Stokes Bay’s incredible “hidden” beach
Kangaroo Island is my favourite place out of the whole of Australia. That this holds true after our experience of WWOOFing here just goes to show that the beauty of this island is unsurpassed by anything else OZ has to offer, and that, on the other hand, our experience wasn’t really as bad as all that.
WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms and is sold as a way of getting around the fact that one may not have a work visa*. The nature of the whole enterprise is “exchange“, where the “willing” “exchange” their “work” for free board and food. That is a lot of high concepts for WWOOF to hold up, so perhaps it is better to say that while WWOOFers aren’t supposed to have any specific skills they are also not supposed to use their host for free accommodation. Freeloading, the WWOOFing guide says, is not in the spirit of the adventure. To become a WWOOFer one simply purchases a membership book for AUS$25, which acts as membership card, list of hosts in that country and a set of guidelines for the scheme.
The main guideline is simple. Half a days work for a full days board.
Picking a host is actually quite hard. All the hosts have to sell themselves is a single paragraph outline of their farm coupled with a quick listing of tasks they may ask you to perform. This produces WWOOFing entries that are not dissimilar to lonely-hearts adverts in that the host will often try and soften the work, while talking up the accommodation and extras (eg fishing). When reading the guides one keeps in mind that many of the hosts are in the back end of literally nowhere and you will be all alone and reliant on the host for transport. Bad hosts do exist and backpackers all have tales to tell each other about their darkest experience. We heard a few as we made our way up the coast to Cairns. Stories of backbreaking work for spider infested caravans. They sat in the back of our minds while perusing the adds, until eventually I hit on a modern solution; we would only consider hosts with a website. No one with a good website would be the type of “local” found in “Deliverance” surely?
Eventually we had the list down to two and after the first claimed simply, “they had used all their budget for WWOOFers”, we were down to a choice of one; Paul’s Place. We rang Paul and he sounded like a nice bloke, so we set a date to be in Kingscote and left it at that. I think 90% of our problems would have been avoided if we had simply gone into a bit more detail in those phone conversations, we asked all the obvious things of course, but I think I should have asked simply “exactly how many hours will we be working?”
I will definitely ask next time.
Our ferry over from the Adelaide hills was a rough affair but the weather couldn’t dampen my mood. I really wanted to make a top go of this. KI was awash with rain. We were picked up on the other side by a small bus which raced us through the night to Kingscote at speeds far in excess of R17.
“R is a velocity measure, defined as a reasonable speed of travel that is consistent with physical health, mental wellbeing and not being more than about five minutes late. It is therefore clearly an almost infinitely variable figure according to circumstances, since the first two factors vary not only with speed taken as an absolute, but also with awareness of the third factor. Unless handled with tranquillity this equation can result in considerable stress, ulcers and even death. R17 is not a fixed velocity, but it is clearly far too fast.”
Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy
It turned out that the bus driver was full of the new news regarding Paul’s Place and while I clutched to my seat in terror he filled us in on the gossip. Paul had been visited by a few WWOOFers recently and one young girl had been a bit put off by the whole thing. This pricked my ears up. What had happened? Apparently she had hated it and said she had to go home. “Had to go home” is the WWOOFer code ones uses to a host when one wants to leave immediately. It is basically the best, most inviolate, excuse you can make.
The driver perhaps sensed my unease and said, “I hope you like snakes mate! He has a big snake!”
I smiled in return, “Sure I love snakes…. I just hope he hasn’t got any spiders!”
We sped on into the night and our rendezvous with Paul. Kangaroo Island has zero night life of the human kind so we were dropped off in an empty street. The driver tried to make up for winding us up earlier by pointing out the nearest pub if Paul should not arrive and wished us luck. He turned his bus around and made the jump into light speed leaving us alone in the rain and dark.
This wasn’t too bad as Paul arrived 1 minute later.
Everyone drives fast on Kangaroo island and Paul was no exception. His car was warm and clean and I started to relax. I was sure we would do ok here. We stopped at one point to dig up a “white ants” nest (Termites) with which to feed the Echidna‘s. This was the first of many new things I learned from Paul. He explained the situation thus: his family were currently on the mainland due to a very ill relative, but he needed to get on with the businesses and so he still needed us. He had stopped using WWOOFers a few years a go but had started the whole enterprise back up after he had nearly been killed by a very nasty snake bite. The recovery of the bite was long and he found himself weaker and more tired than before.
I have remarked since that if this is the case then he must have been bloody Superman previously.
We arrived at our home for the next two weeks and all worries about the quality of the accommodation vanished away. The Waves and Wildlife huts are simply stunning. The location is top class and the quality of the huts is best described as brilliant. They consist of a studio style room with a combined kitchen and sitting room that led off into a very nice bathroom and also to a well appointed bedroom with a good double bed. After two months of backpacking around I was simply unable to speak through joy and just stopped to smile at Cesca. Paul smiled and told us he would pick us up at 10:30 in the morning.
We slept peacefully that night and I dreamed of home.
Morning welcomed us awake. The view from the Waves and Wildlife is over the cliffs above Stokes Bay and out to the sea. This lends itself to an amazing view of the sea between KI and the mainland. Slow moving weather fronts gift the photographer the most amazing vistas to capture and Cesca didn’t hesitate to partake with her Canon camera. The other special thing about these huts are the aforementioned wildlife. The entire grounds are festooned with Kangaroos. On the first morning I counted two score easily. Bliss.
Paul picked us up and we travelled over to his place about 4K along the road. The typically terrible KI roads winded up the hill until we turned into his long drive and down along the public area of the farm towards the large house overlooking the grounds and indeed the stunning view along the coastline. Paul’s Place has been a life’s work for Paul. Every single stone in the hundreds of meters of wall have been placed by Paul himself. Further all the work on the half finished house is being done by hand. His hand. The size of the projects he takes on is daunting. Just the house alone would take years and has indeed done so to get to this stage. This is despite some nasty setbacks such as some falling trees and roof damage. The upshot is that, magnificent as the house will be one day, that day is nowhere in sight.
The sanctuary area in front of the house and leading up it is in better condition. 6 or more very large caged areas and aviaries surround a central viewing courtyard with benches. The view was only slightly ruined by the recent storm damage, which had overturned three trees in the yard. In fact clearing up after this was much of the work we performed for the first few days. Starting with raking/sweeping the yard. I actually quite like sweeping, it is mind numbing work and leaves me plenty of time to think about things. Sure, the most common thought is “I wish this would end”, but none the less. This was to prepare for tourists or “tours” as Paul calls them. He has a different voice for these. A kind of higher pitched chirpy bonhomie, which captivates the tourists, but I know it is not his real voice, his real feelings.
The procedure for Paul’s Place depends on which day of the week it is. On alternate days he opened the farm to the public for two hours. This small and narrow timetable seemed to do nothing to diminish the visitors. Even though it was “winter” there were 15+ on most days awaiting a tour.
Setting up for these tours involved bringing in the animals from the main pen. Such furry friends as kangaroos, sheep, a calf and an alpaca. This particular alpaca beast, and beasts they are, immediately hated me on sight. As I shooed him towards the gate, with everything else all hopping; trotting and moving nicely, he just stood his ground. “Common!” I shouted. He didn’t move. “Move it!” I motioned. The alpaca moved towards me menacingly and raised to his full height of 6 feet tall. He then spat at me aggressively. I reeled and ducked. I had seen a Camel spit at someone once; a magnificently fired volley of grass the size of a golf ball that smacked the offending person straight in the eye almost knocking them off their feet. However, the alpaca’s spit never made contact it was just a loud sound. In fact over the next two weeks I was spat at every day (just like being back in London then) until eventually the alpaca gave up with spitting and tried to eat me. It was a hate hate relationship.
Jenna, Paul’s youngest and most playful dog. More like half gazelle if you ask me.
Once all the animals were present Paul would bring in the tourists and let them feed the hoard who would all swamp all over them to get to the proffered buckets of grain. This was always highly funny to watch. Then he would lead them around the enclosures to show them the other animals on the pens and finally back to the main yard for the two special items; the snake and the possum. The snake in question was a 6 foot long Carpet Python, common to Australia, and like all pythons non-venomous. He was a magnificent serpent and I loved handling him and seeing the reactions of the guests as Paul dumped him onto their shoulders. Soon it became my job to fetch the fellow each visit. The possum was a cute but quite tough little blighter that was coddled up in a soft cloth so his claws didn’t scratch anyone. He was fed almonds and munched happily away while the customers cooed over him appreciably.
Another nemesis, this parrot hated all men.
All in all Paul had all sorts of animals for the tours including: kangaroos, sheep, calves, pigs, ponies, many types of ducks, deer, emu, peacocks, parrots, a snake, a possum, two koalas, two echidna and a kookaburra (which laughed when prompted). Some of the animals had particularities like the alpaca. Some didn’t like men and when I went near one of the parrots it would go mad, others like the galah parrot hated Cesca on sight. When this bird spotted her in its enclosure it would very slowly climb down from its perch and waddle after her. Like a feathered zombie the large white bird would, small step by small step, chase her around attacking whenever she got in range. Eventually she had to leave the aviary and the bird would climb the door to a jib where it would guard from her return. I found all this very funny until another parrot took a dislike to me and I almost got torn to shreds.
One animal I loved were the Kangaroo’s. Every other morning Paul would have us feed the wild kangaroo’s up at Stokes Bay. They would all come hopping out of the woods to the line of oats we lay on the ground. The ones at Paul’s Place were also very friendly and soft to pat. On one occasion I was cold and so went and cuddled one for a few minutes to warm up. I find it amazing that this country can support such a large creature in the wild. It must be due to the lack of real predators in Australia?
When cold and wet in KI cuddle a kanga’!
It was long work that day but we put that down to it being the first. Paul offered us a beer and then introduced us to his “Ute” four-by-four vehicle, which was to be our transport around for the next two weeks. The passenger side window was missing so we had to park close to the wall every night to keep the seats out of the rain. The incessant rain was probably one of the causes of our coming problems. Being winter the weather was basically an English summer. That is it rained on and off as the wind blew all through the day. More than a few times we sheltered from the rain in the ute, strategically placing it away from the winds direction to make up for the lack of window.
This all sounds somewhat idyllic up to now and perhaps it was. The good times were very good, but the bad were very frustrating. The bad seemed to come along with lots of bad luck and Paul’s moods. They started in earnest right from the beginning. Paul has the managerial method of presuming that you are completely useless at everything and that whatever is your naturally inclined approach to any problem is not as good nor as obviously perfect as his. This extends to the smallest level imaginable such as the right way to rake a yard, how best to shovel shit (literally) and even how to carry fallen branches. This was micro-management on an obsessive level. It was coupled with a general grumbling moan about almost everything we did. We really tried hard to do things quickly and cleanly but nothing elicited a “thank you” or a “well done”. By half way through the experience this had started to really drag us down and probably Paul as well. This was coupled with the hours. We worked from 10:30 to 12:30 and 13:00 to between 18:00 & 20:00. That is a lot more than half a days work. It is working full time. And what work were were doing?
- Animal feeding (mainly a little baby lamb)
- Tourist help. Such as running horse rides.
- Animal catching. Two emu escaped and it was fun catching them. Unfortunately we arrived back to find one had died of fright.
- Burning. Setting large fires of fallen wood.
- Fencing. Putting up curly plastic fencing around a new paddock.
- Chainsawing. Cutting up trees. Unfortunately I not only broke the chainsaw (which I fixed I might add), but I also cut down the wrong tree limb due to a confusion about Paul’s instruction.
- Wool packing. Packing wool into transport bags.
- Tree planting. The planting of a row of trees up by Stokes Bay, which was not fun in the high and cold winds and we worked in hats and gloves with frozen hands.
- Koala leaf collection. The cutting of leaves for the furry wonders.
- Stone picking. Picking up stones from a field and digging up the biggest ones.
- Rock moving. Moving building rocks from one end of the farm to the other.
- Concrete mixing and carrying. Cesca was a dab’hand at making concrete and she certainly got practice.
- Stump picking. Picking up naturally occurring wooden stumps from a large paddock.
- Tire changing. The ute tires were completely worn and we had three punctures in the two weeks.
Cesca mixes concrete under the baleful eye of Paul, baking skill coming in handy!
- Brush cutting. This is the collecting and bailing of brush for the making of fences. This was wet, hard work, which involved being out in the wilds of the bush and collecting as fast as possible. After a day of this and 40 bails of brush (aiming for one every 6 minutes) my hands were cut to shreds. After carrying them to the ute, my knee that was still struggling from a very nasty injury in Cairns, ached terribly.
On more than one occasion Cesca asked me if we could leave as she found Paul’s instructions light in detail and his remonstrations, when we got it wrong, very wearing. I wanted to stick it out. I felt sorry for Paul. He was all on his own up at that, at best, half-a-house, with his family away at a deathbed of a relative. He had three companies to run and only two newbie helpers. He was tired, lonely, sad and moody all at the same time. I was sure that in different circumstances he would be a happy fellow and we would all get on famously.
Has it stopped raining? Back to stump picking! (right) The collected stumps
We were determined to make a good end to the experience and we really put our backs into the brush cutting eventually running out of daylight and having to walk out of the bush in the pitch black, which Cesca REALLY didn’t enjoy.
Alone in the bush!
As the end of the experience drew near we had a little thing to look forwards to as Cesca had arranged for us to borrow the ute and go around the island for a day. That morning we were bright and happy again. Not only would this experience soon be over, but we felt that yesterdays brush effort had earned us a little in the credit column with Paul. Cesca, happily wondering where we would go first, pulled the ute out of the drive and rammed the front into the hut ripping the gas exhaust vent clean off the wall and denting the outside panels.
The damage was damming and Cesca was very very upset. I could only imagine what Paul would say and I felt she had had enough from him over the weeks we worked so I made a silent decision. As we drove up his drive I could see her getting very stressed at what he would say to the point she shook. As we got out of the ute she stopped to take a deep breath and I took the chance to run in and tell Paul that I had caused the damage not Cesca. There is not much else a husband could have done. He was not happy but he didn’t shout. I hung my head in shame, even though I hadn’t caused it myself “Team Bell” were responsible and our fate here was sealed.
We went around KI that day (another post perhaps as this is long) and had a great time. We even bought him a new tire for the ute to make up a little for our part in the atmosphere.
We arrived back to find Paul melancholy and we all sat down and got drunk together. He chastised me for my “shocking driving, truly shocking!” but I was too tired to say anything. By the end of the night I think we came to an understanding between us that at least the worst was behind us now and I left him a credit slip for the damage.
The next morning Paul picked up and we drove back to Kingscote. He was conciliatory on the way and even apologised for any grumpiness he had exhibited over the last few weeks. We were more than happy to bury the hatchet and we all hugged before he left.
After he left Cesca and I hugged again.
And that was that.
Suffice to say, bad luck played as much of a part in all this as fate. We had really tried to get things right with Paul and put in a large effort. Had the weather been better perhaps we would have done different work. Had Paul’s family been there he may have been happier. Had I cut down the right tree… Nevertheless WWOOFing was not to blame here, only the humans who work within its structure. I will never WWOOF those sort of hours again. I will not stand for it regardless of the outcome and I will perhaps try and bury the hatchet a little earlier rather than let simmering resentment fester between us and host. . I really did learn a lot of things from Paul, albeit some very painfully, and I will take those skills onwards through my life. In that sense I don’t regret our time at Paul’s Place.
There’s WWOOFing for you!
I will write another post about the amazing KI and our day around the island, it was a great time.
* Caveat: it should have is that it is not always legal for a traveler on a tourist visa to WWOOF or the like in many countries.