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Adventures Working Abroad in Australia

Flying by the Seat of Your Pants

Trampoline work in Australia.
Trampoline work in Australia.

Pre-Departure

I knew that my next destination was Australia. I had gone through BUNAC before and had no hesitation about doing so again; it would mean a lot of independent planning, and I would have to organize my own job and accommodation--but that was part of the adventure. 

I traveled on the 416 visa, which is a special visa available through BUNAC that allows people aged 18–30 to work in Australia for up to four months. This visa currently costs $499 through BUNAC. Now, there is a second option—the 462 visa, offered to U.S. high school graduates aged 18–30. The 462 allows for up to 12 months of work, with the restriction that you cannot work for more than six months with one employer. This visa costs $270 through BUNAC. 

The current BUNAC program recommends bringing around US$5000 as a caution, not that you will likely end up spending anything near that to get set up before finding work. I planned this trip with Alexa, one of my roommates from college. We boarded our Air Pacific flight in November, timing our arrival to coincide with the Australian summer. 

Flights to Australia commonly offer free stopovers in one of the Pacific Islands, so take advantage of this if you can. Air Pacific stopped in Fiji, so we stayed in the Yasawa Islands for several days before moving on to Sydney. This meant spending a little extra money before starting the job hunt, but it was an incredible and worthwhile experience.

Arrival in Australia

The trip started with a mandatory orientation in the BUNAC offices. For the first half an hour, we learned all about the dangers of Australia—the sharks, spiders, hoop snakes, and drop bears that make it a dangerous place to visit. Then we were told, “No worries,” and assured that everything would be fine. Fortunately, that was to be the case.  

At that introductory meeting, Alexa and I received all the details regarding what we needed to begin working—a tax file number (similar concept to the Social Security Number), bank account, and advice on jobs and accommodations. We arranged to have our tax file numbers sent to the BUNAC offices, as we did not have permanent accommodations lined up yet. 

We took a few days to figure out the plan–stay in Sydney? Head up the east coast? Fly across to Perth? Australia is a huge country, and we didn’t want to limit ourselves to the big cities. After a week on Sydney’s Manly Beach, we decided that we wanted to try something new, and the BUNAC office suggested of a small coastal town between Sydney and Brisbane that had some strawberry picking work. The next day, we were on a Greyhound bus bound for Coffs Harbour. 

Work to Live, Not the Other Way Around

I came into Australia thinking I would find something casual, but I did not expect what I got. I left Australia with a number of new jobs to add to my resume: fruit picker, bartender, hostel cleaner/receptionist, bungee trampoline operator, and carny (carnival worker).  I learned that on the Australian backpacker trail, it is best not to plan, because you never know what might come up next. Be brave and ask for opportunities; be open and do not turn them down. 

Carnival work in Australia.
Carnival work in Australia.

I did a few bar trials before leaving Sydney, but most pubs in Australia require an RSA—Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate. It is a 1-day course that costs about AUD$95, and I was not prepared to spend that kind of money at the time. Instead, I officially started working by fruit picking–backbreaking work, but it requires no experience or qualifications.

The strawberry season wrapped up about two weeks after we got to Coffs, but the hostel manager offered us each jobs in exchange for free accommodation. I got up every morning at six a.m. to clean the kitchen, while Alexa had to be up by nine to clean the rooms. The hostel quickly became like home; it was small and friendly, and people tended to stay for weeks on end, so we all became like a little transient family. I got my PADI open water certification, and even overcame my fear of sharks.

Then the Coffs Christmas Carnival came into town, and I went down to see if there were any jobs available. The next thing I knew, I was running the Looney Hoops stand on a nightly basis; half of the carnival staff seemed to be from Aussitel backpackers.

Not long after that, bungee trampolines were set up in the local shopping center, and the operator contacted Aussitel, who passed on the news to backpackers. I was cleaning the kitchen in the morning (free accommodation), bouncing on a trampoline during the day ($10/hour), and working a carnival stall by night ($10/hour). After about five weeks of this, I had saved up enough money to make my way to Cairns, on the northeast coast.

Alexa and I bought a 3000km (1800 mile) greyhound bus pass from STA Travel, which cost about AU$400 at the time and covered our travel from Sydney to Carins. We stopped at the Federal Backpackers in Bundaberg for a week to top up our funds with some more impromptu fruit picking. The hostel took our details (including tax file number–you must have a valid work visa) and arranged jobs for us to start the next day. After a sweaty week of potatoes, chilies, and aloe vera, we continued up north to see Fraser Island and sail the Whitsundays. 

Once we reached Cairns, I was out of money but not out of contacts—a friend from Coffs knew of work at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. First, I had to take care of legalities; my four months of work were up, but I was not ready to go home. I made an appointment at the immigration office in Sydney, and lodged my application for a tourist visa. A few hours, paperwork, and AU$215 later, I had a sticker in my passport allowing me to remain in Oz until the end of May. For three weeks, I lived in the back of a moving truck with four other backpackers and worked cash-in-hand at the carnival. It certainly was not easy and was not always fun, but it was something I will never forget.

I joined a group of friends from Aussitel who had bought a car from some other backpackers, and we drove towards Sydney. From there, we drove to Adelaide along the Great Ocean Road. From Adelaide, Alexa flew home and I flew to Perth on a budget Virgin Blue flight. Then I flew back to Coffs to say goodbye before going back to the States.

The 12 Apostles along Great Ocean Road.
The 12 Apostles along Great Ocean Road.

An Unexpected Twist

Three days before my scheduled flight home, I learned that the receptionist at Aussitel was taking a 3-month holiday. The manager offered me the job. I spent one day deliberating, one day driving to Brisbane for another tourist visa, and one day calling friends and family to say I would be home in August. 

I earned $12 an hour and had my own room behind the reception desk, complete with a small kitchen. It was a great way to meet people and I was able to do many of the advertised activities for free: diving, horseback riding, and surf lessons. The best perk was working down the road from the Foreshores Café: if you make it to Coffs, do not leave without getting a banana smoothie from this place! Deciding to work under the table can be a risky move; it worked out for me, but I would advise you to weigh your options before making such a decision. 

There are jobs to be found all over Australia; all you have to do is ask. It was really nice to have BUNAC’s support in the beginning, but as I got more comfortable I found that I did not need it anymore. I usually opt for stability when it comes to my jobs, but in Australia, it proved to be a great way of seeing the country. If you are up for a challenge, skip the conventional office jobs, get to Australia, and see what you can find. Even if you go home broke, it will pay off in the end.  

For More Info

Pre-Departure

Australian Immigrationwww.immi.gov.au note: you can apply directly through this website for a cheaper 462 visa, but you will not receive any pre-departure or arrival support.
BUNACwww.bunac.org 
STA Travel: www.statravel.com

Transportation

Virgin Blue budget airline
JetStar budget airline: www.jetstar.com 
Greyhound: www.greyhound.com.au 
Awesome Adventures Fiji: www.awesomefiji.com

Additional Resources

Aussitel Backpackers, Coffs Harbour: www.aussitel.com 
Diving, Coffs Harbour: www.bananacoastdivers.com.au
RSA training courses: www.oztrains.com

Lauren Fitzpatrick is an Indiana University graduate who is about to complete her MA in Travel Writing at Kingston University in London.  She recently spent six weeks backpacking around Europe for Busabout. See her blog at www.lateralmovements.com.

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