The Trip That Changed Author Nikki Gemmell

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May 23, 2018

Shattered at the end of a romance, the author found solace, freedom and, eventually, herself in the vast emptiness of Australia’s outback.

The journey

Around Australia from Sydney

The year

1994 

Life can change in the sliver of a moment, between mouthfuls at a restaurant. It’s what you do in the swirl of afterwards that defines you; how you carry yourself.

“I can’t do it.” Four little words. From the man I was about to marry. And in that moment, I became someone else. I was 27. 

It had been the classic coup de foudre; a sudden shock of love. We hadn’t loved a little, quietly or calmly; we were wild with love. The psychological term limerence means an obsessive love, like a drug; you feel addicted to the other person. And so I was.

I’d moved for him from Alice Springs, my beloved sun-bleached refuge from the toss of the world, back to Sydney, the home town that felt too narrow and judgemental, too known. He lived in a book-crammed garret and was making a living as a writer. The dream.

I booked the chapel at my old convent school for the wedding ceremony. Girlfriends were settling down, having babies, and the impending wedding made me feel like I belonged for the first time in my life. It felt like success. The triumphant homecoming. I was whooping at the world like a hat flung into the sun.

So often in life we love the things we’re not meant to – the question, of course, is what we do about it. And then came four little words at a restaurant and my life imploded. The writer crashed back; he left again. We slept together; it was wrong. I almost threw myself off a cliff. Eventually, I summoned the courage to ring and cancel the chapel. I’d never experienced such a crushing sense of failure.

I had been subservient to the consuming nature of my fiancé’s art. I wanted to write, too – novels – yet there was never space for that in our relationship. And I couldn’t detach from the addictive physicality of it all – the memory of his lips was too vivid under my fingertips in photographs I couldn’t throw out.

My father winged me with unconditional love; rang my boss because I was too distraught to talk and I was given leave to recover. I’d left Alice too soon and craved a return, a soldering. I jumped into my Holden ute with a shoebox of mixtapes (my own, not any bloke’s), a swag and a girlfriend who’d had a recent break-up. We drove around Australia and stood in the middle of outback roads in our Blunnies and bras and shouted obscenities to the tall hurting blue. And repaired ourselves.

I started writing. A car is a woman’s shed and that car became my writer’s hut. We re-learnt happiness; were as happy as goats in gardens with our sketchpads and notebooks. I love going somewhere I’ve never been and my soul unfurled, gunning along with the windows down and the music up, sun- and wind-whipped; my hand reaching out to butt the breeze. The writer in me was uncurling.

That trip stopped the silliness; if I wanted the writing dream, I had to get on with it. Those notes, jotted down in the cabin of my ute, have been threaded through several novels since. It was the trip that grew me up.

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