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WWOOFing in New Zealand and Worldwide

A Bit of Work Mixed with Travel Ties it All Together

Sweeping fine-grained sand in the narrow cracks between bricks, I feel my work paying off. With the bricks now flush, the space looks somewhat polished and functional. I had been working as a WWOOFer for almost a week in the small and lovely coastal village of Waitiati, just outside Dunedin on the South island of New Zealand. I looked down on the brick patio, then across the ocean and Blueskin Bay, and concluded that WWOOFing is an altogether different travel experience than anything I have done in the past.

As a first-time WWOOFer, I was seeking something new. A bit weary of the tired (and expensive in New Zealand) hostel-to-hostel backpacking scene, my basic criteria was to travel somewhere beautiful, meet interesting people, and learn a thing or two. In less than a week, I accomplished all that and more, while shelling out virtually no money.

But the fact it worked out was not mere chance. A few wrong moves and I could have been working with someone I did not get along with, doing work I hated, and regretting everything. There are, I believe, several key pre-planning steps that heavily influence the WWOOF experience.

The Nuts and Bolts: Doing it Right

Know what you’re getting into. While WWOOFing conjures images of working merrily on an organic farm in the country, the work involved varies enormously. Feeding chickens, making beer, cleaning hostels, chainsawing trees, and working for a surf school were all options in New Zealand. Even the word organic in the WWOOF acronym (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) can be a misnomer, so do not expect to learn about organic principles if that’s not in the description.

Grill your potential host. The farms are plentiful and there’s nothing wrong with shopping around. Find out how much work is required, what the living arrangement is like, how much food is provided by the host, and what there is to do in the area, as these answers will give you an idea of what your life will be like. The closer you get to know the host, the better, as once you are on site there much time spent together.

Likewise, I saw it as sign of dedication to making the exchange work when my host--a friendly, energetic, and hospitable doctoral student--was careful in describing the work as unglamorous and hard. As a result, there were no surprises when I was continually hauling buckets of gravel up dozens of stairs and digging the hours away.

Half-Days Are Ample Time to Explore

Life outside of work is of equal if not of greater importance than the work itself. Most WWOOFers work 4-6 hours, according to their manual, meaning lots of free time is left to explore. Is there a town nearby? Will the host be working? Is public transportation available? Will you get bored? If you are on your own, it boils down to the last question. I enjoyed lazy afternoons reading and hanging out with dogs and chickens, but if I was there more than a week I would have felt the need for either a companion or a change of venue. WWOOFing is a great option for couples or friends, but not really great for someone traveling alone who needs constant company.

The Potential Beauty of the Exchange

WWOOFing can be a memorable exchange where both the host and the worker stand to gain greatly from each other. The host gets “free” labor and the WWOOFer gets an enriched travel experience. From five half-days of work, I ate delicious home-cooked (and mostly home-grown) vegetarian food, strolled on stunning white-sand beaches, hiked in the hills, sipped a few pints at a hip Scottish bar in Dunedin, met fun, interesting folks, and learned about the vibrant community scene as well as the local environment.

In addition, WWOOFing is often a free educational experience—almost akin to an internship. Opportunities abound to learn about permaculture, sustainable farming, viticulture, and much more. Consider a longer stay and seek out some place that specializes in your area of interest. If it is specific knowledge that you are seeking, it helps to know that many hosts are happy to offer you a trial period, with no hard feelings if you walk away after a few days. With a trial period you will not find yourself potentially locked into “traditional farming practices” which involve living in a cold, dark barn, and sleeping with the goats.

With the rise of WWOOFing around the world, it is quite possible to hop from farm to farm, linking WWOOF stays and basically pay only for transportation. Stays are available in dozens of countries and in the most beautiful corners of the world.

WWOOF offers a new option on the traveler’s menu. Less committed than a full-time volunteer or work stint, with the ample free time of vacation travel, but with the sense of cultural immersion as if living like a local, it can often offer all the finest aspects of traveling for those who are so inclined. Take a bit of time to familiarize yourself with the system and then dive on in.

The WWOOF website contains all you need to know at www.wwoofinternational.org with the New Zealand chapter at www.wwoof.co.nz.

See David Zook's article Living the Endless Winter in New Zealand’s South Island: Mid-recession Work and Travel in the Name of Fun for more.

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