I hear the grumble first. It rolls out from the jungle, deep and echoing. A calling card for what’s to come.
I’m in the middle of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the forest is just that: impenetrable. Leading the way are two local trackers slowly forging a path through the dense green, one machete slice at a time.
I’m here to see the mountain gorillas, an experience which I’ve been told is equal parts life affirming and terrifying. Right now, with the sound of a fully grown silverback still ringing in my ears, it feels more terrifying than anything else. For a brief second I wonder what the hell I’m doing. I mean, besides giving my mum a heart attack, I’ve just waltzed into the territory of a wild animal, strong enough to break my arm with a handshake. And that’s if he’s in the mood for receiving guests.
Taylor Swift once said that to be “fearless is not the absence of fear [but] living in spite of those things that scare you”. And while I don’t often reach out to Swifty for life (or travel) advice, I happen to agree with her. Especially when I’m kilometres deep into African thicket, swarmed by insects, and looking a silverback dead in the eye.
There’s not a human alive who is free from fear. Superman fears Kryptonite, Madonna is scared of thunder and, hell, Billy Bob Thornton can’t eat or breathe around antique furniture (I’ve got so many questions about that, by the way).
My point? Fear is a universal human experience. And in my travel books, it’s also an essential one.
While some people choose to live a safe and moderate existence (probably smart, those people are definitely going to live longer than me), I’m a total ‘fear’ junkie. As a travel writer and producer, one of my favourite parts of adventuring is the build up of nerves, and subsequent feelings of euphoria, that come with throwing myself well and truly out of my Melbourne bubble.
I like to imagine there is a fear spectrum, much like there is a spectrum to rainbows and politics. At one end of the scale, you’ve got the paralysing terror that comes with a near-death experience. At the other, there’s the polite flutter of butterflies in one’s stomach that signals an incoming first kiss. Or potential bout of food poisoning. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
It’s not that I want to be scared. But I crave the feelings that come with culture shock, fight or flight, fish out of water situations. The way I see it is that even if my luggage gets lost, the boat is late, the wasps swarm (literally, it happened in Uganda) or the piranhas bite (also literally, it happened in Laos), at least I’m coming away with a good story. And a bunch of life lessons.
There’s a first time for everything… and it’s terrifying
The dive instructor signalled at me again. Counting down silently on his fingers. I’ll be honest, part of me wanted to rip those fingers off his hand and feed them to the fishes. We were seated on the ocean floor, our waist belts weighing us to the Ko Tao sand. I knew I should be enjoying my first scuba experience, but instead I was in the middle of a mild panic attack.
Moments earlier I’d lost my mask and my air at the same time. I knew it was a learning exercise, and I was telling myself as much, but when the world went black and my mouthpiece was not where it was meant to be – ie. clamped between my teeth with great tenacity – I panicked.
I kicked up to the surface, breaking through with a gulp and a bitter taste of regret. Pull yourself together, girl. This is exactly like all your other first times. You’ve just got to go back down, trust in the system and remember that it’s going to get more and more fun with practice. Because nothing about breathing underwater feels natural. In fact, it goes against all survival instincts. But that’s exactly what makes it fun.
I live for the moments where I have to dig deep. Otherwise I would never have ended up swimming alongside a giant Grouper in soupy Thai waters.
Choose a destination that stokes the fear fire
When I travel, I choose my destinations based on whether or not I’ll be challenged, either culturally (hello India), physically (nice to meet ya Patagonia) or emotionally (howdy Timor-Leste), and where on the fear spectrum it lies.
When I’ve needed a little perspective I’ve gone ice climbing in Patagonia and hiking at altitude in Rwenzori and cycling in Jakarta. In a world that sometimes feels too small, these places of ice and granite and a thousand motorbikes remind me of its vastness.
That’s what travel can do for you. That’s why there is a difference between going travelling and going on holiday. My first trip to Myanmar was in 2009 at a time when the country of isolation was only just beginning to open its doors to tourists. This was a time when there were no ATMs and I had to walk up three flights of stairs and drink tea with a local man in order to exchange currency. This was a time when I was warned not to say I was a journalist and gatherings of five or more people was seen as suspicious.
There was that kernel of fear, a little acorn that, on arrival, grew into fully fledged adrenaline at the promise of an entirely new country to explore. But after just one night in Yangon, I was riding high on travel endorphins. What I learned was that Myanmar is a country of open and beautiful people willing to share their culture and custom and cups of tea with a stranger.
Braving solo travel after almost a decade
Travel has become my life, and my work. But recently, I’ve had to rethink the way I adventure. For the better part of a decade, I travelled with a partner. He was a travel photographer and I am a travel writer and we worked and loved and did all the travel things together. Travelling with him felt very much like finding my adventure soulmate.
But what happens when that relationship ends? All of a sudden, I found myself travelling without an anchor. Without a support crew. And I was scared. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, but because I was frightened that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. I was afraid that I’d lost too big a chunk of my travel life and it could never be replaced.
How fun is a sunset over the the plains of Bagan without someone to share it with? Who was I going to sleep on during long haul flights? Would someone like to split a bottle of Mekong whiskey? Can someone, somewhere, please keep an eye on my terrible spatial awareness and make sure I don’t die while crossing a hectic Phnom Penh intersection?
On a recent trip to Africa, I answered all those questions. And the key to everything, in a very Eat Pray Love-way, was me. I had forgotten how much I like being alone. I forgot that travel, in the end, is mine and my experience only. And that by dancing to 60s Afro Jazz in an Indian restaurant-cum-bar in Cape Town with a bunch of beautiful strangers is indeed one of the most fearless things I’ve done in a long time.
Being fearless for me is acknowledging those nerves, squaring up to the doubts, paying tribute to that twang in your belly and then living, breathing and travelling despite them. I want to keep travelling in a way, and to places, that make me question both the world I live in and the person who I am. It sounds deep, but it’s not. In simple terms, I find that extending my comfort zone and embracing my fears helps me grow as a person. Because deep down, the thing that probably scares me the most is peaking or plateauing as a human before my 28th birthday.
Basically, in summary, Taylor Swift was right and I think she might be a genius.
Are you ready to be Intrepid? Get outside your comfort zone on a small group adventure now. The world is waiting.