Here in Tathra it’s wild, woolly and rugged. The southern tip of the Pacific Ocean envelops the town and it feels alien compared to the desert landscapes where this journey started.
Reflecting on the last six months before I’m back Melbourne is a privilege. From other periods away, I’m fully aware of the jolting thud that goes with an abundance of familiarity when there is a return to old story-lines. In the past, journey’s end is marked by a frenzy of activity and/or outright emotional exhaustion.
Sitting in this place of calm, I’m completely aware that I drew the golden ticket for 2020. This year has been a horrible year for so many people. Families left completely bereft, dreams shattered and heartache in abundance. In an international context, I’ve won the global lottery. Reaching the second half of December not having to wear a facemask glibly captures it all.
Being in the right part, of the right country, at the right time has opened the door for so much exploration. It’s stirred an ability to be way more creative than I have before, to better understand my own country and to experience very needed personal challenges.
Returning to a city that endured a 5-kilometre movement radius and an 8PM curfew will bring this home even further.
On the road, nature has often been the catalyst for new ideas. As a gift from this adventure, I’m left with a completely different feel for the distinct personality and history of the Australian environment. Some of my really special moments of this trip have involved switching off my phone, pitching my tent and being at the beck and call of nature. This was a type of raw connection I hadn’t experienced before 2020.
Over the last six months I’ve travelled through desert, woodlands, rainforest, mountain ranges, roaring coasts, savannah, and the lush tropics. There has been so much to take in but it many ways it’s been easier to absorb the diverse landscapes, than the patchwork of communities scattered across the continent.
To use that awful expression, moving from place to place has sometimes had the effect of making this time more about the ‘journey’ than the destination. It’s one of the reasons why I have enjoyed every opportunity to stop anywhere for a week or longer.
A very common question that has come many times already and I expect to hear again is: ‘what were your favourite places?’ I find it easy enough to answer: Broken Hill, Bellingen, Alice Springs and Cairns. The four longest stays. But my favouritism stretches beyond the duration.
In each of these places, nature plays a defining role and locals are also acutely aware of the role the environment plays in shaping their lives. Just ask anyone in Bellingen at the moment as the city faces extreme flooding. This connection with the elements is really special but that’s also not the reason why they make the favourites list.
I enjoyed those places the most because I came to know them best. Whether it was Broken Hill and the wonderful openness of locals, Bellingen and my routine of markets and yoga, Alice Springs’ incredible swing dancing community or just hanging out with my oldest friend in breezy Cairns – these towns now hold an extra special place in my heart. But I really want to focus on the first three.
In Broken Hill, my experiences podcasting could have ventured in a completely different direction if locals hadn’t been so prepared to share personal stories on such an intimate level to this stranger from Melbourne. People were absurdly generous with their time and what they were willing to talk about on an unestablished podcast. It completely blew away my stereotypes of the gruff and closed-off approach of desert dwellers and Australians in general.
When I was in Bellingen, I was touched by the gentleness of residents. This was a place, that has developed a natural weariness of rich out-of-towners seeking paradise in their mountain kingdom. I found that the more I could get ‘Melbourne’ out of my system, the more I just slowed down, played music and watched the birds – the warmer everything and everyone became. The value that locals placed on creating time for others felt very earnest.
As for Alice Springs. That city came out like a bolt from the blue. By the end of my time on a rain-affected odyssey along the Oodnadatta Track in a Corolla, I was expecting a quiet week. That all changed when I stumbled across a swing dancing dinner which I cheekily crashed. Here was a barely public event, where I found the backdoor online and rocked up completely uninvited. Instead of being met by suspicion or protectiveness, I was welcomed with open arms. The fact I was just passing through didn’t influence the inclusivity and it continued throughout my fortnight there. It was absurdly hard leaving Alice Springs amongst the best sort of company and individuals.
While we express it in different forms, people have an incredible capacity for kindness. In my favourite places, I found that kindness was at its greatest. These were the places where I extended my time and would love to experience over again.
This circuit of Australia has been a powerful reminder to go the extra mile in making people feel at home. It makes all the difference for the outsider in determining whether somewhere just blurs into background or stands-out from the environment around it.
We can’t do much to shift and shape the cultures, routines and traditions that root themselves in daily life, but we have so much capacity to create our own.
My lucky six months have been made all the better when people have thought beyond themselves and the complacency of ‘community’. They have been a celebration of people who look over the landscape, from within the busyness of their own life and treat strangers with affection.
Let’s hope 2021 brings a lot more of it, for everyone!