WWOOFing your way around South Africa – an alternative way to travel – Escape the city and head to the hills – experience country living, whilst doing something rewarding, with your hands in the soil.
WWOOF: Willing workers on organic farms. Despite sounding like geek speak for winging it with your thumb out, it isn’t. Nor does it refer to dogs at all.
Actually, it now stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, but it used to be the former, which I find more explanatory. WWOOF is a network of organic farms worldwide on which, should you wish to give it a try, you can volunteer work in exchange for first-hand knowledge, room and board and a totally unique take on the world and travel.
On the one hand, if you’re a student, lack for funds, and are strong and willing it sounds like a perfect fit. On the other, be aware that in exchange for your board and lodging you’re going to need to be willing to work – it isn’t loaf off on an organic farm.
It’s a wonderful way to find out more about organic farming, its methods and whether or not you’re suited to the lifestyle, should you be thinking about it. As a gap year it’s a fantastic way to leave home and travel independently, whilst also ‘giving back’ – sustainable and responsible tourism at its best.
Joining the WWOOF community
WWOOF is an organisation. It has a rather dated website that gives one some good background information as to what one can expect from being a WWOOFer. It’s a good place to start. But getting around from farm to farm is not as simple as signing up and waiting for ‘job’ offers. It takes a little more initiative than that.
A lot of the different countries have independent WWOOF organisations. They are not automatically linked to from the WWOOF website. It took a while before I stumbled on the African version.
To find out more about your potential hosts in South Africa, and there are roughly 24 of them, you will need to join and sign up, which involves a fee. This fee gives you access to the contact details of the individual farms – all the other info is readily available before you pay the fee, so you’ll have a good idea of the type of farm you can expect. Some even provide pictures.
What will be expected of you
The procedure is that you either email or phone a host directly to arrange a stay. This can be for anything from a week to a month, or even longer. Here is where you need to be very certain to find out what is expected of you, for everywhere is different. The type of jobs you can expect will be anything from weeding a veggie patch, to repairs to a shed, maintaining a hiking trail, chopping wood or even a bit of cooking. It is a good idea to make it clear what your hopes and expectations are too. Expect give and take.
What you can expect
In exchange for your labour, you will be given accommodation – which varies. You can stay in anything from a teepee, or caravan to a room in the host’s house. Many hosts have outside rooms that they make available. Make sure you ask about anything that concerns you. You will also be fed, which usually involves joining the host family for meals. This can be a wonderful community time, and often people choose to cook together. Days off vary, but you should get at least one day a week in which to either chill, hike or visit the local town or city – depending on transport.
Where to look for farms
The farms listed are from all over the country – Western Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Limpopo, the Wild Coast, Gauteng, the Eastern Cape – which will give you a chance to really see the areas and experience different climates around South Africa – each will follow a different style of farming, dependent on rains, soil types etc. You will have to be able to pay for your own transport between hosts, although if the farm is remote the host will often offer to come and fetch you from a nearby town.
What to take along
A good pair of shoes. If there is one item of clothing you are going to treasure more than others, then it is this. You will also need outdoor clothing and a hat. If you are a visitor to South Africa then remember things like sunscreen and possibly malaria tablets (this is a question to ask your host). You will need a backpack, sleeping bag, cool and warm clothing, a valid tourist visa (if you’re not local) and travel and health insurance. You will also need a sense of humour and enthusiasm. If you’re not looking forward to helping out with tasks, then this is probably not a good way to travel.
Questions you might want to ask
How many hours a day can I expect to work?
A good question to ask, as it irons out expectations on both sides. It will also allow further questions based on the reply you receive.
Will I have days off in which I can travel around the area?
Not all hosts automatically provide weekends off, so you will need to ask. Again, this sets up expectations on both sides. Some hosts will make every endeavour to make sure that you get out and about and will drive you into towns. Others won’t. Good to know ahead of time.
What tasks will be expected of me?
This is a good question as many hosts may not have thought this through thoroughly, and your prompting allows them to outline the tasks they think they will need you to do. It will also give you an idea of whether the tasks will suit you physically, and whether they’re the types of challenges you had in mind. If there is something specific you want to learn, now is the time to ask.
Having a clear understanding of what your duties and sleeping arrangements are like is important. Also know what you will receive in exchange for your work before you get to the farm – it’s a little late once you’re there.
What is my accommodation like?
Good to know ahead of time if you’re sharing with another WWOOFer or not, or what type of sleeping arrangements you will have.
I don’t speak English, does that matter?
If you’re travelling in South Africa it would be a good idea to have at least a working knowledge of English. It is one of the major languages of the country and you will be able to use it throughout. Some families may be able to speak another language, like German or Dutch, but very few.
Do you have access to the internet and can I use it from time to time to communicate with friends and family, and to make travel arrangements?
Some farms are in remote areas and will not have access. Others will still have dial-up, which means it costs them for every minute of on-line surfing. Do not assume that everyone has access.
How to get the most out of your experience
Like anything in life, it is what you put in to something that will influence what you get out. What you reap, you will sow – quite literally. You will also meet many different people along the way, from other cultures – which will add to the colour of your life.
Choose something you really want to do.
If your thing is wine, then be persistent and make sure you visit at least one of the farms where there are vineyards.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
you might have to persist with some clients. It’s not that they’re being rude, they’re just involved in running a farm – much of the time away from internet access – and a computer and email are something they check in on rarely.
Stick to your word
If you’ve made sure what is expected of you very clearly before hand, and you’ve agreed to start work, let’s say, at 8am – then make sure you’re up and ready to go at 8am. At the same time, if it was agreed that lunch was at 1pm, don’t feel obliged to continue working well into your lunch hour, unless the situation deserves it.