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How I Travel Like a Local

Kia Ora! In case you didn’t see my post in the summer, let me fill you in: from August 2014 to February 2015, I journeyed to New Zealand (via Australia) to travel and work. I lived out of a backpack—in backpackers and in people’s homes as a WWOOFer, a.k.a a Willing Worker on Organic Farms. In general, when I travel, I seek out any opportunity to interact with locals. WWOOFing is a great way to save money and get a taste of the local culture while volunteering for room and board. You pay a small membership fee (which usually lasts a year) and then have access to a list of hosts whom you can contact for work. Working on organic farms, though, can be a loose concept in the world of WWOOFing, though it depends on the country. In New Zealand, the organization prefers that the host adheres to some level of sustainable living or principles, but there aren’t too many restrictions on whether you are a farm or a home that has a garden.

Julicher Winery - Martinborough - 1Before I left for New Zealand, I knew I wanted to find a WWOOF experience, preferably at a winery/vineyard. After emailing several places, I made arrangements at a winery in Martinborough, a small wine village outside of Wellington in the south of the North Island. I didn’t know what to expect, but that was half the excitement. I WWOOFed at 4 different locations while in New Zealand. This post describes a little about each of them.

My first experience at the winery in Martinborough landed me in the hosts’ house. The owners were an older Kiwi/Dutch couple with the property in the middle of beautiful countryside filled with pastures and vineyards. There was another WWOOFer there from Canada who had just finished working a harvest at vineyards in the South Island. The tasks I performed included gardening, raking vines, cooking, and even helping with Twitter posts and some photography. Each night we cooked dinner and shared their fantastic wine. I felt spoiled in this first WWOOFing experience, but was grateful for such a positive experience.

Julicher Winery - Martinborough - 2Up to two weeks can be a typical stay with a WWOOF host. After ten days, my first host dropped me off at another winery in Martinborough. I was shown to a small shed on the side of the winery next to a batch (detached cottage). The shed had a bed and I was to share a bathroom and kitchen with three French workers and the owner. It was a stark contrast to what I had just been living in, but still, not really roughing it. We ate good food, drank amazing wine, and played card games according to three countries’ rules.

One of the best parts of WWOOFing was the people I met. I spent 6 days (of a 2 week road trip) WWOOFing with my new friend from France, whom I met in Auckland at the start of my sojourn. For this third WWOOF experience, we arrived at our host’s café at the edge of Abel Tasman Park where he then led us up an extremely steep drive to his residence. I was afraid our little hatchback wasn’t going to make it up the steep and winding road, but once we reached the top of the mountain, we were awarded with beautiful views of the Wainui Bay. The clouds reached out to greet us as we looked down to the startling turquoise water. Accommodations included a mud hut, which while it did have electricity for the one light we had, we had to go to the bathroom, shower, and brush our teeth outside among the trees. While it took a little getting used to, we were thankful for each other’s company and I probably had some of the best conversations during those three days living among the clouds. Plus, any WWOOF host that has an awesome pet can make a world of difference. Shadow, the owner’s dog, was a quiet, massive white fur ball that would walk us to our hut at night and greet us in the morning.

Esmo in MotuekaThe last WWOOF host I had was a cottage on the hosts’ property, which was massive and over-looking a small village called Motueka. Checkered blocks of red netting spanned across the hillsides in Motueka, protecting orchards from hail. We had another canine companion here, Esmo, who loved to get in front of us whenever we were trying to get work done. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to know our hosts as well here since they worked during the day. Nonetheless, we shared four great dinners together and when you’re traveling so much—there’s nothing better than a home cooked meal that you didn’t have to cook yourself on a hostel stove.

If you’re thinking about WWOOFing (which is available in other countries. I planned to do it in Chile, but extenuating circumstances caused me to leave before doing this), there are a few tips:

  • Keep an open mind. The people you meet will have a certain way of doing things, but chances are, they’ve lived abroad or are used to having foreigners in their home. That doesn’t mean they will adapt to your expectations and you should make the effort to learn how they operate—that’s the point! Also, as you can read from my experiences above, living accommodations are varied!
  • Be respectful of your hosts. A little conversation and kindness goes a long way. I’ve heard good and bad stories (mostly good and only experienced good myself), but it’s important to make the effort to get to know the people who are opening their home to you, even if you are there to work for them.
  • Put yourself out there. Try something new or put already acquired skills to use! Many WWOOF hosts need help on projects around their properties beyond simple gardening. There may be an opportunity waiting for you.
  • Plan ahead. In New Zealand, WWOOFing in early spring was easier because there was less demand on the hosts, but it still helped to plan ahead…to a certain extent. It depends on your hosts and how far in advance they are willing to confirm your stay. They might worry you’ll back out if done too far in advance. On the other hand, too little planning might make it difficult to find a place that will take you depending on the time of year. I heard stories from WWOOFers in the summer that couldn’t find hosts. WWOOFing is extremely popular and New Zealand is full of travelers. It may be easier to find a host when you are by yourself or with one other person.
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