Tales From an Australian Work Exchange, Part 2 (a.k.a. Welcome To Bandusia a.k.a. Me As Turkey Whisperer)


When I settled in for the 2-hour car ride from Sydney to my work exchange gig on a farm near Australia’s Blue Mountains, I had no idea what my role on the property would be. By the end of my three weeks working, I had – if this is possible – even less of an idea what my role on the property was.


Master Chicken Handler is probably a pretty accurate description.


Supreme Turkey Herder would also work.


Basically, I spent three weeks running around a multi-acre permaculture farm, carrying various animals in or out of the house and sprinting from an angry turkey in front of confused bed & breakfast guests.


It was what I was born to do.




As my work exchange host, Geoffrey, drove us west out of Sydney, he told me that the farm he and his partner Penny owned had a name – Bandusia – and was located in the tiny town of St. Albans – which is as close to off-the-grid as you’re likely to find these days, complete with absolutely no cell reception and just a handful of tightly-knit residents. He took the long route through St. Albans so I could see the town center. This took approximately 20 seconds because the town center consists of exactly 1 post office, 1 pub, and 1 fire station.  After this extensive tour, we made our way along a narrow dirt road that connects the adjoining farms outside of town, with Geoffrey pointing out the stretches of road where I should watch out for flooding and the other stretches of road where I should watch out for kangaroo crossings (Ah yes, I nodded, as if errant kangaroos are something I frequently encounter around my house as well).



As we turned into Bandusia’s drive, Geoffrey explained how he and Penny had bought the property several years ago and transformed it from a typical bed & breakfast into a working organic farm and the home of the Permaculture Sydney Institute. They continued to run the bed & breakfast to make ends meet, but their real passion was in teaching – Geoffrey as a part-time university professor in Sydney and Penny as a permaculture design instructor. Through their permaculture institute,  they ran sustainable living education courses and held self-sufficiency workshops on everything from beekeeping to welding.



I like to flatter myself by thinking that I am a very environmentally conscious person. But – as someone who straight-up studies environmental science – I still had no idea what exactly “permaculture” was. Like me when I first arrived at Bandusia, you might need to do a quick Wikipedia search on the topic. Also like me, you might be a bit confused when Wikipedia defines permaculture as:


“a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.”


When I wasn’t running around Bandusia like an idiot, I spent many a cup of tea discussing with Penny what exactly permaculture means and why she was so passionate about it. The more I learned – about how she grew her gardens without chemicals or fireproofed her land by planting barriers of flame-resistant plants or designed Bandusia so that every chicken and tree and ditch had multiple purposes and worked with every other chicken and tree and ditch to make the farm as efficient and bountiful as possible – the more I realized that permaculture – at its core – simply means living with common sense.


Common sense tells us that poisoning, overusing, and generally destroying the soil that we grow our food on is counterproductive. Common sense tells us that our energy and sustenance has to come from somewhere and there’s no way we can continue to provide for growing populations if we are not willing to work with nature rather than against it. Most of us – myself included – don’t frequently sit around and think about these things. We’re so disconnected from how our food is grown, where our fuel comes from, and how are clothes and gadgets are produced that it’s incredibly easy to forget  about or simply ignore the human and environmental costs of our lifestyles.


It’s easy to talk about sustainable living and it’s a lot harder to actually live sustainably. Penny and Geoffrey’s farm was the definition of practicing what you preach: Bandusia was a constantly evolving experiment in biodiversity, sustainability, and frugal living. Everyone who lived and worked on the farm – from neighbors to local craftsmen to farmhands to temporary workers like me – willingly and happily contributed all of the sweat, determination, patience, and teamwork required to keep the experiment moving forward.



I could go on and on – and possibly bore you to tears – about the philosophy behind permaculture and how hyped I am about it. But, I think the best way to demonstrate what permaculture really means is with an example.


That example, which – I swear to all that is holy in the world – is 100% true and unexaggerated (even though we all know I possess a highly developed talent for exaggerating my stories), is this:


Bandusia uses guinea pigs to mow its lawn.


As in, my work exchange hosts, Penny and Geoffrey, have built a specially-designed open-bottomed guinea pig cage that can be pushed around to different spots in their front yard. One of my jobs each morning was to move the guineas from their indoor sleeping cage to their outdoor cage where they could set to work chomping on the grass beneath them. I would watch with a joy I have never before experienced as they happily munched away throughout the day, ensuring that – by the time the sun set in the evening – their little patch of lawn was nibbled down to an even stubble. I’d carry the guineas back inside for a well-deserved sleep, push their cage to the next patch of grass needing a trim, and then spend several minutes blinking slowly and smiling quietly to myself as I thanked the universe for a world in which lawn-mowing guinea pigs exist.


If this is not “utilizing natural patterns” to cut down on fossil fuels and make life easier for yourself, I DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS.


And, guys, I totally get that trimming our lawns with guinea pigs is not the most efficient or practical thing in the world. Like I said, Penny and Geoffrey treated the farm as a loving experiment and not everything that worked there would work elsewhere.


Using guinea pigs to mow our lawns is probably not going to trend.


But – mygawd – I wish it would.



So, while Penny and Geoffrey hand-built open-bottomed guinea pig cages, spread their knowledge of sustainability with the community, cooked and cared for the constantly evolving cast of employees, guests, and neighbors that came and left their property at all hours of the day, and managed a farm in their spare time, I ran around doing anything I could to make their lives just a bit easier during the weeks I stayed with them.


I filled swimming pools for the pet duck that thanked me by occasionally pooping on my sandals.



I separated the farm’s two chicken gangs that liked to stand on opposite sides of their coop and dance and squawk at each other like they were rival dance crews battling on the streets of NYC (the two gangs also had – for reasons still unknown to me –  one random guinea fowl each. These guys also hated each other and spent all day shrieking at one another what I can only imagine was serious trash talk and hyping up of their own superior chicken dance crew).



I developed a complicated relationship with a very large turkey named Comstock that lived in the backyard (and – as I learned when I unsuspectingly opened the pantry door one day and screamed bloody murder – sometimes in the house).



I started each day with the predictable good morning greeting from the chickens and roosters and the not-so-predictable good morning greeting from Comstock, who would either calmly let me lead him down the path from his nighttime coop to his backyard kingdom (which made me think we were friends) or charged at me with a ruffling of feathers and a look of pure murder (which made me think we were maybe not friends).



Penny and Geoffrey were so kind and laid-back and undemanding of me, but I saw how much work they put into running the farm every day and I wanted to pay them back in any small way for welcoming me into their home and their lives. So, I tried to be as helpful as possible as often as possible. Sometimes, this simply meant stripping bedsheets in the bed & breakfast rooms or organizing files on their ancient desktop computer. Other times, this meant using olive oil and a paintbrush to slowly suffocate tiny parasites that had burrowed into a chicken’s foot (I know that’s an unappealing mental image, but at least it’s just an image to you. I dealt with that sh** in real life).


I belly-crawled underneath chicken coops to bring water to newborn chicks; bargained with giant Australian spiders to please not send their friends to eat me if I took them outside instead of smashing them; spent hours planting seedlings in the vegetable garden; and then spent more hours digging up and replanting the same seedlings after Penny gently explained to me how I had done it wrong.



I dug through compost piles, organized pantries of preserves, collected quail eggs, and made countless pots of tea for countless groups of thankful people.


Every person that I crossed paths with at Bandusia was so full of warmth and purpose and openness. They were the kind of people that treated pet quails and ducks like family members but also chased giant goanna lizards out of trees with shot guns (that is – I swear to the holies – the scene that I woke up to one morning).



If all of this sounds like I did a work exchange for 3 decades instead of the 3 weeks it was in reality, it’s because it felt that way too. I was so busy – in the best sense of the word – that it took all of a few days for me to feel like I had always been a turkey whisperer on a permaculture farm in the middle of the Australian nowhere.


And then, as my last week on the farm was winding to a close, Mother Nature decided that lawn-mowing guinea pigs and angry turkeys was not an exciting enough introduction to Australia and sent a storm that scared the bejesus out of me and somehow led to me flying in a National Parks helicopter over the Blue Mountains.


**Fingers fall off from typing so many ridiculous stories and attempting to hype people up enough to read Part 3**