I first heard the term WWOOF while attending a Mother Earth News Fair in Oregon. In short, WWOOF is a program where organic farmers seek a volunteer and offer room/board and meals in exchange for a few hours of work. It gives the farmer some extra hands to help with the work load, and gives the volunteers an opportunity to learn organic agricultural principals. It can also offer a cultural exchange because the program is known world wide.
Casey and I were traveling to New Zealand at the beginning of December of 2018. We wanted to participate in the WWOOF program as a way to see more of the country and learn what life was like for Kiwis. We also were interested in finding hosts that were willing to teach us their organic gardening principles and livestock care.
Before Casey and I arrived in New Zealand we had our WWOOF profile setup and were contacting potential hosts. We had been accepted to volunteer at a place called Sacred Earth before we left the USA. We gave ourselves a couple weeks before volunteering to buy our campervan and explore some of the touristy places around the north island of New Zealand.
We arrived Mid-December on a Tuesday, and were greeted warmly by Jenny, the owner of Sacred Earth. There were two other volunteers that had arrived before us and were staying in the main house with us. A woman from Finland and a fellow American. We were shown to our private room and I was surprised at how comfortable the room felt.
After the quick introduction Jenny left. We befriended our two new housemates and explored Sacred Earth. I will say, I was unprepared for the views at Sacred Earth. WOW! The main house had a fantastic view of Karekare Beach and the Tasman Sea.
Sacred Earth is known as a yoga/meditation retreat to those who visit it. The property is very large, with several guest houses, bush trails (some with waterfalls and pools), a yoga and meditation temple, and a community of residents who also garden and love to share their knowledge with the volunteers.
The day after our arrival, Wednesday, we began our volunteer work. We agreed to work 4-5 hours a day from Wednesday to Saturday, with Sunday to Tuesday off. We started work around 8:00 am and finished around noon. Lesley, a volunteer/resident would prepare a lunch for all the volunteers. Always vegetarian, with some vegan options. Sacred Earth was strictly vegetarian, and no meat was to be prepared in the kitchens. This was advertised on their WWOOF profile, and caused us no problems. We actually felt so grateful to have amazing, healthy meals prepared for us! And there was always leftovers, which we sometimes ate for dinner (or on our days off).
The first day I was able to work on a project of removing invasive plant species from the grounds. This interested me because I was able to learn the names and identify native plants and the invasive plants to New Zealand.
Other days I was part of the grounds crew and helped with general maintenance (pulling weeds, trimming plants, and more removal of any invasive species). We worked in groups and passed the time by sharing stories of our lives, books we read, and what our future plans were. We mostly worked without disrupting the residents.
One day while working with a fellow volunteer stacking firewood we caused a slight disruption. We were rolling tree rings down a hill to take to Casey to split and had an unfortunate accident. One log rolled down the hill and onto the main house lower deck. It thudded down the stairs and loudly banged against a residents door. Most of the residents are aware that the volunteers are there to care for the property and we do our best to not disrupt them. They are kind and thoughtful, but there is one resident who is notorious for her negative mannerisms. It was her door that the log knocked.
We scattered and hid behind trees, waiting to see if she would appear and lecture us. A few minutes passed and we deemed that she must not have been home and began an uproar of laughter. We collected the log and continued with our daily duties.
While we managed to avoid a confrontation on that day, there were other days we did not. One evening while enjoying dinner on the upper balcony we were asked to return inside to the dinning room so she could enjoy the balcony in silence. I learned from this that communal living has its benefits and downfalls. While we were still guests at Sacred Earth and there by request of the owner, not everyone was in support of the volunteer program.
On our days off we made trips to Karekare Beach. This was Casey’s and my first time ever seeing a black sand beach. It felt better on my eyes than white sand (not as reflective), but that sun sure could make the sand hot on bare feet!
I was so excited to be at the beach that I may have forgotten to apply sunscreen, and spent serval hours at the beach people watching, swimming in sea, and building sandcastles. I should note that New Zealand has a hole in the ozone which makes the sun more severe during mid-day sun exposure. When we returned to Sacred Earth it was too late, Casey and I had some intense sunburns!
There were a few other volunteers that we met who were staying at other properties within Sacred Earth. We met a woman from Latvia, a Swedish man who had lived most of his life in India, another American, and a whole Canadian family who sold most of their belongings and took a chance at re-rooting themselves in New Zealand. I enjoyed listening to these people tell the stories of their lives, their travels, and their future goals.
Some volunteers would offer free yoga classes at the temple. Casey and I enjoyed attending morning yoga, and had an awesome experience learning aerial yoga! We also attended an event promoted by a resident to celebrate the Summer Solstice. She had musicians come to play, and performed a piece as well.
There were quite a few permanent residents, and they seemed to also come from all over the world. One resident was born in Germany. She is a filmmaker and let us watch her documentary called “Ever the Land.” The documentary is about the Maori tribe, Ngāi Tūhoe. The indigenous people of New Zealand are fighting to rebuild and reclaim their land. I enjoyed watching and learning about the history and and culture of the Maori.
Another resident took us on a bush walk at Sacred Earth to a stream, pools and a waterfall. It was a beautiful area! The pools have some eels in them, but they didn’t bother us. The water was nice a cool; and after finishing a days of work volunteering, swimming in the pools was a great way to relax!
Casey and I had agreed to stay one week at Sacred Earth as a trial. At the end of the week, Jenny offered to us to stay longer. We agreed with our host to stay through the holidays and leave at the beginning of the new year. We were missing our families for the Christmas Holiday, but had an unforgettable experience with the other volunteers and residents. We decided to celebrate together by each preparing a traditional dish that would normally be served at “home” during the holidays to share with everyone. It was a good time, sharing stories and traditions with everyone. Everyone loved the buckeyes that I made (which are dessert peanut butter balls covered in chocolate).
We planned to continue exploring the North Island of New Zealand, eventually making our way to the South Island after the rush of the holidays subsided. Some of the other volunteers were also leaving after our around the holidays as well.
There were quite a few things I enjoyed about our WWOOF volunteering at Sacred Earth, like the stunning scenery and making friends. However, I would not have agreed that this listing should be on the WWOOF website as it is not technically an organic farm.
The site descriptions of the gardens seemed larger than what was actually there. There was mention of beekeeping, worm farming/composting, and livestock. In reality there is a sheep and goat in a large pen together that get leftover scraps from the kitchen. No worms, and the bees are left alone and cared for by a resident.
It would have made more sense for this to be listed on a site like WorkAway. I did mention to our host Jenny that I was hoping to get to work more with gardening while here. She made sure to give me tasks in the garden. Our last week I was able to revamp a container garden bed and prep it for new plants, which was a lot of fun to me!
I do feel there was an equal exchange of work for accommodation at Sacred Earth. I would like to mention that I felt there were some questionable techniques used for tasks. I would have liked more supervisions and/or instruction. Jenny is the owner of Sacred Earth, but there is typically a permanent volunteer that over-sees all the other volunteers. During our stay the permanent volunteer was not at Sacred Earth, and thus Jenny had to try and fill in and lead the volunteers.
Volunteering to work for accommodation can be a great way to save money while traveling, and hopefully learn new skills. My tip is to communicate with your host. Once I opened the conversation with Jenny about my expectations she was able to understand my goals for volunteering and adjusted my duties.
Casey and I were glad that this was our first place to WWOOF once getting in New Zealand. We received good advice from gardening to traveling. It was also nice to be stationary for the holidays; having some community to celebrate made the holidays fun and cheerful! The area was beautiful to explore, and we learned a few skills and recipes.
Before leaving Sacred Earth, we volunteered to watch the Canadian Families’ dogs while they were away for New Year’s Eve. We stayed in their cabin and kept their fur babies, Elvis and Presley, company. We played Kiwi scrabble with our new American friend while we waited for midnight. We chatted with him about his travels and shared our own plans of exploring. The next day we were back on the road, living out of our campervan and driving north. We planned to explore the north land then head south towards Wellington. As we drove south we would be looking for more WWOOF work.
Have you ever been a WWOOF volunteer? What was your experience like? Share your stories in the comments below.
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