This past year I had the pleasure of buying a one-way flight to a country I’d never before visited. I hadn’t booked any shelter, didn’t know a soul where I was going (except for my also-American boyfriend, Cody), and was dedicated to the notion of ‘winging it’ in the purest sense. As terrifying as it was to take such a risk and snub my general life security, I couldn’t resist the oh-so-Indiana-Jones-esque charms of adventure (cue theme song). It was a clammy-palms, stomach-clenching, tingly rush that I can only compare to that moment right before the big drop on a roller coaster ride— especially since, in my case, it was soon followed by the exuberance that flows through you when you realize you’ve survived. It was an explosion of feeling, an exhilarating reminder that I was alive.
The ticket bought my passage to Australia, and set in motion a fantasy I’d dwelled on for over three years, one that had begun solely as a rainy day daydream. I first learned about Australia’s Working Holiday Visa from a girl working behind the counter of an Australian cafe on Manhattan’s famous St. Mark’s Place, Tuck Shop. She’d just arrived back from her trip and was bursting with tales to tell. I’d always imagined myself living abroad after I finished college and as she explained how easy it was to apply for the visa, I thought that it was a cool opportunity, but nothing more. I was only a sophomore in college and the real world seemed far, far away. Now, the three years since feel like nothing. One moment I was nervously spell-checking my first journalism essay and the next I was sitting at NYU’s graduation ceremony in Yankee Stadium, my purple robe sticking to me in the heat and my dirty Converses propped up on the metal bar in front of me because I was too cool to be there. And all that time Australia was floating patiently in my mind.
I spent the summer before my senior year of college all the way through my first seven months in the real world working to save money for the trip. In the beginning I hadn’t realized what it was just yet, but the feeling, the one that I wanted to do something crazy before I dove headlong into my post-college career, kept growing stronger. It honed in on Australia the summer after I graduated, and soon my plans took on a more solid shape in my mind.
I’ll never forget the chill in my fingertips as they hovered over the yellow “CONFIRM” button on Expedia. Or the warmth that flowed through me after I clicked it— that soft, bubbly, comforting knowledge (one so coveted by recent college graduates facing the unknown) that I was finally doing something for myself (and not my parents, professors, or employers) and I couldn't back down. I said to myself, like my mom the first time she saw my tattoo, “What's done is done”— without the disappointed overtones, of course. Over the next few months, Cody and I attempted to prepare for, well, we didn’t really know what.
We each stuffed two suitcases with jackets, swim suits, hiking boots, antihistamines, electronics, and an old tent we had bought for a music festival a few years back. He brought an entire suitcase dedicated to shoes, and I couldn’t bear to leave behind any of my heavy camera equipment. It was overkill, we knew that, but we were unsure and afraid of leaving something important behind.
It turned out that the cheapest way to fly to Australia was through Fiji, and we ended up taking a four-day layover there. Tragic, I know. On the initial eleven-hour flight to Nadi, I asked Cody if he knew anyone that had ever been to Fiji. I didn’t. When he told me he didn’t either, the trip felt even more surreal. How, in this twenty-first century, globalized world, did we not know a soul that had been to Fiji, not know a thing about it? We had no expectations; we were so focused on Australia, we hadn’t looked up anything about the islands beforehand. When we landed and the muggy heat soaked into our skin, I could feel nothing but excitement. Anything could be ahead of us — we had no schedule, no rules. Just four days in paradise. And, to make a long story short, that’s exactly what it was.
Our stay in Australia officially began the moment the Melbourne International Airport customs official stamped our passports, his glazed expression the opposite of the feverish enthusiasm in my wide eyes. The black smudge of ink read 25 Jan 2014, and it meant we had to leave the country in exactly one year or risk deportation. Our first destination was Gold Coast, Queensland, another flight away. We’d chosen to start in Gold Coast based off of a single Google Images search. (FYI, not the best way to pick out your future home.) The beaches had white sand and crystal blue water, and after living in New York for five years, that did it for me. But Gold Coast was, to put it bluntly, a little trashy.
We lasted a week in club-coated, party-oriented Surfer’s Paradise before diving into something completely different: a spontaneous, month-long, cross-country camper van road trip. Our only guide was my Kindle copy of Lonely Planet: Australia and the recommendations of those we met along the way. We would pick a place a few hours’ drive away, stay a few days, and then as we packed up our stuff and checked out of the holiday park, I would pull up my Kindle and scan until I found somewhere else that sounded interesting. We never booked a place to stay more than a day ahead of time, and mostly ended up calling for accommodation the afternoon we arrived.
That month was an adventure that I couldn’t compare to any other life experiences. We explored caves where bushrangers hid in the late 1800s outside Bathurst, watched millions of bats migrate over Port Macquarie at sunset while we ate the best fish and chips of our lives, stayed up past sunrise in Sydney bar-hopping in the alternative (read: gays and punks) district, played with kangaroos and saw wild koalas at Kenneth River, and took The Great Ocean Road all the way to edge of Victoria, where we wandered around in rainforests with ferns as large as SUVs and tree trunks as wide as a highway lane.
There were hiccups, of course. During the first week of our trip, our original camper van broke down on the side of the highway. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere and towed to the nearest town, a tiny, eerily quiet place named Woolgoolga (pronounced Wuh-GAL-gah). We spent two nights in an auto shop parking lot without running water or electricity. We showered down at the public restrooms on the seaweed strewn, empty beach and spent our days drinking at the lone local pub, which had a bouncy castle to keep the kids entertained while their parents got plastered. None of it was too bad though— just a detour on a loose travel plan.
Within the first two months, we’d lost a laptop, a smartphone, and a wallet (including all the identification documents and credit cards inside). The latter two items were victims of a tragic canoeing accident outside Newcastle— we floundered around for over an hour trying to fish them out of the brown-black, brackish waters of the Hunter Valley Wetlands, which an employee of the park merrily informed us— from the shore— was infested with poisonous snakes and bull sharks. We had to adapt after that. Things broke, shit got stressful, but you couldn’t let it ruin your experience.
When we finally settled down, it was in one of the places we’d visited: Newcastle, New South Wales. It’s a medium-sized city two hours north of Sydney, with a population close to Miami. It’s the kind of place where the people are proud to be from there, and they’ve renamed themselves “Novocastrians” just for the Hell of it. Some call it a “hidden gem,” mostly because nobody has ever heard of the gritty, ex-industrial wasteland turned surfer heaven, complete with abandoned housing developments turned hipster coffee bars and six, count ‘em, six postcard-esque beaches. It’s still the largest coal exporter in Australia, creating a strange mixed paradise. One of the main attractions downtown is a wharf lined with luxury apartments, overpriced bars, and contemporary-statue spotted parks. The view across the water is of four-story piles of coal and the rusty metal dinosaurs lifting it and pouring it into the beds of massive international carrier ships.
It was in Newcastle that I met two of the most generous, important and genuinely open-minded people that would shape my experience in Australia: Debra and Geoff Payne. When Cody and I decided to move to Newy, we stayed at this couple’s Airbnb. They showed us around town and when we were unable to find an apartment before our time with them was up, Debra’s cousin, Yvonne, allowed us to housesit for her for two weeks. It gave us exactly the time we needed to find a home and the jobs to pay for it. While I don’t doubt we would have found a way to get it together, those two weeks gave us a much-needed boost and showed us how kind people could be.
During our time in Newy, we became tight with a close-knit group of Australians our age that were living a completely different lifestyle than our American counterparts. They were the ones that convinced us to join them on a semi-indefinite backpacking trip across Southeast Asia. They’d been doing these same kinds of trips every six to eight months for the past couple years. They never made concrete travel plans, just floated from country to country, exploring until their cash ran out. The minimum wage in Australia is $18.50, but most jobs pay at least $22 an hour, and the standard of living in most places is about the same as it is in medium-sized cities in the USA. So it isn't difficult to save a ton of money for travel (it's actually pretty easy if you budget). So Cody and I began saving again, this time for a different type of adventure; the kind where it would just continue until it couldn’t anymore.
I cannot stress how accomplished I felt every time I came home to my apartment in Newcastle and saw all my secondhand furniture and cooked myself another helping of fried rice. How genuinely good it felt to hang out with new friends, to try to learn to surf, and to ride my bike to work every day. How special it was being able to explore a new city and a new culture at the same time. We lived in Newcastle from April to December, when an unexpected family emergency brought us back to the USA to spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family.
At the risk of sounding completely cliche, I have to mention the three most important lessons I’ve learned in the past year. The first is that everything will work out. Whatever happens, you figure out your next step and move forward. There are just some things you can’t control when you travel, and there’s no point to fretting over them. The second is that there are good people everywhere and if you are genuinely kind to others, that kindness will be returned time and time again. The third is to pack light. Lugging two heavy suitcases of clothing, electronics, etc is stressful and not-fun in every way. Take less, need less.
With that being said, welcome to the adventure!