Backpackers Working for a Living? Surely Not!

The art of backpacking isn’t all beaches, bungees and beers by the campfire. Unless Mummy and Daddy keep supplementing the credit card then even the crustiest of backpacker can’t ignore the capitalist methodology of having to earn some cash – yes, actually doing some paid work. Perish the thought hey? I mean who wants to put on a pair of overalls, or serve coffee to hundreds of people when they could be exploring new sights in new pastures. Sadly, as I’ve found out over my many backpacking trips, money is the root of all frustrations (yes, I’ve just made up that phrase). I’ve been forced to partake in many a different type of backpacker job just to keep me in beans and pasta! I’m not a work shy person and the things I’ve done for travel money have definitely been character building, not to mention the stories I’ve heard from the fascinating array of people I’ve met along the way.

Bungee or Baked Beans?
Bungee or Baked Beans?

From bar work to labouring, mind numbing data entry to fruit picking there are a raft occupations currently being filled by reluctant, rather-be-on-the-road travellers the world over. Let’s begin analysing these professions with the stereotypical classic of fruit picking.

Going Bananas in Bowen, Queensland

I once recall running very short of cash near a town called Bowen in Queensland (population 7,840) in between Townsville and Mackay (home of Cathy Freeman, Australia’s 400m aboriginal gold medallist I’ll have you know!) and so I decided to enquire about some work in the prosperous fruit picking industry. I wandered into 2 of the town’s backpacker hostels, read their notice boards and found a couple of telephone numbers. I plucked up the courage the ring the farmers dishing out the work and was promptly put on a waiting list and told to sit tight….in Bowen, no offence to any Bowen natives who may have stumbled across this article!
Bowen does have quite a nice beach…

I immediately hired a caravan for a week and settled into trailer park life. To be honest I was quite glad I never received the call. During my wait for fruit picking life to begin, I frequently visited the squat-esque hostel, the epi-centre of fruit picking recruitment in Bowen. Smelly backpackers with burnt necks and blistered hands wafted past me heading to disgusting wash rooms, sidestepping beer cans strewn across the kitchen and living areas. It was a scene I didn’t want to become part of and I realised I was sadistically queuing up waiting for my chance. My decision to move on from Bowen was cemented by testimonials from the workers who commented “its hard work, I waited 3 weeks to get the job now I’ve done 2 weeks straight and its horrible, I need to drown my sorrows every night which eats into my savings, will I ever leave this place?”. Another Scottish chap painted a similar picture “Mate, I’m on bananas and I’m going bananas, reaching up all day, cutting those bunches means spiders fall regularly on my face and this is Australia where poisonous stuff lives, plus if I don’t work fast enough I earn pittance, I’m not sure it’s worth it and my back is killing me!” I wasn’t in the mood for waiting 3 weeks to be bitten by a spider for the equivalent of £1 per hour so I left for Cairns and was grateful for an overdraft facility on my bank account. It sounds defeatist but stupidly I arrived once the season had begun, I did hear rumours that swift pickers could earn very good money if their technique held up to the task!

The Fruits of New Zealand

In New Zealand a few years later my overdraft facility was non-existent so the fruit industry beckoned again. I made a bee line (no fruit pun intended) for Cromwell; the stone fruit capital of NZ. Whilst I wasn’t lucky enough/good enough to pick cherries outside in the fresh air I had to pack them. That university degree has been absolutely useless thus far.

The Ugly Fruit Salad, Cromwell, New Zealand
The Ugly Fruit Salad, Cromwell, New Zealand

Picture the scene, a huge refrigerated shed, 3 slow running conveyor belts smothered in cherries. A dozen human beings stood inches apart pulling the storks apart and occasionally discarding the bruised ones. I questioned why we needed to separate the stalks and to my surprise discovered that you can’t sell cherries with 2 storks, they must be pulled apart. Local markets get the bruised cherries (same deal with the lamb…export markets fetch the best price and therefore quality). They were 10 hour days and as my head lay on the pillow each night I counted cherries, not sheep. I lasted 2 weeks in a zen like trance but it was ‘Repeat FM’ that killed me off to be honest. I did meet a lot of interesting people; one guy was a Chinese student studying animal genetics, incredibly intelligent, going back to Shanghai for a holiday, a relative millionaire with his Cromwell cash, not a fruitless occupation for him by any means (sorry). He’d ‘served’ 3 weeks. For some reason gigantic Czech backpackers seemed to flourish in the outdoor picking section, huge gangly arms meant they rifled through the orchards at a frenetic pace. These guys weren’t paid by the hour but rather by the bucket, some earned in excess of £350 per week, alas make no mistake though they worked very hard indeed.
Often fruit-picking farms offer their workers free accommodation and pay ‘piece’ rates as opposed to an hourly wage. It’s preferable to research which areas are in season and when, then rock up at the beginning to get your name down and get picking.
Also in New Zealand, I did a spot of building work, though it was more like gulag labour if I’m honest. I got the job through a recruitment agency in Wanaka, who wanted to see my CV! I couldn’t believe the vetting process was so thorough for a job that solely involved raking stones from an acre of top soil ready for foundations to be laid for a new housing estate. This job had pro’s and con’s; I worked with a great bunch of lads, got free transport to work, I was outside topping up my tan and it was well paid. However, I grew some amazing calluses on my hands, ruined any clothing I wore, ruined my back and got zero job satisfaction knowing that a machine could do this task in half an hour!

Chop Work and Shop Work!

Shortly after the Cromwell experience, my girlfriend was working in New Zealand, earning decent money in her ‘career’ job as an Occupational Therapist in a nice hospital on the shores of Lake Rotorua. So to avoid ‘bum + sponge’ status I had to get off my lazy backside and earn some dollars too. I literally wandered round the town, knocking on doors and landed myself some kitchen porter work. I hadn’t done any kitchen work before but the German owner said he’d give me a chance, showed me a sink, demanded ruthless German efficiency and let me get on with it. Again, the restaurant employed some interesting characters, including a huge Maori chef, who on serving the daily ‘bonus’ of a fabulous chicken and avocado burger, nearly rugby tackled me All Black style when I requested a squirt of tomato sauce (apparently chefs don’t like their food ruined with ketchup). However, the job literally came to a sharp end when I was tasked with slicing baguettes in half with the sharpest knife on earth. I found one baguette a little tough and sawed harder, only to find I was gauging into my finger. I simply could not stop the bleeding, the German chap just said “hold it up right boy”…an hour later I went to the nearby hospital where the flow of blood eventually stopped! I didn’t even get a chicken and avocado burger on my return. I did two more shifts then regretfully declined any more pot washing labour, the lack of concern for nearly losing a finger being my main gripe.
However, working in NZ did work out in the end. I knocked on more doors and found myself and nice job in an outdoor sports store called Kathmandu and picked up a bar job in the town’s most popular pub ‘The Pig and Whistle’. The pint pulling in the pub was an interesting role, as a Lancastrian with a thick northern accent , things got a little tricky towards midnight as the kiwi slang began to flow in conjunction with the local brew!
Did you find Part 1 entertaining? Why not click through to Part 2 for the next installment of Globodave’s Guide to Backpacker Jobs!
Part 2 Preview – I will conclude the piece with memoirs of jobs I’ve done in office call centres, shops and the great opportunities available to working for board and lodging on programmes such as wwoofing and websites. I’ve also included a section on how to find work yourself with tips such as tediously selecting and joining recruitment agencies –you know, the guys who request qualification’s and CV’s  for raking topsoil, which backpacker mags to read, listening out for word of mouth and simple door knocking bottle!