Many of us have daydreamed about packing our bags, waving goodbye to our carefully mapped out lives and setting off on a journey of self-discovery. Some naysayers might think such an adventure is the preserve of the young, but gap years are becoming increasingly common for adults, often giving travellers a whole new lease on life.
Rachel Williams, 36, met her partner Brendan while travelling in Africa. Inspired by his wanderlust, she left behind her background in sports science, and together they went on to launch a new business inspired by their travels.
“I think, like most people, I went overseas to find myself and my place in the world. Living on the Hibiscus Coast, I’d been studying a sports and exercise science degree with a view to becoming a physiotherapist, but the lure of travel was too great in the end and when I was 22, I decided I’d fly to London and travel around for two years instead. My career as a physio could wait.
I had been based in London for six months and travelling around Denmark, Germany and the Middle East when my mother called with the news that she was getting married. The timing of her wedding wasn’t great – it was right in the middle of a safari tour to Africa some friends and I had organised, and one I was very much looking forward to. I was still keen to go, so I arranged to do a quick solo trip before everyone else and make it back in time for the wedding.
Of course, things didn’t pan out quite the way I had planned. I met Brendan the day I arrived in Uganda and immediately felt a connection with him that I’d never experienced before. He was the Australian tour-bus driver, with tatty dreadlocks and a short beard, in board shorts and grease-stained T-shirts, but even on that first day I could see he was a lot of fun, and our attraction was mutual.
We ended up getting together not long afterwards, but even though we were enjoying each other’s company, I think we both initially had the mentality that nothing would ever come of it. At most, I thought perhaps I might visit him in Melbourne one day, if I ever made it there.
After a few weeks in Africa, however, we realised what we had was far more than a holiday fling. Trusting my gut, I took Brendan home for the wedding, where he met my whole family, then rather than visit Melbourne, I moved there with him and got that job in sports.
But after six months of living a lifestyle that somehow felt a bit ‘borrowed’, we got a call from a friend who was looking to organise tours in Morocco and wanted to know if Brendan would be interested in coming over and running them for him.
They offered me £100 a week to assist, and we were off like a shot, working throughout Morocco and West Africa for the next three years. We had no idea what we were doing, but the endless possibility was exhilarating.
I think when you come from an area where everyone knows everyone, you tend to have a preconceived idea of who you think you are, but when you get out into the world, you no longer have that, and it can be liberating.
I don’t think I had such a passion for sports that I couldn’t imagine my life without it, but I also don’t know if I was prepared for just how much my life was going to change from the one I had mapped out inside my head. That’s travel for you, I suppose.
By 2006, we were ready to move on and after we returned to New Zealand, we began toying with the idea of starting our own gig, Viva Expeditions. Travel was now in my blood.
I felt like the world had opened up a wealth of opportunity, and I wanted to share that with people. By this stage I was working in tourism and noticed there was a real lack of expertise in certain areas. We bought a safari truck online for $9000, and had it shipped to Ecuador where we flew to meet it.
We moved into a tiny room and spent our time practicing our Spanish, turning the truck into a proper tour truck and marketing ourselves to potential passengers.
In hindsight, 2009 wasn’t the best time ever to be starting a travel business because of the global recession. But we believed we were providing travellers with a unique experience – specialised tours of South America.
By 2011, we had real traction, and Viva Expeditions has since gone from strength to strength.
Today my relationship with Brendan is as strong as it was when we met in Uganda 14 years ago. Like most people, we have [practicalities to consider], like the mortgage and bills, and we also have a little boy, Rio, who’s been fortunate enough to have travelled South America many times over. It’s the best thing for him, really.
We come from countries where we have things so easy, but it’s only when you spend time in developing countries that you realise how amazing the world is and how wonderful your place within it can be.
Travel brought me Brendan and changed my career path, so I can’t wait to see what will unfold for Rio. What I do know is that anything is possible.”
As told to: Dilvin Yasa
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