eating was instant noodles. But, that reality was in opposition to the knowledge that this was a ‘working vacation’, and the second word is as crucial as the first. The last thing I wanted was to return home in August and, when asked about my favourite part of New Zealand, have to say it was the drive from the factory I worked at to the hostel I stayed at.

Photo by Ryan Belbin.
It’s one thing to romanticize the merits and experiences of travelling to a distant place, but actualizing those experiences is an entirely different thing. ‘Selfie’ by Ryan Belbin.

I found the answer during my first job, which was what is referred to in technical terms as a ‘crappy job’. I phoned a hostel in Havelock, a small community on the northern tip of the South Island, because they were offering what they called the “Kiwi Dream Job”. All I knew was that it was working at a hostel for a few hours in exchange for accommodation and, ambiguously, “some” meals – but the romantic, free-as-can-be spontaneous drifter I’d pretended to be at Christmas was suddenly replaced by a panicking guy who needed to figure out something to do, and a two week job somewhere was the answer for the time being. I could figure the rest out there.

I say it was a crappy job because, after a few hours of changing linen in the morning, I usually ended up looking after two energetic toddlers, and then helping out with a kayak business one of the owners was running on the side. What ended up happening was myself and the other half dozen workers felt on-call all the time – essentially earning $20 a day, to cover the board of the dorm room. Sometimes we got a sip of homemade whiskey at night, but that was about it. Humility, thy name is the Blue Moon Lodge.

But, I got two significant insights during my stay there, and it ended up being the perfect jumping off point after all. The first was that I met a guy who was just finishing a three month stint at a mussel plant down the road – up at 6 a.m., off to the assembly line for eight hours, return, sleep, repeat. He hated it, and never wanted to see another mussel again. That would be a terrible way to start this trip (and, time-wise, it would bring me close to the halfway point, so it would be a lingering tarnish). The other insight was a conversation I had with a German woman named Eva.

“This isn’t a good place to work,” she said. But over a communal bottle of wine, she told me about a good place to work. Or, rather, to WWOOF.

The wonders of WWOOFing

Started in England in the 1970s as “Working Weekends on Organic Farms,” WWOOFing has grown into a diverse network over 99 countries worldwide, the acronym now understood to be “Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” or, as I first heard it, “Willing Workers on Organic Farms.” The idea is simple: a farmer is looking for help, so a few young (or young at heart) travellers agree to spend a little bit of time, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, helping out in exchange for food and board. True, you don’t get financially ahead, but you do get your major expenses covered, not to mention the fact that you get to see different places and have all kinds of different experiences with some honest-to-God Kiwi locals.

All you need to do is sign up (there’s a minimal registration fee, but if you WWOOF only once you’ve probably paid for it), create a profile, and search for someone where you want to head next. All the contact information is there, as well as a description, so you can give them a call or email, and if they’re not looking for anyone you move onto the next one. If they are, then it’s just that easy. Every host is different when it comes to the lodging, the food, and the work expected (though it’s generally about four hours a day), but that’s easy to sort out in a few minutes over the phone, and it helps keep things interesting.

The organization’s name may not have changed since 1971, but it has definitely become an umbrella term, branching away from organic farms to include a host of jobs that people need completed. I’ve weeded and worked in gardens, but I’ve been lucky to get other opportunities – the kind I saw in my dreamy mind whenever anyone back home asked me, and they were all short-term. For example:

I worked at a farm park in Kaikoura for two and a half weeks, feeding some 100 animals every morning (pigs, donkeys, rabbit, sheep, ponies, llamas, alpacas, a deer named Bambi, ducks, chicken, and goats), cleaning manure, catching chicken for supper, whitewashing a shed, and learning to live (moderately) self-sufficiently.

You never know what experiences await, familiar or strange, in the world of WWOOFing. Photo by Ryan Belbin.
You never know what experiences await, familiar or strange, in the world of WWOOFing. Photo by Ryan Belbin.

I stayed with a family with two small children in Dunedin, acting as an after school babysitter and pitching in around the garden. They lived right outside the city centre, so I got to go to the Octagon more than once (the Speight’s Brewery was only a conveniently slight stumble away), but the best part was the way I got integrated into the family routine, joining them on a few beach trips, a swim in the Pacific, and a sunrise hike and egg hunt on Easter Sunday.

I helped build a greenhouse in Arrowtown, a beautiful, historic town near Queenstown with trees that come alive with colour in autumn, after serendipitously finding my way there. The guy I was working with didn’t believe in early mornings, but he did believe in pints at the nearby pub in the evening, as well as passing along the life lessons he’d amassed over his life. What did he call himself again? Oh yeah, a curmudgeonly old fart. I loved Arrowtown.

I split wood and built a chicken run in Akaroa, at a meditations temple where a few full-time residents study the mystical teachings of the Ageless Wisdom. Part of my experience here, in this cloistered community, was participating in daily meditations (6:45 a.m., noon, and 5 p.m.), learning tai-chi, and taking lessons on astrology. I’m not exactly converting, but the gears in my brain turned a different way than any time before, and the mental exhaustion was worth it for the personal insights it led to.

Those experiences, far from everything I’ve been fortunate to be involved in, are better than the usual entertainment at a hostel, and a home-cooked meal is a far cry from instant noodles. And there are still a lot of miles left to cover.

At the risk of being didactic and overbearing, I never would have seen New Zealand to the extent I’ve seen it if I’d gotten sucked into the routine of a regular job. Even if I’d done as some people do and worked for a few months, saved up, and then travelled, I never would have stayed long enough to find the secrets of a town that you only get from sharing with someone who lives there. I returned to Arrowtown twice, staying with someone I’d met through my WWOOFing host – if I’d been a tourist, I would have slowed down on the main street, taken a few pictures of the leaves, and gone on down the road to Wanaka. It’s possible to see everything and nothing at the same time, and that has never been my intention.

And the best part? Now that I’m used to it, it doesn’t bother me that I don’t have a plan. I might skydive this week. I might go on a jet boat. I might go to Nelson, back near Havelock. Or I might go somewhere I’ve never seen on a map before and do something I’ve never heard of – there are plenty of choices out there for a willing worker. Especially one who’s looking for some good stories to tell his friends this Christmas.

The Independent encourages submission of travel-related stories, guides, anecdotes, and more! If you’d like to contribute to our Travel section, email hansnf@gmail.com.

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