There’s magic in the air tonight. I’m going on a business trip to Australia’s Outback.
After traveling the world I head down under again to the very place that solidified my identity as a rambler six years ago on an experience with study abroad. For my journey to come full circle in this way is a big moment for me – the kind of moment that only comes around a few times in life perhaps, and I want to use this space to explore the personal significance of this sliver of time as deeply as I can.
If you want the full story, bear with me. If you’d rather settle for a quick snap, head to my Instagram.
Looking back now, I have no doubt that studying abroad in Australia changed the course of my life and career, but the experience was one I almost skipped. Since I took a semester off to participate in the Disney College Program, spending another semester off campus, even for study abroad, would delay my graduation. I thought I might never have the opportunity to travel again, so I decided to just go for it even if it meant graduating a semester late.
I chose to do an exchange program in Melbourne since I could study journalism and go as the lone student from my university, thereby avoiding the flocks of sorority girls who tended to fill the university affiliated programs in London and Rome. That my parents had traveled to Australia before I was born and told countless tales throughout my childhood tipped the scales in the country down under’s favor.
My mom encouraged me to be fearless (thank you mom), my dad booked me a round trip ticket using his miles (thank you dad), and I took out a student loan (for which I am still paying the government back every month) to cover the cost of books, housing and travel as much as I could.
Six years ago this very month as a ticket stub taped to my journal proves, I explored the outback under very different circumstances than my pending trip, backpacking with two friends on our spring break. It was the third trip I took in Australia and I was still very new to traveling without my family.
We flew to Alice Springs and spent the night at a rundown hostel at the edge of town. Our room had a leak that dripped into a bucket. The hostel didn’t have lockers, and when I went to ask the front desk what to do about securing our belongings a rude Canadian standing nearby told me “a real backpacker would have brought a chain.”
I’ve trekked considerably more miles since then but I guess I’m still not a real backpacker. I’ve never traveled with a chain, and just a few months ago I found myself at a hostel in Mendoza, Argentina without even a lock. Rather than spend $10 on something I’d only use one night I carried my valuables around town with me and at night slept with them close to my chest.
Alice Springs is a small, friendly town in the center of Australia. One day during my visit I went to the Alice Springs School of the Air alone as my travel companions opted to spend the afternoon poolside. As a taxi was a splurge beyond my budget, I elected to walk three miles. I asked a woman in town for directions and, 15 minutes later a police car pulled up beside me. The woman had told him she was concerned about my walking alone and he was there to give me a lift, free of charge. This is Alice.
After our night in the leaky hostel we departed on a three-day budget tour of the highlights of the area known as the Red Centre with fellow backpackers, selected after weeks of careful research for the sole fact that it was the cheapest tour available.
Our tour guide was a man named Dave, a kind and soft-spoken Aussie around 40-years-old with deep grey eyes that reflected to me bottomless wisdom. His eyes and demeanor drew me in like a child to Mickey Mouse. I wanted to know his wisdom and swim in those pools of knowledge.
We drove and drove through miles and miles of desert and over the next few days completed the Valley of the Winds walk in Kata-Tjuta, watched sunset at Uluru, ate kangaroo and camel sausage for dinner and slept in swags under the stars. We hiked Kings Canyon to the Garden of Eden, a natural waterhole. I was the only one in our tour group to swim, which seems to be a constant theme in my travels.
There’s something so unmistakably spiritual about the outback and in particular the land around Uluru. I was so curious and swept up by the magic of the nature around me that I clung by our tour guide Dave’s side listening to his every word and pestering him with questions, my curiosity an endless river, boundless and swift.
One night, while everyone else lay in their swags, drifting off next to glowing embers of the campfire, I sat up with Dave, pontificating and asking him questions about the meaning of the earth around us.
“Geez, you think deeply about stuff don’t you,” he said finally, exhausted, leaving to crawl in his own swag and get some sleep before our early morning hike the next day.
Of all the sights both in the Red Centre and greater Australia, no place touched me more than Uluru.
“The rock is magnificent red because of the mass amounts of iron in it that get exposed to the oxygen and as the sun hits the red it is vibrant,” I wrote in my journal. “The domed edges jut out against the blue sky and endless sea of sand and bushes.”
“How does it feel to be at Uluru: in a word, marvelous. This is the most spectacular inland view I have ever seen. The flat plains stretch on for miles and miles, interrupted only by the various mountain ranges from afar…. The rock exerts strength.”
I closed my eyes and imagined the people who lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. I saw my true size, so small and insignificant compared to the land. I felt drawn to the earth around me in a way I never had been before.
On the six-hour drive back to Alice everyone else slept and I continued to fire off questions to Dave, rapid-fire like bullets out of a gun. The questions I asked and answers he gave are forgotten now, lost to the wind, but I can still remember the energy I felt being there, how zealous I was in seeking answers to the questions that bubbled up inside me. The land filled me with zest and I sought answers.
“No one has ever expressed the depth of interest you have,” he said.
When we parted ways in Alice, Dave gave me a bear hug and said, “enjoy what you’re doing and when it stops being fun – and someday it will – get out.”
Back at our hostel I took a shower and wrote in my journal: “I feel a bit melancholic. I miss the outdoors. I’m sad to go back to the city – this room feels too much for me. I miss my swag and the stars and the quiet. I didn’t even like having a shower. And I realize – I will probably never be here again. This is one of the few places in my life where that is true and that’s sad.”
“Has this trip, Uluru, Dave, the bush, the outback changed me? I don’t know. But it has made me desire warmth and the outdoors. Maybe I’ll be a travel writer. I like seeing things all-day and writing and reading and sleeping early. Maybe backpacking is the life for me? No, swagging.”
I never swagged again, but the outback awakened in me a great desire to see and that trip fueled a courage and curiosity to travel. That girl who stood near Uluru and stared out at the world has stayed with me all these years, holding me by a rope and pulling me, sometimes gently, sometimes with more force, back to a path of travel.
There was a time in Florida when I was beginning to settle into a career that would in no way involve travel. I remember clearly a night I received an extended contract at my job and sat on the couch with my then boyfriend.
“I’m so proud of you, Lauren,” he enthused, congratulating me with all his heart.
I sat in silence, pulled out my scrapbook and flipped to a page with me at Uluru.
“I’m not proud of me,” I said. “I was more proud of that girl. She followed her heart and she wasn’t afraid of anything.”
Perhaps it was a tad dramatic, but it’s true. I will always be proud of that girl whose stayed with me all these years, guiding me from the outback to a three week solo trip up Australia’s east coast, to a year in Spain and 25 countries in Europe. She led me to the rainforest of Costa Rica too and now to Los Angeles where I believe and hope I’ve found a place I can settle in a career that involves travel.
Over the past six years I’ve been so blessed to learn that when you take a step toward a dream the path to living that dream widens just a little. Courage leads to opportunity. Travel begets more travel.
This trip to Australia was a journey six years in the making. I know that every step I’ve taken since that day in Uluru has led me back. Had I skipped any step along the way – even the painful ones – I know the results wouldn’t be the same.
But I also believe the enchanting red sands of the outback played a hand in my return. Perhaps they felt the intensity of my feelings and curiosity on my visit so long ago and have willed my return in some way. This is the story I chose to believe anyway – that the outback is calling me back for some hidden purpose I must uncover.
To the outback sands and desert winds I thank you with all my heart. Soon I’ll be swimming in your fire once again.