It’s quite scary how with the passage of time even incredibly amazing things you have done can have become little more than tiny fragment, flash card memories.
Whilst I was in New Zealand, for example, I did a skydive. As usual it was done on a budget and to be honest I look back and can’t believe quite how trusting I was. I did it in Paihia, in the north, which was far cheaper than one of the more popular spots in Queenstown or Lake Taupo. I picked up a leaflet, thought the price looked good, called them up and arranged collection – on a street corner.
From what I recall now, a white van pulled up with two guys inside – driving the van was the plane pilot and beside him was the guy who I’d be strapped to for my tandem jump.
I remember the feeling of the door of the plane being pulled back and I recall loving the freefall so much that I totally forgot the parachute had to be pulled (so it’s a good job the other guy was in sole charge of that bit). I also recall chattering animatedly to the two guys as they dropped me back into town, no doubt on an adrenaline high and then dropping my mum a text to tell her what I’d just done. I’d quickly learned on my solo travels it was far better to inform my parents after I’d done these things than to tell them beforehand!
I don’t have a single photo of the skydive and though what recollection of it I have is enough to make me enthuse about what a great thing it was to do, the memory is so diminished it’s easy sometimes to wonder if it did really happen.
And so it is with many of the experiences I had whilst I was travelling solo in Australia and New Zealand in 2005. The whole thing was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had (barring parenthood and those delicious pre-school years with my son). But there are a few experiences that stand out above the rest and, over a decade later, they’re the ones I would advise others not to miss.
1. Snorkelling the Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
When I was in the UK dreaming of travel, a generous friend spent hours helping me plan my trip and gave me lots of really great specific tips. One was to visit the Ningaloo Reef. Her simplified description was “it’s a bit like the Great Barrier Reef but a lot less busy and the coral is less colourful”. And if you’re looking to summarise it in a few words I’d say that’s about right.
From Coral Bay, I jumped aboard a tiny boat with a handful of others and spent the most wonderful day snorkelling off the side of it. The water was so alive with a million kinds of beautiful fish that when I lifted my head to take an above water breather I couldn’t quite believe the real world was unchanged. Snorkel on, face-down, I really was transported to another world. The absolute highlight being spotting and swimming along after a turtle.
I once had a brief introductory diving experience and didn’t really enjoy it. For me, snorkelling was perfect and I can’t imagine feeling any more absorbed in the underwater world even if I were far below the surface.
- Seeing the dolphins at Monkey Mia, Western Australia
I almost don’t want this to be as high up the list as it is, because, as it involved gathering on a shoreline shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists, it was a bit contrived and well ‘touristy’. But regardless, it is a stand-out memory. Bottlenose dolphins come right up to the shore numerous times every day as park rangers stand knee deep in the water and feed them. It’s pretty special. And would be an amazing family experience. This is one of the reasons why we’re taking a family gap year.
- Light aircraft flight into Kimberley, Western Australia
This was a one day trip that was about as far away from ‘budget’ as it’s possible to be. I agonised over whether I could justify the expense of seeing the northernmost region of WA. As far as I remember it was around £300 (a sizeable chunk of my entire trip fund). It’s still a bit heart stopping and yet I am so glad I did it.
In a light aircraft with only three others (two parents and their child), we landed by a waterhole in the national park, saw wild crocs and flew over Horizontal Falls. It was memorable also for the final stop at a remote beach where the aircraft pilot assured me there was no need to be concerned about the pink jellyfish flooding the water. Convinced he knew his stuff, I joined him to wade out into the shoals only for him to get stung and start screaming in pain. Thankfully, he quickly recovered and flew us home as if nothing had happened and, luckily for me, my quick retreat saved me from a similar fate.
- Self-drive camping trip to Fraser Island, Queensland
Just about every backpacker who travels down the east coast of Australia does this trip and there’s good reason for it. I was grouped with half a dozen other travellers by the hostel organising my trip. We were issued with some instructions, directions, camping equipment and a large 4×4 and off we went to spend a night or two camping on this huge sand island. An incredible adventure full of fantastic fun.
- Camping trip to Uluru
Much in the same vein as the trip above, this is a well-trodden backpacker experience. For me, whilst the destination was obviously a remarkable sight, the journey was the most memorable part. The real highlights were in the fun and games around the camp fire and laying down on the ground in the middle of the desert to sleep at night with not even a tent between us and the sky.
- Rottnest Island, near Perth, Western Australia
Just a short boat trip from Perth, this little island with its resident quokkas stole my heart. Hiring a bike to cycle the island is pretty de rigueur and regardless of it being a blowy and, at times, rainy occasion, I was mesmerised. I didn’t see the volume of quokkas many others seem to or at such close quarters, but I got close enough to at least one to feel pretty lucky. And even set below cloudy skies, pedalling my way to idyllic beaches where I could be entirely alone and see not a single footprint in the sand was an experience not to be missed. There’s accommodation on the island and I wished I’d stayed at least a night.
- Port Douglas, Queensland
Now this is a hazy one, the detail in my mind is minimal. All I know is this was one of my favourite spots in Australia. North of Cairns, Port Douglas is far less developed and has a much more natural feel with one of those, long, empty, white-sanded beaches Australia has aplenty. Though I took heed of advice to keep out of the water due to stinger jellyfish. Port Douglas is a day trip away from Mossman Gorge where I dangled my feet in a refreshing stream, atop and surrounded by its characteristic almost spherical smooth boulders, in the shadow of the rainforest.
- Uncle Brian’s Fun, Forest and Falls
That same friend who told me to go to Ningaloo also told me about Uncle Brian’s, Fun, Forest and Falls day trip from Cairns. Thanks to the endless clever little details packed in by this tour operator, the long bus journeys between movie-set waterfalls and swimming lakes were almost worth going on the trip for in themselves. A quick Google tells me the trips are still going. I hope they’re as good as they were when I went and that the age of the internet hasn’t spoiled all the surprises. I was totally unconvinced when told I’d be joining in with the sing-songs by the time we were homeward bound, but so relaxed and happy was I by then, I think I actually did join in. And that was even after suffering a deeply red face by leading the entries into the final ‘serene’ lake swim of the day with a particularly glorious belly flop as literally everyone from the bus looked on. And then rising majestically from the water as, actually in a bid to protect my honour, the driver and tour guide leapt forward pointing and shouting “Nipple!” My bikini had slipped, presumably due to my horror impact with the water.
- Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef
Regardless my love for Ningaloo Reef, there’s no denying the colours and extent of the Great Barrier Reef are unbeatable. I seem to recall being given the advice to access a trip out to the reef from a northern point away from the main crowds and on as small a boat as possible, again, to avoid hitting the water surrounded by dozens of others. That was advice that could be applied to most attractions. They’re generally better when you arrive with as few others as possible.
- Touching Sydney Opera House
When I lay in bed at night before my trip wondering if I’d really have the guts to go through with it, the iconic landmarks of Sydney were forefront of my mind. Would I really actually be there in that city I already knew so well from magazines and TV?
My first view of the Opera House was from Mrs Macquarie’s Point on the eastern edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens and I sat there for ages drinking it in. It was a wonderful spot to watch the landmark emerge into sight. Getting up close was equally brilliant, seeing and stroking the white tiles that make up its exterior after some of the best weeks of my life. Now that was unforgettable.
It’s great to look back on these moments, I’m hoping to relive at least some of them with my husband and son, 12 years on during our family gap year.