The Lap Part 3: Land of golden opportunity for a broken down backpacker

Tom de Souza
The Nightly
9 Min Read
Joe Herbert’s lifelong love affair with Australia began with a breakdown.
Joe Herbert’s lifelong love affair with Australia began with a breakdown. Credit: Tom De Souza

Like many great Australian stories, Joe Herbert’s starts with a breakdown. Steam hissing from his 1977 Toyota Dyna camper truck on the side of the Great Ocean Road. He and his then-girlfriend Louise, staring into the engine bay and watching their dreams of an adventure of a lifetime boiling over in the radiator.

Joey questioned if it was all worth it. Selling the old Mini and the Land Rover, his pride and joy he had spent thousands of pounds and hours restoring after school and on Saturdays since he was a teenager. The English winters working as an adventure guide in the Lake District: early mornings rafting in frigid lakes, sodden trainers and muddy fields, whinging guests, frozen fingers on the climbing course.

And now what?

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All he had to show for it was possibly a blown head gasket and a road to nowhere. And Victoria wasn’t exactly the dreamy Australia he had seen on TV in those afternoons watching Bondi Rescue with his workmates. This cold, grey State was more like the place he had travelled across the world to get away from.

But little did Joey know in that moment that maybe he was supposed to break down there, just outside Torquay. Maybe sometimes life throws little things at you that might appear initially as a catastrophe, but in hindsight are truly a blessing, a way point.

Because now, when Joey looks back at that breakdown, he sees it as the first event in a fortuitous series.

It was here, on the side of the road, that a lifelong love affair began with a country he now claims as his own. A country of complete freedom and adventure, where he can earn a good living sharing his lifestyle with wide-eyed tourists from around the world.

The Lap Part 3
Freedom and adventure appealed to Joe Herbert. Credit: Tom De Souza

Now, when he looks back, he can see it was here that Road2Adventure, his tour company and way of life for the past 14 years, really began.

At the time, all Joey and Louise saw were almost empty bank accounts, no family, no friends, a foreign place with nowhere to go. Still, Joey, rarely without a cheeky grin and potential solution, wouldn’t let that get him down. He used the last of his savings to get the truck towed to a workshop, and when the mechanic wouldn’t allow them to camp in the yard he found his own solution.

“We found these little push bikes at the tip shop, just little kids BMX bikes. And every night we would sneak in and sleep in the truck in the yard. At 6am we would have to pack our bags and climb back out for the day. It was good because it also meant every night we could check on the progress. Like, oh, yeah, they’ve got the head off.”

After a week, Joey and Louise found accommodation and jobs cleaning toilets at the Torquay caravan park. It was here, scrubbing in the male and female toilet blocks of all places, they began to realise the appeal of Australia, says Joey.

“I was on $23.50 an hour. That was the best I’d ever been paid. It was a s..t job, pardon the pun, but living in Torquay on the Great Ocean Road we met some of the best people. All the Aussies were really friendly, easygoing people, and just really welcoming,” Joey says.

“One time, we were in the carpark at Jan Juc, and this guy comes up the beach with all this kitesurfing gear. We got talking, and I said I didn’t have a board to go out kiting. And he goes and rustles around in the back of his van and pulls out a kiteboard, and goes, ‘Here, take that.’ He just gave it to me. Something like that would never happen in the UK. Like maybe you’d do it for your friend, but not a complete stranger.

“I was a backpacker in a carpark. I could be gone the next day to NSW or something. I was like, well, give me your number or when do you want it back? He just said he’d see us around, and invited us down to a barbeque the next day.”

The Lap Part 3
They found accommodation and jobs cleaning toilets. Credit: Tom De Souza/Tom De Souza

Joey and Louise spent nine months working in Torquay, before they decided it was time to sell the old heap-a-crap Dyna and hit the road. They bought a Mazda T3500 bus and a tinny, and headed north in that classic Victorian tradition of moving to Queensland.

They found work on a capsicum farm, where they could complete the 88 days of regional work needed for their second-year visa. They imagined the same land of golden opportunity as in Torquay, but found a different, Grapes of Wrath-type scenario on the farm.

“That was a horrible job. The woman in charge was nasty, just power-tripping. She had Louise in tears on her first day. The bosses were not nice people. They were cruel, and treated us like slaves, taking advantage of a lot of vulnerable backpackers who needed to do the work to be able to stay,” Joey says.

They left the farm at knockoff on their 88th day and hit the road. The dream of the adventure ahead had been all that they had to keep them going. Finally, it was here. They spent three months camping across the Top End discovering the real Australia, the one you imagine you might find in tourist brochures, Joey says.

“Just the freedom and the wildlife were the most incredible things. The crocodiles and snakes and big monitor lizards on islands. You go out snorkelling and there’s reef sharks and turtles.

“And just going out and having a campfire in the middle of the bush. The amazing sunsets, the vastness. In the UK, you go into the countryside and there’s just village after village. Whereas here you go out and there’s just nothing. You can be camped in the bush and there is no one around. There’s a freedom that comes with that. It feels so open, and gives you this sense of independence and self-reliance.”

The Lap Part 3
They have had adventures all over Australia. Credit: Tom De Souza

Joey and Louise also couldn’t believe how much of a good life you could enjoy here with so little. Along their way, they could stop and pick up itinerant work whenever they needed. They were beginning to fall in love with this country.

“There was so much potential to earn money. And for me, that was amazing. In the UK it was almost like you work five days to afford the weekend. We could afford a better lifestyle here. That’s what attracted me. I never wanted to leave,” Joey says.

But finding a way to officially make Australia home was no easy feat; I mean, some people spend decades in detention trying to do it. With their second-year visas set to expire, Joey and Louise had few options. A four-year sponsorship offered to them to manage the Lancelin tavern on WA’s central coast was one, and they jumped at the opportunity.

They lived in their bus in the carpark out back to save on rent, and bought a trailer with six kayaks, which they would hire over the bar. Life was good, but not everyone was stoked for them. To some, they were tall poppies who had to be cut down. When a jealous workmate began trying to sabotage their happiness, they pulled the pin on their sponsorship and were forced to leave the country within 30 days. Louise headed home to the UK, Joey took some time out in Indonesia. Eventually, fate pulled them off in different directions.

Joey headed for New Zealand, which he considered the next best thing to Australia. Alone and uprooted, he set about realising his true dream: to build a mobile adventure centre. He bought a 55-seat ex-charter coach for $NZ6000, and spent three months converting it in an old bus depot. Once it was done he was broke but still determined to travel. He put a post on Facebook and found six backpackers who were willing to cover the costs of fuel and food in exchange for a five-week trip from Auckland to Queenstown.

Joey ran 19 trips over two years in New Zealand. He was making enough to cover the cost of travel, but time and freedom were his two greatest currencies and opening people’s eyes to this lifestyle was its own kind of bonus payment. Still, after two years, he was tired of living off nothing. With his visa in New Zealand ending, he emigrated this lifestyle back with him to the land of golden opportunity.

“I had a love for Australia for sure. I really missed the ocean and the water sports, but the other thing was the financial appeal of Australia. I had been broke in New Zealand, whereas in Australia I was never broke. You’ve got to try pretty hard if you want to be broke here,” he says.

The Lap Part 3
The wide open road. Credit: Tom De Souza/Tom De Souza

Joey returned to Lancelin, where his new girlfriend, Kaity, had family. He bought another bus, an old 57-seat Nissan UD school coach, and spent five months converting it in the yard of Kaity’s family home. He kitted it out with four bunk beds and driver’s quarters in the rear, cut storage lockers into the body, mounted grey and black water tanks on the chassis, and built a toilet and shower into each side. He also bought a Troopy, mounting an A-frame to flat-tow it behind the bus.

“Having travelled Australia before, I figured a four-wheel-drive was a good investment. I mean, you don’t need one, but having one you can really experience the best of this country, and adds a whole other dimension to the adventure.”

The Lap Part 3
Stopping to take in the view. Credit: Tom De Souza/Tom De Souza

Joey began his second lap around the country, sharing all the things he had come to learn and love with other backpackers who jumped on for the ride. The money he made was just a means of keeping the adventure rolling, but not everybody saw it that way.

Other tour companies saw him as an illegal operator cheating the system and dobbed him into the relevant authorities. They advised him he was operating in a grey area but was bordering on being a commercial operator. If he wanted to continue, he would have to obtain the correct permits and accreditation. It was a lot of pressure for someone who was essentially still a backpacker, but he had been here long enough to have embraced that great Aussie way of saying no to authority. He determined to make a go of it.

“It was actually the guys who got me in trouble that made me decide to come back and do it properly. I went, you know what, I’m going to be back here next year. You’re not going to be cheering that that guy is not here. I actually bought another bus and started doing that one up, too. I went, you know what, nah. I’ll come back with two buses next year.”

The Lap Part 3
Joey has shared his love of the country with other backpackers. Credit: Tom De Souza/Tom De Souza

Joey has had those two buses on the road for almost five years now. He recently bought a yard in Armadale, Perth, and a house nearby with his long-term partner, Isa, whom he met on one of his trips. You might think that travelling Australia over and over gets tiring, and Joey bores of the places he is continually visiting. But this country is a church of the open sky, Joey says, and he is constantly amazed by the lifestyle it affords and its potential to leave people in awe.

“Being able to take people to these places where you turn up and your mind is just blown. Like going through the Kimberley, and looking at their reaction when they turn up to a gorge. And it’s like, oh my god. I didn’t know places like this existed.

“Travelling like this, it’s a very free lifestyle. You get to meet so many people because you’re out there all the time. You’re always in nature, waking up with amazing views. You get onto the single-lane highways as soon as you get out of the city, and there is just a sense of relief. You’re free.

“Sometimes I miss my family and friends back at home, and feel a little bit selfish. But now I’ve seen and discovered this, how could I ever go back to grey old England?”

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