Outback Australia: A WWOOFer’s guide to life on the land
How does a London desk bunny adapt to the remote red dust of Western Australia? Laura Mannering, journalist and editor of online travel magazine World Out There, tells Top50 Ranches about the time she was shown the ropes by two Outback cattle station owners…
Accessing Outback Australia can be hard if you don’t want to spend a fortune, but are keen to avoid the backpacker trail. A two-week volunteer placement on a cattle station called Wonganoo, in the Goldfields of Western Australia, gave me a first-hand insight into Outback existence.
The station spreads over a million acres of burnt Martian landscape, with 3,000 cattle hiding amid the sparse, wizened vegetation. Having grown up in London and lived in the city most of my life, being somewhere so remote was an eye-opener.
Wonganoo is 240km from the nearest small township, Leonora, and a seven-hour drive from the much bigger mining hub of Kalgoorlie. Food is delivered to Wonganoo by the mail man once a week. If you’re really ill, you call the flying doctor. The myriad choices of day-to-day city living are totally absent. I was surprised at how soothing I found it – the huge starry skies at night, the terracotta earth stretching uninterrupted to the horizon. But it was my hosts who really made it special.
Station owners Kathy and Malcolm Boladeras welcomed me in and taught me how to use a power drill, mend barbed-wire fences, solar panels and windmills, lay baits for dingoes (their sheep were wiped out by a dingo invasion five years ago and they are worried their calves will go the same way) and mince camel steaks (there are around 500,000 feral camels in Western Australia, originally imported in the 19th century as a means of transport. Station owners cull them and nutritionists were promoting camel meat as ‘healthier than beef’ when I was there). As Malcolm kindly put it, I was ‘on a very steep learning curve’.
Losing their flocks was a devastating blow and the end of an era at Wonganoo – Malcolm’s grandfather had set it up as a sheep station in 1925. Now the couple rely on cattle to make ends meet, but domestic beef prices are low and they make their best money selling bulls to Indonesia. Then there’s the weather – persistent drought relieved by the odd smattering of blessed rain.
Malcolm and Kathy have been taking volunteers at Wonganoo for several years to gain a helping hand – and to give them another way to connect with the world outside. It was a pleasure for me to learn about a way of life so different to my own, and to be welcomed into it so openly.
I arranged my placement through Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) Australia which has plenty of Outback options. Sign up online or in person when you arrive in Australia. You’ll pay AUS$60 (around £40) and receive a directory of all the WWOOF hosts. Volunteers are unpaid, can be any age, and do not need a working holiday visa. Your host provides you with food and board and you lend them a hand. Using a tourist visa from the UK, I did five placements all over Australia in three months, and enjoyed them all.
To get the most out of your experience, it’s important to:
- Know what you want. Are you after something laid-back, or are you willing to pull out all the stops? Some hosts see their role as being a cultural guide, others will treat you as ‘one of the boys’ and expect you to muck in round the clock.
- Find recommendations from other volunteers via the WWOOF online forum, or by word of mouth if you are already travelling in Oz – plenty of travellers of all ages and backgrounds will have done a WWOOFing stint along the way.
- Speak to your host on the phone before you turn up. It’s a good chance to see if you click and to check they are bona fide. Lots of WWOOF hosts also have websites too, which are worth a look.
- Ask questions and make sure you are happy with the set up (the hours you’ll be helping out, where you’ll be sleeping, provision of meals, opportunities to explore the area). WWOOFers are expected to help out for four hours a day, but some hosts want more, some less. Most people ask you to stay for a minimum of five days, others will want a longer commitment.
- Trust your instincts – if you’ve gone down the line with a placement but don’t feel comfortable with the arrangements, politely back out. Once you’re on a remote farm, particularly if you don’t have your own transport, it can be hard to escape!