What does lockdown feel like for professional travellers?

Michael Turtle working hard at a villa in Bali. Cover image: Tracey Croke appreciating the untamed beauty of her Sydney backyard in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.

Michael Turtle working hard at a villa in Bali. Cover image: Tracey Croke appreciating the untamed beauty of her Sydney backyard in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.

Stepping out of the house for the first time in weeks - to the mall, to a cafe, even to a park - feels something like euphoria for many of us.

But what can it be like for those who would usually be spending the bulk of their year travelling the world? To be marooned in Australia, cancelled trips as far as the eye could see, with each representing both a source of livelihood and a vast network of contacts?

Spare a thought for the country's travel writers, who have given their lives over selflessly, so that we, the reading masses, may live vicariously through their wandering spirits.

Or, maybe not so selflessly.

Michael Turtle, columnist for Australian Community Media, has been travelling more or less constantly since he made the decision, 10 years ago, to pack in his stressful career as a journalist in Sydney and become a nomad.

He got rid of everything he owned - "not that I had much" - and, at the age of 30, went backpacking around South America for six months. He had no real plan - or even a phone - but he needed to get away.

And he's been on the move ever since - blogging at timetravelturtle.com, writing for newspapers, magazines and tourism bureaus, working with UNESCO and airlines and hotel chains around the world.

He has stayed at some of the world's most exclusive hotels, but he's also seen cities, towns and villages from unexpected angles, and been granted access to the small corners of the world many travellers never see.

And, while his life is by any measure more fun and glamorous than most, he's almost always alone, and constantly working.

David McGonigal on one of his many trips to Antarctica. Picture: Supplied

David McGonigal on one of his many trips to Antarctica. Picture: Supplied

"I think the way that I have travelled the whole time is very different to the way the typical person travels. I call it travel, but I never call it a holiday," he says.

"It's always about exploring and learning and discovering and creating stuff as I go along."

And while once he relished carrying his life in a backpack and staying in hostels, he's in a different phase of travel now.

"I'm about to turn 40, and I definitely don't do dorms anymore," he says.

"I did it back in the day because it was fun. Even when I first started this long stint in my early 30s, it wasn't that I couldn't have afforded to stay in a hotel, necessarily, it was that it was much more enjoyable when you're travelling on your own through South America and staying in hostels where you meet people who are doing the same kind of thing, and you travel for a week or so together and do bits and pieces.

"That's why I was doing it.

Caro Ryan exploring. Picture: Jake Anderson

Caro Ryan exploring. Picture: Jake Anderson

"But these days, the problem is that it's all so work-focused that actually most of my evenings are spent sitting at a desk in a hotel room on a computer doing stuff, which is a bit of a shame, in a way, that that's what it's become."

He remembers recently staying in a Sri Lankan resort so fancy his private hut came with a butler. He somehow finished an entire bottle of wine one night, and found a new one in its place - along with several others - the following morning.

It was the perfect symbol of superficial luxury.

"I was by myself, which was pretty depressing, actually. Why do you think the bottle of red wine got finished?" he says.

Not that he's complaining. Last year, a tourism official in the French town of Mont Saint Michel produced a key and took him up to the very top of the spire in the town's main abbey.

This, he says, felt way more impressive than a private butler.

But for now, that life is over. He's marooned in Sydney, staying with his family.

And, he says, while all his plans - and sources of income - for the next six months have been wiped off the calendar, it almost feels like a holiday.

"It's almost two different things I have to grapple with. One is the business and financial side of things, and the other is the fact that I'm normally moving as well," he says.

"The business side has obviously been tough, because all my income has disappeared. I think I'm more fortunate than a lot of small businesses in that I don't really have many overheads.

"I don't have staff or rent or anything like that, so it's not so hard in that sense. I can't equate my financial situation with businesses that have ongoing costs.

"But it is certainly quite stressful to look ahead and say, 'Oh well, I'd factored in a regular income that's disappeared for a certain period of time'."

But mentally and physically, lockdown has been almost ... restorative.

Michael Turtle trekking in Tajikistan.

Michael Turtle trekking in Tajikistan.

"Once I had that initial shock and grieved for my normal life disappearing for a long time, I think I had a bit of that travel addiction in me, and this is almost like rehab. You have to stand still for a while and just relax," he says.

"It's funny how some people talk about feeling lethargic and this sort of thing during this lockdown period. It's the opposite for me in a lot of ways, I'm in the same time zone for two months, same bed every night, and all the things that tie me down a bit have been replaced by stability and routine, and in that sense it's almost been a bit of a refresher.

"Staying at my family home is a holiday, whereas for everyone else it's the opposite. Doing what I normally do is supposed to be the holiday."

Also in Sydney, over on the northern beaches, another seasoned travel journalist is readjusting her world-view. UK native Tracey Croke is the type who's addicted to what she calls "roughty-toughty adventure and galavanting on her mountain bike".

She has hiked through Afghanistan, hunted for mountain bike tracks in the Ethiopian Highlands and been "rescued by nomads" in Kyrgyzstan's Talas Range.

Tracey Croke on a bicycle tour of Mont Blanc. Picture: Supplied

Tracey Croke on a bicycle tour of Mont Blanc. Picture: Supplied

She says suddenly finding herself unable to get away from Sydney and feed her "insatiable appetite for travel, for learning new things about the world" felt like a loss, at first.

But then she realised that the type of travel she's been drawn to over the years has perfectly prepared her for a global pandemic.

"A lot of it up to that point, had ironically taught me how to deal with the pandemic," she says.

"I think the type of journeys I did really helped me get it all into perspective. Because one of things that I especially remember about the extreme stuff is what they said to me when you embarked on some of those journeys - the only thing that is certain here is that it's uncertain, and expect the unexpected.

"When you come across something challenging, like really extreme weather - you have to learn to focus on what you can control and change, and you can't control the weather. You can control if you're lost - you have to focus on what you can do something about.

"In the pandemic, it's quite easy for me to separate those things and go, okay, I can't travel, and instead of really missing it and getting depressed about it, I'm really grateful that I went to those places, that I said yes to something and took that risk."

In the meantime, she's been exploring the national parks around Sydney, and seeing native animals she hadn't yet known existed.

"It was Kipling who said the first condition of knowing a place is to smell it, and that's very much how I feel about a place, so for me to learn about a place is about being there and making your own story and not reading someone else's," she says.

"I've learned through every experience I've been on, not just from a geographical, historical point of view but also as a person, especially on some of the extreme journeys.

"I've been able to accept those elements that you can't control and you just have to run with it and stay calm and adapt."

Meanwhile, writer and video producer Caro Ryan thought she had diversified her portfolio enough that she would never find herself out of work. But almost every aspect of her various revenue streams have been affected by the coronavirus.

While she blogs at lotsafreshair.com and writes articles on Australian outdoor adventures, she also spends a large part of the year working on cruise ships, producing video for their in-house channels, and travelling to their various destinations for research.

She says as COVID-19 bore down and all her current and future projects were put on hold, she experienced four weeks of "sheer panic", as the carpet was ripped from under her feet.

But then she realised that not only was she spending more time talking to friends and family, and organising her vast digital archive, she also had the chance to fulfil a promise she'd made to herself the year before.

"Twelve months ago, I gave myself a good talking to, and said I actually really want to explore and spend more time doing some really deep meaningful travel in Australia, rather than going abroad," she says.

"Rather than just a couple of days in each place, I want to spend a couple of weeks to really get into a town or a local region, and COVID has kind of forced that upon us.

She's noticed a huge spike in interest in Australian travel from her large online readership, and sees changes in the water for the local travel industry.

And then there's David McGonigal. He's Australia's - and possibly one of the world's - most prolific travellers, has been to Antarctica more than 80 times and, in 1998, was the first person ever to ride a motorcycle on all seven continents.

In fact, he says, there was a period when, for four years running, he had visited all seven continents by May.

But when we speak over the phone, he is scratching his itchy feet with a proverbial wire brush - his words - while driving out of Brisbane.

While he had been there to visit a sick family member, getting out on the road felt momentous.

"Travel writers are excited to go anywhere, now," he says.

"Brisbane counts as major."

That said, he's anxious to point out that, after decades of extreme levels of travelling, he's really toned it down. Having made a "last-minute" dash to Nepal to go hiking in January, he's only really had to cancel three trips in the interim - to Madagascar, Bali and Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, the travel-writing community, he says, has now had to take a collective breath and rethink the future.

"There's disruption everywhere, and it's kind of a chance to step back and say, what do I want to do?" he says.

David McGonigal on a boat somewhere. Picture: Supplied

David McGonigal on a boat somewhere. Picture: Supplied

"Everyone always fastens on the travel part of travel writing and not so much the writing. So I think a lot of us have had a deep breath, and thought this is a chance to get the writing side under control."

With magazines going out of print, and travel agencies on hiatus the world over, McGonigal had plans to write a book during lockdown in Australia.

"That gives you a great incentive to just keep doing what you're doing," he says.

But instead, he's found himself drawn irresistibly - and horribly - to unfolding world events. While for many of us, the shared global experience has made the world feel smaller in a way, for him, what's happening in Europe, Africa and the US feels downright personal.

"It's really hard to [write] when every day, there are stories that impact places you've gone or places you were planning on going to," he says.

"There's a kind of horrible fascination in following it all and seeing what happens next, which isn't helping productivity."

Luckily, he says, he's far enough along in his career that he's no longer living hand-to-mouth.

This means that if an opportunity comes up to take a trip and earn money writing about it, he may well consider passing it along to a less senior writer.

"Who really just needs a back up? Travel writing is not the best-paid occupation in the world," he says.

But like Ryan and Croke, he sees a bright spot in all the halted chaos, and that's the chance that more people, himself included, might choose instead to travel around Australia.

Although he has produced multiple Australian travel guides throughout his career, he recalls, just last year, feeling real envy for a friend who had just driven a four-wheel-drive to Cape York.

"The Australian outback, anywhere outside the Australian cities is just amazing, and I really think that a lot of people will want to go there," he says.

"I think a lot of us are going to have to, and when people get out there and discover how amazing so much of Australia is, I think it's really going to take off.

"It will be interesting to see what happens."

This story What does lockdown feel like for professional travellers? first appeared on The Canberra Times.