Travelling the outback as an Asian-Australia: Journalist Monica Tan's epic journey

One thing that's not included in Monica Tan's epic travel memoir, Stranger Country is the amount of times she was hit on in the outback. Whether it was a grey nomad, fellow camper or bartender, the experience was so common she had an acronym: LOM, Lonely Old Man.

"I guess it's not very normal to encounter a Chinese Australian woman on her own in the outback. That in of itself is going to draw some attention," she says.

Tan's six-month journey across Australia was marked by self-exploration, a desire to rewrite Australia's cultural history and lots of bugs.

Determined to understand more about the country she grew up in, Tan gave up her job as a journalist at The Guardian, bought a Rav 4 and hit the road. She finished the trip with a red-dusted car and 18 notebooks that were painstakingly turned into her first book.

The result is a curious and engaging travel memoir that asks the "big questions" around race and national identity in Australia.

There's a common phrase that the reason non-Indigenous Australians go to the outback is one of three things - they're a missionary, a mercenary or a misfit.

Why did you write this book?

I didn't feel like journalism allowed me to ask very complex questions. Writing a book was always a goal I had but the most important thing to me was the trip and the impact that it might have on my life. It was always trip first, book second. I didn't know what would happen, if I would have any profound experiences. In fact, I was quite pessimistic and felt I wouldn't have any profound experiences but I felt this need to see my own country and understand it better and take the time that you need in order to really understand a place, especially a place as big as Australia.

How much planning went into the trip?

Very minimal. I had a Google Map with lots of dot points of things that I was interested in, places I wanted to see, people I knew and bits of history that I was interested in. For example, I met this filmmaker called Tyson Mowarin in Sydney a few months before I left and he told me about this incredible place called Murujuga [Western Australia], that had a million pieces of rock art. I immediately jotted that down on my Google Map. It sounded really extraordinary and I thought, "How have I gone my whole life and not ever heard of this word before?".

So I had all these stray bits of Australian culture and geography and history that I had not experienced and felt that nobody else had either. These sites didn't seem to be part of any kind of mainstream national consciousness.

Prior to this trip, to what extent had you explored Australia?

Until my mid-20s, most of my life was spent in Sydney. I put this partly on the fact that I come from an immigrant family. We don't have a lot of ties to the rest of Australia, we don't have many friends or relatives in other parts of Australia. And that's really typical for immigrant communities.


But there's also an element of cultural cringe for some cohorts of Australians. I know when I graduated from high school, I was much more interested in going overseas than I was travelling Australia. We sort of had this attitude that Australia is a place to go once you're retired. It will always be here and the wider world is calling us. I lived in London for a little bit, did internships in New York, I travelled through Asia and Europe. I don't regret that. It wasn't until I moved to China in my late 20s and spent four years there that it started to dawn on me how little I knew about my own country. I knew more ethnic minorities in China than I could name Indigenous Australian nations and I felt ashamed about that.

How did the focus of the book change?

I definitely went in with this idea of there is so much about Indigenous Australia that I didn't understand and that going on this road trip would help me in that self-education. But what I wasn't expecting was how much I would learn about multicultural Australia, or Asian Australian history or what impression that would have on me. As I travelled, I started to see how incredibly multicultural the Top End was and I was shocked by the role that non-white, non-Indigenous Australians played in colonialism.

The fact that so many Asian and Middle Eastern people contributed to these great, huge foundational infrastructure projects. I was fascinated by learning about the cameleers from Middle East and Asia and the Makassan Indonesian fishermen that were trading with northern Australians for hundreds of years. So this different picture of Australia really started to emerge, a version that I realised I had very little exposure to. That really shifted how I saw my position as a Chinese Australian in Australia. If anything, it gave me a sense that our people are more implicit in colonialism than I had ever understood before.

What impact did the journey/book have on your life?

Travelling through regional Australia, you meet a lot more people who have been there for a long time. Some Australians have been here ancestrally for 60,000 years.  That connection to place and the community really moved me so when I came back, I started working on being more connected to my community. I joined the Greens and I'm running as a Federal candidate in the next election. I do a lot of volunteer work. I became a teacher at the University of Western Sydney. I do localised environmental work here in Sydney but also more broad campaigning on climate change.

During the trip I started to crave belonging. That's been my second journey, post the physical journey around Australia.

In the book, you refer to a prominent Indigenous man who criticised your book for being exploitative of Indigenous communities. Do you anticipate this criticism will crop up again? And how do you grapple with that?

I do anticipate that kind of criticism and I think it is justified. I understand why the sheer concept of the book might be greeted with scepticism. But I hope the book, as a reading experience, might do something to address that scepticism.

I met a lot of non-Indigenous Australians who are in Indigenous Australian communities for dubious reasons. There's a common phrase that the reason non-Indigenous Australians go to the outback is one of three things – they're a missionary, a mercenary or a misfit. And the idea of a non-Indigenous Australian travelling the countryside and going to communities while writing a book, I can see how that idea can be applied to a project like that or my trip.

But I also have this strong sense, maybe it's naive of me, that I just want to understand my own country better. And that's not an easy thing to do, there are a lot of sensitivities in doing that but I still think that remains a worthy thing to do. And a worthy intention.

What was one moment from the trip that will stay with you?

One of the most meaningful moments was being taken out to this nondescript bushland by a third-generation Chinese Australian who showed me this old pig oven cemented near a termite mound, a very common sight in the Northern Territory. To see this old pig oven that these Chinese miners from colonial days used to slow cook a roast pig for Chinese New Year was really incredible. It made me see that Chinese Australians as one cohort have been left out of the Australian history narrative. But we were there and we are there and so I felt that there is a process of recovering our place in history, or restoring it in the national consciousness.

Did you ever feel threatened or unsafe?

The only time I got a little freaked out was when I got bogged on a remote road in Arnhem Land. And I was a little bit worried about that because if you travel out there, you see torched cars on the road all the time. The expense of getting a car towed back to a place that can repair it is so immensely expensive that it can be the price of the car itself, $30,000. You really don't want to break down out there. For 30 minutes I was stuck but luckily I managed to come undone.

In terms of feeling threatened, this wasn't in the book but I was really amazed by how much I got hit on. I say that because I hardly ever get hit on in Sydney, sometimes I feel like I'm invisible. I don't know if it's my age but I feel like I usually don't get too much attention.

Generally the encounters were polite, but sometimes I just got really tired of the intention and the creepy comments and things like that. It was so common that I had an acronym, "LOM", that stood for lonely old man.

Tips for travelling to the Outback?

Take a 4WD. Have a car fridge.

When you're in a town, there are certain things you need to take care of. You need to go to an information centre or someone in the know. Explain the route you're planning to take. Ask where the next fuel stop is, where the next food stop is and where there is mobile coverage. Remember to text a loved one where you're going before you leave mobile reception.

Make sure your phone is with Telstra, it has the widest coverage.

Leave lots of time. Distances are really huge. If you want to be able to see it all and not be in a rush – you have to take time.

Jerry cans of fuel, just to be safe.

If I did it again, I would have a pop-up tent.

Stranger Country (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is out March 4. 

See also: Why the Australian outback needs to be on your bucket list

See also: Frozen in time: Australia's abandoned towns