The Aussie Way of Wanderlust

Lonely Planet guidebooks founder Tony Wheeler asks: Just what is it that inspires Australians to wander incessantly around the world?

Published November 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Terminal Wanderlust, it's one of the definitions for today that Douglas Coupland invented in "Generation X": a state of being so disconnected to anywhere that everywhere is home, or might just as well be. I reckon I'm infected. I was born in Britain, grew up in Pakistan, the Bahamas and the United States, with short interludes back in Britain, and now live in Australia, although in recent years there have been year-long interludes in France and the U.S. Even when I am at home I'm typically away traveling for six months each year. So nowhere is really home, almost anywhere could be. Perhaps I can blame my personal wanderlust on my peripatetic upbringing -- but could a whole nation get this affliction?

I've spent half a lifetime wondering who goes where, and the results of my surveys may be unscientific but they're certainly conclusive: Australians go everywhere. I scan through hotel registers in towns in Africa, I glance back through visitors' books in churches in southern India, I check who has gone scuba diving with a Red Sea dive operator, I add up who has checked in to youth hostels along the Pennine Way in England. Everywhere it's the same story: more Australians than there should be. Come on, there are less than 20 million of them. If there's an Australian on the register there should be three Germans, seven Japanese, 15 Americans. It's never that way.

One night, after the sound and light show at Chichen Itza in Mexico, a dozen or so of us were left, sprawled on the grass, talking about Mayans, Mexico and whatever else you talk about when you're in that great Mayan center. And then about where we'd been and where we were going. Mexico is not an Australian destination. Australia is not only a lot farther south of the border; it's also a dateline to the west, and there aren't lots of cheap flights to Mexico from Australia, as there are from Europe. Australia doesn't have a shared history with Mexico or enjoy constant references in everyday life (from Taco Bell to Mexican beer to Mexican politics), as America does.

So why should three of the 12 Chichen Itza travelers be Australians? OK, 12 people in front of a Mayan pyramid doesn't make a statistically significant survey; this little nationality count really doesn't count. Except it is, it does. In fact, my homespun surveys and gut instinct are more than adequately backed up by hard statistics and clear indicators. On measurements ranging from per capita expenditure on international travel to number of passports held relative to population, Australians are always up toward the top of the charts.

Australia, like America, is a wide and varied land, offering plenty to attract the traveler in its own right. So why are Americans perfectly content to see America first, to explore their own country with, comparatively speaking, rarely a thought of setting foot abroad? While Australians seem intent on going everywhere before they give their homeland a second glance.

Perhaps the country's wanderlust dates right back to its European beginnings. Australia's European settlement, like America's, was relatively recent and surprisingly similar, a pattern of sailing fleets bringing hardy settlers to a lightly populated country where they displaced the native peoples (often violently) and then did very well for themselves. The people on those sailing ships, however, were aboard for entirely different reasons. The new Americans were fleeing Europe, going in search of a new home with no intention of ever looking back. In contrast, Australia's convict settlers were being flung out from Europe, exiled to Australia against their will, with return home always uppermost in their minds. So perhaps that need to leave, that need to hit the road, to go somewhere, anywhere, everywhere, has been in the Australian psyche from the very start.

Or perhaps it's a more modern affliction, a product of modern media and information. Until the last 25 years, when an explosion of Australian movies, books, fashion and music defined for the first time a real Australian culture, the whole country was said to suffer from "cultural cringe." This condition displayed itself as an overwhelming feeling of being culturally second-rate, a poor straggler behind the infinitely superior cultural life found in other parts of the world. To make it meant going abroad, because even achieving exactly the same sort of success in Australia as in Europe or America would inevitably be tainted, second best.

As a result, a whole generation of Australians moved to London, turned that city's Earls Court district into "Kangaroo Valley" and ended up behind the steering wheel, driving half the popular culture of Britain. Just look at Rupert Murdoch and his international media grab; it had its takeoff outside Australia in Britain, and there were plenty of Aussie foot soldiers ready and waiting in Fleet Street to staff his army when the call to arms came. Today the culinary revolution that has swept through London, leading many food critics to opine that the food's better there than in Paris, has partly been led by Australian chefs, who run the kitchens of many of the city's best restaurants.

Or perhaps it's simple mileage that drives Australians to become the world's premier long-term travelers, the "tyranny of distance," as the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey has defined it. Flying to Europe from Australia takes a solid 24 hours; even the most direct flight to the U.S. West Coast involves at least 12 hours aloft. To most overseas destinations from Australia, a flight of at least seven or eight hours is a short hop, a mere kangaroo skip for an outward-bound Aussie. When getting anywhere takes that long, there's clearly an incentive to stay away longer; you don't take a weekend in Europe when it takes the whole weekend just to get there.

Accordingly, a year off between education and employment became an Australian norm, like the gentlemanly European tour of the Victorian era. Grab a representative bunch of Australians and a surprising percentage of them will have spent a year or more abroad at some point. In this activity the Australians may have simply been a bit ahead of the game, for today the expression "gap year" has found its way into the English dictionary, a year between school and university when young Brits set out to see the world. Reportedly, even in America, a "blank" year or two on your CV, once looked upon as a sure sign of unreliability and lack of application, is now starting to be seen as a sign of adventurousness and a wider understanding of the outside world.

Or perhaps Australian wanderlust goes farther back than modern travel, back beyond the cultural cringe and the tyranny of distance, even back before Captain Cook, the "First Fleet" of convicts and the other pioneering Europeans. After all, the term "walkabout" is just putting an English spin onto what was clearly an Aboriginal concept. Right from the beginning, European observers noted the native Australians' tendency to put down tools and head off somewhere else for an indeterminate period of time for inscrutable reasons. Perhaps from the very beginning the whole island continent was already deeply infected with Terminal Wanderlust, waiting to be passed on to the next foolish arrivals.

Or perhaps it's the landscape. When first-time visitors ask me where to go in Australia, I always point toward the Outback. Yes, the cities can be beautiful, but there are other beautiful cities in the world. Yes, the Great Barrier Reef is marvelous, but there are other coral reefs. There's only one Outback and Australians have a strangely passionate but arms-length affair with it; it's celebrated in every medium, from songs like "Waltzing Matilda" to movies like "Crocodile Dundee" to bookshops full of photographic essays. The passion and the celebrations are, however, edged with caution. The Outback is like an exciting but vaguely dangerous lover who might just roll over and stab you in the back some night. There's always a distance about it, an alien, vaguely unsettling, vaguely feral atmosphere. In fact, you don't really love it; the relationship has a touch of love-hate. The green fields and ordered landscapes of Europe seem infinitely more secure, reliable and trustworthy.

Or perhaps linking Terminal Wanderlust with Australia overlooks the most glaring example of all: There's a small country slightly to the southeast of Australia -- human population about 3 million, sheep population about 20 times as great -- where they really have Terminal Wanderlust bad.

By Tony Wheeler

Tony Wheeler is the co-founder (with his wife, Maureen) and head of Lonely Planet Publications.

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