A look into an easy way to make the most of your travels, get to amazing places, and meet interesting people.
“Drive down the highway, go on for a stretch and then turn off somewhere where you don’t see any cars and then go on a bit further. You’ll see the real Australia,” a publican in the Northern Territory.
It was a typical Friday at my language school. The end of the week involves a more casual approach to learning. Trips to libraries, museums, or perhaps a tour of the graffiti covered laneways around Melbourne. This particular afternoon we were planning to watch ‘Bad News Bears’, a classic American 1970s comedy with mixed morals and a drunk protagonist. Maybe on this day I felt kinship with Walter Matthau, minus the beer in hand.
Before the film started I was chatting with one of my graduating Japanese students. The typical interview that I have had literally hundreds, if not thousands of times. How was the class? What are you doing in the future? Did you like Melbourne? Australia?
My students response was fairly typical.
“I don’t like Australia, it’s boring.”
“Really,” I replied. Like a script from a bad TV series I knew her lines by heart.
There is nothing to do.
All the shops close too early.
It’s too expensive. (this is painfully true, to be fair)
I thought about giving her my typical line about getting out into nature and going camping but I spared her. It makes me feel like an old nagger. I’ve heard this all before and maybe in my near 5 years of teaching in Australia I have met only one or two students who have actually discovered what makes Australia so great.
As a publican in the NT told me over a cold lager, the greatness of this country lies in getting out of the cities and exploring what this unique continent has to offer. Melbourne is great, trendy, and full of amazing food. To say Sydney is gorgeous is as close to a universal travel truth a you can find. They are great places to live and work and explore, but these are two small places on a big continent.
For homework in my classes. I often try to get my students to ask questions to ordinary Australians on the trains, trams, or at the shops. Questions range from the fairly typical “How are you?” to a bit more targeted “What is the most beautiful/amazing/interesting thing you have seen in Australia?”
It’s understandable that these assignments can be daunting, tedious, and annoying, but the purpose behind them is twofold. The obvious one is to get students practicing English, the second is to try to get some of my students to see that being engaging with people can make interesting, quirky adventures happen. Maybe that beautiful spot is a bus ride away or maybe after striking up a conversation they might be tipped off to a great, cheap restaurant around the corner, or, in true traveler fashion, get invited to someone’s home.
Australia is a big, expensive, time-consuming place to travel in, but all this can be mitigated with creativity, ingenuity and a bit of pluck. There are several community centres that offer free meals and a chance to socialize with other people (Food Not Bombs being the most prevalent), while hitching is still an option. In Melbourne, an organization called CERES runs an organic farm and bike workshop where you can build your own bike and ride it off for the price of a membership ($10 a year).
If you were willing to get dirty there are a myriad options for farm work and free campsites that will take you across the country. The rewards are immense.
A few years ago, a group of friends and myself wanted to hike along the Great Southwest Track. It starts on the border of Victoria and South Australia and passes along the rough Victorian coastline before returning to the town of Portland, Victoria. When doing research we realized that by taking the train we would be left pretty well short of the trailhead. We called the local ranger and asked him if there was a local bus that we could jump on. He said no, but offered to come pick us up (in the middle of the night no less) and let us camp in his front yard and drive us to the trail in the morning. He was just happy some people were interested in coming for the walk. We spent the next four days on the edge of the world, passing stunning cliffs, sleeping seals, and walking along a petrified forest. By making a phone call and just talking to someone we were given four days of adventure.
This is not meant to be an ad for Australian tourism, nor am I simply chastising ESL students. Very few people are aware that it is entirely possible to go and swim with stingrays on a beach withing walking distance of the public transport. I realize many people come here specifically to make money and a lot of people have no interest in nature or spending long hours in a car or bus. But for those who do there is a lot of subtle joys that Australia can offer. I think this is true for pretty much anywhere you travel.
This morning, after sleeping late I sipped my coffee in my backyard while reading Philip Hoare’s Whale. In our fig tree I noticed the rainbow larakeets hopping around looking for figs for breakfast. I daydreamed about going back to the coast and spotting a blue whale and then thought about the bats that would replace the Larakeets at night. Stunning beauty and life all over a cup of coffee in a city of 4 million people. I decided to try get a photograph of our brightly coloured friends, but as I stood up the larakeets, in typical darting fashion, flew off, leaving only the branches shaking in the wind. The rustling of the leaves seemed to whisper so many things, but none of those whispers said boring.