It’s been a while since I did any meaningful updates, but that should change shortly as I’ve left Sydney for the time being and am down in Tasmania for the next 3 months. I’ll chronicle my time in Sydney (finally), but I’ll just write a post on what I’m up to right this moment. I’m working to extend my Working Holiday Visa for another year, as I want to spend more time in Sydney with my girlfriend Tam (whom will feature in my Sydney posts, once I get around to them!). In many countries, you would simply apply online or in person and be granted an extension. But not in Australia. To qualify for a second year extension, you must do 3 months ‘qualified’ work in a rural area before the government will allow you to stay. With that in mind, I chose a vineyard down in Tasmania to help out at for 90 days, owned by a Hungarian family. I lasted 3 days.
Before accepting the position I had heard all sorts of horror stories from other backpackers who had done work across Australia. Deplorable living conditions, long hours, unreasonable expectations of the owners, crazy and aggressive owners in general. Many of the complaints surrounded fruit picking in Queensland, the usual ‘go-to’ place for backpackers looking to extend their visa. So I carefully selected a spot that was quiet, well reviewed and sounded interesting, and far away from Queensland. Well, it certainly was interesting.
After being forgotten in Hobart by my hosts (they had offered to pick me up, but didn’t), I took the bus down to Dover, Tasmania, the nearest village. It was a beautiful area, with rolling hills, inlets and bays and lots of greenery. It reminded me a lot of New Zealand. I was picked up by the husband, a gruff older man with a bit of a crazy look to him. But very friendly and full of interesting thoughts and history. Arrival at the vineyard only took a couple minutes, where I was shown to my room, a simple affair with two beds and not much else…not even finished walls or a door. Bedding was scattered on a nearby chair. I set up my bed and went down to chat with the family and two other backpackers that were present.
Much of the relaxing and conversations took place on the back porch area, surrounded by 5-6 of their outdoor cats. Anyone that knows me, knows I love cats. These animals were quite wretched souls however. Semi-feral, some were wheezing or coughing from what sounded like various ailments. And persistent to the point of annoyance. It wasn’t a great environment to sit around in, not to mention having meals at.
Meals were of the basic variety, but still tasty. Sausage featured heavily. The first night I was there was the last evening for one worker, so she made dinner while I helped the husband in the Cellar with wine making. This was far and away my favourite part of my short time here – learning about wine making. They still use manpower for their processing, so it was a large wooden press that was used to squeeze the grapes, picked just the day before. First press got around 50L of juice from the grapes, which was vacuum pumped over to a large glass container. Yeast was added to kick off fermentation, and then was sealed up and left. Second pressing would take much longer, over the course of the next 24 hours, and would yield another 25L of juice. There is a remarkable amount of liquid in those little grapes if you are patient enough.
Past that part, my work at the vineyard had almost nothing to do with winemaking. I did help lay some netting on grapes one evening, but beyond that, not much. It turns out that here, household chores were the norm. Setting tables, cleaning, mopping, laundry for the family, cooking, attending to the Cellar Door, and more were all simple ‘expectations’ of the stay. This was where I definitely had a problem. This was far from my first time doing a family work stay – I had completed 5 other placements, all in New Zealand, and enjoyed all of them (some were downright fantastic). I merrily did work for the family, usually in the gardens or outdoors, things OUTSIDE normal house maintenance. Here in Tasmania, it seemed like the workers were pretty much responsible for keeping the house in order as well. This was something I had heard a lot from other backpackers – that the families you stay with seem to think of you as indentured servants during your stay, cooking, cleaning and maintaining the place, on top of farm work. Not to mention, the work was entirely unstructured. All of my other placements they would know what you were doing for the day. Weed this garden, wash these windows, type up these documents, etc. It made for a easy transition for new workers and ensured I felt like I actually did something. Here, nothing was planned and was spur of the moment. Which for some people I’m sure is fine, but for me, it felt like I was on call the entire time I was there.
My first morning I was delighted to find that the one indoor cat had puked all over the stairs and (I believe) somewhere in my room, as the smell was quite strong. I never did find the spot in my room, but I cleaned up the stairs vomit since nobody else seemed keen to. During lunch the smoking would begin in earnest, with all 3 family members resembling chimneys during the rest of the day. Once evening came around the wine would be started in on – great wine actually, and indulged in for hours on end while conversation and smoking rolled on, with dinner eaten around 10pm. The history the family has is absolutely fascinating, and their conversations were fast and covered a breadth of topics but it was an exhausting experience for someone like me who does enjoy some quiet time.
I realize I’m whining a lot, but it’s more a need to vent a little, also because I KNEW about almost all of this before arrival. The hosts were upfront about nearly everything I mentioned, and were understanding if things didn’t work out, as they stated they aren’t for everyone. These hosts had glowing reviews, and I can see why – they are very interesting, lively, open and generous people. You can have as much wine and food as you can handle, and work is relaxed as it’s mostly housework. And they are super flexible with your needs, being unstructured work. Far easier than many placements, I’m sure. But for me, it was instantly wrong. The assault on the senses – the constant smoking, the smelly, disheveled animals, the lack of any table manners, the general state of un-keptness of the premises and the expectation to keep their house entirely in order was something I wasn’t prepared for. I’m not afraid of hard work, and any family I stayed with before would likely attest to the fact that I readily help out around the house, but I do think it’s silly to expect your helpers to pretty much run the house for you. I was dropped into this without any instruction or direction, and the other helper was similarly frustrating – she’d go about doing work without inviting me to join in/learn, and when I started certain tasks she would suggest waiting until later (such as the dishes), only to do them herself whenever she finished with her current item. So overall I mis-estimated my tolerance for things.
Partly through my second day I made the decision to look for a different placement. I simply wasn’t going to be happy here. It didn’t take long to find a potentially great one – working elsewhere in Tasmania in an ‘ecoVillage’, supporting construction, a cafe, gardening and motel work with multiple other backpackers like myself. Sounded ideal. I sent an email and followed up with a phonecall, and within 12 hours I had a new job, starting a few days later. Relief washed over me as I had an out. I told my current hosts shortly after, they were understanding and friendly, and I went to sleep that night happy and relaxed.
And now here I sit in Hobart, a day away from try #2 at finding a job for 3 months to get my visa extended. I am very hopeful for this one, from everything I’ve read about them and from my conversations on the phone I think it will be a great experience. Structured work, more people around and a much cleaner environment, I think I’m going to enjoy the next few months now. I’ve had a wonderful and understanding girlfriend back in Sydney who’s supported me tremendously through this stressful little stretch, and I’m hoping this new job will fit perfectly and the next 3 months will fly by. Of course, time will tell, but my hopes are up!