It is possible to travel from Europe to Australia without flying – an adventure that values the journey as much as the destination.
IT WAS SATURDAY 9th September 2006 and after only three hours’ sleep I awoke to see the early morning sun rising over the lake through salmon-pink skies. The light was clear and the water still and calm. I noticed a few fishing boats as silhouettes on the canvas and began to wonder what sort of life it was to be an artisan fisherman here in the heart of Siberia on the world’s deepest lake, Baikal. I was beginning to feel quite hungry as my supply of food bought in Moscow was dwindling, so I hoped to buy some fish from the lake.
Soon enough we were stopping at another station. We weren’t allowed off the train but could buy from sellers through the window. Everyone enjoyed the spectacle of three inept and half-asleep Europeans trying to buy from three babushkas all shouting together in Russian and waving their strings of smoked fish around. The fish tasted delicious, if a bit salty. We had our fill and I decided to take the rest of the fish to offer to some of my new friends two carriages down.
Here there was a buzzing atmosphere too, as everyone was busily snapping photos and talking about the lake. I shared the fish, first with a beautiful man who was partially sighted. He had wanted to travel on the iconic Trans-Siberian railway all his life and was finally, in old age, managing to achieve his dream with the aid of a nurse. He was so happy to be alive and was having a fantastic time even though he was missing out on some of the views.
I also shared my fish with Michal from Poland and Joel from France, who were travelling together. Michal had also been saving for this adventure for a long time and seemed to share something of my philosophy on life. We discussed our feelings about the journey and he commented, “I like the space: it’s so empty”. I smiled to myself because all around me people were happy and I was happy – really and truly happy. There is something special about having time to talk to people and share life stories. I believe coming together to share food like this is important, too.
My journey was only eight days old and I had come so far. My initial nerves had gone now. Somehow I had made it half-way across Europe on a coach to Moscow and now I had travelled across a lot of Russia and was heading towards Mongolia. Over 2,000 miles covered already, but 8,000 to go. This trip that was so much about the destination was increasingly becoming just as much about the journey.
A YEAR AND a half ago my friend Helen asked me to be one of her bridesmaids. Helen had been an important part of my life when we lived and shared four years at university in Leeds.
Since then we had both gone out into the world and found our separate paths. I had moved to Wales and had been living remotely and simply in a small caravan on a farm. I was working at the Centre for Alternative Technology, trying to grow vegetables and take time to spend with friends playing music and exploring the great outdoors.
Helen had travelled abroad and met an Australian named Steve. Their lives were now entwined and they were getting married at their new home in Brisbane. This was where my adventure began. I was well aware of the terrible impact aeroplanes have on the environment. By taking a plane to Australia I would be contradicting all my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint and live in harmony with Nature.
I worked out the carbon emissions for a return flight to Brisbane and compared it to an equivalent journey made over land and sea. The difference was massive. All legs of the slow journey produced much less carbon.
The hard part was to find the transport to take me on this epic adventure. Slowly I pieced it together and became increasingly excited about my plan. I had seven weeks instead of a twenty-four hour flight. Instead of landing straight down in Australia, I was going to travel through fifteen countries and use buses, trains and boats.
AT 9PM ON Sunday 17th September I was travelling on a different train, through Vietnam. We had left Hanoi station late the previous night and enjoyed another relaxing night asleep, rocking to the lull of the train. I spent the day watching the magnificently stunning Vietnamese countryside pass by. Lush mountainsides dropped down to small idyllic bays lipped by turquoise seas. There were only a few other foreigners on the train: a Scottish man who had been studying in Singapore but didn’t really seem to want to chat, and two Koreans who were very smiley but spoke little English.
We had been provided with two meals courtesy of the train operator. The food was tasty enough and it gave our cabin a chance to get to know each other. The three men in my cabin were all well-dressed businessmen who were fascinated that I was travelling alone. I suppose our cultures were very different, and maybe I was naive but I hadn’t felt scared and I had been safe on the journey so far. Of course I had been sensible about what I wore and where I went, but overall my philosophy was to approach everyone and everything positively and openly. So far I had been rewarded with a lot of kindness, genuine friendship and support.
The evening slowly progressed. My three new friends kept hopping out at stations to buy more delicacies: grapefruit-like fruit which we ate dipped in salt. Finally I made my way to the top bunk which was my bed and caught a few hours’ sleep while the party carried on.
AT 4.30AM ON Tuesday 10th October I was lying in bed but could not sleep. I will remember this moment forever. It is one that brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.
I was wondering how I would have felt if I had been here 40,000 years ago, when humans first discovered the dry and dusty continent now known as Australia, and settled it as home. What would people have travelled on? A raft made of timber and coconut leaves? Maybe a canoe hollowed from tree bark? How did they steer? Did they have paddles? Did they know where they were going?
Things were very different for me. I was travelling on a huge cargo ship, the MV Theodor Storm. We were carrying 18,559 tonnes of containers and had nine officers and sixteen crew plus little old me. I had a smart cabin with a double bed, an en suite bathroom, and a large desk to sit at and ponder.
On this early morning, I hadn’t seen land for six days and I had had no contact with the world outside the vessel. I felt slightly bewildered and very excited. I jumped as the phone rang, but I grabbed it on the first ring and heard the familiar and friendly voice of one of my new officer friends. In his deep Russian accent he told me we were close to land. I leapt out of bed. The curtain was so thick that it was still pitch black in the room. I slowly opened the curtain, and what a sight met my eyes! It was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. The horizon was so red, as the sun was starting to push up over the edge of this vast continent. I was here: I had made it; I could see land, and it was Australia. After forty days my journey was nearly over and I had succeeded in the challenge where many thought I would fail. I had travelled from my home in Wales to Australia without using an aeroplane.
THE WEDDING WAS a beautiful day: a simple ceremony on the beach. There was a lot of love and smiling. I was glad to have made the trip and to have stuck to my ideals against many odds. This journey has changed my life in many ways. Ironically it has actually made me more interested in travelling as I know now it is possible to do it whilst limiting my environmental impact and widening my view of the world.
There was always the worry throughout the journey that I wouldn’t make it; that something would go wrong and I would have to make the awful decision and either take a plane or miss the big day. It wasn’t until I saw Australia and landed on her soil that I knew this journey was possible.
I have seen a lot that has made me afraid for the future of the planet and I am even more determined to play my part in mitigating climate change and protecting the beautiful Earth which I have had the privilege to see so much of.
For more details about the journey or to contact Barbara visit www.babs2brisbane.blogspot.com