Just the sight of mountains was amazing. Real mountains, tall and jagged and caked in snow. Driving from Zurich out to the Arlberg in Austria, those mountain ranges don't slowly rise from modest foothills, they appear fully formed, these huge alpine masses that hover on the horizon and then suddenly tower over your speeding car.
That, for me, was enough to feel the buzz. Even flying over the top of those peaks a few hours before, I'd been leaning against the window, snapping photos, marvelling at their beauty. But then I was surrounded by them, the Austrian Alps, blocking out the sun, stretching on forever.
We don't have mountains like that in Australia. We have plenty of great stuff here, beaches and rainforests and lunar desert landscapes, but we don't have real mountains. It's been years, thanks to COVID-19, since I've been around proper alpine splendour.
So just seeing that, stepping out of the car, breathing the air, taking in the views, was a thrill.
But then cut to the next day. I've got big boots on my feet, a snowboard under my arm. I'm riding the gondola up to the top of the mountain at St Anton. I'm strapping that snowboard to my feet, standing tall, letting gravity do its work, feeling the rush as I get faster, feeling the snow crunch under my edges, the cold air whistle in my ears, watching the scenery fly by, and suddenly I'm yelling out loud, whooping with joy, letting out a primal howl of pure ecstasy.
I'm having a moment.
Travel is built on these moments of purity, of brilliance. Life is built on them. When I look back at the highlights of my travelling life they're very often not entire holidays, or whole weeks, or complete days or even hours. They're moments. Fleeting seconds when the sheer joy of travel and the world and the people around me just coalesce into something overwhelmingly wonderful.
I live for moments like these. I don't always let out whoops of joy when they're happening – you need the anonymity of a wide ski run for that – but inside I'm dancing, whether I'm gazing at a beautiful view or eating the perfect morsel of food or watching an incredible natural occurrence or drinking a beer and staring at the setting sun.
All travellers know this, I think, deep down. And yet there's probably a concern among a lot of people that those moments, in this post- or mid-pandemic world (or whatever it is), will be too hard to find now. Maybe even impossible.
If you haven't travelled overseas yet, since Australia opened its borders, I can totally understand the worry that the experience just won't be like it used to be. I felt it, before I left. There was a lot of COVID-19 in Austria when I visited – more, per capita, than Australia, though it's now far lower – and my worry was that I just wouldn't be able to let that go, that the concern about getting sick and not being allowed to return home to Australia would be impossible to ignore, and would affect everything I did.
I was worried, essentially, that I wouldn't be able to have those "moments". When I was in Austria you still had to pass a RAT to fly back to Australia – if I failed I knew I would be separated from my family, isolating in a foreign country, probably quite sick, for at least another week. How can you have fun when that possibility is weighing on your mind?
I'm here to tell you: quite easily. The good news about travel now, the amazing news about travel now, is that it's still very much the same as it ever was. Yes, there are a few more precautions to take and a few more rules to learn, but the bare bones of the experience remain unchanged.
The hassles are still there: the queues, the expenses, the scams. The day-to-day joys are still there: the chance meetings, the pretty landscapes, the morning coffees, the city strolls. But most importantly, the "moments" are still there, the split seconds when the travelling stars align and everything seems to be working in your favour, when the place is right and the time is right and the company is perfect and the thrill of it all seems too much to hold inside.
Looking back now I realise that on so many occasions in Austria (and then later in Greece and Croatia too), COVID-19 for me ceased to exist. The pandemic ceased to exist. Rather than worry about it more when I was away from home, I worried about it less. I thought about it less. There was so much more to take in, so many other things to think about and enjoy.
Travel still has that power to transport you, not just physically but mentally, even in a pandemic. It can still bring you sheer, unadulterated joy. It can still bring you moments that will stick with you your whole life.
Do you have these "moments" when you travel? Are those your strongest memories? And have you still been able to have them since Australia's borders reopened?