The Long Road
When I was 18 I went to Australia, fresh out of college with a bad haircut and no idea what I would do in life. I didn’t even know what I was going to do in Australia, let alone in life.
But I did know I was off on a gap year. A gap year with my best mate, booked on the spur of the moment. Quite literally; we reserved our flights on the way home from the beach one day that summer. I had a ticket to Darwin and Cairns in my hand, and then who knows where. A GAP YEAR. A whole year away from the parents. On the other side of the world. On an adventure.
It lasted five months. We both ran out of money by the time we reached Sydney and only just made it to Melbourne. There were wobbles along the way. Being faced with your dirty laundry for the first time and your own meals to cook and realising you’re the furthest away from home you’ve ever been tends to freak-out an 18 year old, regardless of any previous experience. And then it dawns on you that you do, actually, have to decide what to do with the rest of your life.
We fell out too, of course. We’re as close as ever today, but this was that age when you realise you’ll go through life with friends, and not just a best one.
It was also the first time I discovered that organised tours are a bit crap really, aren’t they? If I was presented with yet another bloody waterfall on the Oz Bus I would have gone home there and then, long before Melbourne, mate.
But it was an adventure. And it started a passion that’s still there today. There were plenty of gap year good times: Learning to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. Cracking open a fresh coconut on the beach with nothing but a rock and some willpower; tasting that delicious coconut water and sharing the pristine-white flesh with new friends. Walking around Uluru at dawn. Watching green turtles nesting on the beach. Waking up on the beach after a night out (a different one). Visiting Steve Irwin’s zoo and coming face to face with a croc so big we swore it was plastic; until it blinked and its jaws snapped shut. Learning to surf in Byron Bay. Surviving a hedonistic festival at Surfers Paradise. Deciding it was all about the music, man. Seeing the Sydney Opera house by boat. Meeting Skippy (sort of). Sheering a sheep. Shooting a shotgun and learning to throw a lasso. Sleeping under the stars on a ranch. Throwing another shrimp on the barbie (not true). Having to wait weeks before you could see any of the photographs you’ve taken (true). Eagerly pulling out the glossy six-by-fours from their envelope to discover only half of the thirty-six were passable. At best. And some of those had fingers over the frame. Remember film? Film. Imagine that.
But that was then, and this is now. And that was ‘only’ five months.
So how have I been able to travel for a year and counting to pursue my passion for photography, today? Many have asked. I can’t help thinking they’ll be disappointed.
There’s no big secret. No golden ticket. The answer is simple. It’s about priorities. If your priority is to travel, you’ll travel. If your priority is to become a great photographer, you’ll take thousands of photographs until you get there. If you tell yourself you can’t because… well, then you already know what the outcome is.
Friends of mine left London to travel the world recently, too. They took their four-year-old daughter with them. And a newborn baby boy. To Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka. Then on to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bali, Sydney, Chile, and Mexico. They’re currently in Cuba. They have a house and jobs and a mortgage back home. And bloody hell, that’s scary. But still they went. They even got married just before they left.
Of course, I know it sounds like a cop-out to say you can if you want to. But I’ve given it a great deal of thought this past year. And I really believe it’s true.
For the sake of argument though, let’s discuss the practical stuff too.
After my gap year I took an Art Foundation course. Discovered I quite liked graphic design. Went to uni, had fun, worked hard. Graduated with a First Class. Found myself a brilliant job (thanks G, B and H). Worked HARD. Built myself a strong portfolio. Flew the coop to do my own thing. Setup something of my own. Worked with lots of new people. Did a few test trips to far flung places along the way. Kept saving those pennies. Made big plans. Became obsessed with taking photographs. Aligned my priorities. Saved many more pennies. Found a friend who had similar priorities. Made plans together. Put the business on hold. Bought a ticket to AMERICA.
It does take money of course, like most things in life. And so I worked for that money. Instead of spending it, I saved it.
I appreciate not everyone has the same opportunities as me, and there are circumstances that are sometimes beyond the control of anyone. Some don’t have steady jobs to put away those savings, or the money to spare. But some of those people too, are out there on the road. They found a way. And I’ve met several of them on my own journey.
You can travel on the slightest budget if your goal is to see the world. You just have to make sacrifices. Some people hitch-hike and camp. Some volunteer or workaway. Some swap hotels for hostels. Others forgo eating out for cheap eats. And then there are those who trade homes for trucks and make intercontinental road trips their everyday reality.
Back home, before I left, I packed my lunch instead of financing Pret. Made my own coffee over buying up Starbucks. Had friends for dinner instead of drinks at the pub with a three-course meal. I sought out stuff that didn’t cost me a penny; a free exhibition, an open event. Or very little for a big return; time with friends and family, on the coast, in the countryside, around the city. Sometimes you find you’ve already made an investment that offers endless entertainment. At not a penny more. Like digital photography.
There are those who expect an Instagram influencer experience; luxury at every step of the way. One exotic destination after another, a tailored experience for two or the solo jet-setter. It’s not real. Think of the hours that go into just one of those posts. How do you have time to really experience a place if every destination is a staged photo shoot? A carefully curated set. Meticulously placed products. Hair and makeup, with wardrobe on standby.
It’s a job. A job with bloody good perks, don’t get me wrong. But the job is to maintain the illusion.
Some simply have the money of course, and some have the contacts. But travel isn’t an extended all-expenses-paid holiday. And it isn’t always glamorous. Often it’s incredibly far from it.
There are those too, who buy the new car, pay for a fairytale wedding, set about curating their perfect home, eat only the very best. And then wonder where all that money went.
Managing that money is the biggest hurdle for long-term travel. First, in saving it. Second, in how you spend it while you’re away. Planning your trip meticulously makes all the difference. From credit cards with the best overseas rates, to the cost of living at different destinations, it’s an essential step to give you both your daily budget and long-term plan.
Keeping close tabs on that budget and understanding where your money goes each and every day reaps rewards. I've been able to take a year’s sabbatical and not only spend 12 months on the road, but surpass it. You can’t just save a pile of cash and blindly spend! spend! spend! until it runs out. Or you’ll end up coming home from a gap year several months too soon.
With a little compromise, carefully balanced funds and some thorough planning, I’ve been able to travel right across The Americas. And I’ve celebrated two consecutive birthdays on the road while doing it. If you’re sitting there reading this, thinking I wish I could do that: You can.
If you really want to.
All these years after my trip to Australia and I still struggle with the planning and management of long-term travel. I'm indebted to my friend and travelling companion, Katie, who opened my eyes to the benefits of a meticulous approach. And, well, for doing most of the hard work in getting us across 38 states, seven countries, four provinces, and two continents. This article wouldn't have happened without you, let alone the journey. Thank you.
Thank you too, to that wonderful family who only planned a little wander, and took on the world. For all your inspiration, moral support, and for ensuring I wasn't the only lunatic doing this.
And to Chris who had the bright idea of visiting Australia all those summers ago, kickstarting the adventures that led me here today. Good as gold, mate.
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