Travel

Want to Travel the World and Eat Well for Free? Become a WWOOFer

This might be the coolest, cheapest, and most rewarding way to travel.

Wassiliy/iStock/Getty Images
Wassiliy/iStock/Getty Images
Wassiliy/iStock/Getty Images

For the past three weeks, I’ve been living on a permaculture farm in Bali-for free. To say life is peaceful here is an understatement. I wake up surrounded by lush green plants, do a relaxing round of yoga, and go to work on the farm a few hours after breakfast, where I form crop beds, pull weeds, and cut compost according to regenerative principles. Then I meditate until dinner. Did I mention I am staying here for free?

I’m here in Bali through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, also known as WWOOF, an organization that connects traveling volunteers with farmers for cultural and educational immersion. It’s my second experience WWOOFing (my first was in Crete), and my time in Bali feels like a combination of living in a monastery and hanging out at summer camp. I can feel the tension and stress of three years in New York City finally start to dissipate. Needless to say, the experience is proving cheaper than therapy… (did I mention I am here for free?)In exchange for six hours of work every weekday, I get three meals a day and a private room in return. The food is all vegetarian and organic-I eat bok choy, lettuce, spinach, and young papaya straight from the garden. Any mosquito bites or sun burns, I walk three feet from my room and cut a stalk from the abundance of aloe vera.

If this all sounds too good to be true, it’s not. WWOOF has been operating since 1971 and is now available in more than 130 countries. Basically, it’s the best way to travel for those who want to spend very little money and try something a little out-of-the-box. It’s arguably one of the best, and most affordable, ways to see the world. 

How does WWOOFING work, anyway?

Similar to Workaway, which facilitates a broader range of homestays and cultural exchange, WWOOF focuses specifically on farm work. Organic farms looking for volunteers list themselves on WWOOF, and each one will lodge and feed you in exchange for 20-30 hours of work, weekly. If you wanted to (and planned it right), you could farm-hop and travel for months at a time, for just the cost of a plane ticket. And through WWOOF, you are cutting out the cost of food and shelter, which can stretch your funds quite a bit further.

Most countries have their own WWOOF organization, and you often have to pay a membership fee to access and view farm listings. They usually run around $25. This map will show you every country where WWOOF organizations are located. Almost every country is there. Seriously. Like, there are 24 farms on the Canary Islands alone, just begging you to leave your job for a year. 

Circle Creative Studio/E+/Getty Images
Circle Creative Studio/E+/Getty Images
Circle Creative Studio/E+/Getty Images

You’ll live and travel like a local-on a way deeper level than your typical Airbnb

Working on an organic farm is an awesome way to travel for a number of reasons beyond just being super affordable. You get to learn about organic farming. You get to live more simply. You get to take a break from Twitter. Above all, you get a truly local experience that the average tourist can only dream of. You’re actually living with locals, usually in a more remote area of the country, so you’re fully immersed in the culture. My host has taken me to village gatherings, festivals, funerals, and inaugurations-events that I never would have been invited to if I’d been staying in a hostel or an Airbnb.It’s not unusual for hosts and volunteers to develop a friendship; in many cases, hosts are excited to exchange ideas and cultures with volunteers, which is often what motivates them to list their farm in the first place. Both hosts I’ve had were women who taught me a lot about farming, natural medicine, and healthy living. When you share a house, three meals a day, and a passion for the natural world with somebody, you tend to get close.

Lena Ivanova/EyeEm/Royalty-free/Getty Images
Lena Ivanova/EyeEm/Royalty-free/Getty Images
Lena Ivanova/EyeEm/Royalty-free/Getty Images

What’s the food and housing situation like? 

While I was WWOOFing in Crete, I stayed in an RV with a single burner camping stove. In Bali, the farm doubles as a paid “eco-retreat,” so my room is a little more luxe. Basically, lodging will vary from country to country and farm to farm. You won’t ever be out in the rain with nothing but a hammock if you WWOOF, but don’t expect the Waldorf Astoria either. Or even hot water.In terms of food, you can expect fresh meals daily from your host. Most of the farms are organic, so you’ll be eating pretty healthily. Dietary restrictions are rarely an issue-you won’t be the first gluten-free vegan they’ve accommodated, I promise. Plus, you get to experience what the average farming family of that country cooks for themselves on a daily basis. I’ve made friends with the kitchen staff and learned to make homemade tempeh satay, mie goreng (spicy fried noodles), and fried pineapple. In turn, I taught them my family’s hummus recipe.

Oh the people you’ll meet!

In Crete, I played cards and talked with a 50-year-old French woman every evening. WWOOFers tend to be the kind of people you’d expect to do something like buy a one-way ticket to Bali to work on a farm: They’re thrifty, well-traveled, want to get off the grid, environmentally conscious, and physically active. Best of all, WWOOFing is an all ages affair.

With your weekends and free time, you can visit cultural sites, eat out, go dancing, or just relax on the farm. I leave the farm every weekend. I went snorkeling with turtles in Amed, sat with local fishermen in Sanur, and climbed a mountain to see a temple. My weekly expenses are literally zero, so I can afford to treat myself to a good meal, or a nice glass of wine when I venture beyond the farm.

It’s not a totally free ride-you do have to work hard

Here is the biggest caveat with WWOOFing: Due to how demanding farm labor can be, the biggest barrier is physical ability. WWOOFing is unfortunately not possible for people with serious health issues or disabilities. 

Don’t expect to get paid in cash, either. Your host can’t pay you because it would violate labor laws. The flip side of that is that you don’t need a work permit to be there, since you’re not technically “working”-you are “volunteering.” The farm I’m on still employs a number of local farmers, so you also don’t need to worry whether you’ll disrupt the wages of the local farmer.  

I have read about some, usually commercial, farms that will overwork WWOOFers. Do your research beforehand, know you can always leave, and make sure you talk with your host before you arrive to determine whether or not they seem legit. It’s also always a good idea to get travel insurance and know where the nearest hospital is located.

You can still make money on the road

Just because you aren’t being paid by your WWOOF host doesn’t mean you can’t make money while you’re away. We’re living in the age of the digital nomad, so if you can edit a video, do data analysis on Excel, or anything that doesn’t require you to be in an office, why not do it somewhere beautiful that nourishes your soul, instead of the same old coffee shop?

That being said, different farms will have different Wi-Fi/connectivity options. I’m writing this article with an ethernet connection, for example. I get in touch with my friends and family the old fashioned way: a long email every week or two. 

How long can I WWOOF?

Many farms have minimum stay lengths, so you’ll be hard pressed to find a WWOOF opportunity for less than a week-it is not for the casual traveler.  Many stays can be weeks long, while others can run years. In fact, many WWOOFers can hack it for years straight, hopping from WWOOF to WWOOF with no plans to settle down anytime soon. You can be out on the road for as long as you like: I’m planning two months total, but who knows, I might stay away for longer.

So why not sign up for a WWOOF, buy a flight, and clear your calendar. Throw a pair of boots, some mosquito repellent, and a camera in your backpack. It’s a vast and unexplored world, you may as well see it-for next to nothing.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Ismail Ibrahim is a connoisseur of bodega egg and cheese, ambient music, and short story collections. He writes about climate change, travel, and politics.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.