Exploring Australia's hinterland: My incredible road trip ended with a trip down the aisle
I remember sitting in Melbourne airport cursing myself. It was 6am and it had just occurred to my jetlagged brain that I might not even recognise the uncle who was coming to collect us. I had, I thought, quit a job on a national newspaper that many people would kill for, in the middle of a recession, and uprooted my boyfriend so that we could fly around the world to meet a family I knew next-to-nothing about.
With only my memory of a 12-year-old photo on my parents' wall to go on, I paced around the terminal wondering despondently whether various men with beards could be our lift, and whether they would recognise me if they were. Then a man walked in, a foot shorter and a decade older than my clean-shaven dad, and it was immediately obvious who he was: Uncle Russell.
As I followed him to the car, I noticed how he walked in the same manner as my dad and how his hair was salt-and-pepper in exactly the same way. Shortly after we got to his house, my Aunt Marion berated him for eating a cheese toastie (with Benecol spread, his concession to high cholesterol) and he grinned in precisely the same way as my father does when my mum castigates him for precisely the same crime. This despite the fact that my dad has lived in the UK for almost 40 years and the brothers have seen each other fewer than half a dozen times in that period.
My boyfriend and I were 27 years old and a month into our year away when we arrived in Melbourne. During this long-planned odyssey, we did countless incredible things. We saw orangutans in Borneo, spent two months volunteering with a group of amazing Peruvian single mothers and – last but absolutely not least – got engaged, in a dingy $6 hostel room in Cambodia, after the aforementioned boyfriend had, by his own later admission, bottled out of popping the question in some of the world's most beautiful places. But for me, as someone with very little experience of extended family (my mother's only sibling passed away when I was very young), spending time with my fellow Yeomans was perhaps the most memorable part of all.
Australia in general was a revelation. Despite being a passport-carrying citizen of Down Under (a document I used for the first time, feeling like a fraud, on arrival at Melbourne), I had not been since I was three months old and probably wouldn't have gone this time had it not been for the family connection. I, like many people, thought I knew all there was to know about the land of Neighbours and shrimps on barbies. On a trip that was to include drinking moonshine with Laotian villagers, what could Aussies have to show me? A lot, it turned out – not least a sense of freedom, the like of which I have experienced nowhere else.
On the family front, I met uncles, aunts, cousins and their children. I saw my dad's first home, drank expensive wine with his now-affluent childhood tennis partner in Sydney and ate lentil burgers with a somewhat more laidback former school friend in Byron Bay. It filled in a whole chapter of my back story, and I loved it.
But our nearly three months in Australia also included weeks on end when my boyfriend and I were alone – really alone, as it turned out. On arrival in Cairns, in the northeast, having taken an organised group trip across the centre via Uluru, we took the snap decision to hire a clapped-out camper and hit the road. For a whole month of our lives, we woke up every day not knowing where we would sleep that night or where we'd be for the intervening hours. As long as we eventually got to Sydney, 1,491 miles south, the rest was up to our whims.
And so, rather than sticking to the well-travelled coast, we took our van (actually a converted people carrier with a mattress in the back and spray-painted pictures of heavy-metal band Mötley Crüe down the sides) inland, to the lush green, oft-forgotten hinterland between beach and Outback, and were handsomely rewarded. Here were national parks put there exclusively, it seemed, for us. We cooked on campfires watched only by kangaroos, drank beer in front of unspoilt views that you'd expect to share with hordes of others, and took cold showers in the company of tree frogs. It was travel on a very tight budget, but of the sort you can do only with the luxury of time, and that leaves indelible shared memories.
We were back in Melbourne in time for an Aussie family Christmas – more British than Britain in the Yeoman case, with plum pudding, hams and all the trimmings – which was followed in more Antipodean style by the Boxing Day test match, before Uncle Russell drove us back to the airport to begin the next leg of our trip. That was the end of 2009. Since returning to the UK seven months later, I have got another job on a national newspaper and got married to my travel companion. Real life has re-established itself, and we won't be spending months on the open road again any time soon. Not everything about that year was easy. There were sacrifices that had to be made, and other days like that morning in the airport when I questioned the whole escapade. But I am eternally grateful that we did it once.
* Favourite of long-stay language students, American arts scholars and novelists, there's perhaps nowhere more seductive for a long stint than Florence. A surfeit of British holiday homes means that out of season, accommodation in Tuscany is both plentiful and affordable. Homeaway.co.uk
* Culturally challenging and endlessly colourful, India is a great place to beat a retreat. Head south to Goa or Kerala to live cheap and cheerful, head for the hills and take a contemplative break in an ashram, or volunteer in a school. Thecareerbreaksite.com
* Last chance to live cheaply in Croatia, as the country joins the EU this summer. As it stands, this Balkan beauty is still affordable by Med standards and offers pristine coastlines, undeveloped islands plus superb food and wine. Croatia.hr
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