How a Digital Detox on a Tiny Australian Island Helped Me Regain My Focus
One Aussie writer finds purpose — and then some — in the middle of the Tasman Sea.
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
I was treading water, not knowing if I was going to reach land or sink. Waves of anxiety and uncertainty lapped at me. I needed to find calm, clear seas. Little did I know, they were waiting for me on an island.
After graduating high school, I decided to uproot my life in Australia for one in rural Pennsylvania — all for the sake of a journalism degree. My dream was to be a writer in New York City (yes, like Carrie Bradshaw). But my college town was no concrete jungle; instead, I was introduced to Walmart, squirrels, snow, and people who could pronounce the letter 'r.' I wasn’t in Australia anymore.
As the only Australian ever to step foot on campus, I stood out. My accent alone drew looks, frustrating those who couldn't understand me. I struggled to convert kilometers to miles, reminded myself to leave the 'u' off of color, and missed my dogs and the open landscapes of home. I also felt guilty for the financial constraints I had inflicted on my family by coming to the U.S. But I continued to take big bites, without realizing I couldn’t chew.
After an exhilarating summer internship in New York, I found myself getting closer to my dream. I conducted phone interviews from my dorm room. I would leave Friday for a press trip and be back for Monday morning's Spanish exam. My life was surreal, and I documented every moment on social media. I unintentionally allowed Instagram, once a vehicle for bettering my career, to take over my life. All the while, there was pressure — from advisors, family, and myself — to continue what I started, to achieve the highest grades, to write more, to be better. So many sacrifices were made for me to have this opportunity, but in the end, all I wanted was to hide from it. Guilt, homesickness, and doubt began to pull me under.
As I tried my hardest to stay above, I wrestled with a question: should I abandon my American life for a safe, familiar one back home? Like Icarus, had I flown too high? The summer of my junior year, I returned home to Penrith, in New South Wales — to an overjoyed mother who could very well have hidden my bags so I wouldn't leave her again. Even though I was home with family and friends, I felt that I was still underwater. The pressures of college and career were gone, but I was in the same place.
Australia is a beautiful continent, brimming with rusty outback landscapes and seafoam seashores, and I grew up exploring its corners. But there was one place I had never heard of: Lord Howe Island. I spotted it scrolling through Instagram soon after I came home. Was it part of Australia? Could I get there? It certainly didn't look like it from the map. The picture of the island was pristine, like nothing I’d ever seen. Upon further reading, I found out it was actually part of my home state. I didn't know why, but this tiny island, only a two-hour plane ride away, was calling me. I answered.
The next week, I set out on my second-ever solo trip, unsure of what awaited on the other end. I boarded a Qantas Link plane with only five other people, who I soon learned were return visitors — one traveling to the island for the tenth time. As the pilot interrupted to inform us of our impending landing, a landmass appeared in the window to my right. It had two volcanic peaks and was rimmed by water — clear water, the clearest I had ever seen. A ring of clouds created an eerie haze over one side of the island, while bright sun illuminated the other. It looked like something out of a Jurassic Park movie. I just about expected to see a Pteranodon circling.
The drive to my lodging at Ebbtide Apartments took a mere 10 minutes. Driving anywhere on the island takes about 10 minutes, but bikes are more popular than cars here, and walking even more popular than peddling. This is because Lord Howe is only six miles long and, at its widest point, 1.8 miles across — shorter than my walk from the Liberal Arts building to my dorm room on campus. My huge university could also fit more people in one building than could fit on the entire island, with capacity capped at 400: 350 permanent residents and 50 tourists. It was exactly what I needed, a wide open space to be alone and reflect on what I wanted.
On Lord Howe, you quickly learn how to appreciate island life. There is no cell service. No Instagram, no Facebook, and no way of contacting anyone, unless you stroll into town and use the pay phones (but they’re mainly for local calls anyway). Residents carry flip-phones and hotels have landlines, which are used mostly to contact the owner or make a dinner reservation at one of the island's six restaurants. But after 24 hours, the stress of being out-of-contact subsided. I felt as though I was living somewhere simple and happy, just me and the island. There was no obligation to share what I was eating or doing. Instead, I had finally had time — time that was my own.
Every morning the sun glowed on my cheeks as I sat on my balcony, listening to the waves crash against ancient rocks and muttonbird calls from every direction. I relished having time to soak it all in. I had known nature was there — but I didn't often take the time to hear and feel it. Instead, I would take a shaky video or snap a picture in Portrait Mode, encouraging my followers to do the exact same thing. I would thank my sponsors and my audience, because what are we without spectators? I could tell how distracted I had been by social media, how I had framed everything too look good on a screen — so much so that I wasn't seeing the world clearly, until now.
I waded into the sparkling water at Ned’s Beach, on the northern shore, only to be immediately surrounded by a school of kingfish, wrasse, silver-drummers, and kaleidoscopic Galapagos parrotfish. They swim unusually close to shore for food, which they've learned will be provided by beachgoers. For a dollar in the honesty box (a relic from times past) you can get a handful of fish food from a nearby shed, and a front-row seat at the frenzy. I visited every morning before sunrise to swim among the fish, to feel their energy and to appreciate this simple offering.
Over the next few days, I explored the island by foot — often with not a soul in sight, just the native petrels overhead. Never will I again underestimate the power of a good walk; Lord Howe is known for its paths and trails, and for me, they were quite literally life-changing. I hiked up the steep slate rocks guarding Goat House Cave; I strolled past the cows on Transit Hill. On one misty morning, I trekked through dense palms to the cliffs around Malabar Hill, which plunge dramatically into the ocean. After facing my fear of falling to my death, I came to a clearing shelved by flat rocks at one end and lush green pastures to the other. I watched the sun bloom on the horizon. The light stretched outwards into the sea.
Never had I seen such a clear view. To the south, I saw the town and the blue lagoon below me, then dense forests and towering peaks. To the north, wild waves crashing on cliffs, the wide, deep ocean, and the Admiralty Islands, a collection of reefs and volcanic pinnacles. The entirety of Lord Howe Island was visible from where I stood, and I didn't want to leave. I stayed for an hour. A rainbow began to form in the mist, releasing endorphins I didn't know I had. Whatever weight was left simply slid off my back and into the ocean. I wondered what it would be like to be a bird — it must be a powerful feeling. Sitting on Malabar Hill that morning, watching the ocean and the island come to life, was the closest I will ever get.
Why do we love islands? They can remind us of a simpler life, where audience engagement metrics don't exist and we can wander around with salt in our hair. But they have also the power to remind us of who we are and what we want — by providing us space and time. My time on Lord Howe Island helped me gain a new perspective, and bring a little wonder back into my life. I had set out to be a writer, to climb mountains, experience cultures, and witness sunsets around the world. It was clear to me, now, that this was still what I loved. This tiny island picked me up like a wave heading to shore, and I had to find the strength to stand up and ride it.