What lured you to the east coast trail now? It started off with a magazine article I wrote about spending seven nights in a Bondi backpackers. It got such a huge response that I thought I’d follow the ant trail from Bondi all the way up to Cairnsand spend a month just immersing myself in the world.
You seemed amused with the lifestyle at first, but seemed to get into it. It was a two-sided thing. I had to be a reporter and become embunked, but to do that you had to become part of the whole scene. I wanted it to be a gonzo book and do the whole Hunter S Thompson thing that he did with Hells Angels. I’m not a huge drinker or drug taker, but to a certain extent you’ve got to get a fair way into it. You need to be there at 3am when it’s all happening.
It seemed like you thought backpacking had changed quite a bit? The backpacker mentality I guess is very different to the travelling mentality. An English girl in the book says “this is backpacking, it’s not travelling, they’re two completely different things”. Backpacking isn’t always about new experiences, getting out there on a shoestring and testing yourself, which I think it used to be. Now the whole infrastructure, especially in Australia, is set up for this east coast trail. It’s geared towards backpackers who they know have money. It’s all a great time but there’s no way it’s adventure anymore.
You suggested there was a more romantic attitude to sex in your days? That’s a nice way of saying I never got any sex when I travelled, ha! The whole sex thing was just like super casual. It just seemed to be part of the day-to-day life. If you’ve read my book you know what happens with me in the room with the four people having sex. Half of me is going ‘this is really icky”, and half of me is going “yes this is the end of my book”. Happy ending in more ways than one!
And the drinking? The drinking really did surprise me. I knew there’d be a lot of partying but they didn’t appear to be slowing down at all. That said, there were people I met who had great stories. It’s that old thing of meeting people from different countries, having a few drinks, getting their stories. I mean I love that kind of thing. There was an aspect that was like Groundhog Day. The same things would happen each night – I felt like Bill Murray. But then there’d be a curveball. You’d meet someone and think wow, I’m really glad I met them.
You despair regularly at Poms whinging about Oz being pricey. The money thing really got me. I’ve travelled a lot and I know Sydney is not that cheap a place, but I’ve lived in London and its ridiculous how expensive it is there.
And how about other stereotypes then? To a large extent they hold up. The Germans tend to be a bit more intrepid. The English and Canadians tend to survive on noodles, whereas you see Scandinavians and Germans cooking up huge vats of vegetables. Canadians, especially the girls, have a reputation for being hard partiers. I’ve got to say the girls have got a reputation in other areas as well. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Was it weird not seeing any Aussies? It really was weird but I did half expect it. If you’re hanging in backpacker circles you don’t get to see a lot of local people. You’re not seeing much of real Australia, you’re seeing backpacker Australia. It’s like this mobile united nations on Greyhound buses.
Did it annoy you that people weren’t seeing more of the country? It did at the time. But they’re just out for a good time in a completely different country. It’s a place where the sun shines and the waves are great, the beers cold and the women are beautiful. It’s just a different place but like one big mobile beach party. It’s perfectly understandable. Why would they want to go to the eastern bloc for their gap year? Maybe further down the track when they’re 30 they’ll go and do some adventure travelling. But for now, that’s what travelling life is all about – having a good time, all the time.
The Secret Life of Backpackers is out now, published by ABC Books.