Yasmine’s note: Two days ago, I got a frantic email from Erin after not having heard from her for a while. She wrote: “allison. i only have a second but i want to tell you that this town has no wifi or cell phone service apart from telstra. i stole the office computer but i dont think ill be able to use it again.” Well, this isn’t looking good, I thought. And as you’ll read below, it wasn’t. I was even more shocked to get a text from her later saying “Allison I left! And I didn’t leave a note.”
Erin went to work at a roadhouse in a remote town over 500 kilometers from Perth (Roadhouses are known to be lucrative places of employment for those on working holiday visas in Australia. You can find some job listings on Gumtree or The Job Shop). She discovered the truth about working in the outback: it’s not as glamorous as people make it out to be and it can be sad to witness the realities of social problems. And most importantly, she discovered it wasn’t the right place for her. She had a lot of strength in taking the opportunity to remove herself from the situation. Her story shows us more than a hilarious and simultaneously depressing outback experience; it shows that there is no “right way” to spend a year on a working holiday experience. If you appreciate a space of your own with a functioning light bulb, than never let anyone try to convince you that you don’t need it.
Mount Magnet: An Introduction
Mt. Magnet, named so for its surrounding hills’ high iron content which skew the readings of any compass in their vicinity, is the longest surviving gold mining town in Western Australia. Gold was first discovered here in 1891 and soon enough, it became quite a bustling town. As the madness faded, however, and large mining corporations gradually took over, introducing their “fly-in, fly-out” schemes (where city workers are recruited to spend two weeks on-site in all-inclusive mining camps before flying home for a one-week break), the town has slid further and further into obscurity. As of the 2011 census, its population counted 532 and a conversation with a young schoolteacher revealed that there are only five students enrolled in this year’s kindergarten class. There is a degree of resentment among locals towards the mining companies for their continued failure to reinvest into the community. Walking down Main Street, half of the buildings can be found boarded up (one of those, to my disappointment, was the “internet café”). Employment opportunities are few and far between and entertainment is more or less nonexistent apart from gambling and drinking. I spent a whopping 2 ½ days here—just 57 ½ days short of what I promised my employer.
Here is a humorous recap of my experience.
Stores at my disposal remaining open post-Gold-Rush-era:
- Insanely priced local grocer (capsicum was $15/kg compared with the $2.50/kg found in select grocers along the east coast).
- Coffee shop open only on Tuesdays & Saturdays.
- Post office (which I was glad to see as I almost had to resort to snail mail just to tell my parents I was alive. With the 2 week delay, of course, they would have already called the number of Mt. Magnet’s other roadhouse which I had mistakenly given them, been told no “Erin Morris” works there, and immediately called the authorities).
- Fitness center blasting Ariana Grande’s latest hits (this came as a surprise).
- Pool open only in the summer.
- Minimalist library where books were checked out on the honor system (rather admirable, really).
- Hardware store.
- Aforementioned roadhouse.
- Then of course where I worked: A combination restaurant (only serving dinner)/bar/hotel (above which I stayed) and a pub/hotel across the road. The latter pub’s main attraction was the TAB machine, which allowed for betting on horse and greyhound races. These were mostly frequented by local aborigines, who spent all day in front of the TVs asking me to issue them vouchers with whatever change they could find in their pockets. Winnings were mostly spent on alcohol. Apart from the gamblers, the drinking crowd at both facilities was comprised of the same few people. The regulars seemed to find great entertainment in crossing the road every now and then just to see what was playing on the other TV….or which barmaid was working at the other bar.
There was no Wi-Fi, no cell service apart from one Australian network which I coincidentally didn’t have (it actually took me 5 hours to obtain service on the drive home), and as the hotel owners wouldn’t grant me use of the office computer (except the first day when I pleaded to send a 5-minute email to my parents), I had to go to either the Visitor Centre or the local library and pay $2/15 min of internet access.
Going those few days without internet and without being in the presence of at least one good travel-mate made me reflect on all of my “travelling” up to that point. I’m told I’m brave for being away from home, but with technology the way it is today, my friends and family are never more than a call or text away… so in reality, have I left them at all?
We were forced to stay in the old, decrepit area of the hotel which the owners didn’t have the funds or interest to fix. I had to scour multiple rooms before obtaining a functional lightbulb for my room. The kitchen’s cleanliness was equivalent to that of a low-budget hostel (thanks to my amazing coworkers) and the only available cooking appliance was a microwave. As someone who enjoys cooking, it was difficult to accept the thought that I’d have to cook all my meals in a microwave for the next two months (eggs, chickpeas, vegetables, rice – you name it). I’ll admit this was a major factor nurturing my hatred for Mt. Magnet.
The recruitment agency had promised three meals/day but this was a blatant lie as the owner only gave me one (at dinner), not of my choosing (most items on the menu were too “expensive” and therefore off limits). Usually, the dish consisted of mashed potatoes, overcooked cauliflower and a slab of roast beef or chicken wing.
- An ex-meth-head (26 y/o) from Melbourne who’d been there for 14 months because cities brought too much temptation. She kindly gave me a tour of the town with her almost broken-down car. We couldn’t turn off the car at either site in case it didn’t turn back on. This, she told me, was standard precautionary behavior in the Outback. She showed me two sites, one of which was the garbage dump. All she seemed to talk to me about in the three days I was there was her new diet and workout regimen (which included walking one mile three mornings per week). She showed me her refrigerator shelf about four times just to emphasize how many vegetables she was eating. She also warned me that one of the truckers was off limits even if he tried to hit on me…. And then she felt guilty, so she told me if I could do it if I really wanted. I didn’t know how to tell her that we may not have the same taste in men.
- Large Irish lady (30 y/o) who was finishing off a two year visa in December. She’d been there three weeks and upon news of my quitting, was intent on telling me how glad she was that she had pushed through the initial two because of how the place had grown on her. She was also raised behind a bar and had a deep fondness for truckers and alcohol so it made sense. When I had the nerve to complain about cleaning the maggots out of our kitchen trash can or the significant amount of mold in the shower stall, she pointed to this as a sure sign of privilege. While I will certainly admit to a fair amount of this, I would be more apt to call the willingness to clean one’s apartment a sign of maturity rather than privilege.
On my third night at the pub, God sent me a guardian angel. I served two youngish, normal, decently educated guys: one of whom had just finished a one-day job as a diesel mechanic and was heading back to Perth in the morning, the other of whom had the following day off, so they were drinking pretty heavily. As they were the most relatable people I’d encountered in my time there, I ended up having a few beers with them after work, at which point the mechanic called me out on hating the job. I tried to stay positive, telling him halfheartedly that I thought it’d get better and that I came there in hopes of having the “authentic outback experience”, even if it meant pushing my comfort zone (that being the availability of Wi-Fi, a working kitchen and any sort of entertainment or friends). He divulged that he didn’t think it would get any better…that this was it….that he could tell I didn’t relate to my coworkers, whose only thoughts were (in his words) “he has a cock, he has a cock…. he has a cock”… that my bosses were assholes (truth) …. And that this wasn’t my only option for an “authentic outback experience”: I could work in a mining town with more than 4 stores (such as the magical Kalgoorlie).
I was still resistant at this point, especially since my boss was hovering within earshot on the other side of the bar, but the mechanic drunkenly gave me his number and told me he was leaving at 6AM the next morning if I changed my mind. I took the crumpled receipt back to my room and considered it for all of five minutes before I started packing. I asked the Irish girl if I could use her phone (as mine was inoperable) and desperately dialed the number only to find that he had already passed out. I then spent a sleepless night praying that he would answer in the morning. Once that seed had been planted, I couldn’t bear the thought of another day in that fucking town. Luckily, he picked up the phone at about a quarter to six, and by 6AM we were cruising down the highway towards Perth. I didn’t leave a note.
I’ve never experienced such a strange distortion of time in my life… my 2 ½ days felt like 2 ½ weeks, and I’m not exaggerating in the least. It was actually confusing and albeit a bit disappointing to realize I had, in fact, only lasted 60 hours in that town (and worked only 15 of them….not enough to even pay the placement fee I owed the recruitment agency). I think I got more than enough exposure to outback life, however, and have a thorough understanding of what I’m (not) missing. I’m thankful to the kindness of strangers, even if those strangers may be a bit racist (the mechanic actually told me Africa was better off when the white folk were governing the “blackfellas”), and grateful to myself for having the confidence to trust my instincts. I now return to Melbourne with a renewed appreciation for all of life’s comforts, which, in a way, is exactly what I wanted to gain this year.
About the author:
Erin is an avid traveler and reader who enjoys learning about different cultural perspectives and approaches to life. She is Yasmine’s #1 supporter.
Want to know even more about Erin? She was previously interviewed by Yasmine about her favorite hiking trails in Ibiza and how to make Melbourne your workout playground. If you read through archived posts, you can also find a lot of incriminating pictures of her. (Cough, Outback)
Featured photo taken at Barrow Creek Pub in Northern Territory. Originally appeared in this Character Tuesday post.