The Down Under Report is a monthly recap of my time and money spent in Australia on the Work and Holiday Visa in 2015. Be sure to check out the other monthly recaps as well!
My 7th month Down Under was all about stability and nature. With my bank account in the red zone, having stable income for the first time all year was what I needed. Instead of ‘selling my soul’ and taking a high paying office job in the city, I went for something more uniquely Australian and took a job working in the kitchen at El Questro, a wilderness park in the Kimberley located in the remote far north of Australia. I already wrote about what it’s like working in the Outback, but to sum it up: working in the kitchen is rough, but living in the wilderness is amazing and not as difficult as I expected.
Working in hospitality for the first time has been a shock to the system. It’s been extremely humbling doing work that I’m not that great at – if I’m completely honest, this is a foreign notion to me. I’ve got a proven track record of overachieving in most everything I do, but this is just a whole other ballgame. I’m used to sitting at a desk and letting my mind do the work, not running around a kitchen doing manual labor at lightning speed. I’ve got countless cuts and burns on my hands to vouch for the massive learning curve, but I think I’m slowly getting better at being a kitchen hand. The crazy thing is: even though I’m rubbish at the job and don’t particularly enjoy the work, I actually like working in hospitality. It feels like the work I (attempt to) do makes a tangible difference in guests’ travel experiences, and I don’t feel completely drained after a day of work like I did back in my corporate job days. Physically exhausted, yes, but it’s totally different from how I felt after sitting on my ass all day staring at a computer screen. I feel alive here.
Another surprise? I’ve been removed from civilization for 5 weeks now and hardly miss a thing. I haven’t been craving dark chocolate or hummus at all, and I’ve got a continuous supply of good coffee at my daily disposal. I walk out my door every day and see a beautiful savannah landscape that I get to explore on my days and afternoons off – what more could I want? Most of my highlights from this month involve adventures I’ve had frolicking in gorges and hiking around the million-acre property. I can’t wait to see more of my surroundings the next couple months!
Crappy Moments From Month 7:
A flight delay and getting stranded at the airport
Thankfully Anna offered to drop me and my 60kg of luggage at the airport, but from there it was all downhill. I’d cautiously added 2 extra bags to my baggage allowance, knowing I’d definitely be under the 3 x 23kg weight limit. However, I didn’t realize how strict Virgin Australia would be with packing no more than 23kg in each bag. As usual, I performed my usual check-in juggling act and emptied half of the contents of my big suitcase only to cram it into my 2 smaller bags, one of which was too small to be of any real use. I understand that smaller aircrafts have to be more strict with the weight limits, but does it really make a difference if one of my bags is a little bit heavier than the rest when I’ve paid for all this extra weight? At least the Virgin staff were nice and understanding, unlike the wretched counter staff of Jetstar.
The flight from Perth to Kununurra was going swimmingly – I had a row of 3 seats to myself, the ride was super smooth, the Outback views were fabulous. And then without warning, the pilot announced to the cabin that we’d be turning around and returning to Perth Airport to board a new plane, as ours was deemed unsafe to make it to Kununurra and back due to some nebulous engine problem. Since I had someone due to pick me up from Kununurra Airport that evening, I had to frantically call the resort to let them know I’d be arriving 3 hours later than planned. They couldn’t accommodate, and so I had to stay in town overnight before they could pick me up the next morning. Luckily a coworker had been on the same delayed flight, due to start work at the resort at the same time I was, and in the same role – what are the chances?! We bonded while stranded at the airport and shared a room at the Ibis that first night.
Note: Because I had travel insurance, I got reimbursed for the hotel, meals, and taxi fare incurred due to the travel delay. If you have an upcoming trip, I highly recommend buying World Nomads travel insurance before you depart! (Note that this is an affiliate link – clicking it and making a purchase puts a little extra money in my pocket, at no extra cost to you. Every bit helps keep this blog running!)
Bad, busy nights in the kitchen
My first two weeks of work were ROUGH. Having only ever worked retail jobs before my post-college corporate work days, I had no idea what I was in for when venturing into the world of hospitality. I was immediately thrown into busy dinner shifts at the Steakhouse without much kitchen hand training, washing dishes at a snail’s pace and putting them away even slower than that (if that’s possible). Hey, I’m a Type One enneagram, which means I’m a perfectionist – and I’ll be damned if any dishes that pass through me have any residue left on them! Unfortunately for me, speed is highly valued in the kitchen. I had coworkers so frustrated with me at times that they’d brush me aside and take over the dishwashing or the mopping just to get it done at lightning speed. At the most stressful times, everyone yelled at me for messing up no matter how unimportant the mistake was. I had tears in my eyes and rage in my veins on multiple occasions. It was really, truly, painfully terrible.
After the two week mark, two key improvements occurred: I got slightly better at my job with practice, and I got moved to earlier (less busy) shifts. Without these, I’d likely be balled up in the fetal position cursing my life right now.
Cattle at El Questro.
Favorite Moments From Month 7:
Touring Explosion Gorge
On my second day at El Questro, I hopped on a tour of Explosion Gorge with two older couples and a ranger. It began with a private boat ride through the gorge, and ended with fancy champagne and a fetching view of the sunset from Branco’s Lookout. I’m sure part of the excitement was just from this being the first real thing I saw in the park, but regardless: this was an objectively fantastic outing, and one of the best things you can do at El Questro.
My first time working at the Homestead
After my first week of work at the Steakhouse, I was thrilled to find out that I’d be spending 2 of my 5 work days in the kitchen up at the Homestead, El Questro’s 5 star lodge. Most of the staff here have never even seen this part of the park (it’s private and exclusive to up to 18 guests at a time), so by default it’s cool. The work environment here is a massive (and welcome) change of pace: dinner is a fancy three-course meal, I gel well with all my coworkers there, and I have more time to learn the ropes while getting all my work done. It’s way more my style. And, bonus: we have a fantastic view of the gorge from the kitchen. Sometimes I look up while peeling potatoes or cutting croutons and have a moment where I’m like WHOA, this is my life right now.
El Questro Homestead perched over the gorge.
Hiking up Saddleback Ridge
Early on in the month, before I figured out how to get rides to various hikes and gorges around the property, I went on one of the walks you can do from The Station without a car: Saddleback Ridge. It follows a 4WD road across the river and up a steep hill to a viewing platform with 360-degree views of the surrounding ranges. Honestly: it’s not one of the more remarkable walks you can do at El Questro, and there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it. But there was something about the delicious golden hour light falling on the hills and valleys around me, and that smell of sunkissed skin you get from being out in the sun for a few hours, that made it such a rad afternoon.
View from Saddleback Ridge.
Skinny dipping and singing on the Champagne Springs trail
On a complete whim, I took off on the Champagne Springs hiking track at 11:15am. I ignored my neighbors who were flummoxed that I would be hiking in the midday heat all by myself, and the sign at the trailhead warning hikers not to begin after 11am, and had myself THE BEST afternoon frolicking. The first half of the hike was partly shaded with some trees, creek crossings, sand and rocks to trudge through; the second half was across open rock (aka my favorite kind of hiking), with orange sandstone in all directions, and yellow and purple wildflowers spurting out from it. I passed by a few small groups of walkers that were coming from the opposite direction, but once I got about 3/4 of the way through I had the trail all to myself, including the freshwater pools at the end.
And what do I do when I’m all by myself? I shed my clothes and belt out some tunes, obviously.
Champagne Springs trail.
I actually didn’t plan the skinnydipping – I just didn’t have a bathing suit because I didn’t think I’d want to swim, and there happened to be no one around. And as for the singing, I blasted my iPhone playlist all the way back and sang along – ‘cause it’s pretty hard to sing when you’re in such close quarters with 70 other staff plus guests at virtually all times. Not that I have to justify my actions, but that’s how I roll – there’s usually a reason behind most everything I do! But man, was this day beautiful.
On a recent day off, I went hiking and did some writing and other Me Things on my own – but I made sure to linger at lunch and dinner to get some social time in too. Basically, tending to my extreme introversion without being a complete antisocial arse. I was just polishing off my laksa dinner when one of the rangers sitting with us goes: “Let’s go croc hunting!”. I’m sure I raised an eyebrow or two, but in the name of being a Yes Girl I went to fetch my headlamp and boots. Before the thought of hunting crocodiles actually registered in my mind, I found myself fording the Pentecost River and roaming through woods in pitch black with 6 other staff on the lookout for glowing eyes.
We didn’t spot any crocs, but we did see a flying fox, a keelback snake, and a barracuda. The rad thing about hanging out with the rangers here is that they possess an absurd amount of information about the park and its wildlife and landscapes, PLUS they know the land. So not only will you be safe (i.e. not lost) while adventuring with them, but you’ll also learn loads about the things you see along the way. Oblivious and ignorant me probably wouldn’t have noticed any of the things we spotted along the way without their guidance.
We crossed the Pentecost River to hunt for crocodiles!
Month 7 Numbers:
Uf, about my expenses this month… I had a few costly upfront purchases, namely my flight from Perth to Kununurra and my prepaid wifi plan (AU$250 for 10gb, yikes!). You’re welcome for that last one, by the way – otherwise you’d hear radio static for 3 months on this blog! With those out of the way, my only expense while working at El Questro is AU$105/week for food and accommodation, which is a pretty damn good deal considering we get aircon in our rooms and most meals prepared for us in the staff mess hall. I expect the next two months to have few expenses other than that.
But hey, mama got paid this month! I’m so relieved to have a paycheck coming in each week – and on top of that, I finally got paid for some freelance work in prior months.
Dates: 14 June – 12 July 2015
# of Days: 29
Top Expenses: Flight/baggage – US$351.44, wifi data plan – US$192.38
Total $ Spent: US$971.03
$ Made Freelancing: US$457.59
$ Made at Jobs: US$1652.42
Total $ Made: US$2110
Average $ Spent: US$33.48/day
Average Miles Walked: 4.6 miles/day
# Beds Slept In: 3
# Nights Camping: 9
Year-To-Date Numbers (Months 1-7):
Dates: 12 December 2014 – 12 July 2015
# of Days: 215
Total $ Spent: US$8298.04
Average $ Spent: US$38.60/day
$ Made Freelancing: US$980.09
$ Made at Jobs: US$1652.42
Total $ Made: US$2632.51
# Beds Slept In: 29
# Couches Slept On: 3
# Nights Camping: 45
# Days Roadtripping: 26
# Dates: 16
# Flights: 8
More of the same! I’ve got about 7 weeks left working in the Kimberley, and I want to make the most of them by doing as much hiking around here as I can manage. I’ve done most of the shorter hikes around El Questro, but I’d also like to hop onto a staff trek led by some of the rangers here – it’s just a matter of everyone’s days off coinciding. I’d also love to go camping, even if it’s just for a night somewhere on the property – as long as I can see the night stars while falling asleep in a swag, I’m good!