One of the aspects of travelling around that can get a bit wearing after a while is the lack of routine. It’s very liberating at first, being able to do whatever you feel like whenever you want, but after a while I start craving structure, responsibility and routine. This was certainly true as my time in Perth came to an end and I got the train south to the small rural town of Waroona, for two weeks of volunteer farm work.
I found Hamel Homegrown, run by organic farmers Fiona and Anton, on WorkAway, the same website that I used to find my volunteering placement at Yellow House in Kuala Lumpur. The deal on the farm was the same, and similar to most WWOOFing and farm work projects; working five hours per day, five days a week, in return for food and accommodation, and the rest of the time free to relax and explore.
Fiona and Anton started the farm just over twenty years ago, after spending much of their twenties travelling around the country ‘doing the hippy thing’. On the twelve acre plot they have a small orchard and a chicken coop as well as rows of crops, and they grow small to medium quantities of all kinds of fruit and veg, which they sell to organic wholesalers, at a farmer’s market, and from a honesty-box stall on the driveway. They’ve worked hard – in Fiona’s words “it took a long time and a lot of work to become profitable” – and have amassed a huge amount of experience and knowledge of their trade.
Working hours were 8:00am to 1:00pm, and I quickly got into the routine of early mornings and freezing cold starts. Along with the part-time staff, almost exclusively members of the extended family, and Francis, another volunteer from Uganda, I moved through a wide variety of jobs from picking and cleaning beetroot, packing lettuces and picking citrus fruit and pumpkins to cleaning up garlic, mulching and weeding and planting onion seedlings. We had a mid-morning tea break together on the veranda, during which I heard the local gossip and got to know everyone better.
It was surprisingly satisfying spending so much time outside and getting my hands dirty doing such physical work. After the first day my body ached from all the bending and lifting, but I had more energy as well, and the more I did the more I was able to see what organic farming is all about. More than just not using chemicals it seemed to me to be about not fighting against nature but working with it; a huge amount of effort was put into improving the soil through mulching and making compost, and instead of waging war against weeds and pests, they were pretty much accepted as inevitable, although some beds were covered in black matting with holes cut for the plants to poke through, in order to prevent weeds in the more delicate crops.
The afternoons were my own and after a shower and some lunch I spent most of them reading and relaxing, or walking around the local countryside with Francis. The landscape was not too different to the UK really with lots of green and woods and farmland, and the Western Australian winter was much like the English spring or summer, so it was very pleasant to walk around. A few times I walked to the town along the railway line, and one afternoon Fiona lent me their old ute and we went for a drive and a look around the nearby Lake Moyanup. The truck was ancient but worked well enough once I’d figured out how to take the handbrake off – instead of a horizontal handle is was a thin lever below the steering wheel that you twist and push in – extremely retro!
In the evenings Francis and I would cook, using the wonderful fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs at our disposal, and watch television with Fiona and Anton. They were very welcoming and over the course of two weeks I met most of their extended family; children, grandchildren, nieces and all, and they took me to their Pentecostal church and introduced me to everyone in the town.
Two weeks flew by and I would have been happy to stay longer. Given my inherent laziness I hadn’t been sure how I’d get along with such physical work, but I found it incredibly satisfying and relaxing being outdoors all the time and getting my hands dirty, and Fiona and Anton’s outlook on life and on growing things was brilliant. I felt quite calm as I returned to Perth, resolving to find a community garden back in Brighton and promising Fiona and Anton to keep them updated with my progress.
After a few more days in Perth, this time in the slightly more interesting suburb of North Bridge, I took an overnight flight back to Melbourne, to see my friends there and prepare for the impending journey homewards.