I lived and travelled through Australia for over 2 years after I graduated from university and there are times when it feels like my life there was all a dream. My memories are of days spent under the hot WA sun, swimming in the ocean chasing turtles and waves and not having a care in the world. No shock that these memories tend to intensify on a rainy Tuesday morning in February while sitting at my office desk trying to warm up against the radiator - Irish problems. The majority of my time in Australia was spent in Exmouth, a small town found on a peninsula about half way up the WA coast. The town's population is about 2500 people, many of whom are from other parts of Australia or far flung corners of the world. It's a special place that has managed to stay under the radar of most travellers because of how isolated it is (it's an 11 hour drive north of Perth and the nearest town is nearly 4 hours away) but those who do stumble upon this little gem amongst the desert rarely leave. My life was simple during this time; my biggest worry was what I would do on my days off - camp, snorkel, fish, surf, sunbathe. Exmouth will always have a place in my heart and I suppose I do look back with rose-tinted glasses because why would I have decided to leave? The truth is I surprised myself with how much of a home bird I actually was. I have always been a traveller (Croatia will be country #29 next month!) and I'm used to moving from place to place. But after a while I realised that although I love exploring new places, I craved the feeling of soft fluffy grass under my feet and the smell of rain. Australia wasn't to be my forever home but it did change me forever. I came away with a different perspective on life and knowing the importance of doing what makes me happy. I've listed a few things that I learned during my time in the red dirt and how everyone should get off the beaten track and enjoy this amazing country at some point in their lives. Lesson 1 - How Much I Love The Ocean I was born in Armagh, a 'city' (the population is only 15,000 but because there are two cathedrals this somehow warrants a promotion) found in the middle of Northern Ireland and about an hours drive from the coast. My childhood memories of beach days were typical Irish seaside holidays; a handful of days each year spent between wind shelters (to protect us from a torrent of sand grains), eating crisp sandwiches (usually containing sand) and, if we were feeling extremely brave, running in and out of the Atlantic screaming with a mixture of sheer delight and horror. I never thought of myself as an ocean lover because I had never really experienced the magic it had to offer. That was until I lived in Exmouth and had the world's longest fringing reef right on my doorstep. My love affair began after swimming with whalesharks on a day off from work. Exmouth is lucky enough to host these gentle giants in their winter months and I've swam alongside them several times. Each time felt more special than the last and even though they can be intimidatingly large when they get close, they're completely harmless to humans. Watching them glide through the water instilled such a peacefulness within me that it felt akin to a religious epiphany. I was in love with the ocean from then on. My love affair with the ocean and I learned to surf (poorly), got dunked a thousand times and lost my temper until I finally stood up and nearly passed out with happiness. I snorkelled above corals of all colours following a lonely turtle or spotting a reef shark nervously out of the corner of my eye. I saw two manta rays performing the most intimate and graceful of dances. I swam close to a humpback whale and her calf, hearing her calls to make sure her baby didn't stray too far. I caught my first fish! All of these things impacted me profoundly and since coming home I know how important it is that I base myself as close to the ocean as possible. I walk along the beach barefoot at Helen's Bay and look out towards the Irish Sea and, even though I don't see any humpies breaching out of the water, I feel happy and calm. Lesson 2 - I'm a Small Town Girl Growing up in a smallish town was at times a frustrating experience. Everyone knew you who you were and your business so gossip was rife, especially in all girl Catholic school! When I moved to Exmouth I quickly spotted the similarities; seeing the same faces every day, getting to know who was breaking up with who and who was pregnant. It wasn't long before I was the subject of a rumour myself which I found out at a trip to the Newsagents: Newsagent: Oh Alex, you're really starting to show!! Me: Em... Do you think I'm pregnant? *sucking in as I say this and thinking I am never having pasta for lunch again* Newsagent: *colour drains from face* While rumours might not always be fun (and might make you drastically change your dietary choices), being welcomed in to a community when you're far away from your own home can be incredibly comforting. I worked at the Council in Exmouth (i.e. Shire of Exmouth - sounds like a town of hobbits I know) and I got to know so many different locals. I realised that I actually love smaller towns, especially when I'm new, because you can create a little family of your own. Now that I'm home, I live in Belfast and that sense of community isn't quite as strong. However I am a 5 minute drive from Holywood which has a lovely small-town vibe with a local butchery, florist and health food shop. I always end up striking up conversations with people and feel just like a local again. Lesson 3 - I Need Girlfriends I have had the same group of girlfriends since I was 13. We were, and still are, a fiercely tight knit group and so when I lived away I desperately missed them. I'm a slightly neurotic person and need girls in my life that I can talk about my fears and passions with, run free with and dance my little hooves off with. In Exmouth, bonds can be quick to form and friendships are intense, as is this case with most travellers. I met an incredible bunch of girls there who I will always be in touch with because they helped me through tough times when I felt a million miles away from home. There was Holly, the Kiwi who made me laugh every day and was always there to feed me junk food; Mia, who mothered me and gave me unapologetic advice when I needed it most; Alice & Vasia, the earthy ones who I practiced yoga and how to drink a beer while riding a bike with; Cat, the ocean girl who helped teach me the wonders of the ocean; Kirby who taught me so much about being kind; and Jo Lee, the wild and fierce musician who serenaded me on nights I didn't want to end. Every girl needs another girl that will let her know how much she can shine, that whatever decision she decides to make, they will always be there to back her up. And to also tell her that she's a maniac when necessary. Lesson 4 - Always Keep a Travel Diary Before I settled in Exmouth I travelled along the east coast and south west and learned how Australia was a country of contrasts. I drove through vineyards between Adelaide and Melbourne; I saw how the eucalyptus trees gave the Blue Mountains their name in NSW; I saw the tropical rainforests of Queensland; I saw a rainbow rising over Uluru. Although all of these sites have been etched in my brain forever, I really regret not documenting little details down and funny stories from my different road trips. Since I have been home I now keep diaries of all my new adventures no matter the destination. There's nothing like recalling a memory that you had completely forgotten about and either recoiling with the embarrassment or beaming with happiness that you experienced it. Lesson 5 - Everyone Has To Backpack Through A Country At Least Once I know it's easier to backpack after or before university, before life gets serious and you join the ladder along with your peers. The thing is, getting away for weeks or months to explore a country doesn't have to be so difficult. Or expensive. Australia was a great country to explore because it wasn't entirely intimidating; it was English speaking, easy to get a work visa to fund the trip and well connected. I think it was the best way to see the country because it's just so massive and to really visit and explore all these amazing places, a few weeks just isn't enough. However I would recommend backpacking to anyone and everyone no matter what stage of their lives they are at because it doesn't mean you have to go away for months and months.
Smaller countries can be explored with a backpack in just a few weeks. I went to Cuba and explored the island (which was surprisingly much bigger than I expected!) in just over 2 weeks. Flights were only £420 return from Dublin and I spent around £800 on everything else - a bargain! However it was Australia that introduced me to my love of backpacking and for that I will always be grateful. A little piece of me will always call Australia home because it taught me a great deal and introduced me to people who, even years later, I still call family.