Slow travel is a phrase you've probably heard thrown about, but it's usually discussed in terms of personal gains. Spend a week savouring one town rather than charging through ten cities in as many days and you not only form more meaningful connections with people, culture and place, you may actually go home feeling rested and relaxed – and isn't that the whole point of taking time off?
But if you’re currently off-grid in some unnamed location, just coordinates on a map, living out of your van or tent, no firm plans for where you’ll end up next, then we’d like you to put your wineglass down for just a moment so you can give yourself a pat on the back. Because slow travel, by its nature, contributes to a broader cause – one that asks us to stop and think about what impact we as travellers have on the landmarks, natural environments and communities we choose to explore. After all, we’re not the only ones who need time off once in a while to recuperate.
The price of popularity
Consider the bucket list. Fairly predictable, isn't it? Between the world’s natural, manmade and ancient wonders, and whatever geotag is currently doing the rounds on Instagram, it’s easy to guess what’s on any given must-see list – and even easier to understand why some of these places might start to buckle under the weight of their own popularity.
You wouldn’t be surprised to find bucket-list mainstays such as Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China or Thailand’s Phang Nga Park illustrating this point, but even the top of Mount Everest – a quest relatively few people are crazy and rich enough to undertake – is feeling the heat from the increasing numbers of summit-hungry mountaineers. And if 8848m above sea level doesn’t highlight how far a tourist distribution crisis can reach, nothing will.
Capped tourist numbers, visitation time limits, and even total closures are some of the methods used to tackle the degradation, pollution and environmental issues that over-touristed destinations face, while the residents of many popular European cities have resorted to public pleas for visitors to tow their luggage elsewhere. If you're a slow traveller, such requests won't fall on deaf ears – you might decide minimising impact is more important than ticking boxes, and choose a different city, summit or ancient civilisation to see. An even better option, we think, is to explore closer to home.
There's no place like home
Taking a position on the issues affecting loved-to-death destinations overseas is pretty easy for us. Why burn carbon to fly across the pond when there's still so much to see and do on our own turf? As with any subset of the slow movement – think slow food and slow living – choosing ‘local’ is step one. But let's not kid ourselves – Australia isn't immune to the effects of tourism-gone-wrong either.
Picture a turquoise bay, fringed with a handful of residential and holiday houses, each with their own private access down to what a marketing team regrettably decided to call "the world's whitest sand". Hyams Beach in Jervis Bay, around three hours south of Sydney and with a population of only 100, always had a high season, but it was never meant to be 12 months long. Now the tiny village suffocates under the stream of day trippers bent on having their moment in the infamous white sand, and whose need to also be fed, watered and provided with parking puts immense stress on a community that wasn’t built for such demand.
Ironically, you could drive ten minutes down the road and arrive at any number of identical white and turquoise beaches, still with room to park and lay down a towel. These are the beaches you’ll find slow travellers at – the folks who make conscious decisions to break away from the herd, to take one car out of the congestion, and leave footprints where they are welcome.
The joy of missing out
The reality is, no-one will ever cover the entire planet in one lifetime but because we've been conditioned to believe that the sum total of places we've visited – ideally those with celebrity – is a measure of success akin to earning potential and home ownership, there is undoubtedly an element of sacrifice in benching the bucket list to travel slow.
But let's say you stay long enough in one place to meet a local who tells you the location of a hidden waterfall or hole-in-the-wall bar, or by taking the road less travelled you discover a seldom-visited beach, or a farmgate, or a campground, or a hot spring you've never heard of, and neither has anyone else. Suddenly it's the serial sightseers who are missing out.
Whirlwind trips are typically planned around rigid itineraries. And while you can't exactly plan for unexpected discoveries and pleasant surprises, slow travel at least allows you to be open to them. While there’s no right or wrong choice, your mode of travel plays a part. Are you more likely to stumble across something special if you're walking past, cycling past, driving past, or flying?
Regardless, we’re always going to have bucket list items that we plan trips around, and a lot of them will be the same as yours, and shared with thousands of others. Whether it’s swimming with a whale shark at Ningaloo Reef, or seeing Uluru at first light, we shouldn’t abandon the experiences we’ve always dreamed about. However there are considerations we can make, such as travelling in the low season, mid-week and outside school holidays, and touring with certified ecotourism companies, to ensure the love these locations receive is well-considered and evenly spread out.
Discover More: the great Australian road trip
Get out there… slowly
It's easy for full-time nomads to expound the joys of life in the slow lane. When there's no end to your travels in sight, there is no downside to slow travel – you're in the fortunate position to see everything and do it at a leisurely pace. While the travellers in our community serve as inspiration to take extended time off to see Australia, we’re the first to admit that the comfort of stability, income and routine, or the pressure of work, finance and family, will understandably keep a lot of us from packing it all in, at least for the time being.
And considering slow travel has emerged to challenge the uptick in quick, maximalist trips – where binging and subsequent burnout reign supreme – the principles are arguably most telling when applied to shorter escapes. A week spent camping in your nearest national park or at the beach a few hours upstate allows you to spend more of that precious annual leave switching off and enjoying your surroundings, as opposed to waiting in terminals and recovering from red eye flights. Indeed, it’s the time-poor among us leading fast-paced lives who can find the most value in tapping the brakes.
If you don’t want to wait til Christmas to finally stop and take a breath, there’s no rule book to say you can’t ‘slow travel’ for a weekend, a day, or even a couple of hours after work. In fact, some of our favourite ways to relax, recharge and feel thoroughly immersed in our surroundings mirror the local, low-impact mindset of slow travel. Think hiking, paddling, surfing, snorkelling, fishing, camping, foraging or rock climbing, just to name a few. And that’s got to be the true beauty of the slow lifestyle movement; anyone, regardless of their limitations, can partake.
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