Stephanie Reed tells The Gap Year Travel Guide about the time she spent working and travelling in Australia during her gap year.
It’s the number one gap year destination for young Brits, and it’s easy to understand why. Australia is perhaps the most beautiful country in the world. It’s eye-catching in so many ways, from the extraordinary tropical fish that swim the turquoise waters of the Great Barrier Reef to its lush rainforests, radiant red gorges, expansive deserts and picture-perfect cities. As a country that has English as its first language, culture shock is kept to the minimum – providing a home from home, and then some.
I started to think about spending a gap year in Australia after two years in my first serious graduate job, working in PR. As much as I enjoyed it, I selfishly pondered: Is this really it?’ Working 9 ‘til 5 in England for the rest of my life? This concern combined with my growing hatred for the country’s depressing weather and dark winter nights, meant I had to have some time out.
I decided to spend some of my gap year Down Under by splitting my time between travelling its east and west coasts, as well as earning cash in Sydney with a working holiday visa. I arrived with little expectation but found myself blown away; continuously in awe of its gorgeousness, the experiences I had and the people I met.
That’s not to say I didn’t find it challenging at times. In hindsight, I would have done some things differently. If I had to offer my tips for anyone planning a gap year in Australia, this is what I advise…
Be prepared to ask the experts
Take advantage of the fantastic support that exists for people planning a gap year. I was impressed by the travel agent, STA Travel (www.statravel.co.uk) – they helpfully answered any questions I had and didn’t even hint that they were judging me if they bordered on ridiculous.
They even took care of organising my working holiday visa in Australia and recommended the right insurance cover for the range of thrill-seeking activities that one often finds themselves doing on a gap year (suddenly a bungee jump or throwing yourself out of a plane feels like a wise idea. It’s a bit like stealing a road sign or a shopping trolley during student days. It’s just the done thing and we shouldn’t ask why).
Be prepared to save
It sounds obvious, but you need to store serious amounts of money away to live comfortably in Oz, especially if you plan to stay in Sydney – it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world. For example, accommodation doesn’t come cheap. It’s common for many travellers to share rooms in order to afford rent.
Money-saving tips include buying an Australian pay-as-you-go mobile phone as soon as you arrive. I, rather irresponsibly, got into the disastrous habit of thinking it wise to turn my English mobile phone on after a night out to drunk dial friends and past lovers at home. I think I cried when I saw the resulting phone bill.
Eradicate having to pay silly fees for using your UK bank card abroad by setting up an Australian bank account on arrival. And beware, once you’ve got your Australian bank card, make sure you only withdraw cash from ATMs that are within your bank’s network, otherwise you’ll often have to pay an additional fee.
The Australian Government also has a Reciprocal Health Care Agreement (RHCA) with the UK which means that if you’re a UK citizen, you can receive free treatment that is medically necessary (see www. medicareaustralia.gov.au for more information). You still need to take out correct travel insurance, but this at least provides you (well, usually overly worried parents) with peace of mind.
For those that plan to work during a gap year, be aware that you will be taxed a big chunk of your pay packet and it may be months until you can claim it back. Make sure you have enough money saved to dip into when you’re finding your feet at the start.
Be prepared for hard work
This is especially the case for anyone that may have temporarily stepped off the career ladder in the UK to venture on a gap year. Because I had already experienced two years in a fulfilling graduate job in England I struggled to take a step back and do ‘traveller’ work in Sydney.
There were heaps of low-skills jobs on offer for travellers in Oz – from promotions work to scanning documents all day, selling bedsheets and working on a farm. This might not bother some people, but I craved to exercise my brain and when I applied for careerstyle jobs, I found that many employers were deterred by my working holiday visa status, which only allows you to stay in the same job for six months.
Avoid frustration by trying to set up a job in advance. Contact appealing companies direct before you go (they might do a job interview with you over Skype) or search www.seek.com.au.
Be prepared for homesickness
Actually, in my experience, the excitement of being in Australia was far more overwhelming than any twinges of homesickness that emerged occasionally. If you base yourself in one of its amazing cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Perth were my personal favourites – you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to things to do and the abundance of other young travellers to meet and share stories with. The weather is also sublime and therefore incredibly mood-enhancing.
However, you have to remember, Australia is pretty much as far as you can get from the UK. You might as well set off on a space shuttle to Mars for your gap year. Okay, slight exaggeration, but you get the gist. Skype is a fabulous invention so embrace that – although be prepared to be flexible with the time difference – I too often found myself skyping home, all bleary eyed at 3am Australian time. Oh, and chocolate is rubbish in Australia (something about the milk they use) so pack loads of Cadburys. No, seriously. And Heinz Beans too. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
For more information about working and travelling in Australia on your gap year, check out the following sites: