A short window on wwoofing.

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Oceania » Australia » Victoria » Healesville
March 4th 2014
Published: March 4th 2014
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Long road back from townLong road back from townLong road back from town

It was probably about 5 miles into town, and necessary when the buses weren't running over the holidays.
‘Healesville seems like an alright place’

During 2011-12, I was a WWOOFer. It means Willing Workers on Organic Farms and basically you throw yourself at the mercy of your ‘host’ who puts you to work and they feed you and give you a roof over your head. Well, most of the time. The whole wwoofing situation pretty much goes against everything you’ve been taught growing up i.e. speaking to strangers and getting in their car. But I suppose it’s a chance you take when you sign up for the programme. If I’m honest, my first impression of my host didn’t do much to assuage this feeling. He was fairly tall, with long hair underneath a bandana, well-built and wearing beige work clothes. He sounds quite intimidating right? But on closer inspection I could see that he had soft un-worked hands, puppy fat, and soon found out about his fondness for board games during our car-ride, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

‘Not used to actual work it seems’

The idea of manual work had worried me slightly – would I be able to do it? But when I saw another wwoofer, C, I relaxed a little. She was tiny, not short, but very slender so I figured anything she could do, I could do too. The task in hand was classic wwoofer work. There was a large paddock where the garlic, and a few other crops like potato, was grown and it was chocka with tall thick-stemmed rush-like weeds. We had a pair of secateurs each and were let loose. Sounds simple enough, but do it for eight hours straight, and/or in above 35 degree heat and the task gets more and more demanding. On one occasion, our host left us in the field while he drove into town – and took the refill water with him. So when we had finished our bottles (which didn’t take long in the particularly glaring heat of that day) and there was still no sign of our host after several hours, we got a bit worried. C made a trek up to the shed to find some spare water while S (a second, German wwoofer who arrived a few days after me) and I downed tools. After maybe ten or fifteen minutes of contemplating various documentaries I’d seen where people get stranded in the wilderness and stagger about while vultures circle overhead, C returned with three full bottles of water, not exactly Evian but drinkable when you think you might die of thirst. Our host eventually returned and we were saved, though he was not nearly repentant enough for my liking.

‘Nut meat’

I’m not a vegetarian. I mean, I like tofu as much as the next person, but forced vegetarianism tends to irk me somewhat. I couldn’t possibly complain about the amount of food we got (which by all accounts was too much even after a day in the paddock) but it baffles me why vegetarians go to such lengths to make their vegetable protein look and taste as much like meat as they can. In the fridge were vegetarian hot dogs, deli slices, fake fish, and the ever mysterious ‘nut meat’ in a can. Fortunately, I lack principles, and so had no qualms about trying and enjoying all of these things. Whenever I made it into town for lunch though, I plumped for the most meatylicious item on the menu and devoured it with gusto.

‘Tad formal rather than festive’

Christmas in Healesville was by all accounts a strange affair. On Christmas Eve our host took us all to his church for their Carol Service. Now I love carols, but we had to sit through over an hour of a rather shouty sermon first before they even got started – and when they did – they had altered the traditional words. I don’t know whether it was an Australian or an Adventist thing but it was perturbing nonetheless. All was forgiven soon afterwards though, when a huge table, stretching the length of the hall, became almost magically laden down with a large hot and cold buffet with every kind of home cooking one might desire, including puddings. Gawd bless ‘em.

Christmas morning, S and I awoke to find ourselves alone in the house but with a stocking outside each of our doors. It was filled with nuts, sweets and chocolates and genuinely was one of my most appreciated gifts ever as it was so unexpected. Being alone and aimless we played rummy a lot and ate chocolate. Eventually, the host and C returned and he took us to his mother’s house for Christmas dinner. His whole family seemed to take themselves very seriously, friendly but formal. For example, apparently you can’t say ‘toilet’, you have to say ‘bathroom’; even though you don’t need a bath. And all vegetarian of course, so we had platters of fake chicken and salads and chips and dips for a surreal festive feast. None of it really felt like Christmas, and the warm, balmy, thunder-stormy weather didn’t help. On the plus side, I won at a board game I’d never seen before, grinning smugly on the inside to have beaten these aficionados.

‘you end the day with eyes like fried eggs, a broiled brain and the knees of a 60-year-old’

I could easily expand on this quote and give details about the sheer quantities of sweat involved, the shiny blisters forming over angry red mosquito bites on my hands and an ever-aching back, but I think you get the picture.

‘Got the electric bug zappers out today. Good for morale.’

At lunch time, we’d throw our stuff and ourselves into the host's uht and he’d whisk us up to the shed for a packed lunch. Shed doesn’t really do it justice – it was a massive barn-like structure that stored various farm equipment as well as drying garlic. In fact, the picnic table was right next to the crates of garlic that were being blown on by giant caged fans which made for a pungent lunch. The whole barn had a strange purple musty dusty smell also, perhaps that was something to do with the fact that the shed had at one time been used to battery farm chickens.

The lunches themselves were quite civilised, there were wet wipes aplenty and chairs etc. For a real treat (as the mosquitoes loved the shaded shelter of the shed) our host would get out his tennis racquet shaped bug zapper and with an eagle eye, try a few forehands at them if they came too near his noodle soup.

‘We were like, zing!’

Two weeks into the wwoof, a fourth arrived, a Dutch guy, K. He was a card. He had a resonating deep voice and incredibly confident personality that made the rest of us quite benign characters seem impossibly dull. He had the peculiar habit of walking around barefoot, even outside (not recommended in Oz) and standing in the front garden to drink his morning cup of coffee. Anyway, one night at dinner, myself, S, our host and K were eating when out of the blue, K said:

‘Is your girlfriend asleep?’ to our host. Now, ever since I arrived, I’d found the unexplained fact that C slept in our host's room both bizarre and disconcerting, owing partly to the fact that he was at least a dozen years older, Australian, twice her size, and with a large language barrier, partly because it was simply never talked about. Me and S had discussed this of course but would never have asked him directly. I had said to C once,

‘You must get on with him?’ and she had replied with quite a demure and unexplanatory


So to have it blurted out in the open like that was highly amusing for myself and S, and our host could do little else than say ‘yes’ into his dinner. So there it was; they were a couple, perhaps the oddest couple I’d ever met. K seemed oblivious to the atmosphere that had briefly wafted over and began one of his stories about hiking from the Netherlands to Spain which apparently he found as easy as falling off a log.

‘It was mostly still hard dirt from where I was kneeling’

Our host had a tractor. He assured us that he was going to lift the dirt and reveal the garlic and oh how simple it would all be. Apart from it wasn’t. We’d gathered about like wise men and shepherds at Christmas in awe of his big green machine with massive anticipation. Off it went for a few metres along the row and then stopped, and we peered into the Victorian earth expecting to see white gold. It hadn’t even made a dent! For the whole rest of the row, each time the arm of the lifter was to go down me and S had to sit on it to force it into the ground. This was less than fun as the whole thing shook like a pneumatic drill which rattled every bone, taking no pity when it reached your brain.


I made this promise to myself after my swollen bites finally calmed down, and I had booked my flights out of there. On my final night at the house, I tossed all my gardening clothes into the wheelie bin outside. It was cathartic to say the least.


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