I often talk about destinations as if it were easy and comfortable to travel to offbeat places. Yet of course it’s not always like that.
So, in order to balance things out, I’ll share my first travel experience here.
When I left the UK, 14 years ago, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I fancied myself as an intrepid traveller — I imagined that I was brave, strong, and creative enough to have that adventure.
But when the time came to leave, I was nervous and apprehensive.
Yet I knew I wasn’t going to turn around. I had to keep going, because I had created a mission and I told everybody what I was going to do. I had to at least get close — otherwise I’d be laughed at.
I think I created a really impossible-sounding mission for my first trip because I wanted to make sure I would stay away. If I’d said I was going to travel around Spain, maybe it would have been too close. It would have been easy for me to turn around.
But instead, I wanted to travel from England to Australia — without getting on a plane.
I said I’d go from Leeds, where I lived, to Melbourne, where my great auntie lived, without flying. People laughed at me. But the more they laughed at me and said it wasn’t possible, the more determined I was to do it.
I spent the first two months travelling across Europe.
And it took me at least those two months to find my feet — two months to figure out what it’s like to be travelling with a single bag, with your whole life in a backpack. Two months to figure out the flow of moving from place to place. Two months to figure out how to meet people, how to get the most out of a trip, how to get the most out of each destination.
I was inspired, believe it or not, by the actor Ewan McGregor.
In 2004, Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman filmed a trip they went on. The film is called The Long Way Round, and it shows how they attempted to motorcycle all the way from England, across Europe, Siberia, the Bering Strait, then across North America, to New York. They wanted to take their motorcycles all the way around.
That trip had such a profound impact on me that for three years afterwards I wanted to do my own overland adventure.
I definitely couldn’t ride a motorbike. I had no interest in them — but I did have a fascination with trains. I had a fascination with the writings of Paul Theroux, who travelled the world by train.
So the original idea started off with me thinking, “I’ll go around overland, by train, and since it’s Europe, I’ll go on the Trans-Siberian Railway.”
And then I found a blog of other people who were trying to do the same thing. This was back in 2006, when blogs were quite new things — and incredibly useful. People were writing home firsthand adventures and it was the only real contact they had with what was happening at home. This blog talked about the brilliance of Mongolia, how Cambodia was such a great country and about various other places.
So my original inspiration was a mix of Ewan McGregor, Paul Theroux taking his trains, and this random blog that I found when researching a trip.
It would eventually take me just short of 12 months to get from Leeds to Melbourne.
I went on the ferry to Amsterdam, then by train to Munich, then to Budapest. Then I travelled through parts of Eastern Europe, down to Albania, up to Ukraine, on to Russia. I took the train to Mongolia, then to China. I got on a boat to Korea, went to Japan, then back to China, then down through Southeast Asia, and eventually got to Kuala Lumpur.
When my overland mission ended, the only options available to me were a cheap plane ticket — or an expensive boat trip.
A budget airline had started flying from Kuala Lumpur to Australia. And I thought, “I’ve made it this far. So instead of getting an expensive boat ticket, just to continue the journey overland, I’m going to go by budget airline — it’s pretty much my only choice.”
Because I was running out of money at that time. The last two months in Australia, I barely had any money to travel through the country.
I was hopping between what were called “woofing stations”—which meant working on organic farms. I was working for food and a place to stay and then hopefully getting a ride further south, so I could continue the journey and make it to Melbourne — not only before my money ran out, but also before my credit card run out.
That was my first trip. I still can’t believe I managed to do it.
I think back on those first two months and realize I really didn’t have a clue to what I was doing. I was just going on blind faith.
And though sometimes now I may talk as if it were very easy to do trips in places that sound quite exotic, I know it’s not. It takes time to get used to a life of travelling. And it takes time travelling in different countries to appreciate the challenges and nuances, and how you overcome them.
But what does not take time is the love for travel.
Within two months of setting off, I knew I would not be able to go back to the life that I was supposed to have in the UK. I knew that as soon as I got home to the UK — when I still called it home — the first thing I would do would be save as much money as I could, so I could leave again.
Travel changed me profoundly — and I’m so happy it did.