Australia taught me what it means to be a working holidaymaker. The country is practically designed for backpackers; sun, beaches, beer, friendly locals and work available everywhere – as long as you’re not too picky. It’s the only country I’ve lived in where I’ve never signed a lease, spending nearly a year as a long-term resident of Aussitel Backpackers in Coffs Harbour.
When I returned in 2008 with Jared, we lived with his parents in Newcastle and I got a couple of semi-normal jobs. But when I first went to Australia in 2004, I followed a strawberry picking job to Coffs, where I fell into the strangest combination of work I have ever had.
Strawberry season ended a few weeks after my friend Alexa and I arrived, but we put the word out among the hostel staff that we were still looking for work. Just before I ran out of money, I scored three new jobs.
Hours: 6:00AM-7:00AM daily
Benefits: Free bed
Negatives: Cleaning up other people’s messes.
The owner of Aussitel was a stickler for cleanliness, and my job was to have the kitchen, common area, back porch and pool area sparkling by 7:00A.M.
I don’t sparkle by 7:00A.M.
For six weeks, I tried. I got up before everyone else to scrub up the remnants of last night’s dinner plates, an unappealing mixture of congealed sauce, dried noodles, bread crumbs, and feasting cockroaches. I emptied all of the half-full stubbies of Toohey’s New and threw the bottles into a recycling bin. I dumped out overflowing ashtrays and swept up bottlecaps, pausing occasionally to read the quiz questions on the underside. I straightened the lounge chairs by the pool and vacuumed the carpet, all while listening to bad pop music on my iPod. On good days, I remembered to feed the fish (usually too much).
As a finishing touch, I mopped the floor, never managing to do much more than push dirty water all over the kitchen. By the time the owner arrived, I was wiped out and well into a power-nap on the couch.
Bungee Trampoline Operator
Salary: $10 an hour, tax-free
Hours: 9:00A.M. – 5:00P.M. daily
Benefits: Free jumps. Occasional ice cream from the boss.
Negatives: Crying children and stage-mom parents.
This job was a stroke of good luck (or weird luck) as Nick, the trampoline owner, called up the first hostel in the phone book to ask for staff. Four people, including Alexa and I, took rotating shifts at the Park Beach Plaza. There were three big trampolines set up in the middle of the mall, where Santa Claus had held court only a few days before. A harness dangled in the air above each trampoline, suspended from a collection of bungee cords. The cords were raised and lowered by remote control to allow each jumper to achieve superhuman kangaroo heights.
To attract customers, we had to climb into the harnesses and bound into the air, performing occasional flips to impress the crowd. Soon, children were queuing up and demanding that their parents allow them to have a go.
There were three types of parents:
1) “$10 for 5 minutes? That’s a bloody rip-off, that is. Come on, Bazza, you’re not jumping today.”
2) “Go on, get up there.” Pushes sniveling child forward. “Give us a few flips.” Rage builds as child refuses to jump once strapped into harness. “GIVE US A FLIP.” Usually said while casting glances at the rapidly rotating child on the neighboring trampoline. “Oh for f– Come down, then, why don’t you. Quit your crying. You owe me $10.”
3) “Ten dollars? For five minutes? All right, but that’s coming out of your allowance. It’s safe, right? It better be safe.”
I developed one skill from working the bungee trampolines, and it wasn’t transferable.
Eventually, I was able to predict on sight exactly how many bungee cords each child would require. Too few and the kid would never get off the ground. Too many and he would get stuck in the air, so one of us would have to grab his feet and yank him down.
The worst was when you guessed wrong on a fat kid, who would then flail helplessly as the cords were raised and the harness dug into his thighs. Usually this resulted in tears and a refund.
Salary: $10 an hour, tax-free
Hours: 6:00 P.M. – 10:30 P.M.
Benefits: Free rides on the slingshot.
Negatives: Smelling like cabbage.
My boss at the carny was a man named Johnny Castle. I still don’t think that was his real name.
He was enormous, with heavily oiled black hair and a never-ending collection of sweat-stained black t-shirts. But Johnny knew his business, and that was how to scam people. I got the job when I wandered down to the fairground while the Coffs Christmas Carnival was setting up for their six-week engagement. Johnny seemed amused by my presence and agreed to let me run the Looney Hoops stand.
The balls were round, but the hoops were oval, so while it was possible to make a basket, it wasn’t easy.
I spent most nights being harassed by groups of teenage boys.
Ringleader: “It’s rigged, isn’t it?”
Me: “No. It’s not rigged. Two dollars for three shots.”
Ringleader: “Show us how, then.” Grin and cocky glances to his mates. “If it’s not rigged, you should be the best at it. Go on, have a shot.”
Me: “No. Two dollars for three shots.”
An Irish guy named Daryl came to the hostel looking for work, so I suggested he check with Johnny Castle. To my dismay, Johnny hired him, moving me to the canteen and putting Daryl in my spot. Instead of teenage boys harassing me, it was now anyone who wanted a dagwood dog (corn dog), coke, hot chips, or fairy floss.
Which was pretty much everyone at the carnival.
Now I was back to where I’d started that morning, finishing the day with a mop in my hand after scrubbing the canteen’s oil-spattered linoleum floors.
By mid-February, I had been sacked as a morning cleaner. They told me it was because they wanted to give opportunities to new people, but I think it’s because I was terrible with a mop. Nick and his bungee trampolines had moved on to a new shopping center, and the Coffs Christmas Carnival packed up as well.
I had earned enough money to let me be just a backpacker again, and Alexa and I hit the well-worn trail up the east coast to Cairns, stopping briefly to do some fruit picking in Bundaberg. Later that year, I ran the risk of becoming a serial carny when I lived in a truck and worked at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Aussitel backpackers even took me back as a room cleaner, then as a live-in receptionist (no mops required).
I think the working holiday visa is made for this kind of stuff – unusual employment that you’d never do back home. The kind of jobs that add to the adventure and allow you to keep traveling. As long as you remain open to different kinds of work, word-of-mouth can be an amazing networking tool for backpackers in Australia – start talking and just let it happen.