Australia is one of few countries that has kept its international borders closed, bar exemptions, since its first COVID-19 case. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the country closing its doors, how have residents filled the void of international travel?
The international venturing spirit is particularly strong in Australia. Even before lockdown, we already felt socially distanced from the world, sloshing around in ginormous, land-sparse Oceania, where it takes at least half a day to get anywhere requiring a passport.
It’s also fair to say that a good chunk of Australia’s population have ties to family in other countries. In remote ‘down under’, travel to other lands isn’t just a work break or jaunty escape—it’s often considered a rite of passage.
In pre-pandemic 2019, a record 11.3 million Australians went in search of overseas experiences, according to The Australian Bureau of Statistics. But the spread of COVID-19 put far-off destination dreams and heritage hankerings firmly in a holding pattern.
So what have Australians been doing instead?
Getting out of the built environment and back into nature, mainly. We’ve gone big on integrating green exercise into our travels. A surge in cycling emptied bike shops. #vanlife orders are stretched out to 2022. Popular national park camp spots are booked out weeks ahead.
Some found solace in the short and repetitive. Others took on epic feats. In an effort to support struggling communities, one crew of oddballs thought it was fun to pedal 80 kilometers through the wildfire-affected bush for a paddle of cider. But an overwhelming majority agreed that the pandemic presented them with an opportunity to slow down, dip into themselves, and be grateful for what Australia has to offer. This national eureka moment sent Australians scrambling into their 7,692,024 square-kilometer ‘backyard’ searching for something deeper.
Back to March 2020. Stirred by walking the French Way of the Camino de Santiago across Spain, Kath Norcross and Howie Gaskin shook up their Perth life with a view to embarking on a long-term European trekking odyssey. The midlife couple were living the last days of their rental contract with nothing but their backpacks and a few bits of furniture destined for donation, when Australia slammed its international border shut.
Their thoughts turned to one of the world’s great long-distance trails closer to home—Western Australia’s epic 1,000-kilometer Bibbulmun Track, which spans from the Perth hills to Albany on the south coast. “What did we expect?” Kath says. “Physical challenges, isolation, the chance to reconsider our future and an industrial effort in cooking, dehydrating and vacuum sealing two months of food.”
Ancient artefacts were the norm on the Camino, but it’s not what the couple expected to find on the Bibbulmun track. “We knew something of the natural delights that the route offers, especially the forests and coast, but nothing of the cultural journey, ancient geology and three-billion-year-old granite outcrops,” says Kath, who’s lived in Perth for 30 years after migrating to Australia from Hong Kong.
“Traveling here made us realize that, like in India, 19th-century colonialism destroyed a lot of culture. We’re keen to know what happened in reality and we want to travel here more.”
Anuj Haribhakti, traveler
The journey took a spiritual turn as Kath and Howie were inspired by the Traditional Owners to learn of the Noongar and Bibbulmun Peoples connection with nature and boodja (country). “We hugged trees, learned place names in Noongar language and tried to imagine the events that occurred long ago. We were inspired to learn more about our adopted land,” says Kath.
While plenty of travelers are interested in Indigenous cultural experiences, they don’t always know where to find them. New platforms such as Welcome to Country and Culture Connect are bridging the gap. “It would be great to see this become an intrinsic part of travel in Australia—at the very core of it.” Kath says.
Meanwhile in Melbourne, Anuj Haribhakti and Priyanka Patel have visited 20 countries in the past five years on a quest see all seven of the world’s new wonders. In their 30s, the couple also love hiking and learning about history through their adventures, but admit to not traveling much in Australia since moving here from India in 2006.
At lockdown, like many, they reset their compass to ‘backyard’. “We went all the way to Costa Rica to walk on hanging bridges and ride zip lines though the rainforest—but it’s been here the whole time,” says Anuj of his discovery of Victoria’s Tree Top Walk.
Wowed by Queensland’s unique side-by-side natural wonders, Anuj and Priyanka say the Daintree rainforest is as good as the Amazon, and they’re now learning to swim so they can scuba-dive the Great Barrier Reef.
But when the couple took a deeper dive into Australia’s history, they make a discovery that is all too familiar. “When we migrated to Australia, we didn’t know a lot about Indigenous culture,” says Anuj. “Traveling here made us realize that, like in India, 19th-century colonialism destroyed a lot of culture. We’re keen to know what happened in reality and we want to travel here more. Our journey from here starts with The Uluru Statement, and a trip to the Red Center.”
“When you hear how Indigenous people protect the ecosystem of the reef, it will blow your mind.”
Kristal Chapman, nurse/traveler
In New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, the back-to-nature craving has kept SES Bush Search and Rescue Volunteer Caro Ryan busier than usual. To soothe the stir-crazy concoction of COVID-19 and a mass invasion of townies racing to reconnect, Caro found comfort in the art of ‘Shinrin Yoku’—that’s forest bathing in Japanese.
The Sydneysider, who fell in love with the wilderness 20 years ago while sleeping in a cave overhang, walks the same, secret five-kilometer bush track every day for a mindfulness getaway. “Time slows down and each day, I see something I haven’t seen before,” Caro says. “It’s not just about what I see. It’s also about what I hear, smell and touch.”
Studies in Japan show that taking in the forest atmosphere through our senses triggers feel-good moods and improves mental health. Physiological effects, such as blood pressure reduction, kick in too. And phytoncides—a chemical released by trees and plants—can improve immune functions, scientists say. The Japanese government are so convinced of the health benefits that they’re dishing out doses of ‘Shinrin Yoku’ on prescription.
However, our rush to the Blue Mountains bush isn’t all good news. Caro, who also shares handy how-tos for looking after yourself in the bush environment online, says the daily reset helped her through the pressure of her search-and-rescue volunteering. More people in the bush, of course, means more people unprepared in the bush—and she dealt with a surge in searches for people who made basic errors, like running out of water.
But could it be that our elixir for the 21st century—the simple practice of eucalypt bush-sniffing—has been under our noses since time began? Caro thinks so. “We’re always thinking somewhere else is better,” she says. “But when the choice is taken away from us, we realize what’s been in front of us the whole time.”
In the Northern Territory, nurse Kristal Chapman and 20-year-old son Tommy are planning their next adventure. The mum-and-son travel team typically get their adventure kicks surfing in Sri Lanka or tackling a long-distance European hike. “I live for the packing of a backpack, the unease of airport transitions, and the ups-and-downs of exploring other places,” says Kristal from her sketchy cell reception in Kakadu National Park.
The pandemic shifts Kristal’s plans back to the minefield of knowledge she still has to explore in the hundreds of Aboriginal Countries on home turf. The proud Mitakoodi woman from Queensland has taken her son on ‘mini’ Australian adventures since he was a bub. “In Mossman Gorge, I learnt about the rainforest plants and trees that were different from the ones on my country (Cloncurry).” The custodians of the gorge taught Kristal about the therapeutic powers of bush plants, which have been passed through generations of First Nations People of those lands. “There is still so much for me and my son to learn,” she says.
Kristal heads to her “second home”—the Great Barrier Reef. She formed a strong connection with the earth’s largest living organism growing up in Cairns and Townsville. “I respect the reef like it were my own country. When I die, some of my ashes will go to Cloncurry and some will come to the reef,” she explains. “Even though it’s not my land, I can feel the spiritual connection. We can all have a connection Indigenous lands. Every Australian can be a part of it.”
Kristal and Tommy have had countless reef experiences from Green and Fitzroy islands to the Whitsundays, but when they joined the marine biologists and Indigenous sea rangers on Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel, they were taken to a whole new enlightened world. “When you hear how Indigenous people protect the ecosystem of the reef, it will blow your mind.” Kristal explains.
Jiritju Fourmile, from the Gimuy Wallubarra Tribe, invites you to feel the reef. “The flow of the ocean runs through our veins. Through every leaf to every piece of coral. We want you to take a piece of Dreamtime home with you, a piece of our culture. We are family. You are as much a part of our culture as we are of yours.”
All over Australia, Traditional Owners are opening doors into a spiritual world of timeless traditions that can connect us more deeply with our natural earth. And for all the chaos and calamity this pandemic has dealt, it seems that now, more than ever, Australians are finally walking through those doors.
Exploring Australia’s cultural history, landscapes and natural wonders is an ancient rite of passage, and it was here the whole time. It just took the slamming shut of our international borders for many Australians to decide to get up, head out, and see it for themselves.