I grasped the book of plane tickets in my hand and walked back outside from the warm STA travel office into the cold, wet, November weather. As I found somewhere to shelter out of the wind and rain, I called my Mum and told her I had just bought my round the world ticket.
My dream of heading off to Australia for a year, on a working holiday visa, was becoming reality.
Excitement was setting in. I made my last plans, handed in my notice at my job in financial services, and started to pack up my belongings.
Once I had stored most of my things in friends’ attics, I was left with a big wheelie holdall of clothes (which mostly turned out to not be very useful in Australia), a rucksack, and absolutely no idea of what the next year had in store for me. I also packed some spare camera film just in case you couldn’t buy film in Sydney! Given that my knowledge of life in Australia was based on a combination of Crocodile Dundee and the trials and tribulations of Ramsay St, I didn’t want to take any chances.
I travelled to Sydney with Qantas, via a few days in New York City. After a week or so of intense jet lag and homesickness (and wondering what in the world I had let myself in for), the adventure of a lifetime began..
My trip to Australia, via New York, was the start of many years of solo travel adventures – and now adventures with my husband – all around the world.
When I heard recently that STA Travel had been one of the latest victims of the pandemic-led recession, I felt incredibly sad. The company was one of the reasons I was able to take the huge step of leaving my job and home, and heading off to the other side of the world on my own.
Together with BUNAC (who are thankfully still in business as I write), the staff at STA travel helped give me the confidence to make my travel dream a reality.
Although online travel booking was becoming popular by this time, travel agents were still widely used, and paper tickets issued. Although I could have done all of the administration myself, it was nice to sit down face-to-face with a travel expert, talk about my flight options, and ensure my visa application was all in order.
STA also ran information evenings in their branches, where like-minded adventurers could mingle, have a glass of wine, and listen to presentations about Australia, and other destinations. It made you feel as though you were part of something, and had a support system.
I had also purchased a basic support package with BUNAC, which included my transfer from the airport in Sydney, 3 nights accommodation at one of the main hostels, and help with setting up a bank account and tax number. They also had an incredibly useful centre in Sydney, where you could grab a coffee, use the internet (we didn’t have smart phones or iPads back in the day.. or Google maps for that matter!), search for jobs, and store excess luggage.
I think they still offer similar package, which I would recommend.
I spent a year living in various parts of Australia, working along the way to pay for my travel and accommodation.
In Sydney I rented an overpriced room near Bondi Beach, in a house with two other girls, a few cockroaches, and a friendly snake which sometimes hung around behind the outside washing machine. On the walk home from work, I had to dodge the large black fruit bats, which would dive bomb me in the dark. But the beautiful sweet smell of Frangipani flowers wafting down from the trees made up for it.
I worked for temping agencies in the city, and found a fantastic recruitment consultant at Michael Page, who helped to keep me employed during my time there.
I was always ready to work at short notice, doing everything from reception cover high up in the AMP Centre, support at a marketing agency in Pyrmont, or stuffing envelopes for a day if there was nothing else available!
On the work front, things in Sydney were going well.. unfortunately I was completely unprepared for how cold it can get in the winter! I arrived in Australia in April, and as autumn started turning into winter, the wind coming in off the South Pacific could be brutal.
I had naively assumed that Australia was always warm – and hadn’t really packed any suitable cold weather clothes. This meant some quick dashes into stores on my way to work to buy a couple of jumpers and scarves (and a plan to escape to the tropical climes of Queensland as soon as possible!).
The older houses in Bondi have not been constructed to conserve heat, and there was no central heating (my new Australian friends looked at me in bewilderment when I asked why there were no radiators). I have fond memories of taping closed the gaps in the single-paned windows of the 1930s building I was living in, and gathering around a one-bar electric heater!
Views of Sydney CBD, the Opera House, and my personal ferry at Circular Quay!
Once in Queensland, I spent some time in the tropical North, starting in Cairns (where I had my first run in with the power of the Aussie sunshine – my Boots factor-30 I had brought with me was not going to cut it!). I made my way down the coast, via Mission Beach and Magnetic Island, stopping in Airlie Beach for a while, close to the incomparably beautiful Whitsunday Islands.
As someone who is happiest in the sun and warmth, I soon realised Queensland was the place for me. I worked on the reception desk of a hostel, selling adventure sailing trips and checking in visitors. Days off were spent sailing, sunbathing, and avoiding the giant spiders and salt water crocodiles.
In Brisbane, I worked for a short time in administration on a construction site, where I had to wear a hard hat just to go to the ladies room!
Later, in Adelaide, I worked in the office of their most beloved chocolate company. The sweet smell of chocolate wafted around the building, and it was always freezing cold in the office area!
It wasn’t always easy to find work, and of course, even on a working “holiday”, there are still the mundane parts of daily life to deal with – rent, bills and taxation. Finding accommodation, accessing medical care.
I also had some remote support from some amazing close friends back home.
Any difficult days were soon mitigated by the fact that I was living and working within a stones throw of beautiful beaches, and the weather was almost always sunny.
Although most of the memories of my time in Australia are positive ones (aside from freezing in Sydney!), it’s important to remember that any travel, especially as a solo female, carries some risk.
In recent years, there have been cases of backpackers being attacked, and even a horrific murder of two British travellers in a hostel in Townsville. It’s shocking to think that these things can happen in places where many of us have stayed in similar situations.
Of course, these events are incredibly rare, but they reinforce the fact that travellers need to be constantly aware of their personal safety.
The advent of social media has come with its own pros and cons for travellers. When I was on my working holiday, Facebook had only just launched in the US, and we kept in touch via ‘phone, email and postcards. Digital photos were printed or downloaded.
Social media makes it easier for travellers today to keep in touch with family and friends back home, and share photos as as they go. The flip side is that it makes it easier to contact strangers online, and meet up in real life. People you would never have actually come across on your travels. Individuals with less than honourable intentions can also target backpackers more easily. Everyone’s personal information and whereabouts is out there for all to see.
Although most of my working holiday was incident-free, there were some occasions when I was around people or in situations which didn’t feel safe to me. In those times, I put my safety first, and got out of the situation, or sought advice from the staff at the accommodation I was staying in.
Roger Maynard, a veteran Sydney-based journalist, is the author of Milat: The Full Horror of the Backpacker Murders (thankfully I hadn’t read this before travelling!);
The vast majority of travellers will head home with treasured memories and friendships that will never fade, but Australia should come with a precautionary health warning, according to Mr Maynard.
“The problem is a lot of young people who come here tend to think it is very much like back home and they get a false sense of security, and they tend to drop their guard,” he said.
“They might party too much and they may not be quite as responsible as they might be back home. Be responsible, be aware of potential dangers but don’t let it ruin your trip.”Source: BBC News
Also of concern in recent years, is the treatment and pay of migrant workers, an estimated 64,000 of whom are illegally in Australia.
A study by law professors at University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and University of New South Wales (UNSW), concluded that one in three backpackers and a quarter of foreign students working in Australia are being paid about half the minimum wage or less (source: “Wage Theft in Australia” report).
The BBC reported this week that an Australian employer has been fined over the death of a Belgian backpacker who collapsed from heat stress while working on a farm picking fruit.
Australia’s fruit-picking sector has faced much criticism over conditions.
In recent years, several other cases of backpacker exploitation, underpayment and abuse have come to light.
Industry representatives have argued such issues are not widespread, but critics say backpackers are vulnerable in the usually isolated, rural areas.(BBC News)
When the Coronavirus hit this year, millions of temporary workers in Australia found themselves out of work, and unable to access any government support. Many found themselves literally unable to fly home, due to ever-changing travel restrictions and sudden border closures.
There are more than 1.1 million temporary workers in Australia – international students, working holidaymakers, bridging visa holders, those on temporary protection or safe haven visas – most are ineligible for all of the government’s assistance packages.
Migrant workers have been acutely affected by the widespread layoffs as a result of Covid-19. Many work in hospitality, retail and services, some of the industries hit hardest by shutdowns, and few have family and community networks they can turn to.
Source: Ben Doherty, Josh Taylor & Paul Karp for The Guardian
While many working holiday makers remain stranded in Australia and other countries, with funds running out, the borders remain closed for new entrants, aside from citizens.
The Australian Government is citing late 2021 as the soonest time that borders may reopen. With the Coronavirus pandemic continuing around the world, it’s impossible to predict how travel will continue to be affected for the next year or so.
New Zealand has stated from 10 August 2020, they are temporarily suspending applications for working holiday visas from outside New Zealand.
The information on the Canadian Government website is confusing, but states that as a temporary worker, you’re exempt from travel restrictions if you’re coming for an essential (non-discretionary) purpose.
International Experience Canada (IEC) state that they will not be sending out new rounds of invitations at this time. They are on hold until further notice.
As we head into winter (at least here in the Northern hemisphere), with no sign of the world reopening, and 7 months into travel restrictions, it’s difficult to know what the future holds for working holiday visas. Or any other type of travel.
I feel so passionately about the benefit of working holidays, or spending time abroad, that I have jokingly said before it should be made mandatory to everyone under 30. Of course, not everyone wants to travel far, or has the opportunity, or ability. Many take a different path in life, and are motivated by other things. Career and family often take priority at this age.
In my opinion, travelling in your 20s and 30s, especially as a solo traveller, is one of the most character-building pursuits you can undertake. While exploring the Commonwealth, or other countries, you’ll learn essential life skills and increased confidence which will last forever. The knowledge that you can travel to the other side of the world, find employment and make new friends, will set you in good stead for living a life of independence.
If you’re lucky enough to be eligible for a working holiday visa – assuming they continue to be available – I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
As we wait for the world to re-open, and to see what the “new normal” brings, I can only hope that future travellers and future generations continue to have this opportunity for the adventure of a lifetime.
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