Half a world away

Chapter 1 of Long gone in the back of beyond

Three years I’ve been gone.

Three years ago I was unhappy, doing better than I had been in any of the previous 10 years, but still not living a life that I could bear. For 18 months I’d been trying to bury myself in my work in the warehouse of a retail outlet making barely more than minimum wage. But it wasn’t going to cure me; putting on a face couldn’t change the fact that I found no joy in anything. I’d been putting money away since I started that job; I just hadn’t known quite what for yet.

I gave my notice at work and booked a visa and a one way ticket to Melbourne on the same day. Australia, almost the furthest place on earth from England1. I think I was almost as surprised as my boss. My visa was approved the same day I applied and with that I was impatient to go. I spent my two weeks’ notice on night shifts, working with Dale who I’d been good friends with since working night shifts together the year before. Working nights suited me then. As dawn broke I’d cycle home weary, the waking workforce streaming in the other direction.

I wanted to make the effort to say good bye to a few people. Nights were given over to bowling with work mates, to several “last” nights on the town, and to meals out with family and friends. As soon as I’d worked my notice, I took the train to Totnes in Devon to visit an old friend who’d left the city several years before. On his recommendation we spent the evening in Ottery St Mary where a few thousand people, mostly locals, come together once a year to celebrate Gunpowder Treason Day2 by racing through the town carrying barrels of burning tar over their heads. Blurry photos capture little of the sight and none of the sound. Faces and façades flickered and sparkled as each of the 17 barrels approached, bringing with them the roar of flame and crowd alike before racing past, receding, and plunging the town centre back into the conspiratorial murmur that had preceded it, awaiting the next. Some of the bearers would linger, then rush, turn, rush again, the crowd parting and collapsing each time, barrels swirling at head height, hot against my face.

The following day we borrowed helmets and wetsuits and spent the day coasteering, swimming and scaling Anstey’s Cove near Babbacombe. The camera stayed on dry land. In the late afternoon we explored the Dartington estate and ate dinner at the pub. As the train carried me back to Bristol it struck me that I was returning “home” for what was likely to be the last time in a good long while.

There wasn’t much of a life in need of unwinding. I sold some of my things, gave others away, packed and repacked the lunchbox-sized backpack I had decided could carry everything I needed to move to the other side of the world. Besides the clothes on my back I was bringing two extra shirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, my passport, and my camera.

Helen drove me to the airport. We talked less than perhaps either of us expected; I was pensive. We dawdled for a little while in the terminal but it had to be goodbye eventually.

I think having never flown long haul I had anticipated an uncomfortable flight, but it wasn’t to be: I slept easily, watched two forgettable films, read, had a quick changeover in Kuala Lumpur and landed in Melbourne 25 hours after boarding in London.

Photos above from over London, Kuala Lumpur, and Melbourne respectively. Below, inside the terminals at Heathrow and Kuala Lumpur, and outside the international terminal after arriving in Melbourne.


Landing in Melbourne just before 11AM, it was 26c, much hotter than the British winter I’d just left behind. After checking into the third floor of a hostel that would close its doors shortly after I checked out, and meeting two of my three bunk mates, one Israeli, one Spanish, I crossed the three streets to St Kilda beach to bask in the beating sun.

In those first days I remember wandering around parks, gripped by how bizarre the common birds seemed compared to the scruffy city pigeons, gulls and blackbirds back home. Home. Already that was starting to sound strange. My second day began as hot as the first but delivered a downpour all of a sudden mid-afternoon. I’d soon learn what a meteorological menace Melbourne could be, often squeezing four seasons into a single day.

At nearly ten times the population and area of Bristol, Melbourne felt huge. The Botanic Gardens offered a getaway from its manic drumbeat and I spent many a sunny afternoon there with a book and something like a smile.

A musician plays in the heart of Melbourne; the city skyline visible from the Botanic Gardens; some of the birds I encountered.


Like a great many before me, Fitzroy was the first of Melbourne’s suburbs to stitch itself into my heart. More than a few of its vegan-friendly haunts took me by the stomach and hauled me through their doors. Op-shops ladled out their bargains: I needed shorts, the princely sum of four dollars had me a pair that I liked well enough.

Fitzroy flaunting its charms on a sunny day.

A Roadtrip

My fourth day I took a road trip out of the city with an Aussie, two Germans and Grisha, the Israeli from the bunk below me. Hiking the hills around Kinglake I saw the destruction caused by the Black Saturday bushfires that had ravaged Victoria in 2009, killing 173 people. Even 8 years later the destruction seemed stark – a sea of bare trees, charred, dead – but new growth was heaving out of the earth, eucalyptus trees racing to the heights of the blackened trunks still standing.

Our hike delivered us through plains teeming with kangaroos, the first I’d ever seen, who stood solid, alert and imposing before turning tail and bolting comically away from us.

It seems not many of the photos I took that day capture the scars of the bushfires but in the second photo you can at least see the leafless trees in the foreground to get an idea.

Making plans

The rest of my first week passed quickly in the company of that rag tag gang and a Danish trio, exploring the sights and lounging on St Kilda beach during the day and at night turning our attention to the bars cloistered in the alleys between Collins and Little Bourke St. It was as good an introduction to the city as I could have wished for, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. The week had made clear that it wasn’t good relationships with others I was yearning for, but rather a better relationship with my self. I’d flown to the far side of the earth to escape myself only to realise I needed to spend a great deal more time in the company of yours truly. At the end of that week mum messaged me to ask if knew what I might do now. I replied that I was…

thinking of getting a bike and cycling a lot but not entirely sure where yet.

I’d begun looking at bikes that morning. Three days later, having toured many of the city’s bike shops, I walked into Velo Cycles in Carlton North and was charmed by the sight of a simple, sturdy looking frame. With the frame having chosen itself, the rest of the design quickly fell into place: drop bars, because that’s where I’m comfiest; a wide gear ratio for climbing the hills of Victoria; disc brakes for steep descents; a rear rack for panniers to carry all my worldly possessions.

Left to do it again I might have sprung for a cheaper frame and build-out but I don’t harbour any regret over it: that bike, my bike, was what my unhappy soul needed to begin a journey along which I would discover joy, energy, the kindness of others, and the goodness in me. I found a life I’d not have dared to imagine on that bike, and love too. But that lay ahead — I wasn’t even cycling yet.

It took a while for all the parts to arrive. In the interim I left the hostel and moved into a tiny corrugated shed in a backyard in Richmond where I started to piece together the rest of my kit, some of it bought new, the rest from op shops and bins: sleeping bag, sleeping mat, panniers, dry bags, tent, raincoat, sandals, basic first aid, etc.

By the 13th of December my bike was ready and the following day I took a trip out of the city to test my old legs and my new wheels. I cycled 75 kilometres, to Heathmont and back, stopping in a nature reserve along the way. But I still felt tethered to the city, the sprawling suburbs of the city never far out of sight nor mind. Even still, moving under my own steam, that taste of freedom and of something that actually felt good… it was then that I became sure that I would cycle around the country. I don’t know why exactly, but I knew that I could do it. I could do it because I wanted to, and I wanted to because it made sense to me. Planning things isn’t a natural strength of mine, I prefer to make a start and just solve problems as and when they arise. This part of my nature pulled me toward a circumnavigation attempt, not because it seemed grand in itself, but because conceptually that felt simpler than deciding where to go. If I just did all of it I didn’t have to choose! Even still I didn’t rush to tell anyone of my ambition, I knew that I could do it, but I couldn’t exactly explain why and any attempt would have probably had me coming off a bit mad.

There wasn’t much left to do. I had use of the shed until the morning of the 18th so that seemed as good a date as any to set off and gave me a couple of days to fill in any obvious gaps in my kit; the rest would show themselves in time.

Out of the city

After exactly a month in the city, and by extension in the country, I set off going east. It was late afternoon. I’d spent the day hanging out at Commuter Cycles, so I wasn’t planning a big day’s ride. I hugged the Yarra River, winding toward its source amongst the mountains of the distant ranges. I wasn’t in a hurry — I didn’t yet know where I was going. Over the next few days I pedalled the hills around Mount Evelyn, getting used to exerting myself in the heat, taking in the lush beauty of the region.

In Yarra Junction I overheard that some of the farms nearby were short on pickers and thought I’d try my hand at it. And so I spent two weeks over Christmas picking blueberries, raspberries and strawberries in the Yarra Valley. Most of the pickers worked year round, moving with the seasons to wherever the work was. Compared to these veterans, I was a slow picker. There was no resentment though; we were all paid by the weight of our output. My inexperience fuelled their lively teasing and each day I picked a little faster until I was no longer the slowest in the fields. I was gentle enough with the berries that I was trusted with harvesting the delicate raspberries, paid hourly so as to discourage the rough haste that characterised blueberry picking. The berries I ate in those weeks would have run to hundreds of dollars and tasted better than any I’d had prior — naturally we only ate the best and juiciest fruits. One day the farmer indicated, with a raised eyebrow but otherwise good humour, that he thought there might have been a bit more on fruit on a few of the bushes than had made it into the trays that day.

We had Christmas Day off, the farmer not being keen to pay us holiday rates. I spent it eating crackers and berries and walking through the forest where I’d pitched my tent.

I picked for another week but the farmer turned sour on me after learning that I was sleeping out in the forest a little ways down the road. He decided that I ought to take a room in the bunkhouse “for my safety”, sternly warning me of the danger posed by snakes. The other pickers mostly stayed there, but by their account my tent was probably more comfortable. We soon learned that the farmer got a kickback for any picker in his fields who lodged at the bunkhouse.

I set off again, drawing a zig-zag line from Noojee to Warburton, visiting the enormous Upper Yarra Reservoir before climbing over a thousand metres of elevation up Woods Point Road. Relief came in the form of a twenty kilometre descent, parts of it taken at over seventy kilometres an hour, before rolling into Marysville. Here, 34 lives had been lost and the town almost completely destroyed by the Black Saturday bushfires. I spent nearly a week in that town nestled amongst the trees, much of it journaling, trying to record the changes I felt in myself. When night fell I would push out of town and sleep in the woods beside the aptly named Paradise Plains Road.

From Marysville I turned back toward Melbourne — there were a couple of additions I wanted to make to the bike before settling in for the long haul — stopping in Warburton and Lilydale on the route back, still in no hurry to get anywhere.

Arriving back in the city, it just felt big, more imposing even than when I’d first arrived. I wasn’t sure how far my savings would take me in my travels but any notion I might have harboured of working here in the city for a little while was thrown out when I returned. I’d find work somewhere a little more human scale if the need arose. I pitched my tent somewhat brazenly on a golf course in spitting distance of the heart of the city for a few nights while I hunted down a front basket for the bike and a few other things for my kit. In hindsight I do wonder why the groundsmen didn’t turf me out.

My bike with its new basket lent against a foutain in Melbourne

Leaving Melbourne again, I decided to follow the coast for a while. “A while” turned into seven months.

Part 2 isn’t ready yet but hang tight and I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually.

  1. In terms of distance, second only to New Zealand, the country I’m writing this from now.↩︎︎

  2. Better known as Guy Fawkes Night these days.↩︎︎