The five things travel has taught me: Sarah Macdonald, author and broadcaster


Every year for several Easters my family went with four other families to the north coast of New South Wales. We'd pitch tents around a "no camping" sign and run feral – swimming in the lake and the sea, climbing the paperbarks, performing concerts for the adults (I sang and danced to an Abba song). It taught me the power of creating community on a shared travel experience.


When I was 21 I was given a ticket overseas that lasted a year. With two other equally naive and green friends we first went to Greece and were in heaven roaming the Plaka in Athens. Then we went to Egypt. We were shocked as we were flashed at, grabbed and one of us pretty much sexually assaulted on the back of donkey. It was a realisation of how middle class, privileged, sheltered and unprepared for the not-always-welcoming world we were. We bought a book that told the stories of Egyptian women and learnt fast. It made us smarter travellers.


When I was working hard in my early 20s in the press gallery, I took two months off and went to live in Perugia to study Italian at the Universita per Stranieri. It was gorgeous but the other students were young and intense. Then a friend from Sydney turned up, bought a Vespa we had to pedal to start and stole me away from classes to see live music, attend all-night dance parties and take long lunches. The World Cup was on and Italy got into the final. They paused a concert with international bands so the ragazzi could watch. They lost on a penalty shootout and the Italians were devastated, leaving the gig in tears. We danced on. It taught me a lot about national identity, football and the importance of giving in to joy.


I lived in India for nearly three years. I travelled the spiritual supermarket of the Western traveller and wrote Holy Cow, detailing the lessons India taught me. There were so many about oneness, generosity, ritual and love. Now all these years on, while a lot of it has faded, I realise the experience did permanently change me. India made me more fatalistic and gave me the ability to cede control. This was very useful for having kids but I wonder if it stunted my drive for success back in Australia.


Last year we took our teens on a road trip to Lake Mungo, a World Heritage area in far west New South Wales. This is where the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman were taken from for study. The research revealed that Aboriginal people have lived in this country for at least 40,000 years and possibly longer. But their removal has been intensely painful for the traditional owners. They have recently been returned. In this sandy moonscape we learnt so much about how people lived in this area when it was a series of bountiful lakes. At night we sat around a fire looking at the same stars as generations before. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to be there.

Sarah Macdonald is an author and presenter of ABC Radio's Weekend Nightlife. Alongside Rebecca Huntley, a writer and presenter of ABC Radio National's The History Listen, Macdonald is co-editor of The Full Catastrophe: Stories from when life was so bad it was funny (Hardie Grant, $32.99) a collection of stories by well-known Australians. See