Posted on June 20, 2020
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.
Category: animals, covid-19 pandemic, depression, emotions, event, favourites, holidays, mental health Tagged: 2020, abroad, adventure, airlie beach, albatross, alice springs, andrew drummond, anxiety, anxiety disorder, asd, australia, autism, autistic meltdown, baby seals, beach, brisbane, brumbies, brumby, cairns, cape hillsborough, christchurch, coronavirus, covid-19, crocodile, daintree, daintree rainforest, darwin, dingo, dolphins, family, family holiday, fox glacier, franz josef glacier, glacier hot pools, great barrier reef, hervey bay, holiday, holiday memories, hot air balloon, humpback whale, jacana, kaikoura, kakadu, kakadu national park, kangaroo, kings canyon, koala, kuranda, lockdown, maori wrasse, meltdown, meltdowns, memories, mental illness, morten island, mossman gorge, mountains, nashville, new zealand, ocean, panic attack, panic attacks, photography, reminiscing, sea, seal, seals, snorkelling, snow, south island, sperm whale, sunrise, sunset, sydney, sydney harbour, tranzalpine, travel, travelling, uluru, wallaby, whale watching, whales, whitsunday island, whitsundays, wildlife, work holiday, working holiday
Posted on December 22, 2018
If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that I was in Iceland this last weekend. It’s somewhere that I’ve wanted to go for years and I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights so I was very excited when everything fell together and this trip became possible. Despite only being there for four days, we managed to pack in a lot and it was all just so, so special so I wanted to document it here.
By the time we got there and left our stuff in the hotel, there wasn’t time for much but we did have time to go to the whale museum. I’d read about it and really wanted to go and it was beautiful: a warehouse full of huge models of different species of whale and dolphin. The audio guide was super informative and I learned a lot.
The scenery in Iceland is stunning – that was probably my favourite thing about Iceland. When we – me and my Mum – started talking about this trip, I asked if we could go somewhere ‘new and beautiful’ and Iceland was certainly that. It was so, so beautiful. I kept having this weird anxiety that my brain wasn’t big enough to hold all of the beautiful things I was seeing.
We visited the Skogafoss waterfall – we actually ended up seeing it twice because the two tours we went on overlapped for certain sites – which was just amazing. You can walk right up to it and I got completely soaked but it was so worth it. I just stood there and soaked up the magnificence of it. It was so, so beautiful.
Down in Vik, in the south of Iceland, we went to the first live lava show in the world, which was incredible. They told us all about the volcanoes in Iceland and then we got to witness real flowing lava. That was so cool, one of the coolest experiences of my life.
From there, we went on to the beach, a black sand beach. I’d never seen black sand before and it was so surreal. I could’ve stayed there forever because it was just so beautiful and it was all feeding my soul in a way that I can’t really explain.
One of the other things I wanted to do was to walk on a glacier and visit the ice caves but when we went to make that happen, we learned that the hike involved was very physical and therefore more than I could handle. That was really hard to accept. I really, really wanted to go. But my energy and my stamina are so low at the moment that it just wasn’t possible. However, we did get to visit a glacier, which was amazing. It was all so breathtakingly beautiful.
Our first trip out to look for the Northern Lights was cancelled because of too much cloud but we went out the next night and we did in fact manage to see some of the Northern Lights, a green ribbon above the horizon. It looked different to all the photos I’d seen and it wasn’t as dramatic as you’re lead to believe but it was beautiful and it was a really special experience.
“Last night was surreal. We left the hotel at eight thirty and drove around the Icelandic countryside, looking for the Northern Lights. We had a fantastic (and hilarious) guide (shout out to Roman from @graylineiceland) who kept us entertained and informed and even though it took a while, we did find them. It wasn’t a ‘spectacular’ show but I don’t mind. Seeing them at all was so special and this photo, this record of that moment makes me smile so big. It might be faint, it might be grainy, but it’s proof that it happened and I’m so, so grateful for it.” (x)
One of the things I really, really wanted to see was the glacier lagoon, Jökulsárlón. One of my friends had been and her pictures blew my mind so it was first on my list when it came to planning this trip. And it was absolutely stunning. I could’ve stood there for hours, just drinking it all in. There weren’t enough words for all the colours, all the blues, and I was just fascinated by all the different textures in the ice.
And down from the glacier lagoon is The Diamond Beach, a stretch of black sand that’s littered with chunks of ice. Tiny icebergs! It was so surreal and so beautiful. Each one was different and beautiful and watching the waves rush up the beach, over and around them, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The last thing we did was go whale watching. I’ve been whale watching before (in Australia and New Zealand) but that was a long time ago and I love whales. We’d been told that we were unlikely to see anything at this time of year but we decided that we wanted to try anyway. It was freezing cold and incredibly windy but it was worth it: we spent about an hour with a humpback whale that was feeding near one of the islands and I also saw a dolphin. Plus the scenery was absolutely stunning. It was a great experience to end the trip on.
The thing that struck me most about Iceland was the space. And the quiet. It was good for my soul in a way that I don’t really understand and can’t really explain. Plus the mountains. There’s something about looking at mountains that is just so calming to me.
Having said that, I dealt with A LOT of anxiety while we were away. There was so much uncertainty: I didn’t know what we were going to do about food, I didn’t know how long we would be driving for each day, I didn’t know what I would be required to do, and so on and so on and so on. It was really hard and it was really exhausting. I’d forgotten how much uncertainty and anxiety comes with travelling. Having my Mum with me really helped but it was a real struggle, a moment to moment struggle. As much as I loved Iceland, it was a relief to come home and go back to certainty.
So that Iceland. Beautiful, stunning, stressful Iceland.
I would like to dedicate this post and this adventure to Claire Wineland. She was part of the inspiration for this trip. I was already in the worst depressive episode I’ve ever experienced and her death hit me really hard. It was such a tragedy and I needed to know that there was more than just tragedy in the world. I needed to see that to help me keep going.
Since her death, I’ve been wearing a purple bracelet (the colour of Cystic Fibrosis awareness, I believe – please correct me if I’m wrong or if there is a more fitting colour) because I wanted a constant reminder of Claire and her words and because I wanted to carry her with me. It’s strange: I’ve never had any beliefs about what happens after death but recently I’ve just had this feeling that if I carry her with me, she gets to see the things I see and experience the things I experience. I don’t know why I feel like that or what I believe about life after death but I just have this feeling. I just have this feeling.
It was all so beautiful that I couldn’t just take photos. I took some video and I’ve put it together into a vlog of sorts:
Music by the wonderful heartsease.
Hi! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as several mental health issues. I’m a singersongwriter (and currently studying for a Masters in songwriting) so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is now available on iTunes and Spotify, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.
I’m currently releasing my first EP, Honest, track by track and all five songs are now available on all major music platforms. However, there’s still more content to come…