Tumut’s Nikki Etherington didn’t know what she wanted to do when she finished school at 17. So, she went to Austria for the ski season. The travel bug bit, and a few years later at 21 she was back, in an adventure that encompassed working in the alps, sunning in Greece, serving beers in London, running from the bulls in Spain, letting her hair down at Oktoberfest, and hitchhiking alone around Africa for four months. It was an epic three-year adventure, that she said actually isn’t as hard to pull off as it may sound.
“I went over to Europe with the intention of working to travel,” she said.
“I hadn’t saved a massive amount like a lot of people do, but I think it works well like that anyway, because you have these other experiences as well. I did so many different jobs in London, first working in a pub pulling beers and serving food; then I ended up getting a job as assistant to the editor of a magazine; I worked for an advertising company where you just do hard sales in the street in London, just walking up to people. There’s all kinds of things you can do.”
She was also, as she put it, “very frugal!”
Nikki spent only 800 pounds in four months in Africa, which she accomplished by taking her tent with her and camping, eating local food – often with local families who were curious about this white woman sitting by the side of the road on her own – and cramming into local buses with 140 other people at one time.
“There was one place where I used to play poker for my accommodation, if I won I got a free night’s stay,” she remembered.
“I slept in some pretty dodgy places, but that’s all the experience, and I met lots of locals travelling by myself. I was initially with a friend and she got typhoid, malaria, and a gastrointestinal infection all in the first week! So she went back to London and I decided to keep going by myself.
“I wore long pants and long sleeved tops, baggy clothes, and didn’t try to stand out or look like a tourist, and I went to some amazing places. I liked that if I didn’t want to be somewhere I didn’t feel tied down.”
She did have to keep her wits about her. Once, a dodgy taxi driver started spiriting her off to the middle of nowhere, and she had to “yell and scream” at him to let her out.
Another time her tent was cut open in the middle of the night and her camera was stolen.
“I actually stayed in the village and offered an $100 reward just for the films with all my memories on them, which for them was like six months salary,” she said.
“I think whoever it was had kept the camera and had just thrown the film away, but the villagers still took me to see the policeman. We had to walk through this jungle for two or three hours to this little mud hut in the middle of nowhere. The policeman was so excited because I think it was his first case he’d had in – ever! He had this little pad and fingerprint ink and got it out and wanted to know who the suspects were and all of this…we realised pretty quickly we were never going to get anything back.”
However, in spite of the occasional unpleasant experiences, Nikki doesn’t hesitate in recommending backpacking to anyone curious, and the bigger the adventure the better.
“I really think it opens people up to experiencing different people, different cultures, and realising that in amongst it all everyone is basically the same,” she said.
“Not all of the experiences are always good, but it makes you grow and for me I think life is about growing. For me I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished school at 17, I had no idea, and [travelling] can give people some sort of clarity.
“It’s also good to do it before you settle down. Not that you can’t travel with kids or with a partner, but once you get to that stage in your life you travel differently. When you’re younger you’re more open, not so set in your ways.
“If you have a little spark in you somewhere that says you want to travel I think do it.”