It was early December when I arrived in Vienna. The snow had completely blanketed all of Austria at this point which was a welcomed sight, reminding me that it would be soon time to return home to a Canadian Christmas. It was towards the end of my trip and money was getting thin. I had heard from another backpacker of a website called helpx. It offered a database of people who were looking for help and those willing to lend it, in exchange for accommodation instead of money. I signed up and began looking for work. There’s a massive array of jobs people want done. House sitting, farming, child care, pet walking, it’s all there. But when I found a lady in northern Austria looking for someone to help with her prize-winning racing camels in the snowy alps I knew I had found my helpx calling.
After a few back and forth emails it was locked in. She was returning from Asia in two days and then I was to head straight there. While waiting at a hostel in Vienna by myself, I was chatting to Tash. A friend from Australia. She was in Italy, also by herself. I mentioned to her that I was about to start working on camel farm to which she commented “no f#cking way”! Within 10 minutes she had booked the flight to Vienna and was there the next day. Luckily Gurda, the camel lady, was cool with it.
We arrived in the town of Melk from the train and Gurda was at the station to pick us up. She was an elderly woman with thick glasses and long, thick grey hair. I suppose eccentric would be the best way to describe her.
We piled into the car and headed to camel land. The farm was a 20 or so minute drive up into the hills. The scenery was gorgeous. Once we arrived, we found where we would be sleeping. The house was extremely old, wasn’t heated very well and had a little blind shiatsu running around in it. Gurdas nearly 100-year-old mother also lived in the house. We were instructed to only go up the stairs and into our room. The rest of the building was off limits.
We dumped our bags and followed Gurda for a tour of the grounds. We soon discovered that it wasn’t just a camel farm. Camels were only a side project and the real business was an elastic factory. Where they made things like suspenders and other random stretchy things. We were shown the kitchen where we would be making our own meals. The kitchen was seperate to where we were staying. It was in the house where Gurda and her husband lived and was the home to the most uncool cat in Europe I’m sure. I’m sorry to offend cat people but I’m not a fan of cats to begin but this feline was an asshole. Every time tash and I cooked and ate he would be crawling on the table and over our food and would constantly spray. Making the kitchen a nighmare. yuuuuck. The final thing we found out on the tour was that the toilets where outside. Running 100m to a cold, outdoor toilet in the morning was a pain.
Worked started the next morning at 6am. It was pitch black and the temperatures dropped in the negatives over night. Our duties were to take the 8-10 camels, the horses, and ponies which there were another 8 or so, out of their stalls and then clean inside. If you’ve ever been on a farm you know that a horse doesn’t mind taking a shit or 20 a day.Turns out, camels love to take a shit even more. I won’t bore you with the details of the manure we shovelled up but I will tell you that there was a lot.
After the doo doo was shoveled up and wheel barreled away we then would supply the nice animals with fresh water and break out the pitch forks out to feed em some hay. I still remember the way the camels ate. They inhaled the hay shifting their jaws side to side as they munched down causing a sound similar to the echo that goes through your head if you accidentally eat something sandy.
That was our morning routine. It took about 3 hours at the start but we progressively became quicker. After that the day was ours until around 4pm when we would again feed and water the animals plus feed the ostriches. Sorry, forgot to mention there were also ostriches on this whacked out farm. To finish the night duties we would have to go into the Blair Witch style basement to where there was, no joke, hundreds of pounds of turnips. We would use a creepy beheading like blade to cut them into cubes to feed the reindeer that would climb down the mountain at night for a tasty turnip feed.
After the first morning of work Tash and I decided we’d explore the mass acres of land they had. It had just dumped a proper load of snow the night previous and Tash, being from Oz was pretty excited to check it out. We marched up the hills and played in the snow like we were 8 year olds. The landscape was filled with wildlife, hunting cabins, and steams. The strangest thing we found a massive fallen tree that had been carved into a crocodile. So strange.
After hours of wandering around the woods we headed back to the house. On the way back there was a small creek that we had to cross to get home. I’m not sure if Tash dared me or I bet her but I ended up deciding I would run across the creek to the other side. However I “DID NOT MAKE IT“.
Once I did finally manage to get to the other side we hurried back to the house. Face spilling with blood, I didn’t care because I had actually never been more cold in my life. It was only 300m or so back and I instantly got in the shower to warm up. In honesty I really did believe I had a shot at making it across that creek. I blame the boots that were 4 sizes to big for my feet.
The next few days became routine with us being up at 6, working, exploring and working again. One night we were invited to join the familys Austrian style Christmas dinner. That was an experience. We gathered with the family of around 8 to taste some interesting food and chat about Austrian Christmas Traditions. Austrians believe as children if you aren’t good, not only do you not receive gifts but demons are going to terrorize you. Tough childhood. Toward the end of the evening the antic sewing machine was pulled out and Tash and I wittnesed Gurdas mom hand knit a scarf.
After dinner we headed out to check the Christmas parade. With a cup of hot wine we watched as hordes of people dressed as demons, blared heavy metal music and breathed fire while marching down the main streets. At the end of parade jolly St. Nick appeared and the people cheered. It was by far the strangest Christmas tradition I have seen or heard of to this day.
Our time was soon running out at the crazy camel farm. We had been there for around 8 or so days now and Tash was leaving the next day. Gurda told us she had one more surprise to show. After dinner we were told to meet in the dining room for her. Tash and I wandered into the dining room. It was filled with taxidermic animals on the walls. There were muskrats and squirrels and foxes and pheasants all stuffed and hung on the walls. Standard dining room really.
After a short wait Gurda entered the room. Around her neck was a 6 inch thick, 8 foot long python. I was mortified. I’m not iffy about many things but snakes are defiantly one. Tash… not so much. She was in there like some kind of serpent queen getting magazine cover quality shots with the beast. I eventually did suck it up and put the snake over my shoulders. Turned out to not be all that bad. Weirdly, you discover your inner model instincts with a giant, scaly, sexy snake around you.
Soon after Tash left it was my turn to leave. I was defiantly ready to head back home and enjoy a less exotic pace of life. I left with a pair of hand knitted wool socks, a scar on my face, some really great photos and experience unlike anything I’d ever had before.