Following “How many parasites do you have” and “How many times have you been kidnapped?” the question I am most frequently asked is: “How did you get into indie travel?”
With a modest laugh, I explain that I was a whimsical teenager whose quixotic hyperbole of distant lands filled towering stacks of moleskin notebooks. I add that I spent months hunched over crinkled maps and dog-eared guidebooks (my parents’ dial-up connection was excruciatingly slow), meticulously researching and plotting my inaugural escape to the Great Beyond.
Alas, that is a lie. The truth is I fell into indie travel much in the same way one falls into a snowbank: awkwardly and unexpectedly, with a subsequent red face and reinvigorated sense of humility.
That is because my escape was not specifically to the Great Beyond but from the Crappy Right Here. I dropped out of a highly competitive and acclaimed university program, then hastily cashed in my savings and booked a flight to Australia before my parents’ disapproval prompted a noise complaint from the neighbours.
I didn’t know much about Australia, other than they spoke a funny sort of English, and debated what precisely constituted a knife (“That’s not a knife—this is a knife!”). On the plane I learned about cassowary birds, red kangaroos, brown snakes, tiger snakes, taipan snakes, box jellyfish, stone fish, cone snails, saltwater crocodiles, blue-ringed octopuses, red-back spiders, funnel-web spiders, and great white sharks.
Strangely, it was the red kangaroos that frightened me most.
The khaki-clad Aussie seated beside me described them as “bloody enormous,” and so I imagined kangaroos the size of tyrannosaurus rexes terrorizing the rainforest, devouring live goats and overturning safari jeeps like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
In the beginning, I was not a very good backpacker. I brought liquid body wash and the bottle exploded inside my bag, causing the canvas to bubble every time I got caught in the rain. I brought superfluous amounts of medication in sealed containers for fear that mixing tablets in travel-sized pill boxes might be misconstrued as drug smuggling. I brought blankets—not one, but two!
Seriously, I spent five months hauling two blankets around Australia and New Zealand. Not only did they take up half my backpack, but it was summertime! I also didn’t plan anything and abandoned my guidebook during the third week (probably because there wasn’t enough room to carry it, what with all those blankets). I have since discovered that while guidebooks can hinder travellers if revered too fanatically, there is a difference between knowing where you are and understanding where you are, and research/on-hand information unquestionably assists with the latter.
Despite my fumbles and foibles, I had an incredible time. Travelling is a lot like being a kid again, experiencing the world anew. The mundane becomes fascinating; your surroundings are suddenly laden with hidden surprises that captivate, astonish, rattle, excite and delight. Previously humdrum tasks such as getting lunch become mini adventures. You are challenged every day, and while your achievements turn into tiny victories that precipitate you falling asleep grinning, your failures make for entertaining anecdotes to share at the hostel bar.
Travelling feeds your curiosity while whetting your appetite for more. It humbles you—sometimes kindly and sometimes not—by overwhelming your senses with the staggering phenomena of the world beyond yourself.
Why go indie? Because to backpack is to venture out untethered. It is to become immersed in an unfiltered environ and allow the experience to shape itself without manipulation. Going indie means embracing the raw grit of a place, following the flow of a journey, and exposing yourself to whatever may come. Any backpacker who says they weren’t scared their first time is either gasconading or too drunk to remember—but that sensation of living on the brink quickly morphs from fear to fuel as the joy of exploration supersedes any inkling to run back home.
What to do, what not to do—and what to do if you’ve done what not to do
As I said, I made a number of errors on my first trip. And bad things happened, too. The bank froze my card in New Zealand. My camera melted in the Outback. I was chased through the rainforest by what was either an abnormally small red kangaroo or (more likely) a wallaby of average stature. Nevertheless, I fell in love with the lifestyle of unbridled adventure and impassioned discovery.
Nearly 10 years and over 50 countries later, I’m still in love, still making mistakes and still being chased by creatures of debatable ferociousness. At least I’ve learned to leave the blankets at home. This column will be about everything indie travel, in hopes of encouraging those who are on the precipice of going for it to take that leap into the wonderful unknown.