A Gap Year in Australia
Back in 1990 I was one of many single female back-packers who had ventured to Australia on the back of hearing from too many people “travel whilst you are still young and have no ties, you won’t get that chance when you are older” so I sold my car, sublet my house and off I went for 14 months of adventure and wonder with very little money in my pocket.
It was whilst I was living and working in the outskirts of Sydney that I was lucky to have been introduced to a lovely couple, friends of my dad and their young son. We got on famously and enjoyed lots of fun times, parties and days by their pool.
We talked about exploration and adventure and when they invited me to join them on a month long budget 4WD trip through the outback, travelling from Sydney to Alice Springs for Christmas; I was beside myself with excitement.
We spent a month meticulously planning the trip and collecting equipment
We spent a month meticulously planning the trip and collecting equipment; you need to be able to carry extra petrol and water as the distance between supplies is often days apart. Soon we were off on the biggest adventure of my life, we visited some of the most wild and remote places one could imagine, sometimes not seeing other people for days but always seeing the stunning Australian bush, the red dirt and beautiful wildlife in its natural environment. Kangaroos leaping across the plains, camels, emus, the weirdest looking lizards, snakes, praying mantis, tree frogs and beautiful exotics birds including parakeets, cockatoos and galahs.
We visited the ‘wild-west’ towns of Broken Hill and Coober Pedy, passing through Flinders Ranges, Lake Eyre and Arkaroola and spotting the famous dog fence. We passed remote stations and occasionally landed in odd tiny towns where we provided much amusement to the pub locals as we stopped for much needed refreshment.
We camped, cooked outdoors and took our time stopping, hiking and exploring anywhere that looked interesting, we had a rough schedule but our main goal was to take in every second of this trip of a lifetime. For the first three weeks it was exactly that, we got occasionally lost but we would just pull over, boil the billy-can take stock and make a new plan.
On the 22nd December we arrived at Uluru, Ayers Rock and set up camp. At the time, many visitors would still climb Ayers Rock and although it was unbearably hot I decided to climb the rock with the husband early the next morning whilst it was still cool enough whilst the wife and their son stayed in the camp. We had an exhilarating climb, it wasn’t easy and we were elated to reach the top. We made our way back down to a celebratory breakfast before heading off onto the next leg of our trip – Kings Canyon and then on to Alice Springs.
I don’t know if it was the heat or spending three weeks in a very confined space, but the husband and wife started to bicker and became generally grumpy and short with each other until it evolved into a full-blown showdown on the Stuart Highway. It all happened in a split second, but the husband slammed on the brakes and told the wife to get out of the car, she stroppily obliged and took her son too, I, exercising my loyalty to female solidarity joined them bringing just a small handbag and water bottle. The husband sped off and we were left stranded, at midday, in over 40 degrees heat in the middle of the Australian outback – two women and one small child. We were stunned, angry at being left and indignant. Over 300 km’s south of Alice Springs we set off walking!
A number of vehicles passed us before one stopped and reversed back. It was a pickup truck driven by a single man; he had a cattle dog on the back. The truck was old and messy but he asked what had happened and offered us a lift to Alice Springs. We were understandably nervous but our options were limited, we looked at each other, nodded and jumped in, not really knowing if we were going to be safe.
The journey was strange, the man had to keep stopping and putting more oil in the engine, each time pulling off the road to do so. We could see he had a gun in the back, fairly normal for an Aussie farmer but still enough to put us on edge, we said very little to one another. In the end it worked out fine and the man dropped us after a very slow journey at a back-packers hostel. We were exhausted, relieved to be alive but without our luggage and much money. The lovely people at the lodge gave us a room for the night, toothbrushes and fresh underwear. Within 24 hours, my friend had flown back to Sydney and was eventually reunited with her husband back home.
I however had no reason to go back there and had very little money left so I agreed to stay at the hostel and earn some money to cover my costs and to save up enough to move on, the last thing I wanted to do was to abort my gap year early. Alice Springs was an edgy town and I never felt completely safe there alone, there were axe marks on my room door and blood on the walls. The local police took pity on me and I was invited to join them at the social club on Christmas day for a BBQ and a game of cricket.
Eventually I was reunited with my luggage and as soon as I’d made enough money, a matter of weeks later I flew off to the Gold Coast to finish my Australia-wide tour with a little less drama.
I’m grateful for the most amazing experience I had and the 4WD trip was something I will remember for the rest of my life. I am also extremely grateful for the kindness extended to me by the people of the hostel and the local police, however it could have ended completely differently. 1990 was the year of the multiple backpacker murders, upon which the film Wolf Creek has been based. Furthermore in 2001 there was the famous disappearance and suspected murder of Peter Falconio also on the Stuart Highway.
There are lots of things we could have done differently and we put ourselves in all kinds of danger. In hindsight I should also have probably delayed my big trip until I had sufficient funds to easily pull myself out of a situation like that. So my personal advice would be don’t skimp on safety, beware about hitch-hiking but most of all have respect for the vast outback of Australia, whilst this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on earth it is also unforgiving; if anything were to happen it would literally be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Written by Carolyn Pearson
Carolyn started maiden-voyge.com based on her own travel experiences and is passionate about making business travel safe for professional women business travellers.