8 Backpackers’ paradises for the outdoor lovers

8 Backpackers’ paradises for the outdoor lovers

This week I wanted to make a selection of my favourite playgrounds around Asia and Australia. Some of them are really mainstream while others are still a bit out of the backpackers’ trail. But that’s the point, I love to travel out of the beaten path, but sometimes I also like to stop in a chill place where I can meet like-minded travellers and enjoy a laid-back routine for a while. These are places for outdoor lovers, where you can surf or hike or do yoga every day, but where you can also sleep in a comfy bungalow every night and have fresh fruits for breakfast. These are my favourite backpacker destinations in Asia and Australia.

backpacker destinations in Asia

1. Bali, Indonesia

Bali is still the ultimate backpackers’ paradise. You might have to get over the crowded shores of Kuta, but then the heart of the island will unfold into lush jungles and rice fields. Driving a motorbike up and down its green hills dotted with temples and coffee plantations is one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in Asia altogether. Bali for me means dreamy beaches, clear water, incredible cliffs and rock formations. The outdoor lovers won’t risk boredom. If you’re into surfing, you will find breaks for any level. Waves are consistent and the water is crystal clear. You can check out all the surf spots here. The turquoise waters are also a blessing for snorkelers and divers. In Bali you can dive in the north and on the east side of the island, but also around nearby islands. Hikers can choose to trek around the rice fields or to climb Mount Batur (1700m) or Mount Agung (3000m) the two Balinese volcanos.

Where to stay: Bali has so many wonderful accommodations that it would be impossible to choose one. Just avoid busy Kuta and try to book your nights in expat favourites Canggu and Ubud.

When to Go: The dry season here is pretty long, it runs from April to November.

backpacker destinations in Asia

2. Gili Islands, Indonesia

Just 45 minutes of fast boat away from Bali you will land on three tiny paradise islands: The Gilis. No cars nor scooters here, just horses and. Gili T is the party Island, Gili Meno is a teeny tiny islet, very quiet and honeymoony, and Gili Air is the happy hippy place where I spent four days eating fresh grilled tuna and swimming with turtles. The islands are surrounded by calm waters and wonderful reefs that you can reach just swimming off the beach.

Where to stay: in every island with a little of bargaining you can win a decent bungalow with a beach view for a few dollars. But if you’re feeling spendy, opportunities are endless!

When to Go: As in neighbouring Bali, the dry season here is pretty long, it runs from April to November.

backpacker destinations in Asia

3. Pai, Northern Thailand

Pai is the backpackers’ paradise and the hippy headquarters of Thailand northern circuit. Hidden on the northern mountains, it is reachable with a 4h winding minibus ride from Chiang Mai. The chill out atmosphere, the cheap and tasty restaurants, the night markets (where we ate the best pizza in more than one year of travels), the pool with a bar and a sound system, the natural hot springs and the night parties around bonfires basically make it the best playground for backpackers. The surroundings of the village are dotted with traditional wooden huts shadowed by lush vegetation. Nature lovers will find a bunch of jungle trails that lead to waterfalls and natural hot springs. Not too far from Pai, you can also explore Tham Lot cave and visit some traditional tribe villages.

Where to stay:  I don’t really have a special place to recommend in Pai, but I can definitely recommend the guesthouse we stayed in Tham Lot: the charming Cave Lodge, one of the best guesthouses I ever stayed in my life.

When to go: November to March are the driest months. A lot of sunshine but not so much water to pump the beautiful waterfall.

backpacker destinations in Asia

4. Koh Phangan, Thailand

Koh Phangan: home of the infamous Full Moon Party that every month brings something like 200.000 people at the biggest beach party of the world. That place is legit. Way, way, way cheaper that Ibizia, Mykonos or whatever in Europe is considered a party island, Ko Phangan kicks ass. The good thing about it is that it actually gets rid of the 200.000 clubbers as soon as the morning comes. Leaving the island to the quiet, hippie paradise that it is for the rest 29 days of the month. Everything is extremely sweet here: the mix between some of the most beautiful beaches I ever seen, parties, cool travellers, good food and charming bungalows on the beach. Phangan is also the place to be if you’re into colourful and rich diving. You can also hike from the west coast the eastern on a kinda steep 2h trail. It starts from Haad Khom and goes to charming Bottle Beach. From here you can get back by boat if you’re too tired. The island also has a small kitesurfing scene if you fancy the wind sports.

Where to go: The area around Haad Rin (the Full Moon Party beach) can be three times more expensive than the rest of the island, especially around the full moon. The west coast is cheaper and quieter.

When to go: The dry season runs from mid-December to April. You can still find mostly sunny weather with the occasional storm until September

backpacker destinations in Asia

5. Siargao, Philippines

Siargao is a surfers’ paradise located in the south-west of the Philippines archipelago. It’s a tiny island covered in coconut tree forests, still untouched by mass tourism. The island has a chill-out vibe and is visited year-round by surfers and local backpackers. The only two locations that offer accommodations are General Luna and Pacifico. GL is actually where most of the surf spots are located, world-class Cloud 9 included. The island offers a lot for non-surfers as well: island hopping and snorkelling, diving, scooter driving to beautiful lagoons, yoga classes and beach parties every night, where you can meet young locals and travellers alike. This is going to be my home base from January 2018, so no need to detail further how much I am in love with the island and its lovely people.

Where to stay: I can’t recommend enough the chill and friendly Paglaom Hostel. Sunny, Koy and their cute doggies are going to make you feel at home.

When to go: The dry season in this area of the Philippines runs from March to October. For surfers, the best period is August to November, when the swell and wind conditions are at their best.

6. Noosa, Australia (QLD)

Noosa is the not-so-secret pearl of the Sunshine Coast, a long strip of beach that connects the bustling South to the jungle North of East Coast Australia. A small surfers’ town surrounded by the last stretch of the rainforest. The water is about the warmest it can get when it comes to Australian surf spots. I still had to wear my full sleeves wetsuit but I’m a spoiled Mediterranean girl used to the warmth of the South East Asian Pacific waves. There are several breaks for any level. As a beginner, I had some of my best Australian waves there. For those who aren’t into surfing, you can hike under the thick canopy of the Noosa National Park: a maze of lush jungle trails that end up in ocean viewpoints and small waterfalls. You can also kayak on the Everglades, the mysterious and tranquil mirrored waters of the wetlands. At night Noosa is alive with its casual surfers’ hangouts and a tiny but lively party scene. Backies claim that “Noosa Bug” is a thing: once you arrive here, you’ll never want to leave.

Where to stay: Halse Lodge is a YHA Australia Hostel in a marvellous historical Queenslander, the traditional wooden houses of Queensland. Vanlifers can park their vans there and use all the hostel facilities for a small fee, while long-term travellers can work a few hours here in exchange for accommodation. The chill and friendly atmosphere and small parrots that come visit at breakfast time will make you stay forever.

When to go: the dry season in Queensland runs from April to November.

7. Byron Bay, Australia (NSW)

Byron Bay is a hippie enclave in the North of coastal New South Wales. This is the place to be if you want to surf with dolphins in crystal clear waters. Which should be more than enough to go there if you ask my opinion! Surf is the biggest outdoor activity here, but you can hike and cycle in the surroundings. The coastal trail from the main beach to the lighthouse it’s just stunning. You can also rent a kayak for the day and go in search of dolphins. Not too far from Byron Bay you can hike to lush Minyon Falls, or make a day trip to Nimbin, aka the hippie capital of Australia. In the early 1970s, a group of Sydney University students choose Nimbin as the location for the Australian version of Woodstock; a counter-culture festival that celebrated art, sustainability, harmony and freedom. Many young hippies decided to stay in the area after the festival starting small businesses like alternative healers, therapists and yoga teachers. Nowadays Nimbin is a colourful, decaying, weed-powered hill community. Definitely worth a visit. If you stay long enough you can also have the chance to attend one of their famous parties.

Where to stay: Definitely stay in Arts Factory Backpacker’s Lodge in Byron Bay. It’s a 5-acres subtropical campground with tepees, bungalows, dorms, parking for vanlifers and a pool (yay!). Various workshops are available including drumming, didgeridoo making, yoga and juggling. The nights here are filled with music and artsy entertainment. A bit far out but totally worth it!

When to go: the dry season in Byron runs from April to November.

8. Pushkar, India

One of the classic stops of the Rajasthan Circuit, Pushkar is built around a sacred lake, a popular pilgrimage site for Indians. Sitting by the lake at sunset while the neighbouring temples raise their chanting prayers is a magical experience. If you’re into hiking, the real gem of the place is the Savitri Mandir, a hill temple where you can have the best 360 view of the lake and the surrounding desert. The one-hour long hike to get there will reward you with the best picture opportunities, especially if you get there at sunset or at sunrise. Despite the holiness of the place, Pushkar is also a hub for backpackers. You can start the night in one of the local bars as the Pink Floyd Café, the Funky Monkey Café or the Rainbow. Here you will meet travellers and regulars alike and will probably get invited in one of the frequent rave parties happening on the hills. Those parties are only spread by word-of-mouth, so keep an ear out!

Where to stay: I tried really hard but I can’t remember the name of the wonderful backpacker’s Haveli we stayed in! This is why you should keep a diary while travelling! Anyway, the city is filled with extremely charming (and cheap) options for backpackers.

When to go: Pushkar is dry for most of the year. You should be fine from October to May, then the monsoon kicks in.

8 things to do in North Queensland besides the great barrier reef

8 things to do in North Queensland besides the great barrier reef

things to do in North Queensland

The coast line of Far North Queensland has nothing to do with the infinite expanse of waves, sharks and surfers of the South. In this part of Australia, the rainforest dips into the ocean with its enveloping mangroves and crocodile infested estuaries. Moving northward from Cairns, the ocean takes on a greenish colour due to its swollen and angry tributaries. Not that going for a swim is an option. Here the crocs eat a human or two every couple of years. But hey, even if swimming is highly discouraged, there is plenty of adventurous things to do in North Queensland!

1. Exploring Daintree National Park

What is really amazing about this piece of coastline is the intricate and chirping density of the rainforest. The canopy is so thick that in some places the light struggles to sneak in. The drive on the Mossman Daintree Road, which crosses the park, is an attraction in itself. Forty winding kilometres under a thick canopy inhabited by trees kangaroos, “flying foxes” bats, colourful parrots, snakes of all sizes and spiders bigger than a baseball glove. Along the road you’ll find several trail heads for forest walks that range from 10’ up to 6 hours. Check them all out here.

things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland

2. Sunbath on stunning beaches (but don’t take a swim!)

Occasionally, you’ll pass a secondary road that stretches to the coast. In Daintree National Park, the beaches of Cow Bay, Thornton Beach and Cape Tribulation look like frames taken from a Robison Crusoe movie. Mangroves and palm trees stretch into the ocean, serving as a perfect hideout for crocs. The only beach furnishings that you’ll find here are cobwebs and fallen tree branches. In the evening, the backpackers’ vans are parked next to each other despite the empty parking, as to create a compact formation in the event of ranger raids (or crocodile’s). Free camping is not allowed here, but it’s kind of overlooked by the rangers. Vanlife tip: every beach parking has toilets and running water (one of the many reasons why I love Australia).

things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland

3. Jump with a liane in the Emmagen Creek (and actually have a swim!)

Between the things to do in North Queensland, swimming is not tipically an option. The swimming hole at Emmagen Creek is actually one of the few safe places to swim in the Daintree lowlands. Walk upstream along the creek for about 400 metres through the rainforest until you reach the deeper pools. Watch out: the water is pretty chilly because it doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight.

things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland

4 Climb Mount Sorrow on a jungle trail

This 7km trail climbs from the coastal lowlands of Cape Tribulation, up the rainforest-clad ridge of Mount Sorrow to a lookout offering views of the beautiful Daintree coastline, Snapper Island and beyond. It’s supposed to be a 6/7 hours’ trail, but it took us around 4 hours. The trail has some steep sections but as long as you are quite fit and you’re wearing decent runners you should be fine! Remember to bring along at least 2L water per person (in the cool season). Watch out: on the top you only have a small lookout platform, there’s not really a space to have a nice picnic.

things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland

5. Chill by the fancy pool at PK’s Jungle village

If you are wondering where to stay in Daintree National Park, well you have plenty of options ranging from campgrounds up to fancy Eco lodges. We stayed at PK’s Jungle Village , a super cool backpackers that also offered campgrounds for van-lifers. After months of semi-solitude in the Outback, it was nice to hang out with other travellers around the common kitchen or by the wonderful jungle pool. Definitely recommended!

6. Feel some off-road adrenaline on the Bloomfield Track

Once you reach Cape Tribulation, the northern tip of the park, the asphalt road ends abruptly and turns into an off-road track: The Bloomfield Track. To continue, you need a 4WD. Even in the dry season, you have to cross a couple of streams and face extremely steep rises and slopes that usually end with a sharp turn. Without a 4wd you will likely roll ruinously in the jungle. The Bloomfield track is actually a shortcut to reach Cooktown faster, but you have to be kind of an adrenaline junkie to take it.

things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland

7. Sip a coffee in old Cooktown

Once you’re safe and sound and out of the Bloomfield Track, in a hundred rough kilometres you will reach Cooktown, the last proper town before the wild Cape York peninsula. Despite its epic past, the town itself is not super interesting. Exploding from two hundred to two thousand inhabitants in just over a decade, at first glance Cooktown might look more like an open-air yard than a real community. But willing or not, Cooktown is the northernmost point you can reach without having a serious off-road vehicle.

things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland

8 Venture to the Cape York Peninsula (only for the bravest)

The Cape York Peninsula is the largest unspoiled wilderness in northern Australia and one of the last remaining wilderness areas on Earth. Also known as “The Tip”, it is crossed by a long dirt road of nearly four hundred kilometres, crossed by actual rivers and countless off-road side tracks: a paradise for Australians adventure lovers. The ultimate trip to discover the Far North, that leads to the narrow strait that connects Australia with Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Only for true explorers with seriously pimped up rigs!

things to do in North Queensland
things to do in North Queensland

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THROUGH THE JUNGLE

BEACH AUSTRALIA

OUTBACK AUSTRALIA

GREAT CENTRAL ROAD

Is Ayers Rock and the red center of Australia really worth the trip?

Is Ayers Rock and the red center of Australia really worth the trip?

Is Ayers Rock Worth it

Is Ayers Rock worth it? Many people have asked me this question during the years. I still remember the day I discovered Uluru’s existence. I was eight or nine years old and I was watching a documentary on TV. I remember being puzzled at the idea of a huge rock placed in the middle of the desert. I also remember the disappointment in finding out that Ayers Rock, as it was generally called at the time, was far, far away from Italy. From the European point of view, Australia is a far and expensive continent to reach, let alone a rock placed right in the middle of the Country’s desert, thousands of kilometers from any major city. I concluded that I would probably never see it. So imagine my astonishment when I finally reached it.

Is Ayers Rock Worth it

Some say they have seen it so many times on postcards, photos, calendars and tv shows that once on the spot they did not seem to find anything new. Others are disappointed because they find it less red than the photographs on the advertising leaflets. Some are moved by its complexity, by the water flowing along its walls and the cool shaded puddles beneath the eucalyptus. I personally belong to those people who when they are in front of an world famous tourist attraction (see Eiffel Tower, Coliseum, Big Ben, Sultanahmeth etc.) are caught up in the Japanese syndrome. I am referring to those people who unplug the optic nerve from the brain to connect it directly camera. But this time I tried to make an exception. I didn’t take too many pictures, as they could never compare to those on books and advertising. I tried to enjoy the place. We saw the rock at sunrise and then engaged in the 10km ring walk around it. Uluru left me speechless. The rock is much, much more than the beautiful pictures on leaflets.

All around it there’s creeks, irregularities, strange shapes on the surface, ponds, groves and caves with rock paintings. Uluru haven’t been the house and the “church” of the Anangu people for tens of thousands of years for nothing! What could have been more sacred ten a ginormous monolith which provides water, food, shelter and refrigeration in the middle of a murderous desert.

Is Ayers Rock Worth it

This was until that William C. Gosse did “discover” the rock in 1891. Open to tourism since 1936, Ayers Rock (Gosse had the brilliant idea of appointing such a geologic rarity with the name of the late South Australia Governor) now hosts up to 1,000 daily visitors. At least since 1985 the rock has been formally given back to the traditional landowners, who renamed it Uluru and are now an active part of the park management. Nonetheless, the Australian government still holds a lease on tourism for the next 70 years.

Even more surprising than Uluru are the treks to Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. Even if it’s usually framed as “in the middle of nowhere”, Uluru is actually very close (in Outback terms, obviously) to other unique rock formations. Kata Tjuta, where we walked on sunset, right after being regurgitated off the Great Central Road, is a Bornhardt like Uluru.

These are rocks that resisted weather erosion while the world around them collapsed under the force of the elements. If Uluru looks like a lonely mountain, Kata Tjuta (“many heads” in Anangu) looks more like a mountain range. In the midst of its rounded peaks, you’ll find falls and gardens, leaping kangaroos and colorful parrots.

Kings Canyon, three hundred kilometers north of Uluru, also looks like an oasis on Mars. Its steep vertical walls and rocky peaks conceal a verdant gorge and a natural freshwater pool.

I think that what makes Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon unique and inevitably magnetic, is the incredible life that they shelter in such a prohibitive territory as the Australian desert. It is not difficult to figure out why Aborigines consider them sacred since the beginning of time. The presence of water alone, in such dry places, makes them magical. Even nowadays, the journey to reach these rocks, be it by plane, on a bus tour or crossing dirt desert roads, is so hot and tiring to look like a spiritual pilgrimage. Surely the brave nomads that come from the desert score the highest points! And don’t have to pay the entrance fee. So is Ayers Rock worth it? Definitely yes. It’s actually quintessentially Australian.

And what better way to get out of the mystical heart of Australia than taking another dirt road with our Mitsubishi Delica? We came from the desert and we left from the desert. This time we drove off the short but impetuous Giles Road, a shortcut to Alice Springs very far from tourist buses and the giant caravans of the locals. That night we camped in the bush, alone under a blanket of stars, and for once we felt in the center of the world, and above all, thousands of miles from Japanese tourists.

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GREAT CENTRAL ROAD

Things I’ve learned from life on the road during my Australian Working Holiday

Things I’ve learned from life on the road during my Australian Working Holiday

working holiday australia

Twenty-four thousand kilometres of road tripping
Twenty nationalities encountered on the road
Nine months of work
Five States
Four climatic zones
Three oceans
Two lovers
One van

Oh-man, my Australian year was intense! We mostly spent it travelling. In every way that a person can travel. We roamed through forests, deserts, steppes, big cities, countryside, pastures, beaches and mountains. We also worked quite a bit, with jobs that ranged from burning fields to serving tables in a sailor attire, from smashing rocks with a tractor to cleaning toilets, from cooking for a crew of starving cowboys to housekeeping in an ocean front hostel. My first year of long-term travelling teach me many lessons, that’s sure. So here are some of them!

Everything you need can fit in a 50L backpack

While traveling long-term I learned to get rid of the superfluous. Everything that you own has to be carried around, sometimes even on your back. We bought a van as soon as we got to Australia, but even if its storage space was larger than a 50L backpack, it had to be shared with utilities and gear. Living on the road makes you reflect on how many unnecessary things we cumulate in our spoiled westerners lives.

You won’t always love the road

While I loved the ghost towns of the outback, the endless expanses of cows and sheep, roadside sleeping and waking up with the sun, I also hated the endless drives, the humidity in the van when it rained, the broken back, the confined space, the flies, the heat. Long-term travelling can also get boring after a while, I swear! But this will be the subject of another post.

Living on the road creates many more occasions for learning and meeting interesting people than living in one place.

We’ve been surrounded by friends and alone like hermits. We changed five houses, bought and sold a van, a surf, two bikes and a pair of shoes. We dived to see the corals and we searched the sky to spot the eagles. We have seen kangaroos, koalas, goannas, crocodiles, opossum and a whole lot of marsupials of every shape and size. But most of all, we shared the road with such a diverse humanity that we would have hardly ever met otherwise.

We worked with cowboys from Queensland. Lads that in their twenties are already married with kids and leading giant cattle stations. We lived with the nomads of Coral Bay, who sold everything in exchange for a motorhome and a seasonal job by the ocean. We mixed with the Melbourne hipsters, with their festivals, horse races, and trendy restaurants. We talked to Aborigines, either sober or not, and with Australians who never left their island and asked if Milan was by the ocean. But also with other Australians that have travelled the world and worked as agricultural pilots in Tanzania. We met Israeli vacationers and exiled Iranians; Korean dishwashers and Nepalese bartenders; Italians who took the working holiday in Australia for the Erasmus in Spain and, above all, we met many, many Chinese.

Even when the situation looks desperate, remember that behind every defeat there’s an opportunity

In Melbourne I changed five jobs. Each time I had to scout for a new one, I cycled the whole city and its suburbs exploring hidden lanes, ethnic enclaves and outlet districts. I had a laugh with shopkeepers, drank coffee with coffee makers and always ended up finding a job after the other, meeting new people and finally finding myself invited at two Christmas parties on the same day.

No matter how much you know that racism is wrong, it is always around the corner

In Melbourne I worked in a restaurant for a while and I soon learned that Chinese customers where the toughest. Because of the huge cultural difference, they treated the staff in a way that in the western world was considered impolite at best. Chinese table after Chinese table that treated me like a slave, I discovered that slipping into racial hatred is easier than you might think. Staying true to your values can be difficult when people keep calling your attention by snapping their fingers and shouting orders every five seconds.

I experienced what does it mean to be treated as an economic migrant

We moved to Oz in 2013, while in Europe (and in Italy in particular) the economic crisis was still raging. Although we went to Australia to explore (working was just a way to sustain our travels) we were often judged as economic migrants. The immigration policies also started to tighten that year because of the government shifting to the right. I have been reconfirmed that there are a thousand reasons behind migrating but only one behind the intolerance: ignorance.

 

It contributed to define my European identity

I learned that Australia is beautiful but I can’t live there. I missed Europe as much as I missed my family and friends. It is part of my heritage, my culture and myself as a person, and living so far from my loved ones and from my continent it’s not an easy choice. Spending one year in another western country yet so different from my own helped me put into perspective the issues that we have in the Old Continent and to value its culture and beauty. Even if I’ve been back for three years now, I still appreciate Italian and European wonderful scenery and distinctive customs and traditions with tourist eyes (at least most of the time :D). Last but not least, comparing myself to Australians I noticed how closer we are between us Europeans. I spent my childhood and youth being defined as the one from the little village, then the one from Bergamo, then the Italian. In Australia all this regional differences seems to fade away in the big picture.

Travelling is addictive.
You can overdose and get sick about it,
but once you’re hooked you can’t help it.
The siren call of nomad life
will always sing
in the back of your head.

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GREAT CENTRAL ROAD

OUTBACK AUSTRALIA

BEACH AUSTRALIA

Moving to Australia: 5 steps to nail your gap year in Kangarooland

Moving to Australia: 5 steps to nail your gap year in Kangarooland

Spending a gap year in Australia is something very popular for people in their twenties. But with an increasing horde of backpackers getting there every year, tasks like finding a job or finding farm work in order to apply for a second year Visa are getting trickier.

Moreover, compared to when I was there 4 years ago, government policies for immigrants are shifting dangerously to the right, which means a massive rise in Visa fees. But don’t get discouraged! Spending one year (or more) in the Land-where-everything-could-kill-you is a still a super good -and eventually affordable- idea.

So, how to move to Australia?

In my Australian series I will share with you my tips and tricks to get your shit organized and enjoy your Downunder experience without getting broke. I hope it will be helpful 🙂

That time when I was a Cowboy in Australia

That time when I was a Cowboy in Australia

Well, I have to admit that the title might be slightly misleading. My boyfriend was the cowboy, I was the station cook and this is the story of our jobs in a cattle station in Australia. It was the boiling July of 2013 and we were in rural Queensland trying to complete our share of regional work to get our second year visa. We spent a month in Strathmore Station Queensland, a huge property 500km inland from Cairns. It has been one of the craziest job we ever undertook (and I can speak for both here) but it gave us some of the best and craziest memories of our Australian year. Here is my account from 2013.

 

Strathmore station queensland

When a calf testicle flies over your head, it makes a swish like a cartoon bomb: a prolonged hiss followed by a splash of mud and blood exploding in every direction. When I raised my head I crossed Monkey’s amused look. He was smoking a cigarette, covered in blood up to his elbows, while working on a calf placed in front of him, legs in the air.

Of course “Monkey” is not his real name. At Strathmore Station, all the jackaroos (the cowboys) earn a nickname sooner or later. Fluffy is the chubbiest, Gangles is tall and lanky, Chris became Uncle Fester because he is Swedish pale, Alex is Alì for his Tunisian origins, Sofien is just Sully, his real name too difficult to pronounce in the mumbling Queensland dialect. Andrea became Mario, for some obscure similarity with the Italian video game hero. I’m just Ssebrinah, or Cookie, the cook.

Strathmore Station
is the largest estate
owned by a private
in Queensland.
It’s as massive as
2,5 millions football fields

We are about twenty people here: a dozen of Australian and European jackaroos, two helicopter pilots, a mechanic, a guy for the maintenance of the station tracks plus three or four road train drivers who come and go. As you have probably guessed, I’m the only woman (excluding the dog), in a 2.5 million acres estate (the farm we worked for in Western Australia counted “only” fourteen thousand acres). Strathmore Station Queensland is the largest estate owned by a private in Queensland. Roughly, it’s as massive as 2,5 millions football fields. Most of the workers are contractors that come just for the mustering season.
If you are new to the livestock world, “to muster” means to collect as much cattle as possible in order to select which animals to sell, move, mark, castrate, vaccinate, etc. In smaller stations, mustering is still made on horseback, with the help of dogs. However, this “cowboy mode” is impracticable in vast properties such as Strathmore. Here cattle are gathered with the cross effort of quod bikes and helicopters.

Strathmore station queensland

The concept of moving herds with a helicopter was so absurd that I had to try. The day that Mike the pilot offered to take me with him, I took my camera, a handful of motion sickness pills, and I jumped aboard. My Nikon has sure been of great use, but unfortunately I can’t say as much for the pills. Mike’s chopper looked closer to a mechanic dragonfly than to an aircraft made for actual flying. With zero doors and seat belts that look like those of an 80’s Fiat, “stability” surely isn’t among the features that I would quote to describe it.

The first thought I had
during the vertical
take-off at 100km/h
was: well, that’s how I die

 

Especially when Mike started for his unpredictable chase of cows: nosedives, lateral swings, screws, sudden bangs, leaps. I think I’ve been up there for three hours before I vomited what was left of my breakfast. A positive record according to Mike. Not too bad anyway, considering that the first thought I had during the vertical take-off at 100km/h was “well, that’s how I die”.  But let’s get back to the flying testicles:

work in a cattle station in Australia

So, how is it to work in cattle station as a backpacker?

Well, if you ever manage to ask my then-boyfriend, I’m sure he still has plenty of military-like stories for anyone that would listen.
The boys work non-stop from sunrise to sunset under the boiling sun of the southern hemisphere dry season. They move the animals in the midst of perennial red dust and extremely large and not human friendly cattle. Kicks and wounds happen on a daily basis and nearly-death experiences are as punctual as electricity bills. In the yards, the Australians (everyone is under 30 but has been working in the industry for 10+ years) spend the days ripping each other pants, pulling dung, eating raw bull balls on a dare (no joke) and so on.  You know, all those playful pastimes that solitary men like so much. And of course the backies are always selected for the worst chores.

The back stories of the Australians that work here are all very interesting. Some, under the most unlikely goatee, tattoos, or mirrored glasses hide an open mindset and incredible travel experiences. Others have had such an absurd life that they can’t be blamed for how they act. Charlie, the head stockman is twenty-eight years old, has four children and a fake leg because of a bull chase gone wrong at the age of sixteen. Monkey is twenty-seven years old and bounces his head in rhythm every time a song passes on TV. He often sneaks into the kitchen to secretely steal the sweets. Before becoming a jackaroo, he was a crab fisherman. He dived as deep as thirty meters using just a rubber tube to suck air from the surface. Unaware of the meaning of decompression, he quitted his job when the veins of his arms began to burst. The last one broke a month ago, while he was working with cattle, hundreds of miles from the sea. The flyng doctors came to pick him up. Fun fact: in Australia sometimes they use planes instead of ambulances.

Charlie has a fake leg since he was 16
because of a bull chase gone wrong

 

Ricky turned seventeen two weeks ago, but he has been working here since he was fifteen. Frank is no longer working, he’s serving four months of jail for truck and road offenses. In short, they’re tough guys. You forgive them the constant sex talk and the bad habit of drowning all of my meals in barbecue sauce. They’re nice guys in their own way, as long as you don’t have to work with them fourteen hours a day of course.

So, what does a girl do in cattle station?

She works in paradise. That’s what she does. My day starts at 7am (boys’ begin as early as 4.30am), and by 9.30 I have to cook breakfast (smoko) for anyone working in the yard near the house. Once I’m done with cleaning I’m free until I have to start cooking dinner: by 3.30pm if there’s many people, 5.30 if not. In the afternoon I usually bake cakes, I lazily handle irrigation, I feed the pig and the hounds, I play with the dog, and scare the occasional cow out of the garden. I spend the rest of the time reading between lemon trees and Banksia flowers, white parrots and kangaroos that nap in the shade. They say that the lagoon is populated with crocodiles and pythons, but so far I just encountered a lazy goanna in the garden.
If it was for me I’d stay here forever, but Andrea is becoming tired of “slavery” (100 AUD per day, working dangerously from dawn to dusk). So, because we have finally completed the eighty-eight days of rural labor that the government requires to apply for a second year visa, tomorrow we will load the van and leave for the East Coast! From Cooktown’s tropical forests we will slowly move southwards, waiting for springtime to warm up the long road waiting in front of us.

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OUTBACK AUSTRALIA

Setting paddocks on fire. My farming nightmare in Australia

Setting paddocks on fire. My farming nightmare in Australia

This article was written in 2013 about my farm work experience in Australia. I was working in Bedford Harbour Station in Western Australia. 

14,000 Acres – The extent of the wheat and canola farm we work in (the property stretches for 20km and is 10km wide)

5km – The distance separating our house from the manager’s. We are the only people living here, the others are part time contractors that come and go.

7days – Working days of the week

70h – The average of working hours in a week

120km – The distance to the first inhabited town (the first 40km are on a dirt road)

54kb – The speed of our -very expensive- internet connection, which brings us back to the ’90s

4000 acres – The area to burn by the end of the month

farm work experience in Australia
This is our current situation in figures. Agriculture is not a joke. The survivors you meet on the road try to warn you, Instagram feeds of friends working in the paddocks leave no doubt but, truth is, you are never quite ready to forced labour until you are in it.
The job consists of weaving randomly in the fields with the ute, one driving while the other one holds a fire-starter-bucket out of the window to burn the straw lines.  By lighting up spots of straw here and there, the wind should do the rest and burn all the straw away. Obviously, it is never the case. That’s why we keep going back and forward through the smoking fields to “fill the gaps” which means burning everything like no tomorrow. As if this wasn’t stressing enough, when you burn the edges of the fields you have to make sure that the fire does not spread to the bush, degenerating into a massive fire. In short: the most relaxing job ever.

 

 

farm work experience in Australia

Well, it seems trivial to tell you about how terrifying it is to live with fire paranoia, working all day in the smoke, constantly smelling of diesel. I spend my day twisted out of the window, while holding the bloody fire starter with two hands because it’s too heavy. While in the meantime my boyfriend and/or the manager scream at me because I’m missing the lines / I can’t drive / I don’t understand what they say.

“There’s not much else to add,
it’s a nightmare.
Not to mention that when
the bush takes fire,
it’s a living hell for real.”

I hate every minute of this and I complain about it all the time. I’m unbearable and I know it, but I can’t do anything about it. It’s the worse job I ever had. Worse than standing motionlessly in a conference room for hours, worse than cleaning toilets, worse than hustling till morning in a night bar, worse than dealing with sclerotic children, worse than anything else I’ve ever done.

I’m sending so many silent prayers to the bush for not taking fire that I’m practically turning religious. But I won’t quit. Even if we are running out of food because we don’t have time off to go shopping, even if we come back from work so tired that we barely find the strength to eat and go to bed, even if we have to collect the drinking water from a fountain 2km from our place because tap water is not safe…

farm work experience in Australia
farm work experience in Australia

And I do it for one and only reason: When this job will be over, I will be rich. Richer than I have ever been in my life. I will have earned in a month much more than I earned in a year by working as a hostess. Forced labour won’t last forever and should allow us not to work for a while. The money will also fund our desert crossing! On the Great Central Road fuel can costs as much as 2.5 $ per litre!

Update: Since the boss promoted me to the fanciest ute, my life has improved a lot. Now I drive a new Hilux with a radio, air conditioner and an INTEGRATED FIRESTARTER. No jokes. You just push a button from inside of the car and the thing hooked behind the pick-up sparks fire! This way I light everything faster, with zero effort and without breathing almost any smoke. I also drive the tractor from time to time now. Things are getting better and our escape is closer.

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Getting a (decent) vehicle in Australia

Getting a (decent) vehicle in Australia

This step of course depends on the type of experience you want to get. My personal suggestion is to get a car or -even better- a van as soon as you can if you’re planning to move around the country.

Having your own vehicle will allow you to look for jobs even in remote locations, or to move quickly if the farm job you were hoping to get isn’t available anymore. Some people land in Australia almost broke and spend the first months working in big cities to raise enough money to travel. In my opinion, this may not be the wisest way to spend your year there.

Living in big cities is WAY more expensive than living in provincial or rural Australia. For me, getting a van first and working in regional areas in the beginning of my trip meant saving a lot of money while travelling quite a lot. In the end it’s up to you. 🙂

buying a van in Australia

Where to buy a Van

The second hand market is pretty lively in Australia. Considering the the great number of backpackers that come and go, finding a van or a car should not be too difficult. Depending on your budget and your location you might have three options to find the vehicle that suits you.

Backpackers car markets

You will find backpackers car market in every major town in Australia, the biggest one in Kings Cross, Sydney. There, you will find hundreds of cars being bought and sold by backpackers. It’s easy to get nice bargains because people need to leave, but have a close look on the health status of the van, backpackers tend to have long journeys and not to take care of their vans properly.

Buy from a private

Like in every other buy-and-sell situation in Australia, Gumtree is your main reference. There you’ll find plenty of ads, no matter what your budget is. If you are lucky you may even buy a decent van from locals and not from backpackers.

Buy from a car seller

This is obviously the most expensive option, even if you’re buying second hand. On the other hand, you will be super sure that the van is a pretty good condition.

Our super equipped and super reliable Mitsubishi Delica 4WD

How to be sure that you’re buying a good van/car

Choosing the right registration

Buying a car might seem very easy, but if you don’t pay attention to some details you might find it very difficult to re-sell it later on. The most important thing is the state in which the car is registered. In most states you will be asked to produce a roadworthy certificate of the vehicle (done by a professional mechanic) in order to sell it. Spoiler: many, many cars and vans are far from roadworthy. This means that you will have to spend a lot of money to fix it in order to be able to get the certificate (requirements can be pretty strict, i.e. your vehicle has to have zero rust). The only way to get around the roadworthy certificate is to buy a vehicle that is registered in Western Australia. Don’t ask me why, but for some strange reason when a car comes from WA is automatically considered OK for roads. In the end, buying a WA plated car will make it a lot easier to sell it later on.

What to check?

  • How many kilometres has the engine? (vans can range up to 300k+, watch out!)
  • How many owners did it have? And how many of those where backpackers?
  • Did they ever change the transmission belt?
  • When was the vehicle serviced last time? Does it need frequent oil refills? (bad, bad sign)
  • Don’t be misled by cosy hippie interiors. Check if the van makes strange noises instead, if it leaks oil, if it has evident rust signs (don’t forget to check the roof, rust on the roof = rain in the van).
  • Do you want to explore the outback a little bit? Consider buying a 4WD. Even better if comes equipped with proper bullbars for close encounters with animals on the road (not even joking)

Which paperwork do you need?

A valid Rego: The vehicle will need to be re-registered under your name within 14 days of the purchase. You will also need to pay your registration-tax once a year. The rego works as a tax as well as a third part insurance. Which means that you won’t need any other insurance, but you won’t be covered for any damages to other vehicles/buildings or yourself if you’re injured. So my suggestion is to buy an extra cover like:

RAC – Road Assistance 24/7: buying this extra insurance will insure you that if broke down in the middle of nowhere, someone will come and tow you to the nearest mechanic at no further cost. Of course this only applies if you can get signal to call them 😀

buying a van in Australia

Top Tips for driving in Australia

  • When in the outback or in Western Australia, never, ever drive in dark. Farmland is often unfenced and the bush gets alive at night. Plenty of animals will come out with the chill. Which means that you will eventually have close encounters with cangaroos, giant cows, wallabies and every other sort of small to big sized mammals. Crashing with a small wallaby is very sad, crashing with a cow is terminal (for both).

 

  • Get a Camp Australia Wide Atlas (now there’s also an app available) and plan your stops at one of the several free rest areas that you’ll find on the road. Those areas are usually equipped with toilets, running water and in some cases even with barbecues or showers. Rest areas can vary from just a parking lot on the roadside in NT to a beautiful campgrounds under the trees in NSW. In most cases you will meet other travellers and share beers and stories (in some places you can even build a fire)

 

  • Try to avoid sleeping in your van when in the city. Rangers will eventually knock on your windows in the middle of the night and ask you to leave immediately (or fine you, in the worst case scenario).

Top 3 tasks to complete as soon as you land in Australia

Top 3 tasks to complete as soon as you land in Australia

tips for moving to australia

After landing Downunder and having exchanged your warm clothes with shorts, singlet and flip flops (this may be optional: many Aussies go barefoot), you’ll better fix a few things on day one. Here are my tips for moving to Australia with no worries.

 

 

Get a SIM card

You’ll need an Australian phone number for almost everything from banking to renting to job searching, so don’t hesitate. Telstra is said to have the best coverage, even in remote areas. In my experience though, when you’re really in the middle of the desert and a phone or GPS are most needed, even Telstra doesn’t work. So buy whatever.

 

Open an Australian bank account

Once you have an Australian mobile number, go to a bank and open a bank account. Do this ASAP, because transferring money from oversea takes at least 7 working days. Choose a big bank, one that has branches all over the country like Westpac or Commonwealth.

 

Apply for a Tax File Number

Once you have a working phone and a bank account, go to the nearest tax office and apply for a TAX FILE NUMBER. Without that magic number you won’t be even able to look for a job, let alone finding one. So do not delay this step. You will need it for everything work and tax related.

After having completed this three fundamental step, you’ll be good to go! Ready to look for a job or a van to explore further.

 

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