10 Realisations from Backpacking at Nearly 40
My resolutions from a backpacking trip to Australia with my little brother and practical tips for backpacking Down Under
I just returned from a short backpacking trip to Australia, where I joined my little brother on his ‘big trip’ after serving in the military, and before starting Uni. As a dad of two young, adorable kids, having my wife’s blessing to go on this adventure was a rare opportunity to spend quality time with my brother and experience a freedom that most of us young dads only dream of. So I took it and ran ;-)
First, a housekeeping note: this is not the normal tech/venture post I would normally write, so if you’re not interested in backpacking or life lessons you can stop reading now.
Since I was technically joining “his” trip, I didn’t want to spoil my brother’s style or shrink his budget… so I prepared to travel like a 22-year old on a shoe string. As a way of helping me process everything I’ve experienced in the last few weeks, I tried to boil it down to the things that stood out in my trip, from practical tips on backpacking, to realisations that helped me look at the day to day in London with a fresh pair of eyes.
My 10 Realisations after backpacking at nearly 40:
Realisation #1: Sleeping in a room with strangers, or in someone else’s house made me appreciate that I live in a beautiful place and I’m lucky to have a home.
Realisation #2 : Even though it’s hard, I need to learn to slow the f*** down. I started the trip by checking my phone constantly, as if there’s an email I might get that I need to respond to, or a birthday I’ll miss. Towards the end of the trip, my phone was off or on flight mode and I mostly used it for utility (maps or camera etc) and not for entertainment or the dopamine that comes from getting notifications. I gave up on charging my Apple watch after 4 days.
Realisation #3: I’d love to have more adventures in my day to day life and experience them with the kids. And I’m not going to find adventure by staying in my neighbourhood or for that matter, in my comfort zone in 2018.
Realisation #4: be present when spending quality time with other people, especially with family. Put the phone away! Also, age is not so bad, if you don’t take yourself too seriously and choose to ‘act the part’. Being ‘older’ means I have more experience, which I’m grateful for.
Realisation #5: Having a car is the ultimate freedom. I will finally get my shit together and get a driver’s license in the UK (living in London with Uber, mini cabs, taxis and public transport I didn’t feel like I really needed it), but there’s paradise on earth everywhere, you just have to find it (and the car is the way).
Realisation #6: Talk to more people in 2018. We are all more alike than different, and everyone has a story. I’d love to host more, and bring together people I don’t normally meet to share a meal. Equally, there are plenty of idiots, racists and bigots out there, and it’s not my job to educate them. It’s fine to walk away if someone is being an a**hole or generally draining your energy.
Realisation #7: While it was uncomfortable in the beginning, it was very liberating to have less possessions and reduce the burn. I realised I have too much clutter and the things I cherish most are not… things. I need to think about how to adjust my own budget day to day, especially buying more things I don’t need. I feel like the trip put money in perspective. I’m lucky to earn money doing something I love with people I respect.
Realisation #8: I realised I want to eat healthier in 2018. More fruit and veg, cut the carbs and cook more at home. It’s fun following a new recipe every now and then. Also, try to avoid sugar whenever possible, and if I eat dessert, have less than half.
Realisation #9: Sometimes even a short change of habits is enough to realise that we have bad habits. I want to improve my health in 2018. That goes along with eating right (avoiding the croissant with the coffee), exercising more (jogging is not enough) and sleeping better.
Realisation #10: I want to do it again, and next time I’m taking my family.
And here’s some more practical tips or advice for those thinking about setting out for a similar trip or experience.
1. Range of Accommodation
One of the joys of backpacking is the different range of accommodation you get to experience on your trip.
Hotel — To have a soft landing, my wife suggested we order a hotel in central Sydney, and the prices looked reasonable in Expedia so we booked the Amora Hotel. It’s a 4-5 star hotel, with a pool/spa, centrally located. My brother slept for over 13 hours straight since it’s the best bed he had on his trip :-) Taking the Room’s soap and shampoo ended up being an excellent decision later on…
Airbnb — To soften the move from hotel (my business travel usual) to full backpacker, I suggested we stay at an Airbnb in the budget of a hostel. We got a great room and our own shower, but I admit it was awkward to stay at someone’s house, while they are there.
Hostel — We rarely knew where we were going to spend the night tomorrow those first few nights. Hostels ended up being the best form of accommodation on the trip. We relied on hostelworld.com to find our options, and found YHAs (the Youth Hostel Association) to have great standards across locations (even though they can be a bit ‘boring’ compared to other hostels from a social perspective). We stayed at the YHA in Port Douglas, Airlie Beach, Magnetic Island, Cairns and I’m probably blanking on some others. For approximately $25 AUD you get to have a bunk bed in a dorm of typically 6 people, with or without en-suite shower and toilet. Hostels are a great way to meet people, and cook your own dinner in a shared kitchen.
Camping Site/Caravan Park/ RV Park — In Australia I noticed a ton of caravans or RV’s. It seemed like a great way to travel. The place we stayed at on Taylor Beach was impeccably clean and people were very friendly. When sleeping in a campsite near the beach, I experienced peace and saw more stars at the glorious price of $0. Australia is full of camping sites, with gas bbqs, picnic tables, and in our case on Balgal Beach, toilets and shower.
First, kudos to Google. Their products are a wonder of technology. Would 20 years ago people even imagine that there would be a device in their pocket that helps them search for anything they see and find a description, image and video? Search maps for obscure locations or get local food recommendations while traveling on a budget? Google came through many many times over the course of the trip. Here’s the rest of the ‘tech stack’ that was useful while traveling:
- Hardware: Bose headphones for the long flights (try to keep the shitty airline headphones for 22 hours and see what happens), external battery charger, Apple Watch (only in the beginning, but useful for world clock and tracking how much I walked, in my case over 20km on the first day in Syndey)! Also Sim card from “Three” (UK carrier) with free roaming and nearly unlimited data (my regular package), and bluetooth speaker.
- Software: Apps like Whatsapp for chats, calls and sharing pictures, Facebook (rarely but it was useful for getting recommendations early on), Instagram (post only if you must, but it’s useful for exploring where to go too), Apple Wallet (works like magic), Google Maps for everything, Amazon music, podcasts (also for the car), Google Photos for automatic backup whenever I had wifi, iPhone’s world clock to know when to call.
- Websites: Google (for help from what insect just bit me to how to make tofu green curry), Tripadvisor (rarely, but sometimes useful to read recent reviews, esp. on large ticket items like diving), Google Trips, Google flight and hotel search, Vroom for car rental, Hostelworld for hostel booking, YHA.com if you’re a member.
3. Adventure and Experiences
At the end of the day, the things that stand out from a trip in one’s mind are the experiences. Camping, hiking, cooking, scuba diving, driving, sailing, swimming, surfing… if you can add ‘ing’ to it, it’s probably an experience :-)
Jumping from a rock to a waterfall’s pond, looking for Koala bears in the wilds, or scuba diving trip at the Great Barrier Reef. Experiences are the one thing I was always happy to pay for, with money, or time.
The ultimate scarce resource, time will literally evaporate if you let it. So it’s important we make the most of it. On this trip I got to experience multiple dimensions of time:
- Time difference/ jetlag — it took me 5 days to get fully adjusted. I would fall asleep by 9pm and wake up at 3 or 4am regularly.
- Time zones — to communicate with my friends and family (wife and kids were in Arizona and mom/siblings/friends in Israel), we only had a couple of overlap hours a day. It can be limiting, but also liberating (there’s little point of checking phone outside those hours).
- Age — the trip was possibly one of the first times I felt ‘old’. We hung out with a lot of 20 something backpackers (and some older to be fair), but I noticed that age=experience, and it made me appreciate what I’ve been through.
- Countdown / Time flies— on my “big trip” in 2001, I spent over six months backpacking. Now I had 2.5 weeks. I wanted to make every day count, which motivated me to get interested and involved in where can we find adventure and experiences every single day.
- No sense of time — don’t you love the feeling of needing to ask ‘what day is it?’ that is the true beauty of backpacking. Time is not wasted if you’re relaxing. We need it from time to time (pun intended). It was great to read a few pages of a book, meditate or just listen to music, without the feeling of needing to do something or be somewhere.
The distances in Australia are vast.… We took planes, trains, subway, buses, taxis, boats, ferries, etc, but our “man’s best friend” was the car. Renting a car to see Queensland gave us the freedom of exploring things where and when we wanted. My brother is under 25, so adding me to the rental contract saved us about half the cost. The website vroom has great deals and sells you full insurance separately at a fraction of the cost of what you’d pay at the counter of the rental company. Our ‘beast’ was a bright green Toyota Corolla hatchback, and driving it over 2000 km was pure joy.
A car enables you to take a detour (multiple times and often), stop to appreciate the view, sing along to music and store your shit when you don’t need it (items such as a 10 gallon water container can be a drag to carry). It didn’t cost more than two round trip long distance bus tickets. Australians are generally safe drivers, as rules are enforced heavily. My brother got a $110 AUD fine for going 71 km/h in a 60 kmh zone.
Also, taking internal flights for the long trips is the way to go in Australia. We got from Sydney to Cairns in 2.5 hours for less than £200 GBP per person, as the drive would have consumed most of our time.
6. Diversity of people and conversations
The people you meet can make the trip when backpacking. It’s easy to avoid it — you could spend a whole week not talking to another human being if you choose to, but being friendly and striking a conversation can fill you up with energy, and maybe teach you something. I was lucky enough to spend time with my brother and have many meaningful conversations we don’t normally get the chance to have, one of my best friends from childhood who moved to Australia nearly 15 years ago, and a bunch of new friends who moments before were just strangers. I so much enjoyed meeting people I don’t normally talk to, for example:
- A german couple that’s traveling for a year in Australia, Asia and South America. The guy started a company that buys crashed cars and sells the pieces on eBay. He fought with his partner/best friend and left for a year of travel to clear his head.
- A former US Navy soldier with background in nuclear physics, who went on to study philosophy (my brother said ‘Nuclear Philosophy’ might end up becoming a thing…). She was from the south of the US and changed her accent because “when people hear the southern accent they assume you’re slow or stupid” (I disagree, but it was super interesting)
- A social worker who helps abuse victims on behalf of Salvation Army. She is a very religious evangelical christian, and talked about some of the cases she’s seen (anonymously) which gave me nightmares. Most abusers were victims of abuse.
- An Israeli guy working in agriculture to save money for his trip to Asia. I learned that with the right visa, even jobs that pay minimum wage in Australia ($22.5 AUD) pay better than the equivalent jobs in Israel (and many other places), so the ‘lucky’ ones who get the visa, spend a few months working 10 hours a day picking mango or bananas to finance their trip in cheaper places.
- A guy from the midwest who works in a steel factory, loves his guns and thinks Trump is doing an incredible job.
And many, many more. I met folks from the US, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, UK, France, Argentina, Brasil, Israel, Switzerland, Chile, Norway, etc. Most people are nice, if you give them a chance, and hostels and experiences are the way to meet people.
7. Traveling on a budget
Before I joined him, my brother was in Tasmania and camped 5 out of 7 nights of the week. We went from 5 star hotel to Airbnb to hostel to campsite and both had to make adjustments to be able to travel together as he doesn’t have a work visa and needs to control his budget to last for months of travel.
“Money will not solve all your problems, but it will solve your money problems”
There are plenty of ways to save money while backpacking:
- Buy food in the supermarket — eating is a big part of traveling imho (more on food in the next point), but not every meal needs to be in a restaurant.
- Accommodation — camping every now and then makes a hostel feel like luxury!
- Alcohol is expensive in Australia — if you’re going to drink, better stop at a ‘bottle shop’ and get a pack rather than pay at the bar
Unless you’re working, money usually flows only one way while traveling — from inside your wallet out.
8. Food and drink
I love food and eating is one of my favourite way to experience a country/culture. That doesn’t mean that I was looking for a Kangaroo burger, but I had some amazing food while backpacking (even on a budget sometimes).
- Cooking — when camping (and sometimes in hostels) we made our own meals.
- Breakfast: one of the following: cereal, fruit, sandwich with peanut butter and honey, eggs and beans (in one occasion)
- Lunch: Israeli salad (tomato, cucumber, purple onion) with tuna in oil
- Dinner: lentils in curry, couscous with onion and carrots, green curry tofu, pasta in marinara sauce and even schnitzel!
Cooking is so much more fun when you have the ingredients, so doing that first big supermarket shopping was key.
- Fruit — is delicious in Australia. We loved the Lychee, ripe Mango, Melon, White Apricots and Bananas on the trip. The fruit was excellent the whole trip.
- Restaurants — we looked for the local favourites (vs. the tourist favourites) and were rarely disappointed. Corea Corea in Cairns for example, is a zero-atmosphere Korean restaurant that lets you bring your own beer… we ended up coming back to that place for dinner 3 times in a row!
9. Health and Safety
There are plenty of things that can kill you in Australia (spiders, sharks, stingers, crocodiles, the heat etc) but I felt safe everywhere, including when camping in the middle of no where.
The biggest hazard were the stingers as we went to Queensland in their high season, so I’d recommend getting in the water only in beaches with a stinger net, unless you have a protective suit.
After about a week, my brother pointed out I look healthier than when I arrived. Lost a bit of weight, had some colour, and let my beard grow… only something than time and sunshine can get you.
10. Filling your spiritual energy
I recently listened to an episode of TED Radio Hour on Beauty (originally aired in April 2013). It turns out that we all crave beauty and there are things like landscapes with water that we universally consider as beautiful, no matter what culture we’re from.
Whether it’s reaching a summit, seeing wildlife or sun bathing in a perfect beach, I found myself appreciating nature, our planet and the open road. I felt more connected taking a step back. And in many instances, I thought about coming back with to enjoy it with my wife and kids.
The “crazy brothers” – Idan and Eze Vidra
If this inspired you to think about your new year resolutions, WSJ’s Jason Zewig has some additional excellent recommendations in his article “Less Phone, More Nature: 34 Resolutions For a Better 2018”.