It was 3 a.m. and I couldn’t sleep. The dinghy made ghastly noises as it periodically slapped the side of the hull, and huge rolling waves made us feel like victims on a perpetual roller coaster through underwater hell. We had been stuck on the boat for three days and there was no sign of the storm stopping. When the seas were this rough, there was no good way for us to make it to shore. This had sounded like a cool Workaway initially—stay on a fossil-fuel-free sailboat in Auckland harbour—but I was questioning what we had gotten ourselves into.
This is just one of the many zany, unique, eye-opening, and downright dangerous experiences I’ve had through the work-exchange sites WWOOF and Workaway. These sites are all about mutual benefit: the host offers you room, board, and a chance to have an authentic glimpse into the life of a local. In exchange, you offer your labour (usually around 4 hours a day). Here in New Zealand, these types of work exchanges are incredibly popular amongst travellers and hosts, for good reason. Jobs can be hugely varied, based on the host: you could be weeding in an organic garden, putting up fences in enormous sheep stations, or doing carpentry on a boat.
If you’re thinking of trying WWOOFing or Workaway here in NZ, or anywhere around the world, I say wholeheartedly: go for it! Here’s why:
You learn new skills
Chances are, no matter what type of host you pick, you’ll learn something new. If you show a genuine interest in whatever your host can teach you each day will be fresh and exciting. You never know when these new skills can come in handy—job interviews (see "6 ways that volunteering abroad transforms your resume"), future Workaway/WWOOFing adventures, or when you decide to live completely off-grid and suddenly remember how to set up that tricky rainwater catchment system. Through my work exchange experiences here in New Zealand, I’ve done an incredible variety of new things: I drove a tractor, learned how to forage wild plants, piloted an electric dinghy, built a cob house wall, and tended an organic garden, to name just a few.
You’re outside your comfort zone
Sure, travelling itself is a way of shaking things up and putting life back home in perspective. But I’ve found that these work exchanges take things to a whole new level. There is nothing quite like being dropped into another person’s life and essentially learning to live as they do, day in and day out. You have to learn how to coexist peacefully with your host, and this usually entails adapting to their sleep and eating schedule, work style, and worldview. My last WWOOFing experience was with conservative, pro-gun, eat-meat-every-day New Zealand farmers. Before that, I did WWOOFing at a hippy, vegetarian, hug-giving intentional community. The more experience you have living outside your comfort zone, the more you grow as an individual, and the easier it is to connect with people from all walks of life.
The more experience you have living outside your comfort zone, the more you grow as an individual, and the easier it is to connect with people from all walks of life.
You meet interesting people
I could write a whole series of articles on the eccentric and inspiring people I’ve met through Workaway and WWOOF. These work exchanges tend to attract alternative thinkers, explorers, and individuals who want something outside of the mainstream travel experience. If you find a decent host, chances are they’ll have other travellers also staying with them. These travellers most always are open-minded and eager to share their life stories.
And, as a general rule of thumb, the hosts themselves tend to be pretty interesting—otherwise they wouldn’t open their home to people from around the world. Side note: some hosts are definitely better than others, though.
Your host is the best travel guide imaginable
These work exchanges give you the kind of travel experiences that money can’t buy. Our last WWOOFing host took my partner and I on an ATV ride through rolling New Zealand pastures, with sheep playing all around us, until we reached a ridge line with views of the surrounding Fjordland mountains. I’ve been on a boat tour of the Auckland harbour, complete with a sighting of the resident leopard seal. I’ve been shown the best spots for harvesting mussels, and the hiking trails only locals know about. Your hosts want to share their world with you, and want to make sure you get the best travel experience possible. Plus, I have the sneaking suspicion that they live vicariously through travellers and get a kick out of watching people see extraordinary things for the first time.
It can turn into something more
My boat experience at the beginning of this blog turned into a paying job doing remodelling and carpentry (so yeah, it was worth it). I’ve met people who began WWOOFing at the intentional community and liked it so much that they decided to live there full-time. Others found romance. If you keep an open mind during these work exchanges, its highly possible you’ll encounter someone or something that can change your life.Add this article to your reading list