Lessons Learned on the Road

Life’s got a funny way of deciding things for you.

You can sit there endlessly pondering next chapters with no catalyst to send you down one chute or the other, and then bam. You’re off. This is exactly what happened to Beren Hall, a friend who’s been on a voyage of self, and geographic discovery for the best part of a year. Last November, Beren and his fiancé split after seven years together. The life-map that “Bez” had loosely planned out in his head vanished. Instead of the preordained manner in which a male in his 30s is expected to behave post life-changing breakup—booze, drugs, dating inappropriately young women—Beren moved out, quit his job, sold the guts of what he owned, bought a Land Cruiser and took off around the country.

When I eventually caught up with Bez—reception in the sparsely populated parts of this huge island leave a little to be desired—he was in a little town on the NSW/Victorian border and it was raining. The reason for my call, asides from a catch up, was that for the past year Beren’s extended network of desk-dwelling friends have been following his journey via the regular and exquisite photos he uploads to his Instagram. Plenty of work mornings in the Monster Children office start with, “Did you see Beren’s photo?” To which the response is always yes, followed by a mixture of jealousy and good on hims. We figured a photo series that captivating—both in terms of the photos themselves and the stories behind them—was too special to be left on an app, thus this feature. I was eager to find out how exactly Beren’s trip began, where he’s been and, perhaps most crucially, what he’s learned.

The concept for Beren’s 2016/17 trip was born in 1989 when he was six. “My dad’s a national park ranger and my mum’s a teacher,” he explains (something that I didn’t know, but makes perfect sense knowing him). “They absolutely love travelling and camping, and when I was six we did a six-month trip around Aus. I always look back on that as probably my favourite part of my whole childhood. We were so tight as a little family, and it was just really fun. My childhood was good regardless, but that was the highlight for sure.”

Now before we head off around the country with Beren, it’s worth explaining that this trip isn’t exactly the first significant bit of travel that he’s done since reaching adulthood. Beren’s career began back in 2007 filming Dion Agius—professional surfer and one of his best mates. The pair cooked up a plan to pitch to Dion’s sponsor, Globe, where they’d film regular webisodes—a revolutionary concept in surfing at the time—in return for being paid to travel, surf and party; basically, an early 20-year-old’s dream. Globe went for it, and thus began Beren’s career as a filmer/director/tastemaker/manager. In short, he’s travelled. A lot. However, whilst all this might seem glam, travelling in this capacity means that, for want of a better term, you’re always on someone else’s “trip”. This is where Beren’s desire for his solo adventure comes in.

As soon as the idea to do the trip came up, it was perfect because I could move out of the apartment and then go straight on the road,” says Beren. “I think my ex and I split up on November 20. By Christmas I was back up home and I’d sold everything, and then I flew down to Tassie on January 7 and picked up the troopy (Toyota Landcruiser) that I’d bought online.”

Honeymoon Bay, Kalumburu.

Given his predicament, the prospect of living solo out of the back of a Landcruiser indefinitely would have been enough to quash the romance of driving off into the sunset for most. But Bez says that it was the best thing that he could’ve done, and a challenge that he relished.

It was kind of daunting,” he says. “Travelling by yourself for a year could be a good thing for some people, but other people would just be in their own heads, too lonely and thinking about what went wrong in the relationship and what they could’ve done to change it or whatever. But for me it was perfect because I could think about all that stuff and attack it head on and move forward quicker than I could have done if I was just sitting around Sydney and going out and getting drunk.”

After spending a couple of months exploring Tasmania—including an extended stretch on its notoriously isolated west coast—Bez hopped on the ferry and headed to South Aus. Talking to him on the phone, it’s obvious that it was here, on the wild shores of the Great Australian Bight, that his trip really matured.

“It’s a scary, daunting place to surf,” Beren explains. “I’m in the middle of nowhere, surfing a sketchy looking wave that I’ve never surfed before that’s a slab, and I’m by myself. I could’ve easily jumped in the car and driven off and found a beachbreak or something, but instead I forced myself on this trip to not back down from situations.”

South Oz.

From South Aus, Beren crossed the Nullarbor (no small feat, solo or otherwise), hung out in the Margaret River region for a while, then skipped past Perth and continued north to Kalbarri and then up into the Northern Territory. Before he hit Darwin, he took his troopy along the Gibb River Road through the Kimberly—a stretch that he describes as the most beautiful place that he’s seen in Australia—and his dad joined him, making it the second time the duo had done the route, with a 27 year gap.

Indigenous Australians make up three per cent of the national population, but 30 per cent of the population of the Northern Territory. Bez says that having his dad along for the Northern Territory part of his expedition highlighted some interesting outsider’s perspectives of the state of Indigenous Australia. His dad remembered vividly some of the communities that they visited in 1989, and on revisiting the same areas noticed some distinct changes. In particular in Kalumburu—a remote fishing village off the Gibb River Road at the very top of northwest WA.

“When we went there in 1989, dad said it was a nightmare,” Beren explains. “There was rubbish blowing through the streets, like a full third world country and as bad as it gets—a really heavy situation. When we went back the second time around he was just blown away. It was totally different. All the streets were clean, everyone seemed happy.”

Rather than taking the example of one community as a tell-all that everything’s fine, as anyone with a sniff of an education and/or a touch of compassion knows it’s not, Bez used Kalumburu as an example to open a broader conversation how we currently treat our Indigenous population.

South West WA.

“You want it to be us all living together as one society,” he explains, “but at the same time you don’t want to lose that culture you know. In my opinion, we (White Australia) should be way more like them. They’ve lived in harmony with the land for what, 60,000 years? And we’ve come in and trashed the place in a couple of hundred. It’s pretty sad. It’d be cool if we had more respect for them, and our society was taught a little bit more about them and their culture.”

One of the amazing things about an extended time on the road is the time not only to explore in the geographical sense, but also intellectually. Which is a wanky way of saying you’ve got lots of time to read books. One of the many that Bez has read during his tenure as the great Australian road man is Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe.

“He’d studied a lot of the journals from early settlers in Australia and their interactions with the Indigenous people,” he explains. “There were these villages that had clay structures and sometimes 300, 400 people living there. And stores full of grain. The general consensus is that Aboriginals were hunter-gatherers and that they were just getting by day to day. It’s crazy some of the stuff that we were never taught.”

The road to Kalumburu, Kimberly.

Whether it’s interactions with Australia’s Indigenous population, or going for a beer in a country town, you can tell that Bez’s love for Australia has intensified since fleeing the city and hitting the road. All his stories are told with fervour, and they reflect what Beren’s come to regard as the “real Australia”—a concept first presented to him early on in his trip by, of all people, Matt Hoy (proud Novocastrian and former professional surfer). Beren flew to Newcastle for a job (leaving his troopy-home parked at the airport in Tasmania awaiting his return) where he told Hoyo about his trip so far.

“I was telling him how good Tassie was—how friendly everyone was and that you can get a bacon and egg roll and a coffee for eight bucks—and I said that it felt like going back in time to old-school Australia,” Beren says. “He just goes, ‘Mate. That’s not old school Australia. That is Australia.’ I asked him what he meant, and he goes, ‘You don’t get it. That is Australia. We live in these cities, but this isn’t real Australia. Real Australia’s out there.’”

Henceforth, Hoyo’s mantra became a sort of guiding light in Beren’s nation-wide journey. A journey that took him up as far as Darwin and then down through the red centre and Uluru back to South Australia, then up the Murray River to the Snowy Mountains, and then back to the coast, where he’s camped out at the time of writing. From there he’s heading slowly north to make it back home to Queensland for Christmas, where he plans to hang out for a while, explore Moreton Island and generally have a classic Queensland summer.

Beren, out on the porch.

It’s impossible to avoid “what have you learnt about yourself” in search of a closing statement. Luckily, as always, Bez answers thoughtfully, avoiding hyperbole.

“I haven’t really had any moments where I’ve gone, ‘Hurrah, I’ve figured it out,’” he says. “But every day there’s been new things and new challenges. One of the biggest things about the trip for me was learning new skills and pushing myself.”

The new skills that Beren’s referring to range from obvious things like learning how to fish or other “manly shit” like digging out your 4WD when it gets bogged. But “pushing yourself” is something that’s taken a more diverse and less obvious form.

“I wanted to find out if I could spend a year on the road solo and not freak out and be lonely, or require someone else’s attention,” he says. “And gain a bit of confidence really. If you don’t talk to anyone when you travel by yourself, you’re going to be bored as fuck and not going to find out much. It’s good for you as a person to just put yourself out there and go have a chat.”

As Beren’s trip heads towards its conclusion, thoughts of the next chapter inevitably start to creep in. Bez admits that whilst the trip hasn’t presented him with a succinct vision of what he wants the next phase of his life to entail, it has opened him up to a myriad of possibilities and, from what I can gather from the hour or so that I spent on the phone with him, stopped him from worrying about it.

“What I do want to do is still up in the air—that’s an ongoing thing for a lot of people. But I think I’m a lot more open to stuff,” he explains. “I’m even thinking about going back to uni—two years ago I wouldn’t have even considered it. But I’ve been constantly learning, and I’ve realised that’s what I want to do. I never want to stop learning.”

Whatever the next phase holds for Bez, a perpetual desire for knowledge is a hell of a travelling companion.

To read more from our 2017 Photo Annual magazine, buy it here, and keep up with Beren’s travels here, and browse his site here.

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