January 28, 2001 is one of the most important days of my life as a solo traveler. In the history books, it went down as the day the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV. For me, it was much more significant than a day of watching football, laughing at commercials and stuffing my face with food. The show that really mattered to me was the one that aired after the Big Game – Survivor: The Australian Outback.
As a 16-year-old high school student I developed what some might considered to be an unhealthy obsession with the TV show Survivor. From the start, I immediately fell in love with the show for the strategy, the social experiment (I even made my family play!) – and most importantly, the adventure travel.
Growing up in the Midwest, I had fond memories of family vacations to the Wisconsin Dells, the Jersey Shore and Orlando to visit Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. My travels were limited to the U.S., but not when I watched Survivor. Every week I imagined living on location with the contestants and participating in the epic outdoor adventures in a new part of the world.
As soon as the contestants stepped foot in the Australian Outback, I was consumed by the idea of one day traveling Down Under. It was on January 28, 2001, while watching the premiere of Survivor that I promised myself I would live in Australia and go to the Australian Outback.
Fast forward five years to my junior year at Boston College. Studying Political Science and Philosophy, I felt pressure to study abroad in places like Europe or South America like the other students in my major, but I kept my promise to myself and chose Australia. The South Pacific was educational and the perfect destination for the adventure junkie in me. There was canyoning outside of Sydney, snorkeling in The Great Barrier Reef, trekking in Tasmania, sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, bungee-jumping in New Zealand and island hopping in Fiji (all of which I did!).
Yet, my top priority was visiting the Outback, my inspiration to live in Australia. On the long weekends, most of my classmates from the Boston University Internship Program took trips together. Unfortunately (and surprisingly!) the Outback was not on anyone else’s travel to-do list. Left to decide between going on trips with my classmates or to go to the Outback alone, I chose to follow my dream and go as a solo traveler. This decision forever changed the way I travel.
Sitting on the flight from Sydney to Alice Springs was exhilarating. Watching the landscape of Australia unfold below me, I couldn’t be more excited to finally step foot in the Outback. Exploring as a solo traveler for the first time was definitely a little nerve wracking. Would I feel alone? Was it safe? Will I make friends? What would there be to do? – All of these questions came to mind, but they didn’t matter- because I was fulfilling my dream and visiting the Australian Outback!
Arriving in Alice Springs, Australia’s third largest town in the Northern Territory, I immediately felt as if I had been transported into a different world. With a striking contrast to a modern day city like Sydney, Alice Springs was decorated with Indigenous artwork with a Wild West-like culture. I explored by walking around the town, going four-wheeling and taking a sunset camel ride. The quiet town was full of backpackers and offered a good home base for my further adventures. Since I was a solo traveler, I decided to book a 3-day tour through the Outback. It was the easiest way to get around, meet other travelers, and not have to worry about an itinerary.
DAY 1: ALICE SPRINGS – KATA TJUTA – ULURU
I was picked up in Alice Springs from my hostel. I remember boarding the minivan, looking around and realizing I was the only American. This was a first for me, and I loved it. From Alice Springs we made our way to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) where we hiked through the gorgeous rock formations.
Kata Tjuta is made up of 36 domes, the highest being Mount Olga at just over 1,000 m high. The unique rock formations consist of various rock types including granite and basalt held together by sandstone. On the tour, we completed the Walpa Gorge hike that took us on an hour-long hike through the rocky formations that ended at a gully between the domes. With every step deeper into the Australian Outback, I began to feel the magic the Survivor contestants must have felt while competing on the show. The scenery around me was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life, but it was exactly where I had envisioned myself while watching my favorite TV show.
After we finished exploring Kata Tjuta, my tour group then headed to Uluru (Ayers Rock) for sunset. When we approached Uluru for the first time, I immediately understood why it is Australia’s most recognizable natural landmark and one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: in the middle of nowhere, stands a beautiful, gigantic, burnt orange rock! Its name literally means “Island Mountain” and that’s exactly what it is. Beyond the impressive geology behind Uluru’s existence, it also possesses a sacred and spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people of the area known as the Anangu. As we watched sunset at Uluru, I was speechless by its changing colors and shadows and excited to spend the next day exploring this wonder.
Following sunset, we set up camp and spent a night sleeping under the stars — an absolute must for anyone visiting the Outback! This was the best night of my entire Aussie experience. All night long, I was in complete awe of the gorgeous sky. It felt like I was staring at glitter glued to a black ceiling. I saw countless shooting stars and fell asleep thinking it was all a dream.
DAY 2: ULURU – KINGS CANYON
As beautiful as the sunset was at Uluru, the sunrise was just as stunning. Waking up early to see the silhouetted rock formation slowly transform and glow with the rising sun was surreal. After sunrise, we had the option to explore Uluru and the surrounding area. With several other travelers in my group, I hiked to the top of Uluru, which was breathtaking. Staring out into the Outback from one of the highest points put into perspective how massive it really is.
As I stood there feeling on top of the world, I couldn’t help but think back to my 16-year-old self watching Survivor and imagining one day experiencing adventures like this. The best part about it was I had finally turned that “one day” dream into my reality. Although I wasn’t a part of the cast with memorable contestants like Jerri Manthey, Colby Donaldson and Tina Wesson, I created my own adventure. Looking out over the Australian Outback at that moment was one of the most empowering moments of my life. I realized that dreams are only a fantasy if we do nothing about them, but if we take action to achieve them, they can become our realities. The Australian Outback was finally my reality.
DAY 3: KINGS CANYON – ALICE SPRINGS
Our last day was spent hiking Kings Canyon, which is located about 3 hours from Uluru in Watarrka National Park. The area is home to a massive gorge with red sandstone walls towering over 100 meters high. At the top is a plateau of rocky formations and domes. Hiking through Kings Canyon offers stunning views of gorgeous and unique formations that reminded me of the Grand Canyon in the United States. From there we said goodbye to the Australian Outback and headed back to Alice Springs and ended the night celebrating our adventure.
Looking back at my trip to the Australian Outback – my trip as a solo traveler – it changed how I travel forever. As a 21-year-old college student, the choice to follow my dream instead of being a follower taught me how amazing it can be a solo traveler. Although I was nervous that I’d feel lonely, I never felt alone. Traveling solo took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to connect with people from all over the world who inspired me to form friendships with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
To this day, I can distinctly remember our first lunch on the tour. I heard people conversing in so many different languages, but everyone still managed to find a way to communicate and work together as one team. It was amazing how all of these strangers quickly became friends through our common passion.
After this experience, I’ve never been afraid to travel alone and often prefer it. Becoming a solo traveler in the Australian Outback has enabled me to travel around the world, adventure to adventure, over the past 10+ years. Since then, I have taken on hiking at Machu Picchu in Peru, camping Patagonia in Chile, ice trekking on Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina, discovering Mayan Ruins in Guatemala and even island hopping in Borneo (where Survivor filmed season 1) to name a few of my solo adventures. I am so thankful for all of these experiences and my ability to say yes to adventure, even if alone — all inspired by my childhood love for a TV show.