In 2012, my sister and I developed this elaborate plan to leave the country and travel for 6 months or more. At first we planned to teach English in Thailand and then travel around SE Asia for a few months, but that plan didn’t fit our timeline. Then I received an email advertisement from a company named Smaller Earth, that offers organized trips and internships abroad. I almost went to the Amazon with their organization for my Master’s Thesis research in 2011, but it fell through due to preexisting health conditions. Long story short, I never got my deposit back from them for that trip and they offered to apply it to a future one. Thus was born the dream of working in Australia.
The ad spoke of helping Americans get jobs in Australia in unique outback locations. They also provided training on working with cattle, driving tractors, and riding horses and motor bikes. It would cost us $2,000 to secure our spot with them and we would only have to commit to three months of work. We jumped at the chance and started our applications with Smaller Earth, who acted as the liaison between Americans and the local company Visit OZ.
As city girls, who grew up in Philadelphia, and never set foot on a farm, we were excited at the idea of stepping outside of our comfort zones for a year. We knew that Americans could get a work visa in Australia if they were between the ages of 18 and 30. We didn’t know that you don’t need to go through a company and spend $2,000 to get a good job once you arrive. Of course, we didn’t realize this until afterwards. We saved up our money all year just to pay that fee, in hopes that we would make more money while working to use to travel around Australia and SE Asia.
We arrived in September of 2013 at the Brisbane Airport, where a leader met us and other travelers from countries like Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. I was the oldest person on the trip. Most of the people were 18-21 years old and taking their gap year. We were the only Americans.
The first week was fun. Included in the cost of the trip, was one night stay in Brisbane and then a bus ride to Rainbow beach for the weekend with accommodations paid for. We were free to hang out and do whatever fun activities the beach town had to offer. Rainbow beach is aptly named for its multicolored sand dunes that are a product of erosion and mineral deposits in the soil/sand. The large cliffs surrounding the beach looked like trippy 70’s wallpaper that hung in my grandmother’s living room.
We took sunset hikes up to the dunes to watch the sun glisten over the blue waters and we barreled down the side of the side of the dunes on snowboards. Para-gliders swooped in and out of the crevice on which we stood between the dunes. Half of the group took a day trip to visit the nearby Fraser Island. Mandie and I decided to save our money and stay on the beach. Instead, we kayaked in the sea on a tour to see dolphins. Unfortunately, the sea was rough and the dolphins were no where to be found. We flipped out kayak on a wave and drank some harsh salty sea water. All in all though, this was the last few enjoyable days of our trip for the next three months (but we didn’t know that at the time).
For the next week, we all lived at the training center in Gympie. The crass Australian cowboys trained us in various ranching skills. One of the men berated Mandie and I left and right for being Americans. He called us “fucking yanks,” on multiple occasions. This was just part of his dry sense of humor. He had a snide remark for everyone, followed by a crackly cigarette coated cackle. He taught us how to ride horses and eventually how to muster cattle into the yard. The other man taught us how to ride (or crash in my case) motor bikes and how to drive different tractors. These were interesting skills to learn, but you’d better have tough skin for the insults that flew around constantly. We cut wood with a chainsaw and built a fence around the bull. It was manual labor at its best, and I felt like I wasn’t par for the course.
While we were working, the staff searched for placements in the Outback for us to work the next three months. Mandie and I received two job offers. The first one was a cushy job at a Outback Pub several hours from Brisbane and the other was working at a cattle station in the middle of the Northern Territory. We took the latter.
We flew from Brisbane to Cairns to Alice Springs and then took the “bush bus” up to Epenara Station. Our home for the next 3 months sat in the middle of the red desert of outback Australia. Our neighbors were an Aboriginal tribe living in a dry (no alcohol or drugs) community regulated by the Australian government. Our job consisted of stocking shelves, cleaning, cooking, and cashiering at the outback store, serving as maids in the accommodations for visitors, teachers, and workers, and the occasional landscaping.
From day one, our supervisor in the store threatened to time us when cleaning, hollered at us with her shrill voice about putting things in the wrong places, and body slammed me in the kitchen for making burgers too slow. She was overweight, Irish, freckle-faced, and a total bitch. She loved working hard even on her day off and she hated our weak pansy American asses.
We lived on site at a ranch home made of metal that echoed every time you took a step inside. Our work hours were Monday through Saturday 6am to 6pm. On Sundays, we laid inside watching cable tv and tried to call our parents. There was no phone service at all. Wifi was limited to the office in our boss’ house and the only benefit was the food in the store was free unless it was sweets or soda. The sun baked our skin brown and blistery and the red soil dyed our skin maroon.
For the first three weeks, I spent all of my money on phone cards to call my mother and cry over the phone. After four weeks, our boss Lynn told Mandie to pack her bags and they sent her down to their other property to work with their daughter. She was told she was leaving for a few weeks and that turned into two months. I barely had contact with her. They switched her with an English girl working down there and she became my only solace from this hell-hole of a place.
I thought that Katherine, the Irish bitch, was my greatest fear out there until I got to know Lynn, the owner of the station. At first she made pleasantries and smiled at us. Then she slowly showed her true self. She slipped insults into her instructions. She called me stupid, slow, deaf, incompetent. My stress and anxiety led to me breaking stuff constantly by accident to only make my situation worse. She hated me.
I was Cinderella. I scrubbed floors with tooth brushes and was told I missed a spot and needed to clean it again. I was forced to climb rickety ladders to paint trimming and then when I almost fell to my death, I was yelled at for seeking help from some local Australian workers. She treated the English girl just as poorly. We both bonded together and we sought comfort from the Australian men staying in the quarters. As a result, Lynn got those men fired for fraternizing with us.
She always made us do everything the hard way, when there was a easier solution nearby. She made us paint with a small brush so it took longer than a paint roller. She made us push wheelbarrows full of leaves, we raked from her lawn, to the farthest pit on the land rather than let us know there was one just behind the house. She sent volunteers up in the tree with clippers to cut branches rather than provide the proper tools. She was horrid person with a black heart. Her husband was even worse. He would beat the aboriginal kids if they stole from the store. He brought a cute puppy home and told us to kick it so it became angry and mean. The two of them are the worst people I’ve ever known.
This was the nightmare we found ourselves in, with no escape. We signed a three month contract so we couldn’t leave and there was no bus to get out of there unless Lynn called it for us. My mother tried to call the people from Visit Oz to tell them and they told her that I was weak and whining and they never had complaints about Lynn before, so I should suck it up.
I made it to two weeks before my contract was up and I finally got the courage to quit. I was done working 60 hours a week, living in the desert, swatting flies out of my eyelids and smacking fire ants off my ankles. My last straw was when Lynn accused me of stealing some whole chickens from the store to make Thanksgiving dinner for my Australian friends. All the food was free to us in the store, so how could I be stealing if it were free. She told me I was sneaky and a little bitch. Her husband asked why I didn’t just quit if I hated it there. They told me I was a horrible person and they forced my hand to sign a document stating that I would never speak of them to anyone (of course I never listened). They didn’t fire me though, because they needed me.
So that evening I wrote a heinous note to Lynn with all of my thoughts about her and her husband and I packed my bags. Luckily the English girl was done her contract the next day and would be hitching a ride out of town with Wally, our Aussie friend. They said I could join them. I woke up early and found Lynn in the yard. I told her I’m quitting and she said, “good go pack your bags.” I went to tell Stacey (the English girl) and returned to my room to find Lynn in it going through my stuff. She found my letter to her and told me I was a coward for not saying that to her face. I had wanted to leave it after I was gone. She grabbed the remainder of Mandie’s stuff to bring it to her and told me that Mandie wasn’t quitting, as if my own sister would choose her side over mine. Mandie chose to stick it out, because she worked for their sweet young daughter and her job was easy.
I quickly gathered my stuff and met Stacey in the kitchen. Then Sean, the husband, came barreling up on his jeep and slammed on the breaks in front of the house. He came running in and all but slammed me into the wall. He pointed his finger in my face and told me that, if I said anything to anyone, he would track me down and kill me. I looked him dead in the eyes and said you don’t scare me anymore. And that was it. I was finally free from this prison.
After leaving Epenara Station and meeting up with Mandie two weeks later in Alice Springs, our trip improved greatly. We also met many amazing Australians who were appalled to hear our story of working in the outback. They urged us to report those horrible people. We also learned that it is quite easy to get a job in Australia with the work visa for tourists. You can find a job board in every hostel along the coast and there are plenty of jobs available in cities and even on farms picking fruit. Some countries can get a 2nd year visa if they work 3 months in the outback, but Americans can only get a 1 year visa. That is why the English girl was there. We wasted $2,000 going through Smaller Earth/ Visit Oz to end up unsupported and abandoned at the worst job on earth. I can’t believe we paid for that experience.
If you plan to get a work visa for Australia, don’t go through any tour companies that guarantee you jobs. You can easily secure work on your own. Don’t over glorify working in the outback, because unfortunately most employers abuse the labor of foreigners for very little pay. Save up enough money that if you need to quit your job mid-contract, you can survive until you find a new job. We only had the money that we were making at the job, so we were afraid to leave and be broke in one of the most expensive countries. Don’t judge Australians by their backwards thinking bush-folk. That is like people judging Americans based on Texans. Most people we met in the bush were highly uneducated and very conservative, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say they are all like that. All the ones we met were, but all the Australians we met on the coast were the nicest people.
Be careful and know your rights when you are working in a foreign country. You don’t want to end up a slave/indentured servant. I sure felt like one. I never saw a dime until I left their property. They also tell you that you can get your taxes back if you work for 6 months in Australia. Our employer wasn’t willing to release our tax information to their version of the IRS, so we couldn’t get that money back. They tax you 34% if you are foreign, so make sure to calculate that into your wages.
This is not to warn you from traveling or working abroad, but to make sure you know your options and don’t end up like we did. I used real names so you know not to work at Epenara Station for Sean and Lynn. One thing I did not mention, which was an upside to this story is that I really bonded with the Aboriginal community there and they made the job slightly easier for me to tolerate.
To read more of my story and about our trip as a whole, click the tab to buy my book, “Sisters, Sunsets, and Self Discovery” on Amazon.com.