Moving from project to project in Outback Australia, Leanne Morris reckons she’s living the FIFO (fly-in fly-out) lifestyle of many fortune-seeking Kiwis’ dreams.
Currently based in the Pilbara – a thinly populated, perpetually sun-beaten land of red-hued gorges, scrubland and desert roughly twice the size of the UK – Leanne, who grew up in West Auckland, earns six figures working in safety and admin on a new transmission line.
One of about 11 Kiwis onsite (and one of just two women), she lives and works alongside “the hardiest of the hardmen. They are up and down transmission towers, lifting steel and slogging their guts out; sweating, swearing and swiping at flies.”
While the work leaves her so exhausted she can’t face speaking to anyone for the first three days of her week off a month, she says it offers her, and the other New Zealanders she works with, a far better standard of living than they could have at home.
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“I have worked in the most remote locations in Australia and… you can be assured that in the smallest, driest, most inhospitable towns, you can find numerous New Zealanders… [Living in New Zealand] is no longer viable for me or any of the men I work with….”
But as much as she misses her homeland, she’s quite happy to remain in Australia for the forseeable future.
Staying in work camps for most of the month enables her to save much more than she used to “as there is nothing to spend money on”, the rent on the Perth apartment she spends her weeks off in is “meagre” compared to Auckland prices and she has come to love the rugged, remote regions she is posted to.
Since arriving in Australia, she’s earned her snake-handling certificate, learnt to cook freshly shot kangaroo and emu, acquired a taste for honey ants – “the lollies of the bush” – tamed bearded dragons by feeding them crickets and learnt the hard way that a kangaroo’s pouch is “extremely oily” inside with a “very long nipple – six inches at least.”
As a typical westie, Leanne says she had little trouble adapting to outback life. Working in remote western Queensland on a previous assignment, she says the toughest things to get used to were “daily necessities like learning to euthanise kangaroos that you hit at dusk and dawn travelling to work. I prefer not to kill animals but it’s a hundred times worse to leave them to suffer.”
Leanne jumped the ditch in 2013 after a run of bad luck on the work front. Fired from a job at one construction company for using “a remote-control fart machine at an inopportune time” (the official reason supplied) and losing another role when her employer went into liquidation, she found herself on the benefit for six weeks.
When a “spotty-faced teenager” at a job-seeking seminar told her she needed to look an employer in the eye and shake his or her hand to get a job, she was insulted enough to emigrate.
“I wanted to smack him. So that was it for me. I decided to cut my losses, sell up, rehome my animals (the hardest part) and move to Australia. I have never looked back.”
Arriving in Brisbane, Leanne quickly found a job with a large Queensland construction construction company and, while it was her first FIFO role – which see workers flown into remote areas on temporary assignments – she took to it like a fish to water. Or, more aptly given her new surrounds – like a joey fresh from his mother’s pouch to the outback.
When the company asked her to temp for a year after losing a few contracts, however, she ignored well-meaning advice from friends in taking on a role in Alice Springs.
“Everyone warned me about Alice Springs and how rough it was, but I paid no heed and absolutely loved it… It is wild, rugged, remote and crazy beautiful in places.”
An animal lover and keen wildlife photographer, Leanne enjoyed getting to know the local fauna. She’s watched wedge-tailed eagles (Australia’s largest bird of prey) feast on roadkill outside her office, dragged dead roos off the road and taken them to work “to entice the birds to my doorstep” and fed crickets to bearded dragon lizards “to tame them”.
When her contract ended, her employer transferred her to Western Australia, where it was building a power station for a new goldmine. An eight-hour drive from Kalgoorlie or three-hour flight from Perth, the work camp was even more remote than the previous one.
A standout experience on this assignment was celebrating NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) week, which celebrates the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with indigenous locals, who taught Leanne and her workmates about traditional bush tucker.
“They shot emus and kangaroos for us and taught us how to prepare them for cooking. I smelled the kangaroo from 50 metres away so chose to help with the emu, which was very easy to pluck.”
The locals also taught them how to find witchetty grubs and honey ants and, while Leanne couldn’t bring herself to try the “fat and wriggly grubs”, she ate couldn’t get enough of the honey ants.
“They are delicious! Their fat brown abdomens are filled with a honey-like liquid that bursts as soon as your tongue touches them. They are the lollies of the bush.”
Meeting her current partner, a Kiwi medic, at work, Leanne turned down a subsequent contract in Melbourne so she could stay close(ish) to Perth. The couple now work at different sites, their very different schedules allowing them to spend about six days a month together. The relationship works, she says, because they both understand the unique demands of FIFO work.
“I know plenty of relationships that break up because it tends to be the women left at home with the 24/7 child care. When the men get home, they want to relax for a bit and mum’s want help. It’s hard if you have young children and I do not recommend it if you do.”
Leanne, though, has come to enjoy FIFO life so much she can’t see herself giving it up any time soon.
Earning far more than she says she ever could in New Zealand, she pays $320 a week to rent a fully furnished brand new apartment with city views in Perth – although she does only get to make use of it for seven days a month.
“Should I wish to live further out of the city (say 45 minutes) I could rent a brand new four-bedroom, two-bathroom house… for around $380 per week. There are brand new properties for even less than that. Sea views in Perth are not just for the wealthy.”
Living costs, meanwhile, are “cheap” – her electricity bill comes to about $50 a month.
While some of the camps she has worked at have been “filthy” and served meals that made her sick each night, her current one is “decent”. She has a double room rather than the usual single and there is a French chef on site – although he is too heavy handed with the dried herbs for her liking. A keen cook, Leanne hates not being able to prepare her own food, saying camp meals are often designed with the taste buds of men with bland tastes in mind – think meat, veg and “stodgy deserts”.
Fortunately, there are so many Kiwis in the area a supermarket in a nearby town stocks Maketu pies, minced paua and kina.
As a woman, she needs a thick skin to survive at the camps with sanity intact, she says, but the multi-cultural groups – often composed of Filipinos, Indians, English and Irish as well as Antipodeans – tend to get on well.
“You bond more when you live and work together and I think it is a great benefit to getting the job done on time because you are more of a team. All sorts of ethnic minorities and religions are out here. I love it.”
Leanne says she has got used to the long days but admits they take their toll. When fly-out day finally rolls around, she needs to take “the first day or two to [herself] to just lay on the couch to watch movies and documentaries and think about nothing”. Once she feels herself again though, she enjoys having the time to go away without taking annual leave, baking, cooking and enjoying a bottle or two of New Zealand sav with her partner.
Western Australia is crying out for blue-collar workers, she says – and she feels Kiwis are particularly well suited.
“We are extremely adventurous and adaptable and a tiny bit crazy. We go where the work is and are tough and open to change.”
While the industry is very male-dominated, Leanne has found that women tend to thrive “as we are all strong and independent”.
While there is much she misses about New Zealand – including the pies, smoked fish, Orongo Bay oysters and even the “rain for days” – she feels she has been priced out of the country.
“Owning a home seems achievable over here and renting a home is cheap. New Zealand cannot support the lifestyle and experience I have gained in Australia now.. I guess enough time has passed that I wouldn’t have to mention the fart machine incident to get a job though.”
Have you ever lived or worked in the Australian Outback? What was life like? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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