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Workaway – The Perfect Tool for Travellers

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After our Sydney plans fell through, we found ourselves desperately scrambling to figure out where to go and what to do. We hadn’t been able to get our tax number without an Australian address, so we weren’t able to look for paid work. Many of the jobs that were posted for travellers involved skills like carpentry, landscaping, agriculture and bartending, none of which we had experience with. Without the necessary skills we both felt uncomfortable seeking paid work. Instead we found a website that listed work for travellers in exchange for food and accommodation : www.workaway.info. The website enabled me to search all across Australia for the type of work we had experience in, the type of accommodation we preferred and gave us the ability to see pictures of the areas as well. Many of the positions are for the same work that we had already come across (especially working with horses and building) but hosts didn’t expect workers to be experts. Hosts on the site understand that most of the travellers would be young people, leaving home for the first time and were willing to teach new skills.

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An Australian landscape that few venture to see

Lucky for us, I was able to find a listing for a camp near the border of NSW and Victoria that combined farm work with assisting school groups. We had plenty of experience with school groups and we were hoping to learn more about working on a farm (since we were bound to encounter similar positions over the next year).

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Dan and I with our lovely hosts from the farm / school camp

I still remember contacting the hosts and organizing details of arrival and fretting about whether the hosts would even show up to get us. We worried about food, since I’m vegetarian and Dan eats a LOT. We worried about accommodation and whether it would be what the hosts described or whether we would end up in cramped quarters with a million other backpackers.

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Working with animals was a big draw to joining Workaway

Thankfully, after 5 months and 4 workaway stays we’ve had nothing but positive experiences! We have met some really amazing locals and learned about Australian culture (and surprisingly language!). We have also explored many areas that we wouldn’t have otherwise travelled to. But above all, we have saved a ton of money, enabling us to do more sightseeing in between stays. The skills that we have learned over our travels have also been so rewarding. Currently we have two more hosts lined up for the next month and we look forward to the new places and people we will meet along our trip!

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Learning the ropes- gaining experience on a farm

The 12 Apostles, jewel of the Great Ocean Road, Victoria (Australia)

Journey Down the Great Ocean Road, Victoria (Australia)

We were fortunate enough to afford a couple of days off from our video editing to take a trip along the Great Ocean Road in December. It was one of those drives that is considered a ‘must’ in Australia and it did not disappoint! With so little time to drive the route we had planned our route precisely. We rented a car in Geelong and picked it up late in the afternoon so that we could work for the morning before heading out. We knew that most of the really amazing views wouldn’t come up until after Apollo Bay, so we drove straight through until we arrived in Lorne where we briefly stopped to take a quick peek at Teddy’s Lookout which offered a really spectacular view of the winding, seaside road we were venturing along.

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Teddy’s Lookout in Lorne, VIC offers a great view of the Great Ocean Road

We stopped a few more times for some quick photo opportunities before arriving at our overnight destination, Kennett River Campground. We were thankful that our workaway hosts had lent us some camping equipment (to save money on hotels) and it allowed us to stay in a mini-koala paradise! Our hosts had insisted on a few other beautiful campgrounds to overnight in, but we read online that this site had several koalas that lived in the trees (wild koalas not pets). Once we set up our tent we grabbed our cameras and took a stroll through the area. Within minutes we had spotted our first koala!

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Our first koala in Kennett River Campground

There were a couple of girls from France also searching and they pointed out a few more for us to get photos of. In total we saw around half a dozen koalas and one was even on the ground making its way to a new tree. Unfortunately, the minute our fellow campers caught wind, they started chasing after it (it was unclear if they wanted to pet it or get a photo) and the koala took off up a tree in fear. As is generally the case, there’s always the small percentage of travellers that have no clue how to behave around wildlife.

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A scared little koala, trying to flee from overanxious tourists

We also discovered that this park attracted a ton of King Parrots, with a local general store selling seeds for tourists to feed them. They are a very beautiful bird and it’s too bad that they are now so pushy when it comes to food. Dan and I opened our trunk to prepare dinner and we were swarmed by them!

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King Parrots – swarmed our vehicle (obviously they didn’t want us to leave!)

We also noticed that one of the ducks in the park had a broken bill and it’s tongue was hanging out the side. Worried for the duck, we called a local wildlife rescue group to ask what to do. We were instructed to try and get the duck into a box and bring it to a rehab centre along our route. We were able to get an appropriately sized box from the reception but catching it was a new obstacle all together. We didn’t want to traumatize the poor duck so we tried to slowly walk up to it. It was very aware of our plan and kept quickly walking the opposite direction. We had some seeds that we were trying to coax it with, but soon enough other ducks were coming over to reap the benefits. Meanwhile, our duck was intermingling with the others and staying far enough away that it was impossible to catch.

Poor little duck with a broken bill, you can see his tongue hanging to the side

Poor little duck with a broken bill, you can see his tongue hanging to the side

We had a towel that we were hoping to restrain it with but it was too quick. After around 15 minutes another couple had come over to try and assist. This seemed to alert the local King Parrots that something was up and soon the birds were swooping down and landing on our head and backs! It was sheer chaos and we were gratefully interrupted by a call from the rehab folks. The woman told us that it was likely they would euthanize the duck if we brought it in. With the duck staying at the campground it had a safe place to sleep and endless food from visitors to sustain it, so we decided to leave it alone. It was relieving since the duck had grown tired of waddling around and proceeded to fly to the opposite side of the campground.

One of the other campers that helped us try and wrangle the duck, surrounded by Sulphur Crested Cockatoos

One of the other campers that helped us try and wrangle the duck, surrounded by Sulphur Crested Cockatoos

We then made our way along to Great Otway National Park to do some hiking. We didn’t have time to explore much of the park so we decided to limit our trek to two hikes, The Redwoods and the Beauchamp Falls walk.

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The Redwoods, in Great Otway National Park

Back in the 1939, someone had a grand idea to plant a whole bunch of California Redwood trees in the forest. Today the trees tower over the area and create an almost surreal habitat. We had grown accustomed to seeing the gum trees everywhere, so these redwoods reminded us more of the forests back home in Canada.

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Admiring the towering Redwoods in Great Otway National Park (photo courtesy of Dan)

The Redwood walk was very short, so we continued on to our next walk, Beauchamp Falls. The forests here were lush and green, and the trails were well taken care of. The walk was fairly easy (although online it is listed as strenous), heading downhill towards the lovely Beauchamp waterfall. We were slight rule breakers and wandered a bit off the trail to get a better shot of the falls.

The stream near the Redwoods in Great Otway National Park, Victoria (Australia)

The stream near the Redwoods in Great Otway National Park, Victoria (Australia)

The way back was uphill, but it was gradual enough that it wasn’t too bad. We ended up eating lunch in the picnic area at the trailhead before continuing our journey towards Port Campbell. We stopped a few times on our way to Port Campbell to snap some photos and to have a look around Apollo Bay. It was a very tourist town with a quaint shopping strip beside the ocean, well worth a visit if you need to stop for lunch.

Beauchamp Falls in Great Otway National Park, Victoria (Australia)

Beauchamp Falls in Great Otway National Park, Victoria (Australia)

We had been warned by our workaway host that the Great Ocean Road was a painfully slow drive because it was full of slow tourists and everyone was stopping for photos. Perhaps because we were driving on a weekday or because it was early December (prior to school holidays), we encountered very few people! Our campsites were sparsely inhabited and all of our stops so far had been empty. Having said that, we were quite shocked when we reached the 12 Apostles. Obviously the road is a big tourist attraction, but nothing attracts more people than the 12 Apostles, a set of towering rock formations, standing near the shoreline. When we arrived at the visitors centre, there were people EVERYWHERE, with more and more tour buses arriving by the minute.

Just a small glimpse of the throngs of tourists hoping to see the 12 Apostles (photo courtesy of Dan)

Just a small glimpse of the throngs of tourists hoping to see the 12 Apostles (photo courtesy of Dan)

We parked quite far from the building and started walking down to the viewpoints. It was like being in a mall right before christmas, we just had to move with the crowd and hope that someone was leaving so we could find a spot to take a photo. Not only was it hard to move past people, but the newest fad in travel accessories is the ‘selfie stick’. I can understand if you have a large group that you want to get a shot of, or if you are trying to take a photo over a group, but here? It was very inconsiderate because it basically created a pile up of people ducking through in an attempt to avoid being clotheslined. Sheer chaos.

An example of the 'Selfie Stick' although this photo is a different spot we encountered later in our trip

An example of the ‘Selfie Stick’ although this photo is a different spot we encountered later in our trip

After barely escaping the war zone we decided we should head to our next campground and wait for the crowds to thin. Originally we drove to the Port Campbell Holiday Park because I am an idiot and thought that was where I made reservations. We were so excited when we drove in because it was in a great spot and the park looked so well taken care of. It turned out we were actually staying at the Great Ocean Road Tourist Park some 13km away in Peterborough.

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Dan posing in a large crack between the rocks on the shoreline. On our way down the Great Ocean Road

The gentleman at the desk was very nice and told us to set up camp anywhere we liked, we were the first people to arrive and we were very confused. The non-powered campsites were a big grassy field. There was a slight line around the ‘sites’ but it was pretty shabby looking. As for privacy, well as I said, it was a field so there was no privacy whatsoever. Anyway, I was a bit peeved at having to pay around $30 for a piece of grass to park on, but Dan assured me that we would really only be sleeping there because we would be so busy exploring the area. He was right. After setting up camp we headed out to Port Campbell National Park and visited some of the major sites.

Exploring Loch Ard Gorge, the beach was quite pretty and all ours for a short time!

Exploring Loch Ard Gorge, the beach was quite pretty and all ours for a short time!

Loch Ard Gorge had a beautiful view of the cliffs with signs describing the shipwreck of the Loch Ard, which left only two survivors who were swept into the gorge and forced to climb up the cliffside for help. We proceeded to head down the staircase to the beach and discovered two beautiful shallow caves where stalactites and stalagmites had formed. We timed our arrival nicely because we ended up having the beach to ourselves!

The giant Stalactites hanging from one of the caves in Loch Ard Gorge, along the Great Ocean Road

The giant Stalactites hanging from one of the caves in Loch Ard Gorge, along the Great Ocean Road

We then made our way back up to the top and walked along the trail to the Razorback, a beautiful rock wall standing prominently in the shallows. The trail was very easy and provided us with breathtaking views of the cliffs.

After passing through Port Campbell we came to a viewpoint of a giant Arch, still attached to the main cliff like a window to the sea.

The Arch, a beautiful archway and a wonderful stop for some photos

The Arch, a beautiful archway and a wonderful stop for some photos

The next viewpoint was for the London Bridge, now known as the London Arch. Formerly this structure was comprised of two large archways jutting out from the rocky edge and closely resembled the London Bridge. In 1990 a couple of tourists had crossed over the bridge (as you did back then) when suddenly the archway closest to mainland collapsed away, crashing into the sea. The two tourists were now trapped on an island with no way to get back to stable ground. They had to warn arriving tourists not to try and cross the non-existent bridge (you think they would notice it missing) and after 3 long hours, a helicopter arrived and brought them back to shore. Nowadays, there are dozens of helicopters doing joyrides along this coastline, but back in 1990, they had to call a chopper in from Melbourne for the rescue!

Formerly London Bridge, along the Great Ocean Road in Port Campbell National Park

Formerly London Bridge, along the Great Ocean Road in Port Campbell National Park

We continued down the coast to The Grotto, a quick shuffle down a staircase to a hollow near the waterline. This grotto is fairly deep (compared to the surrounding arches) and the shallow water pool at it’s base makes for some stunning shots. Unfortunately for us, we weren’t able to get the angles we desired as there were a couple of teens lingering at the rail and not taking the hint that people may actually want a photo without them in it. Ugh, tourists.

The Grotto, a serene spot to reflect and enjoy the window to the sea

The Grotto, a serene spot to reflect and enjoy the window to the sea

By this time it was getting close to sunset so we decided to head back to the London Arch to try and get a photo of the Fairy Penguins. Each night around sunset the little penguins come marching back to their nests at the base of the cliffs. We assumed that we would be competing for a spot to see them, but it turned out we were the only people there! Granted our vantage point was fairly high up and the lighting was NOT ideal for photos, we watched in amazement as they returned to their homes after a long day out hunting. Earlier in the day a couple of researchers had been down on the beach doing some surveys of the nest, and for obvious reasons, there was no public access to the beach itself. It was a very cool experience! For those wishing to get a better view, there are several places to see Fairy Penguins in the wild (including on Bruny Island where we previously visited in Tasmania) but many of these sites have expensive tours that you need to join and have you sitting in stadium type seating for the ‘show’. A bit too commercialized for our taste.

The Fairy Penguins at London Arch, returning to their nests at sundown

The Fairy Penguins at London Arch, returning to their nests at sundown

It was quite dark now so we slowly made our way back to the campsite, fearful of encountering a kangaroo on the road (if you can avoid it, do not drive in Australia after sundown, that’s when all the native wildlife is active). The next morning we decided we wanted to get shots of the sunrise at the 12 apostles, although we feared this would be another crowded ordeal. We decided to head to the beach for the shots so we headed down Gibson Steps and set up at the base of the first few apostles. Thankfully, it was early enough that we didn’t encounter anyone until we started heading back from our photoshoot!

The 12 Apostles from the beach at Gibson Steps, perfect spot for sunrise photos

The 12 Apostles from the beach at Gibson Steps, perfect spot for sunrise photos

We then continued down the road until we reached the Bay of Islands past Peterborough. As described, this stretch of coast had just as stunning scenery as the 12 Apostles but much less traffic. The rock formations here were also more iron enriched which gave a lovely splash of colour to the photos. The turn offs along the Bay of Islands coast weren’t as well marked so we ended up stopping at every turn to check it out, but we weren’t too upset about it, every site was really stunning!

Bay of Islands along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia

Bay of Islands along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia

From here our next and final destination was Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve. I wasn’t really sure about what we would find or if it was even worth it, but our expectations were definitely exceeded! The reserve is in a giant extinct volcano crater and is full of native wildlife. Upon descending into the site, we immediately spotted a mother emu and her baby on the road, lazily pecking at shrubs. Our car was a meter from them and they didn’t bat an eyelash!

A mother emu with her twins, the second one we spotted within 10 minutes of entering Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria Australia

A mother emu with her triplets, the second one we spotted within 10 minutes of entering Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria Australia

We parked at the visitor centre and headed out on a couple of the trails leading away from the parking lot including the Journey to the last Volcano trek (circling around the crater edge with sweeping views), the Tower Hill Peak Climb (where we spotted a Nankeen Kestrel carrying off a skink!) and the Lava Tongue Boardwalk trek. We saw more Emus with babies (quite tame, unfortunately probably used to feedings from tourists), birds of prey, a variety of songbirds as well as koalas up in the treetops and a sleepy echidna!

A sleepy Koala, taking a rest in Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria Australia

A sleepy Koala, taking a rest in Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria Australia

Tower Hill was a definite highlight for us and we only wish we could’ve stayed for longer! There is a lovely map of some of the trails here: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/630147/Tower-Hill-Reserve-map.pdf if you are interested in visiting the park. Did I mention it’s free to enter and park?

Circling the crater on the Journey to the Last Volcano trek at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria Australia

Circling the crater on the Journey to the Last Volcano trek at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria Australia

Thankfully, the reserve was close to the junction of the B100 (Great Ocean Road) and the A1 (Princes Highway) so it was easy to get back to Geelong in time to return our rental car. We loved the short time we spent exploring the area, but we definitely wish we had more time to really visit all of the wonderful places along the way.

One of our stops along the Great Ocean Road, beautiful rocky shores

One of our stops along the Great Ocean Road, beautiful rocky shores

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Woodbridge, Tasmania – An Excellent Learning Experience

We were a bit surprised to find that there were few workaway hosts in Tasmania. Not only that, but the hosts that we did contact either didn’t reply or were unable to take us at that time. So in a last minute ditch attempt, we contacted 4 hosts and once and everyone got back to us straight away! We decided to go with a host that ran a luxury accommodation near Woodbridge in the south section of the island. After our day in Hobart, our site manager, Jason, picked us up in town and brought us to our new home. This was when we realized that driving in Tasmania was like rally racing. The roads were SO narrow and there were countless ups and downs, twists and turns, and to top it off, wildlife dashing across the road dusk, dawn and all through the night. It’s amazing there aren’t more serious car crashes there.

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The view from the lodge, overlooking Bruny Island

The site we would be working on was quite large, with a main lodge that houses around 14 visitors with a full catering kitchen, entertainment room, bathrooms and dining hall. All made of Tasmanian wood and with sweeping views of the hillside and looking down onto Bruny Island. There was also a large indoor heated pool beside the lodge with the same stunning view. Gorgeous!

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The indoor heated pool, with the same gorgeous view. Windows on three sides makes for sweeping views of the coast

There were also four individual cabins that also looked down over the ocean and each of these was a lovely self contained unit with cooking facilities, large jacuzzi tub and king bed with a view. I unfortunately didn’t get any photos since we just had a quick peek before the visitors arrived.

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On the far left is our kitchen, next to it the Toyota Coaster (our room) and the plant nurseries

I knew we wouldn’t be staying in any of the luxury accommodations but I wasn’t really sure what to expect for our sleeping situation. It turned out we were given a choice of two sleeping situations since we were the only workers at the time. The first option was an old ‘coaster’ 5 metre long RV on blocks, with a double bed and that’s about it since the kitchen / toilet is useless without power and water. The second option was a larger unit, actually a shipping container, around 7 metres long with double bunks on each end and a bit of shelving. Since this shipping container had been equipped for use in Antarctica (and had since returned from that purpose), it was very well insulated and lacked windows. Based on these, we decided to go with the RV since we could have it to ourselves.

The unfortunate part was that the bathroom was a separate building around 40 metres away, and thus a dark and cold walk for any midnight bathroom emergencies. The kitchen was a great little self contained building beside both accommodations that was only used by workers so it was a good place to make and eat food as well as just hang out.

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One of the hosts’ dogs, Rusty, a kelpie puppy. In this photo he has found a new toy, unfortunately it’s a dead bird..

The grocery situation was also fantastic, since we were able to make all of our own food using groceries that we picked out and the host paid for. Perfect! We enjoyed the privacy and independence of that situation, but we also really loved the group dinners that we would share with our hosts in the main lodge.

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Weeding was a big ongoing job. Dan is showing off his enormous weed, and he is holding a tool that he learned to weld himself!

The work on site mostly revolved around tending the expansive gardens (mostly rhododendrons) as well as managing the endless wood stacks. All of the buildings, even the heated pool ran on burning firewood which meant that there was always work to be done moving stacks of firewood from one place to another. Always. With the gardens we learned about local weeds, how to dead-head, how to mulch and also did a bit of planting. One of the staff (a long-term wwoofer) was also really keen to teach us any new skill we were interested in learning, which was awesome! I tried my hand at sanding and assisting with assembling wooden window frames. Dan had a chance to do some welding, angle grinding and forging. Together we also assisted with setting up the foundation of a new property and laying down a hardwood floor. It was a great place to learn new skills and we were always encouraged to ask lots of questions which was really appreciated.

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Dan showing off the acetylene torch he used for cutting parts to make his tool

My favourite part about this workaway however was the fact that we were surrounded by amazing people! The owner and his son were hilarious and always so cheerful regardless of how long they had worked or how early it was in the day. They loved to joke and had a great sense of humour which made tasks a lot more bearable! The site managers were a husband wife team originally from the UK who were very fun and loved to tease. They were always checking to make sure we were comfortable and liked to involve everyone in activities. There was another couple who had been doing the wwoof circuit before and decided to anchor themselves at this site for a year or more while the wife was expecting. They were from Victoria on the mainland and were so friendly and helpful, which made our tasks a lot less stressful. I really enjoyed hearing about their travels, they had a lovely sense of humour. Every single person on site had an unbelievable work ethic and went above and beyond what I have seen at any other site we have been to. They are all very welcoming to new comers as well, which, in such a remote site, makes a huge difference as well.

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Our lovely hosts, from left to right: Jason (Mandy is missing from the photo) the site managers from the UK, Gareth and Clair from Victoria, Fintan the owner, Shawn his son (the carpenter) and his Canadian girlfriend Maggie.

When we did have some time off, we were always encouraged to see some new spots and get a feel for the area. We started by exploring the property, and were pleasantly surprised to find an echidna in the forest on our first night!

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Our first wild Echidna! Busy sniffing around the forest floor

We were also invited to join the owner and his son on a quick fishing trip one afternoon where we caught several Flatheads. Shawn also accidentally caught a little octopus, which managed to make it’s way out of the boat and back to the ocean safely. The guys gutted the flatheads and cooked them up for dinner that night – apparently they are quite a tasty fish.

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Fishing for flathead, Fintan with his dog Shep the Kelpie

We were also able to tag along with the ladies on a trip to the local Huon Show, where there were carnival rides, local merchants, horse jumping, dog shows, livestock competitions, a wood splitting contest, live music, and more. It was a pretty exciting outing and a great way to learn more about the community as well.

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One of the old farm equipment displays at the Huon Show

One of our last outings was a drive over to Bruny Island (courtesy of our long-term wwoofer friend). We stopped off at the cheese shoppe for a tasting, walked along the beach looking for shells, explored the coast and a beautiful lighthouse, tramped through the bush to find white wallabies and enjoyed the amazing views. It was a day to remember.

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A Pied Oystercatcher on Bruny Island

After our two weeks we were sad to say goodbye to our new friends, but we were really grateful for what we learned and that we had the opportunity to see and do so much in such a short time! For having stayed in a small section of the state for so long, I can only imagine how amazing the rest of the island is!

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It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to our new friend Gareth, pictured here with Jason’s dog, Reagan

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Tasmania and the Two-Headed Monsters

I remember as a child thinking that Tasmania was a country, and although I am now older and wiser, realizing it is a state of Australia, in a way it does feel like a separate country! Tasmanians are often teased by other Australians, and they are lovingly referred to as ‘two headed monsters’. Apparently this comes from the idea that when Tasmania was first settled, there were only two families that lived there. These two families had no one else to shack up with, so other the years they just married each other and over time this developed into an inbred population. Yes there was a very small population on Tasmania, and yes there may be a closer genetic link among it’s residents than with mainlanders, but since that time, obviously more people have come to the island and raised families. So no, people are not dull or disease ridden or ‘two-headed’ there. In fact, we found Tasmanians to be wonderful people, with great senses of humour and amazing generosity.

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Hobart, our first stop in Tasmania

We knew we would only have a couple of weeks in Tas since we had already scheduled another workaway to start afterwards. This left us with two options, A) rent a car and travel to all the key highlights or B) spend two weeks with another workaway host. Well, after much research and cost analysis, we decided to take the cheap route and look for work. Unfortunately, Tasmania didn’t have a ton of workaway hosts, and the ones we had contacted were either busy with other travellers or didn’t respond to our request. Finally in a last ditch attempt, we contacted 4 at once and pretty much all of them got back to us! We decided to go with a host that runs a luxury retreat overlooking Bruny Island on the south west coast. Before our placement though, we wanted to have a quick look around Hobart and so we signed up for a day long tour using the website www.tourstogo.com We wanted to see as much as possible so we chose a 3 destination tour, first up was a trip to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, then a stop at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and last was a quick hop up to the top of Mount Wellington.

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Dan in awe over the vast quantity of Cadbury Chocolate

Dan and I love chocolate. I also love the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, so the prospect of touring through a chocolate factory sounded like a great idea! Unfortunately, about 5 years earlier the tour had been dramatically altered to remove any public viewing inside the factory section. Apparently it had to do with privacy acts, so even the short slideshow we were shown didn’t have a single employee in it because that would be in breach of the law. It was very disappointing. We sat through the short video / powerpoint presentation and then loaded up with discount chocolate and candy before loading back on the bus to Bonorong.

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Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, an unbelievable experience

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary was my top choice (obviously) and it did not disappoint! Upon arriving we were each given a bag of feed to give to the resident kangaroos. We were able to walk into a large paddock with the Grey Kangaroos and walk amongst them, feeding any willing recipient. It was amazing! I was worried we might be bombarded by hungry mouths, but the kangaroos obviously had a system of taking turns. The bag was empty before we knew it and we hurried off to the wombat enclosure to watch the keeper talks. A keeper goes through a general presentation lasting around 30 minutes, talking about a few of the resident animals.

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An orphaned wombat at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary

We started with two young orphaned wombats and learned a bit about the wombat’s natural history before getting a chance to pat the wombat’s rump. Wombats have very solid bodies because when they crawl into their burrow, their bums are susceptible to attacks from predators. When an animal like a fox runs in the burrow and grabs a hold of the wombat however, it is promptly pinned up against the burrow roof and crushed to death. Amazing!

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A Tasmanian Devil. These captive populations are free of disease and the best candidates for starting healthy new populations

We then headed over to visit the Tasmanian Devils (of course!). We learned that they are critically endangered in many areas as a result of a disease called Facial Tumour Disease. It causes large tumours all over the devil’s face until it can’t even close it’s mouth to chew it’s food. Pretty terrible. The is no known cure for the illness and it’s rapid spread has been due to the fact that facial biting is a common greeting and dominance display between the devils. Thankfully rescued devils that don’t have the disease, have been reintroduced in areas where it is disease free to maintain a stable population.

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A very docile and friendly Koala at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary

We finished the presentation with the koalas. The keeper literally picked up the koala and cradled it like a baby! We discovered that of the hundreds of eucalyptus tree species, koalas could only eat a handful, so proper habitat was scarce. We also learned that due to the poor nutritional quality of their food, they end up saving energy by sleeping, a lot! Afterwards we had a chance to pet the koala and have our picture taken as well.

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A quick opportunity to pat a koala, definitely one I wasn’t going to miss!

The talk was very informative and definitely the highlight of the day. Unfortunately, because we watched the talk rather than wander around the site, we ended up missing a number of animals in order to make it back to the tour bus on time. That’s the problem with tours it seems.

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One of the beautiful views atop Mount Wellington, Tasmania

The last stop on our tour was a quick drive to the top of Mount Wellington where we had a lovely view of Hobart and surrounding area. It was very windy and very cold up there. There were even a few light flurries! After some quick photos and a short walk around, the tour was complete. For those with a really tight schedule I think these tours are definitely worth while, otherwise it’s all a bit rushed and leaves you unfulfilled.

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Sleepy Bay, our last stop and unfortunately there was not enough time to explore the area more!

Despite our less than ideal tour situation, we ended up booking another tour! We had one day at the end of our stay in Tasmania and wanted to see more of the island. Tours to go had another tour advertised for almost half the normal price heading up to Freycinet National Park (practically a half day drive away). I had done the number crunching to see if it would be possible to rent a car to head up but it was much pricier. So we went and despite once more being quite rushed, it was very laid back to be carted around and we were able to get some beautiful shots of Wineglass Bay, Honeymoon Bay and Sleepy Bay.

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Honeymoon Bay, a beautiful stop for some quick photos

One interesting fact we learned was how Wineglass Bay got its name. Apparently back at the turn of the century, the bay was used for whaling ships to bring in their carcasses. With the shape of the bay being that of a wineglass and the gallons of blood pouring into the water, it made the bay look like a glass filled with wine. Quite gruesome, but intriguing nevertheless!

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Wineglass Bay, voted one of the top 10 beaches in Australia and a must see in Freycinet National Park

We also had a chance to walk through Freycinet National Park a bit to get to the lookout and encountered some very friendly wallabies. I was a bit sad to see how accustomed to humans the wallabies had become, obviously visitors had been feeding them. And as if on cue, one of the tourists on our tour pulled out some Gatorade (yes Gatorade) and began holding it out for the wallabies, which of course willingly slurped it up. So sad, but as I wrote about the monkey sanctuary in South Africa, quite inevitable.

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Some overly friendly wallabies (a mother and joey) in Freycinet National Park

It was a quick and dirty trip up to the North-eastern part of the island, but it’s something we wouldn’t have had a chance to see otherwise. In my next post I will talk a bit more about our workaway position in Tasmania and how we spent a couple of weeks honing our carpentry skills!

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Meet the Animals of Snowy River School Camp

It is no secret that I love animals. One of the main things I look for when searching workaway for hosts is whether they have animals or not. Snowy River Camps was perfect because we had SO many opportunities to get up close and personal with their furry friends!

First up were the dogs, all incredibly loveable and each with distinct personality quirks:

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Whisper, the hyperactive Border Collie

1. Whisper was a Border Collie who’s one true passion in life was playing fetch. In the yard she would go racing down the lawns after her trusty tennis ball and when we would walk around the property she would chase sticks.

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Whisper and Dan on our daily afternoon walk

She was the only dog capable of jumping the fences and whenever you left the yard, she would quickly make her way over and be by your side. Whenever we went to work with the horses we had to tie her up because she would get over excited and chase after them which could prove dangerous.

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Lionel, the dutiful Kelpie

2. Lionel is a breed of dog called a Kelpie (an Australian breed that was bred for herding cattle, sheep, etc). A former working dog with a less than pleasant past, tied up to a rusty drum, only released when he was needed to do work and only fed twice a week. Thankfully Merry and Peter rescued him and he was now enjoying retirement. You could definitely tell he never received much attention, especially if you ever coaxed him indoors. He would sit by the door and tense up, unsure of what he was supposed to do. He also spent his afternoons in his dog house because that’s what he was used to in his former life. We tried to bring him for walks and play with him but he wasn’t too interested.

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Lionel watching over the sheep

In an effort to relive the old days, we would sometimes see him staring intently at the sheep in their paddock. He would start to doze off a bit in the heat, but when we would come closer he immediately woke up, alert and fixated on the sheep once more, as if to prove to us he was working hard.

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QC, the adorable Labrador Retriever

3. Then there was my personal favourite, QC. She is a yellow labrador formerly belonging to a girl who was keeping her in a tiny apartment. Unfortunately for QC, it was getting too expensive and hard to manage for her previous owner, hence her relocation to the farm. Her favourite past time was eating.Everything and anything. If she could, she would just lay in the shade and eat all day.

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QC eating some pumpkin. Yes pumpkin. She almost ate half a pumpkin just to ensure that she didn’t have to share it

She was tubbier than the other two, but not grossly overweight by any means. When she wasn’t eating, she would lay in the sun for a while, heating up, and then switch over to the shade, over and over and over. She would continue sunbathing until we would eventually go for an afternoon walk. She seemed to enjoy the walks because it enabled her to eat cow poo (yes cow poo) and also to take a dip in the dam. She wouldn’t go very far, but you could tell she loved being in the water.

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Bambi, the orphaned Fallow Deer

Another animal living amongst the dogs in the yard was a fallow deer named Bambi. He had been rescued by one of the staff members when he was orphaned as a baby. She fed him, cleaned him and even let him sleep in her bed. But once he grew too big for the house he came to live on the farm, enjoying the sprawling lawns and constant attention. He seemed a bit confused about what he was. Sometimes he would act like a dog, running after kids in the yard, coming over to the table during meals to mooch and he even wore a collar. Other times he was like a cow or goat, wandering about, eating prized flowers and herbs, regurgitating grass and chewing his cud.

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Bambi enjoying the afternoon sun, chewing his cud

Mostly we were just amazed by how strange he was. Even though he had more food than he could possible eat, he still managed to eat non-edible items like plastic table cloths, articles of clothing and even rope. If there was food around, he would make sure he ate it all as fast as possible so that the dogs couldn’t have any. Here’s an example of him eating an entire carrot (basically gagging it down) just so he didn’t have to share with QC).

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Bambi at his most disgusting, eating a whole carrot

He would sometimes head butt you if he felt he wasn’t getting enough attention, and if you chased him for it, he would jump in the air and make strange honking noises. One of his favourite past times was ‘massaging the dogs’ as Merry would say. He would walk up to one of the dogs and start licking / biting fur on their backs and when he was done, they’d be left with a giant cowlick. It was pretty disgusting, but the dogs didn’t seem bothered by it at all. Bambi may have been strange, but all his quirks made him quite loveable.

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Matilda the wombat, waiting for belly scratches

Our favourite residents were the wombats. Being from Canada, we had never seen a wombat before (or really any other marsupial for the matter, apart from the odd kangaroo in zoos). Merry loved all living creatures and showed great respect and love for them. But her favourite by far was the wombat. For years Merry had taken in orphaned wombats in the area and raised them as her own. When we arrived she had two resident wombats, Wallee and Matilda.

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Wallee the baby wombat

Wallee was the baby and we met him our first night on the farm. In the fading light we noticed a small black blob on the lawn and wondered what it was. Within a few seconds of hearing our voices, it turned and ran over to see us. It was Wallee, and it was love at first sight. He had only been living on the farm for a couple of months and was merely 10 months old. We had the chance to bottle feed him that night, burping him, helping him find his way to his make shift toilet and preparing his bed.

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Me bottle feeding Wallee his breakfast

It was a dream come true. We looked forward to spending time with him every day and he soaked up the attention like a sponge. Often during the day he would be very sleepy and curl up for a snooze in your arms. At night however, after a good feed, it was play time and he would attack pillows (or our legs if we weren’t fast enough with the pillows). For some reason Lionel became very entranced with Wallee and given the opportunity, he would sit outside Wallee’s outdoor house and stare at him. He wouldn’t want to play, or hurt him, he would just stare. It was pretty strange.

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Lionel in a trance as he watches over Matilda

As Wallee got bigger and braver, he would search for ways to escape his yard into the next. One day I heard some strange scuffing noises and discovered him lodged between a water heater and the wall of the kitchen. It took four of us 20 minutes to finally get him out (with the help of a broom), but he escaped unharmed. We made sure to put bricks in the way to avoid a repeat incident.

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Wallee enjoying an afternoon play. Notice how tiny his eyes are

One thing we learned about wombats is that they have very poor eye sight. Have you ever looked at how tiny a wombats eyes are? It’s part of what makes them so adorable. It also results in them running into pretty much everything (especially when it’s dark). One way they cope with this is by urinating. A LOT. Once they reach around 1 year of age, they begin to leave a very smelly, very sticky urine trail behind, every where they go. Think Hansel and Gretel. Except really gross. Because of this, there is a strict ‘no wombats in the house’ rule after a certain age. Hence why Matilda lived outside.

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Matilda, the incredibly large and loveable wombat

Matilda didn’t come out to meet us until about a week into our stay. I remember expecting her to be less adorable than Wallee (he is a baby after all). It turned out, she is just like a giant Wallee and she still loved to cuddle and be near people. She was only two years old after all, and probably still mourning her cushy place in the house that had been taken by baby Wallee.

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Dan cuddling with Matilda

Although in our eyes she was massive, she wasn’t fully grown. Apparently wombats continue growing until they were four years old and so she had a long way to go yet. Merry told us that she loved to be picked up (not surprising since we are constantly picking up and cuddling Wallee). Unfortunately for Matilda, she weighed a lot. I can’t tell you exactly how much because I really don’t know, but if I had to guess I would say at least 50 pounds. Dan still managed on occasion to pick her up and make sure she got lots of love.

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Matilda visiting us on a cloudy afternoon

Often we would only see her at night (being nocturnal), she came out of her burrow near sundown and foraged on grass. Sometimes we would be walking back to our house in the dark and hear this ominous, heavy breathing noise quickly approaching, only to be greeted by Matilda. She was a really sweet girl, except when Wallee was around. She was very keen to get to Wallee (their areas were separated by fences) and on several occasions we would come out in the morning to discover that she had found a way through and trashed his outdoor yard. Thankfully he slept in the house overnight so he wasn’t harmed. I didn’t really know what she would do to him if she had the chance. Dan and I attempted on several occasions to ‘wombat-proof’ the fence line but it seemed like she always found her way in somehow. One day she was in a very foul mood after smelling Wallee on my clothing and cornered me by the fence where I was working. At first I just pushed her away when she came over but she became more and more aggressive until I was actually worried she was going to attack. Apparently in the wild wombats can do a lot of damage and aren’t as sweet and loving as these two. We fed her some carrots and she seemed to return to her usual self after that.

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Who would imagine a sweet little wombat like Wallee could grow up to be a giant aggressive animal?

We also spent time with the other farm animals including the dozen or so horses, sheep and cows. One day we were brought a sick young sheep who had been found caught along the fence line. His head was straight up in the air and he didn’t seem responsive. If you stood him up he could stay balanced if you didn’t touch him, but if he fell over he wouldn’t be able to get back up again. We tried to feed him some grass but initially all he would do was loudly grind his teeth as if he had lock jaw.

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Warren, the sick lamb

We weren’t really sure what to do so we made sure to give him plenty of water and keep him in the yard beside our house. Merry chatted with the local vet who said that he was likely suffering from a Vitamin B6 (Thiamine) deficiency and that we needed to start giving him shots to bring his levels back up. We noticed over the first couple of days that he was able to drink water more readily when we poured it in his mouth and he even began to rest his head. Within a week and a half we were able to put him back with the other sheep and we noticed he was grazing the field all on his own. We were so thankfully there was a happy ending for this little guy!

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Helping to keep Warren the lamb hydrated

We had such a fantastic time working at the camp and definitely our most cherished memories are the times we spent with the wonderful animals. We loved having the opportunity to work with so many animals we had never handled before!

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Life of Leisure on a Small Australian Farm

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Snowy River School Camp, our home away from home!

Going to work on the farm was the best introduction to Australia and workaway we could’ve asked for. Our hosts, Merry and Peter were lovely people who enjoyed meeting travellers and really appreciated extra hands to help. We gained a lot of experience working with the horses, cattle and even helping to take care of a couple of orphaned wombats! We had the volunteer house all to ourselves and free reign over the large assortment of food and drinks in the house and storage room.

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Feeding the horses was one of our routine tasks

We looked forward to our daily routine which included walking the dogs first thing in the morning as well as feeding the older horses (their grains had to be soaked and the hay chopped to chaff since they didn’t have any teeth). We would then drive the quad with a trailer or the ute (utility vehicle) over to the paddock with the remaining horses and divide the load of hay into piles for them.

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Dan driving the quad over to the cattle paddock to check on the herd

We felt pretty incompetent on our first day when we accidentally released all of the horses into the main lane and couldn’t get them back in. Thankfully none of them ran onto the highway, and since that incident we were more vigilant and they never escaped again. Other general farm duties included:

  • Building and maintaining fence lines
  • Cutting and removing nuisance trees and shrubs
  • Cleaning the camp accommodation
  • Cleaning the kitchen and dining hall
  • Assisting with food preparation and serving meals
  • Mowing the lawns
  • Assisting with cattle herding
  • Pruning and other light gardening duties
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Dan showing the camp kids how to handle a wombat

Our favourite tasks however involved helping run activities for the camps that visited. There were leadership courses across the property to help the kids practice communication skills, as well as other so test concentration and endurance. I always volunteered to help Peter run the flying fox – a giant zip line across one of the paddocks. I also liked to help getting kids setup for pruisiking, abseiling and wall climbing as well. On occasion there were schools that would sign up for horseback riding as well which was always a treat. The kids had a great time there and were always respectful, practicing great manners as well. It’s nice to spend time with kids when they are doing activities they enjoy, in a relaxed environment.

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A school group watches a student as he demonstrates Pruisiking

Since the camp was built around group activities, we found ourselves making good use of our free time. The site had a full sized gymnasium (with all the equipment of a school gym too), a decent above ground pool, table tennis, a pool table, flying fox zip line, climbing wall (indoor and outdoor) and a dam for swimming and canoeing.

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A peaceful afternoon, canoeing on calm waters

Having minimal horse training, we didn’t really have the opportunity to just jump on a horse and go (not that we wanted to), but we did have a couple of rides during our stay. Louisa worked for Merry and Peter, running the horseback camps and was kind enough to take us out around the property. I was amazed by how well the kids could ride (although many groups were from rural Victoria and owned horses themselves). I love horses and having the opportunity to tour their beautiful property by horseback was an amazing experience.

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Getting ready for a horseback ride with the school camp

With such a variety of tasks across the property and fantastic facilities on site, it would be very difficult to get bored as a volunteer. We appreciated the patience that Merry and Peter showed when it came to showing us new farm tasks (being city folk, we were pretty terrible to begin with). We also enjoyed putting our past education experience to work when interacting with the camp kids and learning about the school curriculums and expectations in Victoria.

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A little halloween fun, and a way to promote the camp on Facebook

As time wore on, we also had the opportunity to help spruce up the camp’s social media presence by updating the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Snowy-River-School-Camp/497571856941162) as well as Twitter and YouTube in order to help promote the site. We have never felt more appreciated and it was a tough decision to leave. We spent close to 6 weeks working on the farm but we knew there was still plenty of Australia to be seen. It was with a sad heart that we said goodbye to Merry and Peter, but we look back fondly on the experience and know we will always have a place to call home in the Tallangatta Valley.

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Spending some free time, zooming around on the Flying Fox (zipline)

Bailing Water – (Sydney, NSW Australia)

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Around Christmas time 2013, I made the executive decision that it was time to travel to Australia. I was chatting with a fellow flyer on the way to Alberta for the holidays and we were talking about all the places we wanted to travel to. I said that I eventually wanted to go to Australia and perhaps work so I could see more of the country. He then told me that there was an age limit for Working Holiday Visas. Once you were over 30, you were no longer allowed to apply for the visa, probably to ensure that young, fit people were coming over and doing the gruelling labour that none of the locals wanted to do.

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Image courtesy of                           http://www.australia-australie.com

For my own part, 30 was far enough away that I wasn’t too concerned, but then I remembered that my soon-to-be-husband was turning 30 in the upcoming year. Having recently returned from our Africa / Thailand trip, I was worried about whether we could afford to make the long journey. I was also concerned as to whether Dan would even be interested in going off for a long period of time (since he finally got settled in a really decent job). As it turned out, the winter had been particularly fierce and he was very keen on the idea of another escape. With our belongs still collecting dust in a storage room and both our jobs finishing a one year contract in the fall, it seemed that the timing was right to get away.

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Saying goodbye to snow was an easy decision

I am a planner. I like to know where I will be, for how long and what I will be doing when I travel. Having to juggle work, planning a wedding and prepping to move back to Alberta left very little time for me to worry about Australia. One day while searching for job options, I came across a dive centre in Sydney that provided PADI certification and placements. The package would consist of the following:

  • Divemaster Certifcation
  • Fun dives (~30 to get us up to the level required for the next stage)
  • Assisting instructors with students for experience
  • Instructor Certification (including all class material and examination)
  • Senior First Aid Certification (all materials and testing)
  • Experience certifying divers on site with guidance
  • 1 Month internship, diving / teaching on a resort in the Great Barrier Reef
  • Food and Accommodation during our internship
  • Guaranteed job placement after our internship
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Our amazing diving experience in Thailand was a similar ‘package’ deal

It sounded amazing and so we contacted the dive centre and put through our deposits. It was a big expense, but we figured, if it gave us training for a career as a dive instructor and provided us with a job in Australia, we would be able to make up for the initial expenses. So I eased back on the planning and felt confident that everything was going to work out perfectly. Turns out that it didn’t.

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We arrived in Sydney and were picked up from the airport by our contact from the dive centre. He was very friendly and took us to our accommodation. The dive centre had purchased this house to rent to dive students and we had looked at pictures online so we had an idea of what to expect. What we did not expect was the number of people sharing the house. In total there was room for 10 people (that’s two per room) and when we arrived there were 6 of us in the house. There was one kitchen, with two refrigerators and two bathrooms. Apparently only one shower was working, so everyone used one bathroom. There were dishes with food piling up beside the sink, and no one was willing to claim them. The bathroom was horrifyingly dirty with months of stains and hair in every corner. Our room was quite spacious compared to the others and we found ourselves spending most of our time shut inside. We figured that we would start looking for our own private accommodation soon so we wouldn’t need to worry about inconsiderate roommates and overcrowding.

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Dan zonked out while searching for alternate accommodation online

We went to the dive shop to ensure we were set up and knew where to store our things. It turned out that our wetsuits (3mm) were not sufficient for diving in Sydney (I assumed they were since the rating for 3mm was 18-25 degrees). With this in mind, we would be required to buy 7mm wetsuits (another $500 per person expense) as well as hoods and gloves ($80 per person). I didn’t know which suit to get so they offered me to borrow one of the trainer’s suits to try out for a couple of dives. I didn’t want to wear it because it took so much work to get in, then I couldn’t raise my arms it was so tight and my hands started to swell and turn purple from constriction. Still, I was told “it’s the right size, you will see”.

Dan meets a friendly grouper on our first dive

Dan meets a friendly grouper on our Sydney dive

We started off by doing a couple of dives around Sydney with the dive centre. On our first day, it was a weekend and we didn’t really have anyone from the centre that was assigned to be with us and show us what to do or help us out. In fact the staff member in charge that day didn’t know we had never been diving in Australia and he already had 6 divers to look after. We felt like a burden and to make matters worse, we had never done a shore entry dive before. It turns out that you had to park in the lot and put on all of your gear there, before hiking down to the site and entering. By the time we reached the water, I was having a hard time breathing from my suit’s constriction, I couldn’t raise my arms to put my hood on and I had to get Dan to help me get my mask sealed properly. I was stressed beyond belief. All the while everyone in the group was waiting for us to get in. It turns out I was too buoyant (I didn’t get a chance to weigh up properly) and I had to be dragged down. The visibility was around 6 meters (apparently pretty normal for Sydney) and all we could see was the back of the couple in front of us. After about 5 minutes, the group ended up separated. It was us, another buddy couple and one guy on his own. We looked around for a couple minutes before surfacing and found no one there. We swam back to the shore and waited. After around 50 minutes the others came back. That’s not proper dive protocol. If you lose the group, you surface and wait for about 5 minutes. If they still don’t show up, you assume it’s an emergency and you start a search and rescue. The staff member said “well I came up and you weren’t there, so we assumed you went off on your own”. Umm wow, thanks.

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One of the staff members ‘petting’ a Port Jackson shark on our dive

On the second dive we were able to see a bit more wildlife but to our horror, the staff member was picking them up and passing the around for people to touch! We were mortified when he started passing an octopus around like a toy ball. After hiking up to the car park, we made the decision that this was not for us. We really enjoyed diving when we were in Thailand:

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Swimming with Barracuda in Thailand

The visibility was 30+ meters, the sites were well planned with maps and pre dive overviews.

The groups were smaller and you were expected to stick with your divemasters.

The water was warmer so you weren’t bogged down with thick suits.

There was a strict hands off policy for wildlife.

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The spectacular visibility and wildlife on our dives in Thailand gave us a false expectation for diving in Sydney

Now if were to just continue doing dives just to see Sydney it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. We would have just sucked it up and done what needed doing. The problem was that we would be training to lead dives. We would be responsible for the wellbeing of other people not just ourselves. On our second day of diving we could barely get out of the water it was throwing us against the rocky shore and there was heavy surge. The thought of leading a group of novice divers in and out of the water safely was really scary. With such poor visibility, it would be almost impossible to properly keep track of your group during the dive. Another concern was Dan’s diabetes. Because we were often forced to park quite far from the water, if he had an emergency and needed medical attention, it would be very difficult to contact EMS let alone something as simple as getting sugar from the vehicle. Half the time, we would be required to hitch a ride from a random diver to and from the sites.

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All geared up for colder diving in Sydney

With all this in mind, we decided it wasn’t going to happen. We were nervous about meeting with our staff contact since we would be bailing out of the dive program. Considering we had only been there for a few days and only gone out for two days of diving, we assumed it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience to drop out. We met up and discussed the issues, surprisingly he took it very well. He said he would have to take a look at the money we had payed already and sort out a refund. We were feeling really good about our decision, until we saw the refund. It turns out that some of the course material for the Divemaster portion couldn’t be refunded because PADI has strict guidelines, understandable. We also gave a deposit from Canada that was non-refundable to secure our place, also understandable. What I didn’t understand was why all of a sudden the ‘nice’ favours that they did for us, were something we had to pay for. For example, the wetsuit that they let us use for the two dives was a couple of staff members, just to see which ones fit best. Well now, we had to pay $70 per person, per dive for “rental gear”. Our contact had picked us up from the airport and brought us to the house we were renting from them. Apparently, this was now a $70 bill for an ‘airport shuttle / tour’. The list became longer and longer until we were left paying $1800 per person for two days of diving and one week of accommodation in a filthy, overcrowded house.

This is why we did not become Dive Instructors. This is why we will not be returning to Sydney for diving any time soon.