It’s officially 2022 in Melbourne, and I’m sitting on my gloriously sunny balcony in the hipster Fitzroy neighbourhood, typing up this monthly summary.
It’s 36 degrees at the moment. Thirty-six degrees! (100 for the heathens among us who use Fahrenheit.)
Over the past decade, I’ve alternated between spending the holiday season with my family in the U.K. and with Dave’s in Australia, so a summery New Year’s is no longer a novelty for me. And yet, I find myself thinking back to the Lauren of 2010, who, 12 years[!] ago, was busy planning her upcoming round-the-world adventure. The number one thing she wanted to experience? A Christmas Down Under, like all
unoriginal great Brits who had come before her.
This month, I’ve been reminding myself of this simple fact: as normal as it feels for me to be hanging out in Melbourne, there was once a time when this was my dream and ultimate goal in life.
December was another wonderful month for me.
I continued exploring more of regional Victoria, from the sea to the mountains and back again, falling more in love with this state with each passing mile. Christmas was lovely, spent with family and friends, with lengthy Skype calls squeezed in with everyone who couldn’t make it. And summer finally made a welcome appearance, bringing sunshine, heatwaves, and plenty of excuses to hit the beach.
There was one major hiccup, however, in December, and it was one that’s thrown my future into a tailspin. Again.
Throughout the pandemic, I had a running joke with my Patreon supporters: every single time I shared my upcoming plans with them, something would immediately happen to make them no longer viable. Grab yourself a glass of wine, because here’s what the past couple of years of my life has involved:
It all began last year, when I bought flights from the U.K. to New Zealand. Several days before I was due to leave, the British government banned all international travel. I thought I wouldn’t be able to leave Bristol at all, which was kind of a problem as we’d packed up our things in preparation to move overseas and our housesitters were on their way over to our place. Fortunately, we managed to sneak out of the country with only an enormous helping of stress to deal with.
Several months later, Dave and I bought flights from New Zealand to Australia, excited to return to Melbourne. And then Australia closed their borders to Kiwis just before we were due to fly. Disaster! Fortunately, they re-opened by the time our departure date rolled around, but yet again, it was a stress-filled experience.
Back in September of this year, I think, I told my patrons that I was going to fly to Tasmania for two weeks of road tripping, but within a few hours of publishing that post, Tasmania closed their border to people in Victoria.
I shared next that Dave and I would be heading to the Cook Islands for our ten-year anniversary, flying via New Zealand to get there, but then the Cook Islands promptly closed their border with New Zealand. Ugh!
And then, when I told my patrons that I would be heading to New Zealand in October, New Zealand closed their border to Australians a few days later.
And so, last month, I shared the news with you guys that New Zealand was re-opening their borders to Kiwis in Australia. Dave and I bought our flights… and TWELVE HOURS LATER, news broke of the Omicron variant — I immediately had a feeling we wouldn’t get there. And last week, New Zealand announced that they’d not be opening to Australia after all.
I swear. I swear! Every single time I share my upcoming travel plans, something happens that leads to me cancelling them within 48 hours.
But not this time! This time, Dave and I were prepared for everything to fall through. We were so convinced we wouldn’t get back to New Zealand this year that we’d worked out a back-up plan: we were going to head to Thailand! They were now allowing foreigners to enter the country… until the exact day that Dave and I decided we were going to head there. Are you kidding me?
And so, you find me more adrift than I’ve felt this entire year; a year that could be summarised by the word adrift. I yearn for a home. I long to see my family. I’ve been stuck in Melbourne for almost a year, and I’m still here in this state, microdosing stress, because where else do I have to go?
And yet, I am happy. I’m happy to be here. Grateful. To have my health. To be surrounded by friends. To be beside the ocean. To be living my life beneath bright blue skies. It just sure would be nice to have some certainty thrown into the mix every now and then; for just one of my plans to stick.
With all that being said, let’s dive into how I spent December:
When I left you last, I was mid-way through an epic road trip across Eastern Victoria. I’d travelled from Melbourne to Phillip Island to Wilsons Prom, and now I was on my way to Lakes Entrance.
This part of the country is a region called East Gippsland, in the far eastern reaches of Victoria. The area is famed for its lakes, beaches, and coastal villages; inland, you’ll find mountains, caves, and fantastic local food and wine. No wonder it’s so loved by Victorians: there’s so much to see and do!
The most popular part of the region is Lakes Entrance, which is home to a vast network of waterways, and so there’s plenty of water sports to sign up for. It’s the seafood capital of Victoria, too, and has some great wineries to go with it.
It was nearby Metung, however, that ended up becoming my favourite spot in the Gippsland Lakes. I loved its laidback vibe, adorable houses, and the excellent Metung Hotel, a beautiful bar that overlooks the water.
One of the highlights of this part of the trip was a special place called Raymond Island. This dot of land, accessible via a free 5-minute ferry, is essentially Koala Central. It’s one of the easiest places to spot wild koalas in the state of Victoria. There are 300 of them who call Raymond Island home, which means they almost outnumber the humans who live there!
And they were everywhere.
Dave and I spent a morning wandering up and down every single street on the island, and spotted dozens upon dozens of koalas as we did so. It’s a bad angle but in the photo above, you can just make out a baby koala who is clinging to their mum. So cute!
Now, if I was to ask you about famous roads in Australia, your mind would most likely leap straight to the Great Ocean Road. It’s the quintessential Aussie road trip route, located right here in Victoria.
Well, the Great Ocean Road has a sister, and I think it’s even more visually spectacular. Allow me to introduce you to the Great Alpine Road: the mountainous counterpart that’s rarely travelled by tourists.
Leading from Bairnsdale to Wangaratta, this road takes you up and over the Victorian Alps, along 200 miles of mountains, forests, valleys, and vineyards. We tackled it over three days and were so impressed by the views along the way.
We spent our first night in Omeo, a historic gold mining town with the cutest old architecture. After dropping our bags in our room, we spent some time wandering in the hills outside the town, taking photos of the buildings, and then resolving to never leave the local pub.
The Golden Age Motel offered up the beer garden of our dreams: overlooking the lovely town, with crisp, local white wines and some seriously delicious fish and chips (unexpected, considering its inland location). I think Dave and I sat in the sunshine for a solid six hours here before full-on declaring Omeo to be the greatest place in Victoria.
We made our way further over the Alps the following day, until the mountains looked as though they stretched on forever. Up here in the high country, there’s ski resorts galore, small villages, and a wealth of alpine hiking trails, all at an elevation of 1,800 metres, or 6,000 feet.
I’d love to drive the route in the winter one year to see how it looks under a blanket of deep snow. Maybe a trip for when I finally take up snowboarding?
I first visited Bright in 2020, right as COVID was starting to kick off. This popular alpine town is home to the annual Adventure Travel Film Festival, where explorers and travellers come from all over Australia and further afield, all to watch movies about motorbiking through India, hiking across Ethiopia, running the length of New Zealand, cycling around the world, kayaking through Alaska, walking the length of Chile, taking trains across Africa… yeah, it was absolutely epic! I came away from it so inspired — I was full-on ready to walk the Pacific Crest Trail by the end of it! — but, of course, we know what happened next. 2020 wasn’t quite the adventure travel year of my dreams. Still, I can’t wait to return to the festival in future years, when humans are no longer harbouring a highly-transmissible virus.
While we had been in Bright to watch movies, I remember loving the laidback vibe of the town. It’s all about being outdoors here, with plenty of hiking and cycling tracks, hipster cafes and healthy eateries. So when I saw that the Great Alpine Road passed by Bright, there was no question that we’d spend some more time there.
It was just as lovely as I’d hoped. We set out on daily hikes into the mountains, sat in sunny beer gardens for hours on end, and explored the old mining towns in the area. We even met up with old travel blogging friend Torre, who lives around here, and got to meet her adorable daughter for the first time.
And that was about the end of the road trip. We ventured to Wangaratta for our final stop, and immediately wished we had longer to spend there, then swiftly made our way back to Melbourne.
And just because Dave and I weren’t quite sick of living out of Airbnbs, we decided to try out a brand new area of Melbourne for the next month.
One of the upsides of being stranded in this city has been getting to check out so many of the coolest neighbourhoods. Just thinking about how much of the city I’ve seen left me inspired to create a map of our movements:
Long-time readers of Never Ending Footsteps will remember how I always used to bemoan the times I spent in Melbourne. Why? Because visits to Melbourne were always squeezed into my itinerary to enable Dave to spend time with his sister. And his sister? She lives out in Point Cook, marked out right there, in the bottom-left corner of the map. When I used to tell you guys I’d spent months in Melbourne but seen hardly any of it, that was why.
But this time was different, and from the map, you can see just how much of the inner suburbs I managed to explore while I’ve been here: two weeks in Richmond, a month in Footscray, a month in Abbotsford, a month in Carlton, two weeks in Northcote, a month in St Kilda, a month in Albert Park, a month in Collingwood, a month in South Yarra, six weeks in Fitzroy.
(Yes, I absolutely should sit down and put together a neighbourhood guide to Melbourne.)
But December was all about South Yarra: a brand new neighbourhood for me. And now, a fun primer:
Within inner-Melbourne, you’ll find two types of people: the people who live north of the river, and the people in the south. Northside is political, artsy, and creative, filled with converted warehouses, bicycles, street art, and more hipsters than you can shake a flat white at. Southside is the opposite: it has the beaches, sea breeze, expensive cars, athletes, healthy living, and beautiful, blonde-haired people.
The Yarra River acts as a divide between the two and the people who live on either side try to avoid crossing at all costs. Living on the northside and dating somebody in the south? Unthinkable. Truly, a nightmare. I’m exaggerating, of course, but also, it’s not that inaccurate a statement.
Which side would you choose? Personally, I love both equally. Don’t make me choose! I love my hipster vibes, with street art and warehouses and the best food you can imagine. And yet, I love to be beside the ocean, working out beside the beach and drinking champagne in a high-end bar.
In the past, any time that Dave and I spent in central Melbourne saw us focusing on the north. We never went south of the river. Our friends lived northside, so why would we go anywhere else?
But with months upon months in the city, we’ve spent time exploring more of the suburbs we’ve historically ignored.
To my great surprise, I found myself declaring that I was ready to move to South Yarra. We were staying beside Chapel Street, which is lined with tons of independent restaurants, bars, and cafes, and we had so much fun sampling as many different cuisines as we could. Plus a couple of brunches, of course!
Our apartment was located on the banks of the Yarra River, which was another huge bonus: I was able to spend every afternoon walking beside the water, often heading into the CBD for a cold drink to break up the journey.
I loved South Yarra, and I could see myself living there one day. Well, if we didn’t have all of our friends in the north, that is, as I know they’d flat-out refuse to drive over the river to see us!
And that’s about it for the month, and the year! I don’t have much to share about Christmas and New Years: it was simply spent with family, out in the suburbs, and taking a much-needed week offline.
Overall, 2021 was the definition of chaotic.
At the start of the year, I had no idea what life would hold for me, but I don’t think I had envisioned spending half of the year in lockdown, and the vast majority of it in Australia.
But I have hope for 2022. I hope for Omicron to blow its way around the world and mark the end of the pandemic. I hope for travel to return to normal because I’m not sure how much longer this blog can survive while continually making a loss (lots of staff members to pay!). I dream of visiting a new country for the first time in a very long time; of not having a plan fall apart within 24 hours of me making it; of getting out of Australia at some point.
Who knows where I’ll be a year from now?
Highlights of the Month
Coffee Staines: I’m originally from a small town in the U.K. called Staines, so imagine my surprise when I was walking down the street in Beechworth and found a cafe called Coffee Staines! Of course I had to get a photo for all of my hometown friends. I couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that it even existed.
Taking steps to fix my janky feet: I’ve always had issues with my feet. I was diagnosed with flat feet when I was just two years old! They also tend to roll inwards as I walk. I’m all kinds of misaligned, in fact, with scoliosis, one leg that’s shorter than the other, and a distinct lack of core strength from a decade spent working from hotel beds. It used to be manageable because I didn’t walk that much.
In recent years, however, things have gone from bad to worse. As I’ve evolved into somebody who spends a significant amount of time on multi-day hikes, I’ve descended into excruciating pain. From the South Downs Way to the Camino de Santiago, I’ve forced myself to walk thousands of kilometres and spent the vast majority of it in tears. Quite frankly, long-distance hikes are agonising for my poor feet. I have a high pain tolerance and yet I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I love the challenge of hiking, though, so I simply walk through the pain and accept that I’ll end up sobbing for most of the trip.
Which is ridiculous, right?
The tipping point was making plans for a 2022 return to Greece. Dave and I are planning to hike the length of the island of Crete this summer, along with one of Dave’s friends, tackling a portion of the E4 long-distance walk (a 10,000 kilometre [6,200 mi] trek that runs from Spain to Cyprus!) The realisation that the vast majority of those 14 days would be spent in tears was enough to have me considering backing out; I didn’t want Dave’s friend to have to experience that.
So this month, I decided to take matters into my own, um, feet, and visited a podiatrist here in Melbourne. I looked for somebody who focuses on biomechanics and evidence-based solutions, who aims to discover the root cause of problems. I settled on Gus McSweyn of Pride Podiatry, and it was the best decision ever.
I learned so much about my feet! Like the fact that I have hypermobile ankles, that one foot is significantly stronger than the other, and that those two things in combination are creating additional stress and inflammation within my arches. I feel so confident that we’ll be able to get me to a pain-free hike soon, now that I’m working on daily strengthening exercises and have custom orthotics for my feet.
Experiencing a pain-free multi-day hike is unimaginable for me right now, so I’m crossing my fingers that this is going to be the key to exactly that.
I got a lash lift and I love it: I’m somebody who was born with un-curlable eyelashes. No matter what I do, my lashes remain pointing straight out, stubbornly refusing to move. In fact, most of the time they point down. This month, I tried a lash lift for the first time and I’m obsessed with the results. You can think of it as a perm for your lashes and it lasts for eight weeks. I got a lash tint, too, to make it more visible. Here’s my attempt at a before and after — the difference!
Lowlights of the Month
An unexpected bout of homesickness: Spending Christmas in Oceania for the third year in a row had me feeling surprisingly downcast. Don’t get me wrong: I love spending the holiday season in a warm, sunny climate, but it’s so far removed from my British Christmases that it leaves me feeling as though it’s just another day.
Skyping with my family left me longing to be with them. To be wrapped up in scarves, wandering beside the Thames, stuffing my face with turkey, snuggling by the fire, and watching the Queen’s speech.
At this stage, I have no idea if I’ll be in the U.K. for Christmas 2022, but I sure do hope I can make it happen.
Accidentally paying twice for my accommodation: Whoops! I booked accommodation for Bright and spent the next month being inundated by identical emails from the owner. It was so annoying. “You’re going to Bright!” they bellowed at me. “Here’s everything you need to know! Here’s an events calendar! Here’s a list of our top 20 activities for the area! Here’s a list of the best 30 hikes! Here’s a list of every amenity in the cottage! Here’s a list of directions!” Each email was around 3,000 words long and identical to the previous ones, and so I eventually paid them little attention.
A few days before we were due to arrive, I received a new email from the property, sending me a link to pay for the accommodation: “You must pay ASAP,” they warned me. “Or you’ll lose your reservation!” In a panic, and knowing that there was no accommodation left in Bright, I quickly paid.
It was only several days later, when we were on the outskirts of Bright, that I realised my mistake. I was scrolling through the 20,000 words worth of emails in search of the check-in instructions when I spotted one vital detail: hidden in one of the earlier messages was a line saying that I’d already paid through Booking, so wouldn’t need to pay again.
Talk about confusing! I checked my bank account and… yep. I’d paid through Booking and a month later, paid direct. Fortunately, I was able to get a refund for the second payment, but talk about making things complicated for your guests!
My Next Steps
This is the first time in, well, ever that I have literally no idea where I’ll be in a month from now. So here’s what I do know:
I’m ready to leave Australia, I think. Or, at least, Melbourne. I’ve spent nine months in this wonderful city and loved every moment that wasn’t spent in lockdown, but I can’t stay forever and my travel toes are starting to tingle. This is the longest I’ve spent in a single place in over a decade! So, given that I don’t have a home, the question now becomes: where on earth can I go next?
When choosing a new destination, I have to take into account the number of COVID cases, current or potential lockdowns, the entry requirements from Australia, the cost, availability, or existence of flights, length of visas (3+ months would be useful), and the weather.
It’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, as you know, so I don’t particularly feel the urge to leave this blissful warmth. The thought of packing my bags and flying to London or New York is… not all that appealing, from both a temperature and an Omicron perspective.
One option, of course, is to stay put and see what New Zealand does. New Zealand has pushed back its re-opening to residents from mid-January until the end of February. I could stick around in Australia for another couple of months to see if it does open then.
The advantages of doing this would be getting to see my New Zealand family again and being able to return to the place that makes me happiest. Sunshine, hiking, and no international tourists: the trifecta! The downside is that, odds are, the border won’t re-open then. Australia has plenty of Omicron cases, New Zealand is recording just 20 cases a day and doesn’t yet have transmission of Omicron; they understandably won’t open up if they continue to successfully keep it out.
Another option is to start exploring Australia in more depth. I’ve spent a ton of time in Melbourne over the past year, but Australia is a country that’s the same size as the United States! There’s so much to explore here. I could head over to South Australia, which is a brand new state for me, and road trip my way across it. I could hire a campervan and #vanlife around the entire country. Beach-hop along the coast; drive across the Outback. I could venture into New South Wales for the first time since 2012 to have a look around. Hit up all the main tourist attractions while they’re still quiet and calm.
The pros of this option are being able to remain in the same country, get my travel fix, and not have to worry about travel restrictions, PCR tests, and getting on a flight. The downside is that, well, I can’t stay in Australia forever — I have to leave soon and the clock is ticking!
So what about heading further afield?
Top of our list right now is Mexico. As soon as I suggested it, Dave and I looked at each other with wide eyes and meek smiles. Something about the suggestion just felt right. We love, love, love Mexico, and have wanted to return for years. We could spend our time on the beaches, living outdoors in these pandemic times, downing every margarita and devouring every taco that crossed our path. We’d get a six month visa on arrival, so we could easily opt to spend a month in Puerto Vallarta, or maybe return to Sayulita? Then a month in the Yucatan? Maybe we could try Merida on for size?
The main downside of heading to Mexico is that it would require roughly 28 hours of travel to get there, with multiple layovers — would it be worth the hassle and stress? On top of that, there are reports that Mexico is currently cracking down on long-term travellers; some people are now being given a seven-day visa at the border! What would Dave and I do if that happened to us? Where would we go? We’d need a solid back-up plan and significant amounts of resilience to handle something like that.
There’s one other destination that’s at the top of our list and I think it’s going to be quite a surprise to you: it’s Cyprus! Yep, Cyprus. Isn’t that random? In reality, it makes a lot of sense for me and Dave. Firstly, we’re planning on — surprise! — spending the entirety of 2022’s Northern Hemisphere summer in Europe. And this pesky little thing named Brexit means that I’m now subject to the rules of the Schengen Zone; before Brexit, I could simply travel around Europe forever, without limits on how long I spent in any country in the EU. After Brexit, I can now only spend 90 days of each 180 day period in the EU, and so I have to be careful (and plan for extensive time in the Balkans).
Cyprus is part of the EU but it’s not part of the Schengen Zone; it offers visitors a three month visa on arrival. Cyprus has warm, balmy weather year-round, so we wouldn’t need to worry about being too cold. And it’s cheap! It offers up good hiking, delicious food, and beaches and ruins galore! Cyprus has just launched a digital nomad visa, too, so I could put together some epic posts about that. I love the idea of spending several months on a relatively small island and really getting to know what it’s like. I’ve visited Cyprus once before — when I was 14 years old; Dave’s never been. The downside is, as with Mexico, it’d take 28-odd hours to get there; I’d layover in Qatar or the UAE.
Beyond that, we don’t have too many other options. Thailand and Indonesia are running mandatory hotel quarantine, which I don’t want to go through again. Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan have closed off to tourists. Cambodia is letting tourists in, but only on a 30-day visa. The South Pacific islands are mostly closed to tourism or only issuing 30-day visas. Other non-Schengen countries in Europe would be too chilly in January/February. I don’t fancy hitting up the U.S. right now.
So, I want to know: where would you choose?
Chatting with Dave now, we’ve agreed that we genuinely feel an equal pull for all of the options: we’re tempted to go down the easy route and continue to wait things out in Australia, we think we’d have an incredible time on the beaches of Mexico, and we love the idea of rocking up to Cyprus for several months of deep exploration.
Which to choose? Which to choose?
I have no idea where we’re going to end up, so I’ll most likely roll a dice and let you know in next month’s summary! And given that I’ve now publicised these plans, I’m fully expecting both Mexico and Cyprus to ban travellers within the next couple of days.
How was your December? What do you have planned for January?
I’ve been publishing round-ups of my travels every single month since my departure date in July 2011. For more, you can find a full archive of them on my newly-created monthly summary page.