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Scott Newman details his travels through Australia as an exchange student in a global pandemic.
I’m not Australian, and before February 8th 2020, I’d never been to the country. Never to New Zealand, never to Japan, never this far East, frankly. I’ve visited nearly forty countries and have lived in New York, Antibes, Paris, Amman, and New Jersey. But never this far from home—this removed from everything I thought that I knew.
Every year, millions of “backpackers” flood into Australia to begin their lives anew. Most fall in the 18-30 bracket, and the average age is about 23.I’ve made the closest friends that I’ve ever had and wrung the juice out of life to a fuller extent here than I have anywhere else I’ve ever been—and that’s saying a lot.
It’s worth noting, though, that I didn’t come to Australia to be a backpacker. After completing the first semester of my third year at Princeton University, I decided to study abroad and take a break from the Ivy League. The plan always had been to stay in Australia from February to June. After that, I was to return to the United States for the July 2020 launch of my book and for an internship at a prestigious film production company in Hollywood. It was a solid plan: three months of study abroad in a faraway land and then a return to the real world, a predictably secure career, and to Princeton, the number one school in America, at least according to US News and World Report.
Then the coronavirus hit, and everything changed.” From the beginning, the situation in the US had been much more dire than the one in Australia, so I decided to stay. I watched as droves of the other international students I had been living with returned to their home countries around the world while I stayed thousands of miles away in the land of Kangaroos and Vegemite and celestial beaches. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
I stayed in Sydney living in an international student dorm until the end of March when my world was upended. When I saw Sydney descending into chaos, I rounded up two Austrians, a German, and an American and we fled to Coffs Harbour, where we lived in a big house on the beach that was cheaper than any of our dorm rooms. We surfed. We barbequed. And we completed our coursework online in a small little corner of paradise.
When our lease expired in June and the worst of COVID was behind us, it was time to hit the road. We began moving fast. Really fast. First, I took a nine-hour train from Coffs to Sydney to get a new passport because somebody broke into our house in Coffs and stole our car and my passport. On the trip, I dropped off a large suitcase that contained most of my clothes at a mate’s house. Then, I took a nine-hour train back to Coffs. All I had was a carry-on suitcase that was to be my luggage for the next four months. And so the travelling began in earnest.
We started first in Byron Bay. What a beautiful, beachy, sleepy little town that was. We stayed at The Surf House and met a motley crew of Brits, Frenchies, Dutchies, and Aussies. I played tennis and snorkeled and ran and exercised and cooked for myself and learned what it was to live in a hostel. The Surf House, after all, was the first hostel I’d ever been to in my life.
The QLD border to NSW opened on 10 July, and not long after, I booked it up like a spider monkey with no real plan other than to follow the open road. I stayed in Surfer’s Paradise for two nights, where I ran into about a dozen of my Mexican friends from Byron, with whom I shared a mutual acquaintance that lived in Monterey. Surfer’s was bombastic and terrible, loud and disgusting, depraved and utterly artificial. It was a wannabe version of Miami that, frankly, didn’t even seem to have that many surfers. At 1AM in line for a nightclub, I couldn’t stand it, and I impulsively booked a ticket to Cairns, where I stayed for a good three or four weeks.
In Cairns I stayed first at Bounce Hostel—which was not my cup of tea—and then at Summerhouse Backpackers, the best hostel I’ve ever been to. It was $73 a week, essentially just $10 a day. There I met some very close friends and basked in the warm Queensland sun. The cops eventually started coming into the hostel to police our social distancing—or lack thereof—at the bar, and not long after, I decided it was time to go. There was more to see before the second semester began in earnest.
I saw an Instagram story from a friend of a friend in Darwin, where there was very little COVID and no social distancing rules. So again, somewhat impulsively, I took to Google Flights and booked myself a one-way ticket from Cairns to Darwin.
Darwin was an absolute circus. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say that that place was a madhouse. The party never stopped, and frankly, it was too much—even for me. I stayed at Youth Shack, hands-down the best Hostel in Darwin. There was a club down the street owned by the same people, so the festivities were constant, abundant, and ubiquitous. Mondays were our only day off, really. This is not to say that I went out every single night, but I certainly could have if I wanted to.
Tuesday was Karaoke Night, Wednesday was a beer pong tournament, Thursday was Ladies Night (where girls got free Champagne and select boys stripped on stage), Friday was a normal night out where the club was extra packed because the Australians came out to play with the backpackers, Saturday typically was reserved for a bush doof, and Sunday from two to ten, there was notoriously rowdy pool party at Youth Shack. I tried getting some work done there—on my books and for University, but ultimately it was difficult. Somebody always wanted to do something. There was always some invitation or obligation or exciting prospect on the horizon to which saying “no” was tantalizingly difficult. I made some very close friends in Darwin who remain some of my best mates to this day. But after a month and change there, it was time to make my way back down the coast.
Then, I rocked up to Noosa for two nights to say hello to a Dutch friend. I was only there for a bit, but what I loved about Noosa was that it was a bigger, classier version of Byron. It had everything a person could love about a surfy beach town as well as the benefits of a reasonably sized city. For that reason, Noosa remains, perhaps, my favorite city in Australia.
Finally, I found myself back in Bryon, where it all began. Everywhere, I stayed in hostels, and I saw a lot of familiar faces along the way. Backpackers move, constantly. That’s what backpacking is. They get jobs as bartenders or waitresses or cleaners and they stay about a month at a time or longer in one place or another before they jet off to wherever the grass may be greener. They are not aimless drifters. They are goal-oriented travelers who have made the road a way of life. Many did Asia first—Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia—before jetting over to Straya. I learned far more from these travelers on the move than I ever did at an elite boarding school or at Princeton.
Eventually, a month and a half into my semester at University—which was completely remote anyway—I meandered back down to Sydney, where I currently reside.
Drew’s has been a very interesting experience. It’s been nice to meet so many Australians from all over the country. I knew Australians before, of course, but when you live, eat, work out, train, and sleep in the same fenced off campus, you get a good sense of the culture. The coolest part for me has been seeing worlds collide when I meet somebody from some place that I’ve been or when I introduce a Drew’s kid to one of my international friends. It all goes back to one of my favorite things to say which is that “hello” goes a hell of a long way.
I came here on February 8th. The plan always had been to get out by June 20th at the latest. Then COVID happened, and my world was flipped on its head, and my life changed for the better. They say that home is more of a feeling than a place. There’s a lot of places in this world that have evoked that in me. But for now, I’m here. And for the foreseeable future, I’m here to stay.
Scott’s book, The Night before the Morning After is available now on Amazon.