It was ten years ago today that I left New Zealand for my second Overseas Experience. The OE, now known as the gap year I guess, is the thing you do when you’re a young Kiwi, not a 49 year old single father of three mostly-grown children. My life was perfectly ‘fine’ but I was burnt out and needed a break from work and the repetitiveness of the everyday, plus I wanted to see more of the world than I had managed to so far. It was to be an opportunity to clean house and unload a bunch of physical and emotional baggage and escape reality for a while. When I flew out of Auckland Airport, destination Singapore, I had no plan beyond a flight to Borneo three days later. I told family and friends I’d be gone for no longer than two years, but secretly hoped to make it past the three weeks I had committed myself to. It wasn’t as if I’d a job or a home to return to after three weeks if I chickened out and accepted that the mundane was safer, quieter, less challenging and maybe pretty damn good after all.
Here I am 10 years later, back in Auckland for five months; and preparing to leave again in another two. The reasons for leaving this time are very, but not entirely, different, but at least now it feels more like going home rather than running away. Of course Eleanor is the big difference to how I feel about home, and she is the main reason why my ‘maximum of two years’ plan was discarded so long ago. I am a much happier and far more content man than I used to be. I think I am a better human too.
I left New Zealand to travel, and over the first 15 months I travelled a lot, visiting countries in SE Asia, Africa and Europe. Did I do all I planned? Yes, more than I could ever have dreamed of, but was it enough? Heck no. I still have the wanderlust; but now it’s restrained by the reality of being 59, by finances and right now, by Covid. The future of travel and wandering is uncertain and that does make me a little sad, there are still a lot of places I want to see and experiences I want to have. I am greedy and selfish I know, I’ve done more than most and should be satisfied with that, though I’m not.
I need to learn to enjoy the now more than I sometimes do, enjoy the very good things I have in my life; the family, friends, the job and its money, the freedom and the privilege. I do understand and appreciate all those things and more and know I am incredibly lucky, but one more backpacking trip wouldn’t go astray…
I have a few regrets from that time; I would love to be a better granddad and spend more time with my grandchildren, and I would like to be physically closer to Mum too. This trip to New Zealand was supposed to be the start of that journey, but New Zealand is just not where I’m meant to be. I have learned many things about myself over the last ten years and one of those things is I have to look after myself first. If I’m no good to me then I am no good to anyone else. Some may see this as a selfish point of view, and I can’t deny that it is selfish, but I also know the alternative is unsupportable over the long term.
The other big regret is not making better and more use of my photography and writing. I have always been too cowardly to try and make a living, albeit small, doing something I absolutely enjoy. I would love to have been a travel writer and should have at least given it a go when I had the chance.
I should end on the many many positives, so here are a few highlights of the last 10 years?
Though the past couple of year have been rather unadventurous, I have done a lot of interesting things and been to some amazing places since I left New Zealand, I have done a lot more than most men of my age, I would imagine.
Number 1 is, of course, Eleanor. I am constantly amazed by, and grateful, that she has put up with me for eight years and I just cannot imagine life without her. She makes me very happy and I love her very much. There could be no other number 1.
Number 2 was the birth of two grand children, one in New Zealand and the other in Australia. Though I don’t get to see them as much as I would like, I’m the one who has chosen to live on the other side of the world. They, and my mum and the rest of the my family, are good reasons to keep visiting New Zealand and Australia; with the occasional sub-adventure on the way.
Number 3 has been buying the flat in St Leonards-on-Sea. While it means I’ve much less disposable income and we haven’t been visiting many other places for the past couple of years, it’s an anchor as well as an investment and I’m missing it a lot.
Number 4 was making it past three weeks of travelling. Three weeks was the minimum I set myself when I went to SE Asia, I was determined to at least give backpacking a decent try and I admit there were many moments in the five months I lasted there when I wanted to stop and give up, but I stuck to it and had one of the best experiences I’ve had and proved to myself I could do something different and something that wasn’t easy. It was a life changing experience and I know I came out of it a better person.
There have been so many individual highlights that I cannot possibly name them all; so here is today’s top ten, I am sure there would be a different selection if I was asked tomorrow.
1. One thing I will treasure until I leave this planet will be the day I spent with wild Gorillas in Rwanda. Wow, that was a lifetime highlight not just of the last ten years. Expensive as it is, and that is not including getting to Rwanda, I would love to do it again one day and highly recommend it to anyone.
2. Seeing Orang-utans in Borneo. Admittedly I saw them in nature reserves, but I would love to go back and see them in the wild. They are my favourite animal.
3. Before I left New Zealand, under the advisement of my friend Alex, I completed a scuba diving course in Auckland, and wow, that was an extremely wise investment. I completed close to 40 dives in the first two years away and went diving in so many great places. I regret not keeping it up, and would one day like to do some more.
4. Also under Alex’s advice I attended the Hindu Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur. I have never been to anything like this and it was the people-based highlight of the trip. This was hugely out of my comfort zone, so was a challenge I had to overcome and it was a magical experience.
5. This is getting repetitive, but Alex also recommended I attend the annual camel fair in Rajasthan as it coincided with a short trip I was planning to visit India. The camel fair was pretty amazing and lot of fun, though the aftermath had some money challenges I had to overcome.
6. Angkor Wat was close to, if not on top of on my list of places to visit before I die, and I was not let down at all, I absolutely loved it and just regret not taking a better camera with me.
7. I hadn’t heard of Bagan before I started planning the Myanmar leg, but as soon as I heard of it, it was number one on the list of places I had to go to. I have always been interested in old stuff, ruins and temples, castles and forts, anything ancient that can be looked at, walked around and investigated. Bagan has all that in spades, plus rickety old bikes and more. I absolutely loved the three days I spent there, it was one my favourite places, not just for the scenery but for the people I hung out with. I feel so much for the people of Myanmar and their current, awful, situation.
8. Copenhagen with Eleanor was our first European break together and the first place we visited together where English wasn’t the first language, not that that is a challenge in Denmark. It is a lovely city to visit and we were scheduled to return in 2020 as stop over on a 10 day train trip from Oslo to Amsterdam that was cancelled due to the pandemic
9. When I was a child I read a lot of adventure stories, including those by Willard Price, and these really set my imagination for places and animals on fire. Settings from those books stuck in my mind and being able to visit some of those places of adventure was a genuine thrill. When I travelled upriver into the ‘wilds of Borneo’, and entered cities such as Mandalay and Zanzibar I thought of those adventure stories, of swashbuckling heroes, mystery and hidden danger, experiences beyond the usual. I get excited thinking about it. There are still a few to visit, though some, such as Timbuktu, will sadly be impossible unless the world changes in the next few years.
10. I absolutely loved Namibia and Laos, two wildly different countries, and for wildly different reasons. Two small nations that probably most of the world has not heard of and some of those who have heard of them would never be able to point out on a map. Both amazing places.
It’s been an incredible ten years; if the next ten are even half as good they will be fabulous, and I am looking forward to the journey. I am not sure if the blog will last much longer, it was supposed to be about travel and I’m just not doing enough of it anymore. I will see.
Huge hugs to those of you who have been here for the whole journey!
Merry Christmas day 2021 from sunny Auckland. xx