I realised an amazing fact a couple of days before “Dark Horse” was published: it is almost exactly 20 years to the day since I first set foot on Australian soil. Kind of fitting, then, that my personal homage to the wonderful 18 months I spent living in Australia is now in print.
Now, while the book is nothing to do with my time there, there are certain locations in the book that played a pivotal role in the time I spent in Australia.
I started in Melbourne, staying with some friends. I was on a 1-year Working Visa, having quit my day job, sold my flat, and given away a fair chunk of my possessions to various charities. I was just past 30, and my life needed a radical change. What could be more radical than moving halfway round the world to a country I’d only ever seen on TV (and bad TV at that – Neighbours, ugh!)? Trust me, there were more than a few flutterings of panic stirring my belly in the weeks in between making the decision to go, and actually turning up at Heathrow to board my flight. There were tears, but there was also excitement at the adventure that lay ahead. Up to this point in my life I’d played things safe – and realised safe hadn’t really got me anywhere. Now, I was off to who knows where to see what life could bring me.
Although I based myself in Melbourne for the year, I travelled as much as I could. I obtained a carefree job, doing work that was way below my skill set just so I could leave at 3.30pm each day and enjoy my life. I moved into a shared house with two other lesbians, both quite a bit younger than me and who insisted on nicknaming me ‘Fossil’ because to them, 30 was like, seriously old, yeah? I’d work for a couple of months, then either take extended leave or just quit whatever job I was doing and hit the road for weeks at a time.
And I loved it! I took a 3-week trip to the south west corner, from Perth down to Margaret River and Denmark (lots of nice wine to be had down in that corner, I can tell you!). I did the entire east coast, from Sydney to Cairns, via Greyhound buses, over the span of about two weeks. I did a backpacker camping trek from Cairns up to the tip of Cape York and back again. I flew to Darwin, and did tours around Kakadu (incredible) and the Kimberley region (breathtaking). I spent a glorious few days in Broome (stunning beach – and camels!) and then flew to Adelaide, and on out to Kangaroo Island, where I strolled with penguins and seals.
I also spent a few weekends in Ballarat, a country town about 90mins drive from Melbourne. My housemates were from there originally, and still had friends back there they would meet up with for dancing at the (only?) nightclub in town. Ballarat was the only Australian town in which I ever really experienced homophobia – it was pretty redneck back in those days. And when I started plotting out “Dark Horse”, for me it was a no-brainer to set the main part of the story there, and show the new, grown-up version of Ballarat that is a significantly more tolerant place to visit these days.
After that year I had to return back to the UK, but I left Australia knowing I would return. I spent many holidays there in the years afterwards, and then, 10 years ago, had the chance to go and live there again, this time for 6 months. It was interesting returning 10 years older – by then I was in a serious relationship, had a good career going doing contracting work in my specialist field, but the call of Australia was strong. I had another great 6 months, but at the end of it, I knew the dream of living there had mellowed, and the pull just wasn’t enough to keep me there. I left happy that I’d done it, and that I’d worked out that, whatever I wanted from life next, it wouldn’t be on that fantastic continent.
I returned once again in 2016, to visit my friends in Ballarat, and to research locations, culture, and issues for the book. It was, once again, a fabulous trip, and I know it won’t be my last to that amazing continent.