Return to Oz: The Perils Of Chasing Travel Ghosts

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“Here’s a very special blog instalment by girlfriend Sam. Happy reading!” – James

On our epic trip around the world, my boyfriend and I have been lucky enough to spend 15 months exploring corners of the globe that most people only ever dream of visiting…

Our shadows on the beach

We’ve revisited some old favourites too – places where we spent unforgettable childhood vacations and all-too-brief escapes from office life. We also returned to Japan, the country where we spent our first ever holiday together back in 2011, and the scene of a giant argument that resolved itself only by deciding to go backpacking around the world together.

There is a bit of a theory amongst travellers about the dangers of revisiting somewhere you have been and loved. Chasing travel ghosts is just that: chasing a memory that can never be repeated because your previous experience was a slice of time, place and people.

So is it ever as much fun to relive the adventure of a lifetime? Can the new memories you create ever top the old ones? On our epic trip around the world, I got the chance to find out…

Reading Bill Bryson in 2008

Back in March 2008, I packed up my life, quit my job, moved boxes of stuff into my parents’ loft, held a leaving party and set off for a year in Australia and New Zealand with a working holiday visa in hand.

The 12 months was to be the culmination of years of dreaming and planning about Australia; pretty much ever since I saw Dot & The Kangaroo aged eight years old and deepened through a childhood full of Kylie, Jason, Neighbours, Round the Twist and Heartbreak High.

Rain misery

It was, of course, an amazing year. At 26 years old, it was a chance to try something new and get out of the rat race I’d been a part of since going straight from school to college to university to a graduate programme to a job and then another job. I felt I needed, and deserved, a break.

Australia met and surpassed all my expectations. Sure, there are four seasons in one day in Melbourne, and yes, Sydney is a little brash and loses a little charm away from the beaches; and of course the East Coast is chock-full of other backpackers following exactly the same route that you are, drinking the same brand of cheap box wine (‘goon’) that you are, carrying around the same edition of Lonely Planet that you are…

Whitsunday Islands

But, but….Melbourne has the most amazing array of hidden, back alley bars, and an amazing foodie culture, with more independent shops and restaurants than in any other city I’ve ever been to.

In Sydney, you just can’t get bored of ferries being a viable mode of public transport or staring out at that iconic harbour skyline. Seeing koalas, kangaroos and platypus’ up close is a surreal experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

Sam and the koala

Australia rubbed off on me in a big way during my stay. A trip into the Red Centre of the country, driving through miles of dusty nothing, immediately makes me forget any memories of youthful over enthusiasm at the touristy, over-developed Gold Coast.

Some may say the Outback is just full of nothing and big rocks, but when I came here for the first time I discovered that I could really get used to nothing. Australia’s nothing was the inspiration behind us ending up in Patagonia and Arizona on our current trip…

Red Earth

I haven’t even mentioned the vineyards yet. Now I’m older, I’m no longer drinking vast quantities of goon, but I sure am drinking plenty of wine.

My travel budget has grown significantly since my first visit, and so has my taste in gourmet produce. This time around, my boyfriend and I have been sampling some of the very best that the Australian wine scene has to offer. Cursory backpacker trips to the Hunter and Barossa Valleys in 2008 has translated into sampling six wine regions (that’s over 20 wineries…) this year alone.

Wineries now and then

In 2008, I first came into contact with, and became weirdly obsessive about, ‘Big Things’ – the gigantic monuments that line many of the world’s roadsides. Australia is a world leader when it comes to ‘Big Things’. They are a true slice of Australian kitschness. My continuing love of ‘Big Things’ has inspired many a detour on other parts of our world tour so far (Hello Giant Strawberry Of Iowa!)…

Big Things Montage

Great travel memories are made up of more than just the place, they are made up of the people too. My excellent adventures in Australia were due in no small part to the friends from home who joined me for parts of the trip and the friends for life made whilst travelling and living there.

Friends of 2008

Back in the UK, I vowed to return as soon as I could. I figured that however fruitless it may be to try and chase my travel ghosts, it’d be no less tragic than never going back at all. But life somehow got in the way. I got a great job, found a lovely flat in London, met a boy….the usual.

It all led to me never getting the chance to use my second year work visa. Pretty galling really, given that I had to spend three months cleaning table grapes (I know, I know… not even wine grapes) on a farm in the less than happening South Australian Riverland to get it.

Grape sorting

Fast forward to 2015 and here I am again with the boyfriend in tow. Australia is the last stop on our 15 month adventure. He was more than happy for Australia to be added to the destination list and I couldn’t wait to get back and try and find what I’d been missing all these years.

First stop: Melbourne. The city is everything I remember, but better. As soon as we arrive, my boyfriend christens it ‘England in the sun’. And he is kinda right. Perhaps that’s why I loved it so much here before. It feels like home. Perhaps that’s why it still feels right to be here all these years later.

Luna Park now and then

Of course staying here for 10 days will never compare with living here for three months, but we’re giving it a good go. The City Centre seems bigger than I remember – apparently there’s been a shedload of development down by the docks. But also, it isn’t as tall as I thought it was – the five months we spent touring Asian cities will shrink any comparative Western skyline, I suppose.

Melbourne Sunrise

The laneways – narrow cobbled back alleys that in London would be full of rubbish – are refashioned here; full of inviting shops, cafes and bars. I loved them my first time here; they are a joy to rediscover.

Deepa and Josh, friends from the UK now living in Melbourne (and our very gracious hosts), tell us that Melbourne’s laneways and great eateries have really blossomed in the last couple of years. There is a current craze for craft beer and rooftop bars which we very diligently get involved with.

Egg chair and dumplings now and then

Experiencing, albeit briefly, one-horse Outback towns was mind blowing the first time round. This time our experience is bigger and better. We’ve hired a camper van so we spend as little or as long as we like, wherever we like.

Last time on my whistlestop tour, I only got to spend an hour at Mataranka Springs and the pub in Daly Waters – now we spend a whole day and overnight. We would never have known about these places had I not been here already. In lots of ways, our trip is enhanced because of my previous experiences and knowledge.

But, not all my travel memories are so easily recreated. As well as chasing travel ghosts, bringing my boyfriend along has added extra complications.

If you’ve ever wondered; roller blading alongside multicoloured beach huts on Melbourne’s Brighton Beach (“Chicks on blades!”) trumps walking the same route (my boyfriend – for obvious reasons – isn’t much of a rollerblader). Sydney’s beautiful Coogee to Bondi coastal trek full of hills and steep steps is not half as romantic as you might think when you add a wheelchair into the equation.

Brighton Beach now and then

Also, he never lets me order rosé…

Wine now and then

Besides the above, I try not to repeat key experiences, but enhance what I did before – with more money, confidence, company and a fresh pair of eyes. Travelling on your own has its ups and downs. But now I have the money to not have to stay at hostels where I previously felt uncomfortable and out of place. I have enough confidence and company to no longer give a shit about being perceived as unfriendly by drunk teenagers.

I have learned to take other people’s travel recommendations with a healthy pinch of scepticism. I have a greater sense of what I like now. And what I am like. Travelling before, I remember always feeling like I was missing out on something. There was never enough time or money or someone to share the adventure with.

Alone on the beach

Now, I have a better ability to savour big and small moments. Sure, sometimes there is the feeling of missing out that I remember – you can never do everything. Travelling with a boyfriend with a wheelchair has always emphasised the journey and the company over the destination. It’s not all about the big hitters.

In a hostel in Hobart, state capital of Tasmania, we couldn’t help but overhear loud conversations between young travellers having the time of their lives; name checking the Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island, Surfers Paradise and the rest. It made me very, very glad that I had once been a part of that scene, but that that was on a different trip. Those travel ghosts can rest in peace.

The Devil's Marbles now and then

So, does the rest of my recreated Australia trip live up to expectation? When I first came to Sydney, I couldn’t help but be blown away by the harbour. But everything else left me a little cold. Maybe I was just a Melbourne snob and had inadvertently joined the Melbourne-Sydney wars.

This time, perhaps seeing it through the eyes of friends that have settled here, I can see that Sydney has more to offer than just a cool bridge, the opera house and Bondi beach.

Sydney Opera House now and then

Me and Melbourne have both been growing up. And we still get along. It’s certainly grown up as a city but still has enough space, both metaphorically (you can get tables in must-eat restaurants, seats at awesome rooftop bars, tickets for festivals and gigs) and literally.

Returning has been liberating and full of its own adventures. My boyfriend finds Melbourne a joy too; I get the added joy of showing someone I love, somewhere I love.

Fish and Chips selfie

And although Sydney still isn’t exactly my kind of city (it’s far too hilly and reliant on cars to be somewhere I can imagine settling), I can see why my friends Gloria and Petrina love it here. They’re not only busy buying houses, they’ve been able to set up their own active, outdoorsy businesses. Something which would be very difficult back home.

Seeing how happy they all are makes me appreciate the city for reasons other than my own. Plus, hello Northern Beaches!

Three keen surfers

Our last three weeks in Australia will be completely new to me and James. We’re heading through the Outback, onto Western Australia, a real chance for us to discover together.

So what if some of our adventure I have done before? So what if I am just chasing travel ghosts? And so what if I’m carrying the same backpack, hiking in the same boots and wearing some of the same clothes, seven years on…!?

My return to Oz has been every bit as good as I had hoped. James and I are already planning our next visit. After all, there’s more than one way to skin a kangaroo…

Sydney Harbour Sunrise