Working in the Outback: What to expect

If you’re backpacking around Australia then you might end up working in the outback, whether it’s for your regional work or just to replenish travel funds whilst experiencing life in the bush. For me working in the outback has been the highlight of my travels so far, however it can be quite he culture shock so here are some pointers for anyone considering working in the outback. 

Hard work

You will work hard, especially if it’s a live-in job. You are at their disposal and though you will probably have scheduled days off be prepared to be “on call” for work. The best way I found to deal with it was to see half of the work as paid and the other half as earning your keep, you may be asked to do weird things like wipe down doors, but at the end of the day, a job’s a job. At the hotel I was supposed to get two days off a week but usually ended up either helping out at a function or working on one of them. Outback towns are quiet with very little to do, especially out of tourist season, working there is a good place to top up travel funds and experience the outback. That being said if you do find the job exploitative or think the job is dodgy get yourself out of there, it’s important to keep your wits about you.

What’s a day off?

This applies more to station work than casual jobs in hospitality. If you get a job at a cattle or sheep station it is unlikely that you will get days off, regularly at least. When you go and work at a station whatever job you are given needs to be done everyday and there’s no one to take your place. Occasionally on Sunday’s my boss will take over kitchen duties so that I can clean my room and do my laundry, I refer to it as “reduced hours” but I still have to feed the animals and do the watering. Every so often at my station we have had “away days”, we went to the Dirt n Dust festival, we’ve gone into town for the day and most recently took a trip to Karumba, these short trips have been amazing breaks from station work, but a lot of work has to be done in preparation for them. Depending on what time of year it is when you go to a station, for instance if you start in March or September you will hit mustering season, this is the busiest time of year for Australian farmers and so don’t be surprised if you are working for three or four weeks without a “day off”.

Station work is intensive, if you get a station job be prepared to work hard and get very little time off, it’s a lifestyle not a job.

Bugs

Australia has a lot of bugs, and I’m not even talking about the dangerous ones here. Depending on what kind of job you’re applying for your job may involve cleaning up bugs. Both my job at the hotel and at the station has required me to hoover up bugs as part of the cleaning routine. It’s a stupid job but someone’s got to do it!

If you need a favour, ask!

Australians are super friendly and are more than happy to lend a hand if you need help. If you find yourself in an outback town and get into the fold of the community, people are only too happy to help out. A prime example for me was when I was in Winton and I was trying to get my driver’s license, the council told me that I’d have to borrow someone’s car for the test. I thought this was the most ridiculous thing ever. Over drinks at the Pub later I told my mates, saying “Borrow someone’s car they said, I’m a backpacker, I know you guys are friendly but how am I supposed to go ‘Hey mate can I borrow your car?’ It’s crazy!” My friend Brian then said that I could borrow his missus’ car, the level of kindness is unreal in the outback.

On another occasion a friend of mine took me to the Dinosaur museum, which I mentioned in another post. As a Brit I personally hate asking favours, as you feel like you’re being rude, however my friend was more than happy to take me out and from now on when I need something I just ask.

Drinking Etiquette

Ozzies love to drink, this is not a surprise to anyone, and in the outback its usual for people to meet up at the pub at lunch or after work and ‘drink piss’. The Ozzies are very friendly as I said before, and when I was in Winton the friends I made would often shout me drinks, once I was at the pub and I’d already bought a pot of beer, and someone shouted me a lemonade, and then another guy I’d been talking to earlier came over and gave me a tequila sunrise. I had three drinks on the go, and the last one I hadn’t even asked for.

I kind of knew that it wasn’t the done thing to not drink a drink someone bought you, but it wasn’t as though I was still chatting to that person, so I just let it sit in front of me and continued talking to my friends. It sat there until the ice melted, at which point one of the guys I was hanging out with tutted, and went to the bar to have new ice put in, it was at that point the woman sitting next to me explained that there’s an etiquette to drinking in the outback. First you have to drink a drink someone bought you, because alcohol costs money, second if you want to stop drinking you either say aloud that you’re stopping or you move onto water. I ended up drinking the tequila sunrise and that was that.

As a female solo traveller I guess it feels dangerous to drink a drink someone bought you, or to allow people to buy drinks for you if you don’t know them well. Most of the time in Winton I was with people who I’d befriended and I didn’t have a problem with them shouting me drinks as I’d shout them one back, though this system did end up with me being told to fuck off once . It’s a harmless past time, and my advice would be if you really don’t want the drink or don’t want someone to buy you a drink firmly and polite refuse it.

Male attention

Following on from my last point, if you’re a woman travelling alone around the outback you will get a lot of attention from men. I’m going to aim to keep this point short, as I plan to write more extensively on my experience as a female solo backpacker in Australia, however as a barmaid though I guess it’s customary the flirting was relentless and took various forms from the subtle to the horrifically blatant. At the time I found it really annoying but wouldn’t say anything for fear of rocking the boat.. Looking back on it now I should have told these guys to fuck off, and that’s something I’ll do from now on.

Expect to be treated like the new pair of tits in town, but don’t let someone make you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s plain creepy.

Outback ozzies aren’t backwards but…

Don’t expect them to share your liberal outlook, if you hold one like I do. I’m into gender equality, LBGT rights and being English I’m a stickler for things being politically correct. I’ve sat with people who have told they’re openly racist, others who aren’t, and I’ve heard a lot of homophobic language too. In terms of tolerance I’d have to say it was good on two fronts, when I was in Winton one pub had a lesbian barmaid and one hotel had a Chinese barmaid, in the grand scheme of things this might not count for much, but in a small town like Winton I’d have to say that’s pretty good.

Personally I don’t enjoy racist jokes, and at home I have LGBT friends and so I do not use the word “gay” as a derogatory adjective, I haven’t for years and it’s only since coming here that I’ve been around people who do. I’m not the confrontational type and so when people I’ve been around have uttered racial or homophobic slurs, I haven’t said anything, I’ll just stop joining in the conversation. The only time I’ve snapped was when a young guy from Brisbane used the word “faggot” and I told him not to use that word in front of me. I guess because he was younger and not from the outback I expected him to be somewhat sensitive, but apparently not, and what with Australia holding back on the gay marriage front it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s hard to write about this aspect of Australian society without being contentious, most of the people I’ve met have been lovely, and though they may hold views that I don’t agree with, it hasn’t interfered with the friendships I’ve made. I felt the need to touch on this as it’s useful for any backpackers heading out there to have some idea of what to expect.

No time for pride or bullshit

If you don’t know how to do something, be honest and tell someone so they can show you. Don’t try and do something if you’ve got no idea how, a false sense of confidence doesn’t get you anywhere. You’ll be treated with more respect if you swallow your pride and ask for help, even if you feel like an idiot.

You might feel like an idiot

If you’re an English backpacker like me, then you might think the Ozzies have a similar way of doing things to the Brits. Wrong. The difference in approach to work can be very disorientating and make you question just how capable you are. At home I worked at Waitrose which had a café, I thought I knew how to work in a café, when I started at the café in Winton I was like a fish out of water, the coffee machine was manual, all the food was made from scratch and I didn’t even know where the light switch was! Be prepared to be knocked or feel out of place as a result of it being different to home, it seems like a no brainer but it’s such an unsettling experience.

Thankfully I’m not the only person to feel like this, at the station I overheard my boss’s sister confess that she felt the same way I did, “I see myself as a very capable person at home, but coming here I feel incompetent,”

It’s a wild ride!

Prepare to have the time of your life, in the outback anything goes in terms of fun. You could go swim in a gravel pit, ride a jet ski, go pigging, shoot Roos, drink to your heart’s content or check out an outback musical festival. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, there’s so much to discover in the outback!

Worked in the outback? Let me know your experience below!

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