Working holidays: Living off the lamb

Working on a farm in exchange for bed and board is a great way to meet 'real' people in a country you're visiting. Kathryn Good gets back to nature on a trip Down Under
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The Independent Travel

Standing ankle-deep in mud in a sodden field somewhere in Tasmania, trying to cut a goat's horny toenails as it struggled to boot me back to mainland Australia, was just one of the numerous occasions while WWOOFing that I had cause to question: "What the hell am I doing here?". WWOOFing - no, it's not just for dogs, stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, an international organisation through which travellers exchange a certain amount of work per day for board and lodging on farms and homes around the world. For some, it's simply a cheap way to travel, others are there to learn organic and other farming techniques, while for many it's an opportunity to meet "real" people and escape the endless round of bunk beds in backpacker hostels.

For me it was a way of combining a mixture of travel and manual labour in the hope that it would take my mind off an unsuitable boy back home. Which is how I found myself - in no particular order - shoot bashing in a vineyard in Victoria, scraping manure out of old cow horns on a biodynamic farm in New South Wales and carding wool to make felt in Tasmania.

The amount of work you're expected to do, the friendliness of the hosts, their organic credentials - all these differ wildly from place to place. In return for a small joining fee, WWOOFers are issued with a handbook listing all member properties (the Australian handbook has more than 1,400).

You soon learn to interpret the "code". Unless sprouted beans and chanting play a big part in your life, for example, you should probably avoid addresses such as Dharmananda Community and Oneness Incorporated. I'm afraid, being a soft city girl, I steered clear of listings including "dinkum dunnies/bush showers/visitors should brings torches as we have no electricity".

Before I'd become adept at reading between the lines, however, I managed to find myself staying with a tree-hugging, folk music-loving yet completely joyless couple somewhere in Victoria. With no heating, the filthy house was freezing cold. I spent two days planting their land with eucalyptus seedlings, which I then had to surround with old milk cartons "guards". While the work itself was pretty satisfying (and left my hands smelling delicious), the thought of another evening drinking warm, treacly home-brewed ale with my hosts' cousins was too much to bear.

Having planned to stay a week, I plotted my escape with clandestine calls to bus companies, before heading south to the Great Ocean Road.

And that's the beauty of WWOOFing - as it's an entirely voluntary arrangement you're always free to move on. When you call your host family, you generally agree on the amount of time you plan to stay - a two-night minimum is the official rule and some specify stays of no less than a week - but since no money changes hands you can always make a quick getaway (rural bus timetables permitting). The more cushy-sounding hosts (such as a Byron Bay beach house in northern New South Wales where WWOOFers have "access to the spa and pool in exchange for two hours work per day") tend to get booked up pretty quickly.

A lot of women travelling on their own choose to WWOOF as a safer option than backpacking. But it's not all young, budget travellers looking for a cheap way to get around the country.

The vineyard owners I stayed with in Victoria once had the Canadian chief executive of a computer company turn up in a brand new Audi, the boot full of booze, just looking for a different "holiday experience". More often, though, the hosts get Korean students looking to improve their English - although the language they'd have picked up at that particular property would be hard to find in any textbook.

The hosts' organic credentials, too, can sometimes be quite dubious. The Victorian grape growers were definitely more interested in drinking the fruits of their labour than worrying deeply about alternatives to chemical pesticides.

On a property near Gilgandra in deepest New South Wales, however, I stayed with a couple of ordinary Aussie farmers who had embraced the most extreme form of organics, biodynamics. While their three young children were being fed on fluorescent ice-cream and frozen meat pies, their sheep were lovingly administered with homeopathic remedies and their chooks roamed free, pecking away at their organic feed.

I spent hours one day scraping manure out of old cow horns that had been buried under a certain phase of the moon and then left for months until the manure had apparently become super fertile. Seeing the happy hens clucking around the fields, and then having to clean hundreds of their poo-smeared biodynamic eggs with steel wool, made the extra money you pay for organic eggs at home seem a bargain.

I also discovered there's nothing quite like driving around on a quad bike herding cattle, holding down sheep while they're given their medicine and cutting metal with an axle grinder in the midday sun to make you appreciate a long shower, a cold beer and a huge feed in the evening.

True, few of the skills I was learning were likely to come in very handy back home in north London, but I was developing thigh muscles to be proud of. The unsuitable boy was out of my mind (well, some of the time), and I was meeting people I would never normally encounter, let alone spend a week with, in places I could never have found on my own.

When I landed in Tasmania, Karen, my host, picked me up off the ferry and drove me through the most magical Moomin Valley-like countryside, green and lush, until we arrived at their house, tucked away at the end of a long winding dirt track, with no other properties in sight. It was like entering another world, and for a week I became part of the family, looking after their two girls, bottle-feeding their baby goats, weeding their organic veggie patch, and carding wool to make felt.

Once the children were at school, Karen and I spent the mornings in a shed turning the felt into luridly coloured hats and bottle covers. On Saturday we took the hats to Salamanca Market in the island's capital, Hobart. Standing behind the market stall selling the hats I had designed and made, I felt strangely proud of my bizarre craftwork and slightly superior to the herds of tourists aimlessly wandering around the market, checking it off their list. It's not often as a traveller (particularly a young, female one) that you get the opportunity to glimpse a country from the inside out so easily, quickly or safely. Even if you haven't the slightest interest in farming or organics, WWOOFing offers an excellent alternative to backpacking. It's a big, adventurous, lucky-dip of a way to travel. True, you could turn up at Cold Comfort Farm but, equally, pick right next time and you could find yourself, as I did, sitting on a veranda looking out over a vineyard, knocking back wine and eating steak hot off the barbie - all in return for a few hours of good, old-fashioned hard work.

If you want a cheap way to experience the real meat and bones of a country and learn new skills (useful or not) while you're at it, it's ideal. As a way to get over unsuitable boys, though, it may not be so successful. The unsuitable boy and I are planning to take our baby son WWOOFing as soon as he's old enough.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Annoyingly, most of the short-term air fare specials to Australia expired at the end of September; for travel between now and mid-December, you can expect to pay perhaps £700 return to reach Sydney or Melbourne from the UK.

For an itinerary of the sort that Kathryn Good undertook, you could choose an open-jaw ticket, for example flying out to Melbourne, travelling overland through New South Wales and flying home from Sydney.

There are no flights between the UK and Tasmania; the easiest access point is Melbourne, with frequent flights to Hobart and Launceston. To sail on the Spirit of Tasmania, call 00 61 3 6421 7333 or visit www.spiritoftasmania.com.au

STAYING THERE

WWOOF Australia (00 61 3 5155 0218; www.wwoof.com.au). The website also provides links to other national organisations and independent hosts around the world. The UK contact is contactable on 01273 476 286 or online at

www.wwoof.org/wwoof_uk

FURTHER INFORMATION

If the country you want to WWOOF in has its own national organisation you must become a member of each national organisation: contact the WWOOF Association (01273 476286; www.wwoof.org) for details. The website also lists WWOOF Independents, which covers countries without their own national organisation (such as France, Spain and India). The joining fee for this is £15, or £20 including a list of hosts.

Tourism Tasmania (00 61 3 62 308 235; www.discovertasmania.com).

Tourism Australia (0191 501 4646; www.australia.com).

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