Given the current situation, we obviously can’t go on any holidays right now. Like many people, my travel plans for the year were cancelled due to the pandemic and so, in an attempt to get my holiday/travelling ‘fix’, I’ve been revisiting some of my past holidays, both to remember some of the wonderful experiences I’ve had and to remind myself that one day I will have experiences like that again. It’s obviously not the same as travelling itself but it’s the best we’ve got at the moment so I’ve been reminiscing about previous trips, reading the diaries I kept at the time and looking through the souvenirs and photos I took.
I’ve been very lucky to have travelled fairly widely for my age; I’ve been to some amazing places, including Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, and Iceland. These were all truly incredible holidays, the memories of which I will carry with me for the rest of my life, but for this post I thought I’d write about my holiday to Australia and New Zealand in the summer of 2010 when I was fifteen years old.
It was the last day of the school year and I was practically bouncing off the walls. The bell rang, I said my goodbyes, and raced home. I had an hour before leaving for the airport and I wasn’t packed. The fact that I managed to take everything I needed for five weeks abroad given that small block of time is probably a miracle.
(This trip was actually my first experience of blogging as me and my brother posted regularly to a blog to keep our friends and family updated on what we were doing – it’s a funny little full circle to now be writing about that trip on this blog. That blog is long gone now but I do remember how much I loved it as a platform and as a way of sharing the story.)
We flew to Brisbane via Singapore. I’d never been on a really long flight before so that was a new and unsettling experience – I’m not a hugely happy flyer. But we got there safe and sound and caught a ferry out to Morten Island. We were all extremely jet lagged and feeling pretty unwell but we were out exploring straight away. It was absolutely stunning. We spent most of our time on the beach: the sand was almost white and the ocean was honest-to-god turquoise, like something out of National Geographic. Just walking through the shallows that first day, we saw a dolphin, something I’d always wanted to see. Plus there were pelicans and kookaburras and all kinds of birds everywhere. It was amazing.
In the evenings, we went back down to the beach after dinner because that’s when the dolphins came to the shore to be fed. On a couple of occasions, me and my brother actually got to feed them, which was a surreal and amazing experience. At first, there was just one and suddenly there were seven. There were some really little ones too, one of them playfully chasing these tiny fish darting around in the shallows. ‘Our’ dolphin was an older female called Tinkerbell and they told us that it seemed she’d adopted one of the young calves after his mother had stopped coming to feedings. She was really gentle and sweet and I just fell in love with her.
My other favourite memory of the island was a walk through the bush. And then, all of a sudden, we were standing on the edge of this huge desert. It was absolutely empty and standing in the middle of it – just you and sand and sky – it felt almost sacred, like we were witnessing something private. I remember thinking that it just felt easier to breathe. I wanted to stay there forever.
After a few days there, we caught the ferry back to Brisbane where we picked up the caravan we’d be driving and living in for the next two weeks. I’d done a fair bit of camping in a camper van during my childhood but this van was a serious upgrade: there was enough space for six people to sit and sleep (the chairs converting into three double beds!) with a toilet, shower, and kitchen area. It was a pretty smooth ride, thank god, because we spent A LOT of time driving: from Brisbane up to Cairns.
One of the first places we stopped was Hervey Bay where we spent the day whale watching. Me and my brother sat right at the front of the boat and it was freezing cold and very wet but totally worth it. We saw so many whales and dolphins. The dolphins almost seemed to be showing off, leaping in and out of the water and playing together. You couldn’t help but smile watching them.
And the humpback whales were truly spectacular. Seeing them felt absolutely magical and I remember wondering if the team running the tour got that same feeling every time they saw them or if the wonder wore off – I couldn’t imagine how it could. We watched in awe as they swam around the boat, rolling, and fluking. They were just stunning.
They disappeared for a while and it started to rain so we went under cover to eat some lunch. Just as we were finishing, we saw this huge whale breech out of the water for a few long seconds before crashing back under the surface. It was breathtaking. Of course, no one had a camera to hand because we were all eating but regardless of that, it was amazing to see. I can still see it as clearly as if it had just happened.
And then, out for dinner that evening, we saw this sign in a restaurant window. Nope, still don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.
Most days involved at least some driving and a couple of days were spent entirely in the van. One such day saw us in the van for fifteen hours (this was actually the day I had my first big autistic meltdown but that’s a story for another time) and then, just before arriving at our campsite in Cape Hillsborough, we took a wrong turn and ended up on a very narrow road with deep ditches on each side. How my parents navigated us out of that, I have no idea. To this day we still joke about the 333 point turn that got us back on track.
Because we’d arrived in the middle of the night and fried from the stress and anxiety of the journey, we went straight to bed. I’m not sure we even got out of the van. But the next morning, we woke up to this beautiful campsite, right on this beach, beautiful in its vast emptiness. The tide was super far out and we walked and walked, taking in the rainforest-like foliage and the rocky shoreline. It was stunning.
We didn’t stay long but long enough to see our first kangeroos and wallabies. Practically living on a campsite, they were very tame and allowed us to get really close. They were so cute.
We continued up the East Coast, making various stops along the way. Another of my favourites was Airlie Beach where me and my brother swam in cool swimming pool just up from the beach and I had the best milkshake I’ve ever had (I’m still looking for one that rivals it). We stayed over night there and then, the next day, we got a boat out to Whitsunday Island.
On the way there, we stopped over a reef – part of The Great Barrier Reef – and jumped out of the boat to snorkel. I find the mechanics of breathing through a snorkel pretty tricky but the reef was so beautiful that I forgot all about that. There were all these different species of fish swimming around and someone on the boat threw food into the water so they swarmed around us. It was very weird to have them get right up in your face, completely unperturbed, but you got an amazing view of them. We stayed in the water so long that my lips went blue.
The Whitsunday beaches were breathtakingly beautiful. They told us that they were voted most beautiful beach of the year by National Geographic and CNN. The sand was almost blindingly white in the sun and squeaked as we walked on it because it’s so fine. It was stunning. I felt like my eyes weren’t big enough to take it all in.
We continued driving, continuing to stop here and there, sometimes at a pre-determined stop and sometimes just for a walk in a National Park. During one of the walks, we saw a load of beautiful Ulysses butterflies. I’ve always loved butterflies.
Eventually we made it to Cairns and met up with long time family friends. We stayed there for about a week. One day, we went up to Kuranda but the best bit was visiting Koala Gardens. We got to feed kangaroos, see and stroke real koalas, and my brother actually held one. Half of my family is Australian so I was raised on stories with Australian animals as characters and suddenly I was seeing all of them in real life. It was very surreal but a real dream come true.
Another day, we went out to the Daintree Rainforest. Due to a family contact, we got a tour through the rainforest and up to where we could see the mountains. It was beautiful but the best part was the vehicle we rode in. It was called an Argo and it was like riding in a rollercoaster cart: up and down and spinning from side to side in response to the ground we drove over. I loved it. It was so fun: I laughed – almost hysterically – the whole time.
We also went for a walk through Mossman Gorge, which was, again, beautiful. Both me and my brother grew up loving animals and nature and walking through the enormous trees and scrambling over the rocks was very reminiscent of our childhood.
On our last day in Cairns, we got a boat out to this massive pontoon where we all squeezed into wetsuits and snorkelled over this gorgeous bit of reef and sunken ship. There was this huge tame fish – a Maori Wrasse – called Wally that you could swim with and stroke and have your picture taken with. He was very gentle and sweet and seemed to love all the attention.
We swam around the pontoon for hours but also went out on a tour where everyone held onto a flotation device and a guide would point out and teach us about what we were seeing. My favourite were the Angelfish. We also saw a Reef Shark deep down on the ocean floor and while we were told they weren’t dangerous, I couldn’t get over my anxiety at looking at a shark of any kind. It was a cool tour but I did struggle: it took a lot of stamina and about halfway through, I got really cold and my feet started cramping.
That evening we flew to Darwin for a couple of days. My favourite moment was a boat ride out into the bay where we watched the sun go down. The adults had champagne and it was super peaceful. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen – the picture doesn’t begin to capture it.
We also went on a river boat ride where they hung meat over the side, baiting these huge crocodiles into leaping out of the water. I knew that crocodiles were big but they feel like freaking-dinosaur-big when they’re a couple of feet from you. They were amazing to see so close though. And they also threw small chunks of meet into the air for various different birds to catch. There were some smaller ones but most of them were really big, eagle-like birds. They were stunning and so graceful. Again, the lifelong animal fanatic in me was just in awe.
From Darwin, we drove out to Kakadu National Park for a few days and my favourite adventure there was a sunrise boat ride. It was really cold and we were swarmed by mosquitoes but it was so worth it. We saw so many animals. There was a herd of wild brumbies (this was super special – my inner horse girl was experiencing a dream come true), a dingo, and loads of different types of birds, including an adult Jacana and her chicks (you can just spot them in the second photo – they were so cute and fluffy). It was an awesome trip.
Back in Darwin, we flew to Alice Springs. On the first morning, we got up painfully early and went on a hot air balloon ride. The ride was incredible but the whole experience was really, really special. We were picked up by these two (self-described ‘terminally cheerful’) guys who drove us out to the start point, keeping up a joyfully ridiculous monologue while we all yawned our way to full consciousness and pointing out the stars and constellations to us. Then we all stood together and waited as the balloon filled up, before climbing into the basket while it was still resting sideways on the ground.
Up in the air, we watched the sun come up, looked out at the beautiful landscape, and watched groups of kangaroos hopping through the scrubs. I’d never been in a hot air balloon before and although I’m not super comfortable with heights, it was a truly amazing experience, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I loved every second.
When we landed, they provided the adults with champagne, the kids with juice, and laid out biscuits, brownies, and fruit for us to snack on while the balloon began to deflate. They actually let us walk around inside it as the air escaped, which was bizarre but very cool. Then, when it was finally flat on the ground, we got to help roll it up and pack it into the sack, which really was a group effort. They even got my brother (who was fourteen at the time) to stand on top of it, pushing it down so that the whole thing fitted and they could close the bag completely. It was such a strange experience but so unique and special.
We picked up our stuff from the hotel and drove down to Kings Canyon, stopping at a campsite not far from the canyon itself. We stayed there for a couple of days during which we did one of the walks around the canyon – which was physically pretty hard but rewarded us with some breathtaking views – and a camel ride, which was so much fun. I’ve ridden a camel once before but the novelty hadn’t worn off.
From there, we drove to a hotel near Uluru. We actually went to see it three times: once at sunset, once at sunrise, and then later that day to walk around the base. It’s incredible from every angle, in every light. There really was something spiritual about it, not that I know what I believe; there was just this overwhelming feeling of sacredness. I’d seen hundreds of pictures of it in books and online but it was nothing like really being there.
After a handful of days there, we flew to Sydney where we met up with family, which was really nice. Some of them I hadn’t seen since I was really, really little and some of them I’d never actually met in person.
Sydney’s huge and we spent as much time exploring as we could. We went to see the Opera House, again, something I’d seen in books but never in real life. That was cool. It was very beautiful although I’d expected it to be bigger.
While exploring the harbour, we went on a speed boat ride around the harbour. It went super fast and the adrenaline rush was awesome. That, along with watching my brother struggle with his waterproof jacket (it looked like it was trying to eat him), I laughed almost hysterically throughout the whole ride. I just wished it had been longer; it was so much fun.
While my brother and his Mum stayed in Australia to visit more family, me, my Mum, and my Granny flew over to New Zealand, to see some of South Island. We landed in Christchurch and stayed there several days, exploring the city. I really liked it and I felt really comfortable there, something that I don’t usually find. I can like a place, of course, but it usually takes a while to feel relaxed there. In Christchurch, I felt at home right away.
My favourite part was visiting the Christchurch Art Gallery. Coming from a family that has always been involved in the arts, I’ve been to a lot of galleries but there have only been a handful of exhibitions that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with and I found one of those there. It was called Andrew Drummond’s Observation / Action / Reflection: “This spectacular exhibition explores Andrew Drummond’s rich and diverse practice, which spans performance, sculpture, installation, drawing, photography and technology.”
I just fell in love with the sculptures: the different elements drawn together for each piece, the details that made them so beautifully intricate, the way they moved, almost like they were breathing… I just loved it. I didn’t want to leave. I’ve got the book from that exhibition and when I look at the pictures, I can still remember looking at the sculptures and feeling like I really understood art in a way I hadn’t before, in the way that everyone else had always seemed to.
On the second day, we went on a package tour that began with whale watching off the coast of Kaikoura. These were Sperm Whales rather than Humpback Whales, which we’d been out to see in Hervey Bay. They were similarly breathtaking and just so graceful as they moved through the water. Seeing whales in real life only made me love them more. We also saw several albatrosses; they’re some of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen.
Our tour had a specific schedule but since we were the only people on it, our guide suggested changing the plan. Instead of the wine-tasting, he took us to a particular beach where a colony of seals were known to hang out. But even better than that, a short walk into the trees, was a pool with a waterfall where the baby seals played, presumably having wriggled up from the beach and their parents. It was absolutely magical. They splashed around and chewed each other and even stuck their flippers up in the air like they were doing handstands. They were utterly gorgeous. I wanted to stay there forever.
From Christchurch, we caught the TranzAlpine train across the island to Hokitika. The views were stunning: I’ve always loved mountains but seeing real snowcapped mountains was incredible. Even though the air rushing by was freezing cold, I spent a lot of time on the viewing platform, trying to look at everything.
We picked up a hire car and drove down to the Franz Josef Glacier. We spent a couple of days there and during a patch of clear weather, we got to go up onto the Fox Glacier in a helicopter. I’d never been in a helicopter or been on a glacier and the whole experience was completely surreal but absolutely incredible. Me and my Mum even had a snowball fight and I couldn’t help but laugh at the strangeness of having a snowball fight in August, coming from the UK.
We also spent an afternoon in the Glacier Hot Pools, with the Glacier on one side and the rainforest on the other. It was beautiful and felt very luxurious, although the heat constantly steamed up my glasses, making it difficult to see with and without them.
All too soon, we were heading back to Australia (not that I was sad to go back to Australia, just sad to leave New Zealand) and then we only had a few days before flying home to the UK. I got to spend some more time in Sydney, which I really enjoyed. One of the best parts was climbing one of the towers bookending the Harbour Bridge and looking over the city. I loved Sydney. I’d love to go back again one day.
And suddenly we were heading home. Saying goodbye to my family, particularly my Australian grandmother, was really hard. It always is. It’s hard living so far away from her. But as sad as it was to leave, it was also exciting to be on my way home. I was really looking forward to seeing my family, my friends, my pets. I’d missed them all and had so much to tell them.
It was an amazing holiday. Truly, truly amazing. It wasn’t without its difficulties: plans going awry, the claustrophobia of living on top of each other for several weeks, and the homesickness. I had multiple panic attacks and my first serious meltdown. Looking back, it’s hardly surprising: that kind of travel – constantly moving around, sudden changes, and so many new experiences – isn’t exactly conducive with Autism, not that we knew I was autistic back then. So, yeah, it wasn’t always smooth sailing but it was still one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far.
My travel over the last few years has had a different focus. While this – and the trips I mentioned at the beginning of this post – were holidays, my recent travels abroad have all been to Nashville and as much fun as I have there, they are ultimately working holidays. I go to write songs, write with as many people as possible, play shows where I can, and learn from the incredible writers there. In a perfect world, I’d move there and dedicate every day to those goals but realistically – with my Autism and my mental health problems – that’s just not possible. It hurts but that’s life. Having said that, I refuse to give up my little piece of it just because I can’t have all of it. So, for the time being at least, that’s where I’m always headed.