An 87-hour bus trip made Australia feel like home for me – now I long to rediscover it | Caroline Riches

Despite its manifold woes, 2020 has one silver lining: the chance to understand our own country better

When I spent a year in Australia as a young Brit on a working holiday visa in 2000, I took a bus from Broome to Sydney. It took 87 hours.

We hurtled over rugged red earth to Katherine, pelted down the Stuart Highway to Adelaide, dining with truckies, swooning over outback sunsets and enjoying eccentric tales in quirky roadhouses. From Adelaide we powered east across dry brown plains, honking road trains and knocking kangaroos along the way.

Somewhere in mid-western New South Wales, I plunged into the deep sleep of the highway-hypnotised, waking as we traversed the misty Blue Mountains, before descending into the coastal plains toward Sydney. We’d made it.

I’d arrived in Australia fresh out of university and ready for adventure. The promise of romance made me buy the plane ticket, but the lure of a place relatively easy to travel around and so different from my homeland made me stay.

That first free year I wanted to comprehend its size, feel its emptiness, meet its characters. Travelling at ground level enabled this – and was cheaper.

So I picked grapes at wineries in south-eastern Western Australia while sharing bunks and cask wine with backpackers. I graded potatoes for Australian supermarkets while living on a farm where they hunted emus that dug up the crop (I’ll never forget the sight of their spindly legs hanging limp over the kitchen sink in the morning).

I traversed the Great Victoria Desert from Perth to Alice Springs, sleeping in a swag, digging my own toilet and learning about the hydrating qualities of green ants. I walked around Uluru, I swam under Kimberley waterfalls, and I snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef. I drove the Great Ocean Road, then danced at a sweltering Womadelaide.

Caroline Riches on a bus journey through central Australia
Caroline Riches as a working holiday maker on a bus journey through the outback. Photograph: Caroline Riches

Fast forward 20 years and this land is no longer my playground: it’s my home. I have Australian children and a blue passport emblazoned with a kangaroo and an emu, animals chosen to symbolise a nation on the move because neither can move backwards easily. I too have moved forward with my life; my cross-country adventures are over.

But they say you always want what you can’t have.

With Australia slowly opening up again as coronavirus restrictions ease, with beleaguered businesses desperately in need of the tourist dollar after nine months of fire and pestilence, and after so much time at home, I’m longing to discover this country again.

It seems I’m not alone. Though many interstate borders are yet to open, 65% of Australians are already feeling comfortable to travel within Australia, according to a Travel and Tourism Trends Report commissioned by PayPal, and conducted by ACA Research in June. Just 4% of those surveyed said they would feel comfortable “travelling broadly” overseas. Though numbers have understandably nosedived year on year, in areas of Australia that are less-affected by Covid-19, a snapshot survey by Tourism Research Australia shows that overnight spend by domestic tourists has increased steadily every month from April to June.

I know of colleagues and friends who are already planning big trips around the continent. One optimist has even bought an RV, with plans to continue homeschooling her kids as they cross the country. “We can’t go overseas for a while, so for once, we’re going to make the most of being in Australia,” she says.

It’s about time. Many of us have bungee jumped in New Zealand, skied Japan or summered in Europe, but have never seen the Top End.

Pre-Covid-19, the Northern Territory welcomed one million interstate visitors each year, according to Tourism Research Australia. Yet we took 1.5 million trips to New Zealand in 2019, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Why have we always been less interested in our own backyard?

“Australians have wanderlust and a spirit of adventure in their DNA,” says Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison.

“As an island nation, we’ve always had a yearning to escape our shores and see what the rest of the world has to offer.”

All up, Australians made 11 million overseas trips for leisure in 2019, spending $65bn, says Tourism Australia. That spending outstrips the money international visitors spent in Australia by $26bn, according to an August report from Tourism Research Australia.

While Australians alone can’t fully compensate for the loss of foreign visitors to our shores for the time being, we can offer sizeable relief. Domestic travellers typically contribute around 70% of Australia’s near-$150bn tourism economy, according to the Australian Tourism Industry Council.

“There is a real opportunity to keep valuable tourism dollars in Australia,” says Harrison.

At the same time, foregoing air travel is climate friendly, more flexible (and will save you some cash).

Travel will look a little different for a while. You’ll need to book ahead no matter what you choose to do, so venues can manage numbers. Social distancing rules still apply everywhere, and there’s always a risk your plans (however modest) might have to change.

But if you are able to travel, it is worth it. You should never waste a crisis. Despite its woes, this year has provided a perfect opportunity for new Australians to discover their homeland, and native Australians to better understand it.

I value what I saw of this stunning country before it became my home. With a greater understanding of Australia came a greater attachment.

Whether it’s paddling empty beaches, sipping on world-class wine in South Australia, spotting our uniquely bizarre wildlife, or hearing ancient stories from the world’s oldest continuous living culture, the experiences awaiting us in our vast backyard are endless.

Caroline Riches

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fossil fever: driving and digging in a long lost sea on Australia’s dinosaur trail
Picturing western Queensland as the floor of an ocean takes imagination – but it doesn’t take long to find evidence of prehistoric plenty

Bronwen Scott

08, Jun, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Four of the best Tasmanian road trips – from someone who's done them all
Whether you’ve got a long weekend or time to circumnavigate the entire island, Tasmania fits a lot of hits into a very small space

Ruth Dawkins

05, Nov, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
A 2,000km road trip through north-west NSW: hot bore baths, ancient traps and chaotic courtesy buses
Thundering down red dirt roads and through the country’s largest native forest shows Australia has a vast backyard

Kate Hennessy

31, Oct, 2020 @7:00 PM

Article image
Route vegetables: a four-day, vegetarian-friendly road trip through Mudgee and Orange
NSW’s central west region is already known for its excellent food and fine cool climate wines – but if you don’t eat meat, does its reputation hold up?

Alexandra Spring

23, Jan, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
The Great Green Way: a seven-day drive down the coast of tropical north Queensland
Life is returning to Australia’s tropical tourist destinations – but without international visitors, the drive from Port Douglas to Townsville via Cairns has a prevailing sense of calm

Paul Karp

28, Jan, 2021 @3:14 AM

Article image
'The kids are loving it – they’re doing TikToks on the creek': how Covid is rewriting travel bucket lists
Locked out of other states and shut off from the world, Australians are swapping Rome for Roma (in outback Queensland) and rethinking the ways they holiday

Sally Dillon

28, Sep, 2020 @4:45 AM

Article image
The five best road trips in WA, NT and SA – according to someone who's done them all
After spending six months on the road in central and Western Australia, Farrin Foster shares her favourite routes, from short trips to something more ambitious

Farrin Foster

13, Nov, 2020 @3:25 AM

Article image
The epicurean way: a four-day road trip around South Australia's wine regions
From the oldest vines in the world to experimental natural wines, this round trip from Adelaide involves fairly short drives and some of Australia’s best produce

Alexis Buxton-Collins

14, Oct, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
Keep calm and carry on: how Australians can have a hand luggage holiday – with kids or long haul
Begone, baggage carousels: it’s entirely possible to travel with only what you can cram into a carry-on. Hand luggage pros share their tips

Alexandra Carlton

25, Jul, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Call of the wild: eight extraordinary nature encounters across Australia
From swimming with cuttlefish to an island of fluffy wombats, where to get back to nature as travel restrictions ease

Susan Gough Henly

04, Jun, 2020 @5:30 PM