Australian couple defines what it really means to have the travel bug
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — It’s been more than 20 years since Sharyn and Tim Nilsen, then in their 20s, decided that they wanted a life full of travel. And not just the occasional city break or week by the seaside. They were thinking serious, long-term travel of the kind that all of us dream about and few of us ever get around to.
Now, they have more than 100 countries and hundreds of thousands of kilometers under their belt. In total, they have been on the road about eight of those years.
And, says Tim, who is now 53, “we’re only just getting started.”
Sharyn and Tim are no ordinary travelers. They have had a severe case of the travel bug for as long as they can remember, even before setting foot outside the town of Broken Hill, deep in the interior of Australia. They have tailored their lives around being able to spend not just months but years on the road.
I first met them two and a half years ago, on a 25-hour train journey in the far west of China. Social media has let me keep track of their amazing trips since then -– and meet up with them again in Vietnam last fall.
— timshazz (@catchourtrvlbug) April 5, 2014
Before our chance meeting in 2012, Sharyn and Tim had spent several weeks in China, including in Tibet. Soon after I met them, they crossed from China into Kazakstan, then on through the rest of central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, etc.), through Iran, Turkey and then London.
Then they got on a plane to Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain, crossed over into northern Africa, made their way through western Africa, then over to Mauritius and Madagascar.
They eventually got back to Australia after about 15 months on the road.
But wait, there’s more.
One month after getting back to Australia, Sharyn and Tim, who describe themselves as middle-aged and overweight, and who did no training before the trip, cycled from Perth to Brisbane, a 7,000-kilometer ride that took them five months.
— timshazz (@catchourtrvlbug) March 16, 2014
Now, they are in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where they are spending a year teaching English, to save up some cash and to have the sensation of living abroad.
“That’s almost as good as traveling long term,” says Tim, who is a graphic designer. He occasionally takes on work -– whenever he gets a good enough internet connection — but those projects are not essential to the Nilsens’ budget. They pay for their passions with rental income from two apartments they own in Brisbane.
Their budget is low. They take mostly public transport and go over land as much as possible. When they don’t camp, as they did for most of their Australia bike tour, they stay in hostels that will set them back only a few dollars a night.
Still, even that adds up. Their three-and-a-half-year trip in the 1990s cost the couple about $100 a day.
“But that includes everything -– insurance, flights and visas,” says Sharyn, now 48. Their more recent trip through China, central Asia and Africa cost a little more, they say, perhaps $120 a day for the two of them.
Sharyn, who used to work as a civil servant in Australia, is the organizer of the duo. She keeps an eye on the budget and sorts out practicalities like getting visas for countries they will visit. That can be complicated when countries require a visa before you can cross the border.
“We had to get our Ghana visa in Australia –- 10 months before we were actually going to be there,” says Sharyn. “You really have to plan ahead.”
Visas also add to the budget: The Nilsens spent $4,000 on visas for the trip that took them around Central Asia and Africa.
The pair have braved attempted scams and broken-down buses, vehicles stuck in mud, bureaucracy, hospital stays, and massive delays at borders. Their hairiest moments –- the times when they actually thought they might die –- were on a trip along the so-called "Death Road" in Bolivia, which is as scary as it sounds.
“There were several times that day I thought we’d not survive,” says Sharyn.
There was also the time, in 1998, when Tim dropped his camera into Lake Kariba, in Zambia, and jumped in after it –- forgetting the crocodiles that were not far off. As recently as July, a traveler was killed by a crocodile at the lake.
Tim, luckily, survived unscathed, as did the camera.
But for the most part, their trips have been free of trouble. They have time, and plenty of savviness by now.
Sharyn’s favourite country? Iran. Tim’s? Namibia, he says -– and whichever is the next on their itinerary.
The pair's travel experiences have even given her enough material for a short book, “Get Away Worry-Free: Pre-Trip Tips for Long-Term Travel.", which includes practical advice for long absences.
Despite all their galavanting, the Nilsens have never been to the United States, Canada, Russia or Brazil.
“The U.S. is just too similar to Australia, in terms of culture and travel, so we’ve just never had it at the top of our list,” Tim says. Though one day, they’ll get there.
They are already planning their next journey: Another bike trip, which will take them from northern Finland through eastern Europe, a route that basically traces the old Iron Curtain. They'll begin the 10,000-kilometers trip in May. When the winter takes hold in Europe, the plan is to go to the Caribbean and join a sailing tour there.
After that, another stint teaching in Vietnam, perhaps. Or somewhere else.
“We've not decided yet, but we'll have a base for a year somewhere, before heading off again,” says Sharyn.
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