What I learnt backpacking in the mid 90’s

Back in the mid 90’s, at the tender age of twenty, I left the comfort of our family home to travel around Australia for a year. It was possibly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made… and I’m so glad I got to do it pre-internet.

Back then, travelling was so much more about living in the moment, making and sharing your experiences with the people you were with at the time, exchanging travel stories and cool places to visit via real conversation. “Heard you just got back from Byron Bay. Know a cool hostel?” Out from a dirty backpack, would come The Lonely Planet… the then bible for travellers.

I would take photos on a camera using film of just 36 exposures. Film cost money so I really put thought into what memories to capture. Once developed, I would continue my travels with physical prints and a strip of negatives. Friends and family left behind would only see the pictures when I returned home, months later. Life just moved at a different pace. There was no pressure or urgency for instant uploads. You simply cruised around, spending your time and energy with those you happened to meet and stick with.

Yesterday, I was looking at my Lonely Planet collection in a book cabinet I actually custom designed to fit these very books. I don’t think I could ever part with them. They’ve covered so many miles alongside me and made me who I am today. The last time I bought one was probably in 2003, when I attempted to ‘backpack’ around Peru for three weeks. I say ‘attempted’ because at that point, I’d already started (my albeit short) life in the corporate world and had got used to business class travel so the novelty of basic hostels, cold showers and lousy mattresses soon wore off. What I did love was spending time with a crowd of people that were travelling without strict time limits. No urgency, no commitments, no plan… that sort of freedom is hard to come by these days.

Looking through my book collection made me wonder how backpacking works in 2018? Our digital rat race is all consuming. Do Millenials even go backpacking? Do they still turn to The Lonely Planet? Do they even talk to each other… or do they sit at communal tables in hostel kitchens, glued to their screens, fixated by social media? Jennifer Aniston put it perfectly about a possible Friends reunion when she said “There was something about that time where our faces weren’t stuffed into cell phones. We weren’t checking Facebooks and Instagrams. We were in a room together, in a coffee shop together. We were talking, having conversations. We have lost that.”

Pre-internet, we called home from a phone booth (an infrequent treat when funds allowed) or we would write letters… yes, pens to paper, stamps to envelopes! Back then, I would receive real letters at post offices. That patience and anticipation waiting for them to arrive served as valuable life lessons.

Backpacking will never return to what it once was but I hope that those who venture around the world now are aware of trying to live in the moment and make an effort to really connect with each other, living the rough with the smooth rather than sharing on social media, all the gloss and none of the chaos. It’s the rough that builds character.

Travelling for no one but yourself is what brings the most enriching experiences. So ditch that screen and dump the Wifi. Get off the beaten track and find new trails. Share your experiences with whoever is sitting next to you. You never know, you might become long life friends. Travel is all about exchange. Happiness is only real, when shared in person.