Backpackers return the kindness

Cedric Michel (main) joins fellow stranded traveller Martin, from Argentina, and Torquay's Brooke Muprhy renovating a caravan for Feed Me Surf Coast. (Rebecca Hosking) 213871_02

Backpackers stranded on the Surf Coast and in Geelong are turning their talents to feeding the hungry to repay the generosity of locals.

One of the international volunteers, Cedric Michel, spoke to Luke Voogt about his journey to the Surf Coast, which he soon discovered was “exactly where I’m supposed to be”.


Cedric Michel is one of several stranded backpackers and seasonal workers repaying the generosity of locals – with interest – at Feed Me Surf Coast.

A chef by trade, Cedric jumped at the chance to renovate a caravan into a food truck for those in need.

“I really loved the idea of the project, I’m like, ‘I’m in!’” he told the Independent.

“I get free food and accommodation. It was a good outcome; I was helped by people and now I’m part of an organisation that’s helping others.

“I’m spending basically all of my days in the Feed Me Surf Coast warehouse where I’m working on this project.”

After migrating from India to France with his older brother several years ago, Cedric began saving for a working holiday to New Zealand and Australia by working as a chef in an Italian restaurant.

He was doing his mandatory farm work in Bundaberg earlier this year when coronavirus was still mostly confined to Wuhan.

But his trip turned upside when he moved to Melbourne to begin work as a chef, just before the city went into its first stage 3 lockdown.

The lockdown decimated the industry and Cedric’s savings dwindled as he stayed in a Melbourne hostel.

“I tried to find a job in cleaning or labouring,” he said.

“I couldn’t find anything.”

At a friend’s suggestion he found a job as a chef at Mount Buller, but Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 hit just weeks after he arrived at the ski resort.

“They shut the lifts and all the restaurants, markets and shops,” he said.

“It was all of a sudden. I was maybe a bit too optimistic at the time.

“I had two days to leave the accommodation. In those two days I was trying to figure out what I was going to do.”

A friendly couple helped him out and later put him in touch with Marissa Mahon, who owns Freshwater Creek Cottages farmstay.

With no credit on his phone and very little money, he hitched a ride to Mansfield with a baker and took a train to Waurn Ponds.

“It was quite an adventure just to get out of the mountain and to the Surf Coast,” he said.

“I was basically at the end of my savings when I [worked] out my plan for the mountain and I couldn’t really save money on the mountain, because rent was expensive.”

Marissa picked him up and he is now staying with seven other backpackers at the farmstay.

“In exchange we work maybe eight hours a week at the farm,” he said.

He also has joined other backpackers volunteering for Feed Me Surf Coast, a smaller offshoot of its namesake charity on the Bellarine Peninsula.

Several dozen locals and Torquay Lions Club also support the group.

The organisation delivers hundreds of meals and supplies weekly to the elderly, disabled, international students and anyone struggling to put food on the table.

“I know what it’s like. I’ve been through hardship myself,” Cedric said.

“I was in a very bad situation and people helped me, and I ended up in a place where I can help other people in return.”

The self-described Jack of all trades is used to picking up odd jobs to fund his travels. So fixing up the caravan was a natural fit for his talents.

“I’m smart enough to [learn] what to do, even if I don’t know what to do.”

Cedric plans to keep volunteering, rather than spending several thousands of dollars on a flight to France and burdening his older brother, a student and his only family in the country, with the cost.

“I didn’t choose my vocation to work in a big restaurant and cook for rich people,” he said.

“I wanted to become a chef because I wanted to feed people who need it.

“I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, it all makes sense now.”

Cedric is one of nine backpackers restoring the food truck and fitting out Feed Me Surf Coast’s Torquay warehouse, according to coordinator Brooke Murphy.

“For me as a mother-of-three, these young international visitors have taught us the very lessons in life we hope to teach our children,” she said.

“Through them we have witnessed the core of remarkable humanitarians.”

Despite the loss of employment and accommodation, cancelled flights, isolation from their countries and families, and no government assistance, the backpacker volunteers were thriving, Brooke said.

“It’s been remarkable to think that the very people we started off helping are now offloading [semi-trailers] into our cool room for tomorrow’s deliveries. It’s pretty cool watching hardship turn into purpose.”