Day 59: The end of the road

by Oliver Smith
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Today we took the final steps towards the finishing line for our 10,500-mile journey: the Sydney Opera House.

Often on our travels, our path had merged with thousands of mini-journeys that happen around the world every day. For instance, we’d crawled along in rush-hour traffic circling Paris, and we’d twiddled our thumbs in the queues of Hindu pilgrims in Kuala Lumpur. I remember standing on a crowded platform of the London Underground on the day we set off and thinking (with a hint of smugness) that while everyone else was bound for their desk, I was a passenger bound for the Sydney Opera House. Mine would be the commute to end all commutes – taking me through through Indian bazaars and Melanesian jungles to a place as far away as a human could physically travel (without actually going into space).

Except today, it was a different story. We joined a stampede of tourists heading along the promenade towards the Sydney Opera House, and – just like everyone else – that would be our final destination. It was an almost cloudless evening as the sun set on the far side of the Harbour Bridge, and the tide was sloshing gently against the sea wall. The Opera House loomed closer – and quite suddenly the sky suddenly filled with the beating wings of gulls – flocking eastward out of the city and into the Pacific night.

We, on the other hand, were standing very still. We had finished our trip. For the past two months we’d spoken wistfully about the simple thrills of going home: sleeping in your own bed, seeing your friends and family, owning a repertoire of more than five or six underpants. But now, contemplating a stationary life, I felt slightly restless. Having nowhere to go the next day felt unnatural.

And so it was for Tony and Maureen Wheeler. Forty years ago they arrived in Sydney after an overland trip from London, and scratched their travel itch by writing the first ever Lonely Planet guidebook. Whether they knew it or not, their journey from London to Sydney kickstarted some inner dynamo – within a year or two they were back on the road, researching new guidebooks. Forty years on, and Tony is still travelling practically non-stop – marching Duracell Bunny-style to remote corners of the planet.

Travel, I’ve decided, is a dangerous thing: a virus that worms its way into your bloodstream, gobbles up your bank balance, your holiday allowance and your social life – but still never blesses you with the Zen-like satisfaction of thinking you’ve seen it all. And resigned to this fact, we headed back into the city.

Two evenings later I arrived back in England, and lugged out a big, dusty atlas to show my family where I’d been. I traced our route with my finger – a line that wriggled its way across Europe and India, down through the constellation of islands that make up Southeast Asia and Melanesia – until the islands petered out, and we finally reached Australia. It was a wonderful feeling, covering those almighty distances in one single swoop of the hand ­– touching the tiny bumps that signified mountains, the embossed lettering of names like ‘Andaman Sea’ and ‘Torres Strait’.

But while my finger marked our route, my eyes were elsewhere – scanning the landscapes at the farthest corners of the map, skimming across mountains and deserts and oceans and islands – looking greedily at the places that beckoned to be explored.

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