I spent nine (a massive rainstorm shortened it to eight) days volunteering abroad for the 2017 RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride.
Bicycle Network is a not-for-profit out to solve the problem of physical inactivity: two-thirds of Australian’s don’t get enough exercise. They’re on a mission to make bike riding easier for everyone.
The 536km bike ride started in Wilsons Promontory and ended in Trafalgar. Riders biked 50-111km daily.
Each morning as the riders depart, the campsite is disassembled by volunteers and loaded into trucks. The next campsite starts as a massive empty grass field, but within a few hours tents, toilets, showers, mobile bars, and facilities are set up as over 3,000 riders trickle in.
I thought the Great Vic offered a unique opportunity to travel around the Victorian countryside, but I never imagined the opportunities and experiences that came from it.
Volunteering abroad for a good cause is reason enough, but why else should you consider volunteering for your next vacation?
1. Meet New People
The event environment is scientifically designed for you to meet new people and friends.
As a volunteer on the Great Vic, you’re given a bright light blue shirt and hat to stand out from the riders. Not only can you be spotted from miles away, but “what team are you volunteering for?” becomes an easy conversation starter.
The diversity of volunteers shocked me. I was convinced I boarded the wrong bus in Melbourne.
I expected a bus full of young backpackers similar to myself. But I met people from all over the world, from 18-year-old students to retirees pushing 80 years old.
Riders felt free to come up to you to ask questions. And more questions follow when your accent is foreign. I also had the unfair advantage of serving them beer. Turns out people like you when you supply them alcohol.
Within each volunteer team, you formed closer bonds. The bar team was the youngest of the volunteer teams and consisted of only about seven of us. You get to know each other well after eating, driving between the campsites, and working together for nine straight days.
More than anything else, I’ll remember the people I met from this trip.
2. Budget Friendly
I spent $0.00 on accommodation, food, and transport for nine days.
Hostels are cheap, but the nightly price adds up quick. In Melbourne, a 10-bed dorm cost me about $30-32 a night. Anything more luxurious the price jumps up to $40.
Bicycle network provided tents for the entirety of the ride. Other volunteers even took care of setting up and packing them down.
I only brought a sleeping bag I borrowed from someone at my hostel. They also recommended a sleeping pad/mat. Unable to borrow this, I resorted to laying out my extra sweater underneath my sleeping bag for less than the ideal cushion.
Cereal, toast, and fruit for breakfast. Sandwiches, fruit, and dessert for lunch. Meat, veggies, and a side for dinner. And seconds for dinner when needed!
A campsite “main street” populated with food, ice cream, and coffee trucks offered plenty of other options as well.
Transport to and from the event was also provided for those in Melbourne.
3. Learn a new skill
Do you want to explore a new career path?
Or just learn a new skill?
Within your current job/company that may be difficult to do, but volunteering abroad provides an opportunity to learn a new skill to further advance your career.
Bicycle Network had 22 different volunteer teams to choose from! Ranging from at the campsite, on the riding route, or with logistics.
Backpacking jobs in Australia revolve around the hospitality industry. My resume for jobs in this industry is blank.
The line that hooked me to join: “Looking for bartending jobs? The Bar team is perfect for those with no previous experience looking to enter the field.”
Compared to the 9 to 5 office job I had before, bartending places a different type of demand on your body.
Shifts lasted 7 hours from 3-10pm. I’m not usually enthusiastic to sleep in a tent, but anything to get off my feet at the end of the day.
Behind the bar, you’re put into hundreds of social interactions and conversations every shift. You start to learn how to negotiate your way through difficult customers. And appreciate, from a bartender’s perspective the challenge of putting on a smile and standing for hours on end.
Now my CV says I served alcohol to over 3,000 people, restocked drinks, washed glasses, operated the cash register, and set up and packed down the bar area.
4. Learn the local language and culture
A hostel is perfect for meeting new people.
Perfect for meeting new people that are not Australian.
Before volunteering, I didn’t realize how little exposure I had to Australian culture and language.
The hardest part of bartending was understanding the orders! With all the abbreviations and slang, my fellow team members took to translating for me.
Did you know “Sprite” is called lemonade in Australia?
Australian English can be a different language entirely.
Melbourne and Sydney are by far the two largest cities. But 99% of Australia is made up of small towns far away from cities. The event allowed me to get a feel for smaller Victorian towns I otherwise would have never visited.
What’s the atmosphere of the only bar in a small countryside town?
5. You have no idea
Seriously. You have no idea what volunteering abroad will lead to.
Jess, the Bar team leader, first biked the event 17 years ago. The event she met her husband Michael.
I had no expectation to ride a bike during the 9 days.
My tent buddy Fred, a riding volunteer, rode each day then worked a half shift in the afternoon for a reduced event price.
After complaining about hostel life maybe one too many times, Fred also offered for me to stay in the extra bedroom at his parents’ house.
I ended up staying for 1.5 weeks. His family was gracious welcoming me into their home. I ate delicious dinners, started to process what happens in a cricket match, and went to an Australian 21st!
And Fred inspired the bike tour around Tasmania! He briefly mentioned it as an option he explored before. And after confirming I can rent all the equipment once I got there, I booked a flight for a few days later. (Fred can pretty much ask for whatever he wants and I’ll say yes)
I also met JP on the Great Vic. We sat at the same breakfast table and struck up a conversation about apartments as I was looking for places in Melbourne. We exchanged contact details.
Two days after returning from the ride, she texted me asking “Do you want to work at the Australian Open?”
Her niece, Jacinta, was hiring for guest services roles. I had a phone interview that same day. And I got the job!
An event of this scale exposes you to a ton of possible connections. It’s impossible to say where they will lead you.
The volunteer trip set my next two months in motion. I never imagined the opportunities and experiences that I received from volunteering.
How will volunteering abroad change your life?