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Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Fruit Picking
The hostels and farms in Australia often have strong relationships wherein the hostels work has employment brokers by assisting travelers in finding Specified Work. I was invited to visit one of Queensland's many banana farms and got a tour of their operations. Staffed primarily by backpackers, the farm provides travelers with Specified Work for visa purposes. I was also fortunate enough to visit a hostel - operated by the farm's owner - where many backpackers live while they are fruit picking.
Bananas are delicious. Bananas are healthy. Bananas are hard work. Contempree Banana Farm in Innisfail, Queensland, Australia is a prime example of a working banana farm that employs backpackers to pick, sort and box fruit. The days are long, the climate is hot and humid and it's good, old-fashioned manual labor. By no means am I trying to dissuade anyone from endeavoring to take on such a job, but even the farm's owner made a point of telling us that he wants people to know what they are getting themselves into before they arrive in Innisfail. Farms can be dangerous places when properly staffed by people who are well-skilled and want to be there. So, the last thing any farmer wants is employees who are in over their heads.
That said, if you don't mind getting your hands dirty, fruit picking is significantly more desirable than other Specified Work, such as mining. Since farms like Contempree are staffed primarily by backpackers, they provide opportunities to meet fellow travelers while you work outdoors in the fresh air. Sitting on more than 100 acres of land, Contempree is a sprawling farm with thousands upon thousands of bananas that are ripe for the picking. Well, some needed a few more weeks but you get my drift.
Most fruit picking jobs in Queensland pay a respectable wage of around $16 to $20 AUD per hour (about $12.81 to $16 USD). Considering that the minimum wage in the United States is $6.55 (increasing to $7.25 on July 24, 2009) and no US state's minimum wage exceeds $8.55, the standard Australian fruit picking wages are fairly generous and are viewed quite favorably by backpackers seeking to subsidize their trips.
Jobs vary on a banana farm but none involve air conditioning and reclining. One of the more physically taxing chores is humping the bananas. Are you done giggling now? Humping is the process of actually removing the banana cluster from the tree. Meanwhile, other employees work in the sorting area and boxing areas of the farm. While still tiring, jobs like these provide more cover from the elements than humping with significantly less machete work.
Fruit picking jobs involve long days and are typically located in rural areas where nightlife is not exactly plentiful. As I looked towards the horizon while at Contempree, all I saw were more banana farms and plenty of sugar cane. However, most backpackers understand that their three months of Specified Work are less about partying and more about making money. So, they work hard, save their earnings and sleep when they can. The hostels provide opportunities for socializing and are designed for extended stays. This makes them comfortable and homey, something you want after a long day of banana humping.
Codge Lodge Hostel
Also located in Innisfail and only a short drive from Contempree Banana Farm is Codge Lodge. A renovated 100-year-old house, Codge Lodge caters to backpackers who are working in this area of Queensland. Like many such facilities, it assists travelers in securing work. Unlike many hostels I have seen in Australia and other parts of the world, however, Codge Lodge was spacious and didn't pack people into dorm rooms like prisoners. Since it caters to backpackers who plan to stay for several months while they are working, Codge Lodge chooses to provide an environment that can feel like a home.
The rooms are spacious and there is a pool as well as a large restaurant/bar complete with karaoke and, oddly, a go-go cage. So, if you're not completely exhausted after a day humping bananas, you can blow off some steam with a cold XXXX or Bundaberg and cola while belting out the greatest hits of Men at Work.
When I visited Codge Lodge, I met young people from France, Italy, Korea and Japan who were all mingling on the porch enjoying some lunch, making calls home and enjoying an off-day from work. They all spoke highly of their Specified Work jobs while qualifying their praise with some comment along the lines of "I'm looking forward to getting my second visa and beginning my travels." While fruit picking may not be the highlight of their trips, they all seemed to appreciate the opportunities that it afforded and the stories that it would provide upon their return home.
Know before you go
If you're considering heading to Australia for some fruit picking, be sure to have your visa paperwork in order before you arrive to avoid any problems. Be prepared to get dirty and work hard, but also to have a fair amount of money burning a hole in your pocket when you're ready to start traveling solely for leisure. For three months, you will be working, not traveling as if you are on a proper holiday.
Before you arrive, it pays to research hostels in areas where you will be traveling and contacting them to see if they will be able to assist you with employment opportunities once you arrive. It may turn out to be the toughest three months of your life, but if you can hump bananas, imagine what you can do once your real travels begin!
Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He'll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia's Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.