The five things travel taught me: Journalist and author Andrew Darby


Journalist and nature writer Andrew Darby's book, Flight Lines, charts the discovery of extraordinary flights across the globe by migratory shorebirds and his personal odyssey of surviving metastatic lung cancer. See


To leave suburban Australia for the first time I rolled down the runway in a DC-10 as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon played on my Walkman. That night at a Bangkok transfer, a military man waved me back with his gun as I walked the wrong way down a corridor. I flew on through the dark in a crammed 707 to Athens, checked into a sketchy hotel room and went to sleep. Next morning I opened the curtains and there in front of me was the Parthenon, standing on the Acropolis. That was 40 years ago and the memory still excites me today.


Yes, I was taken in by a huckster "guide" in Sri Lanka – but I was a naive target. I learned to trust French schoolboys at soccer-sans-language, and Japanese passers-by to hand me faithfully from one to the other, piloting me around Tokyo. I knew I would come to no harm with the villagers of China, delighted by the foreigner with the strange hair that their children could play with. Considering all that might have gone wrong, I have been a fortunate Candide.


Standing on the white infinity of the Antarctic ice sheet, riding out a hurricane-force storm thousands of kilometres from land in the Southern Ocean, watching gold-haired grizzly bears occupy the Arctic tundra, swimming with curious minke whales – all of these moments have given me a sense of my place in the world, and it is very small. This makes our power to change the Earth all the more sobering. Any good doctor of politics must prescribe travel as a cure for self-interested politicians. Send every climate change-denier free of charge to be scolded by the Inuit.


The web of connections across our Pale Blue Dot is not made of jet trails or ship wakes, though they may be easiest for us to see. Animals and fish, birds and insects, creatures without number roam the Earth, its waters, and the air above in migrations. These are its life pulses. To get a taste of them, we need only go outside, and watch. A welcome swallow in the park, a humpback whale off the coast, such are our surrogate travellers. They give rhythm to our own seasons and years, and we should heed their presence – and absence.


I am fortunate to live in Tasmania on the side of kunanyi/Mt Wellington among forest that is unburnt – yet. I can take a day trip that will put me among thousand-year-old Gondwanan trees with gnarled, swirling trunks. Or walk an eight-kilometre beach with no-one else on it. If I really want to test myself I could again raft the Franklin River, where mortal danger is around the next bend from blissful peace. I am learning that for me, now, the best travel is close to home.