How well should you know your own country?
I’ve spent most of my life in Australia, it is my home, and I’m proud of it. But there are many parts of it that I’ve never been to, and many iconic experiences that I’ve never had.
So the question becomes: How well do I need to know my country anyway?
A chance encounter
When I was last in the United States, I met a Californian hiker who was preparing for a trip to Kilimanjaro. We talked about the beauty of our respective countries, and I admitted that I knew little of Australia outside my home state of Victoria. She commented that she had visited all 48 contiguous states before she first went abroad, and encouraged me to see more of my own country.
I’ve never been one to collect countries for the sake of it, and the same applies to the states of Australia. However, I think this did encourage me to explore more of Victoria in the last few years. And in stretching my horizons I’ve also visited Canberra, Sydney, and Mount Gambier, and climbed Kosciuzcko (twice in three days).
Not much? Perhaps. But it’s still a big change from what I had done before. We had never been a big travelling family (well, inside Australia, anyway), and so far I think I’ve seen more of Australia than any of my siblings.
Room for improvement
So it’s a start. But the fact remains that I’ve only rarely been outside my home state of Victoria, and I’ve never visited Tasmania, Western Australia, Queensland, or the Northern Territory. When it comes to iconic Australian destinations, I haven’t visited the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, or anything that can be considered the Outback. And when it comes to Australian animals I’ve got the locals down pat, but I’ve never wrestled a crocodile.
As it turns out, there are three countries where I’ve spent more time than other states of Australia: India, England, and the United States. Even at the city level I’ve spent more time in London than I’ve spent in Canberra and Sydney combined.
Of course, there are reasons for the countries I’ve visited. I was in India as a missionary, not as a tourist (though I did do a few tourist things). Half the time I’ve spent in London was for work. And the longest time I’ve spent in the US was as a child when my Dad was working in Denver.
For both England and the US I had non-tourist reasons for making a first visit as an adult - and I saw enough in those brief visits to compel me to return. So far, the one wildcard has been Switzerland: I visited for a week just because I was already in the UK and thought the Alps would provide variety (spoiler: they did) as well as be beautiful (spoiler: they were).
Australia is a big place
One of the few things I remember from school in Denver is a class where we learned about that foreign country Australia. The most memorable fact was that Australia was about as large as the US mainland (though I’m not sure I had any idea how big either was).
That means it takes time. A long weekend can be enough for a visit to the Great Ocean Road, the Grampians, or the Victorian Alps. Really experiencing Australia takes a little longer. And circling Australia is often left to retirement, with Grey Nomads spending three months, six months, or even a year on the road.
I’m not alone
When I first visited England I spent 1.5 weeks up north before I reached the office, and UK colleagues jokingly suggested that I might have seen more of England than them. Similarly, when first in the US as a tourist fellow conference attendees thought my post-conference travel schedule was crazily packed (probably rightly).
Sometimes it feels like the closer to home it is, the easier it is to leave it to next week, next month, or next year. And for me it can feel easier to justify a month-long holiday overseas than it is to justify a long weekend in another part of Australia.
Australians who work in England talk about spending their weekends visiting various European capitals, but I just don’t think I’d end up doing it if I wasn’t in full tourist mode. Shorter trips need careful juggling of a busy schedule, where longer trips allow me to just completely suspend the schedule. And I suspect it might be less work to organise one month-long trip than four week-long trips anyway.
On my side of the fence, last year in Apollo Bay I heard tourists talking familiarly about “Sydney Opera House”, “Brisbane”, and “Northern Territory”. At the time, I hadn’t been to any of those places, though they are all in my country. Sometimes while looking abroad we do miss the beauties in our own back yard (though, to be fair, I’d hardly call Darwin or Perth part of my back yard…).
At times these kind of comments have driven me to explore places like the Great Ocean Road. Seriously, last time I walked Arizona’s mighty Grand Canyon I got into conversation with a volunteer ranger who liked the Great Ocean Road and expected that as a Melbourne resident I would have visited it. The final straw was one of my UK colleagues returning the favour: He spent a weekend exploring the Great Ocean Road and then talked about it. It was only a couple of months later that I finally made the trip.
A return to my roots
One of the things travelling allows me to do is to return to my roots, whether it’s visiting places I once knew or exploring a part of my family history. This means there’s always a tension between returning to places I already know and love and discovering new places.
It can be fascinating getting a new perspective on places I visited when young. For example, when I was last in Denver I returned to the apartment our family had lived in. The whole area was much smaller than it had seemed to my eight-year-old eyes, but it was good to see the tiny (and cute) prairie dogs guarding their holes just as energetically as they had.
With two English grandparents and a lifetime of reading England-centric literature from Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens, it was not a surprise that I wanted to spend time exploring the UK. It is in so many ways a return to my roots, and it has a much deeper sense of history (even events from a couple of hundred years ago can still feel “recent”).
I have strong roots in Victoria, particularly Melbourne. Canberra was important to me as our capital and the place our laws come from, while Sydney allowed me to go right back to the dawn of European Australia and the convict era.
And this must be part of the reason why I’ve visited the other side of the world on many occasions, but haven’t dropped everything to explore Australia. Though the places I haven’t visited are an important part of the Australian story, they have little part in my personal story. Yes, I’d like to visit them sometime, and if I do I will probably then feel the pull to return.
In principle, yes, I should know my country better, and that’s definitely one of my longer term goals. But I’m sure I’m not the only person in Melbourne who’s been to the other side of the world without exploring Australia first.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if I really wanted to I could visit every capital city of Australia this year, then dash to Uluru for bonus points. But I’m not sure that would suit me: I don’t collect states just for the sake of it, and I’m not really a fan of flying visits. No matter how long I spend there is always more to see and do. And if that means I don’t know every place in Australia that I should know, I think I can live with that.