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Where young Aussies once took a gap year, now the gap is all that remains

Opinion

While the pandemic has interrupted an Australian rite of passage – a gap-year spent exploring the motherland – one Queensland lifesaver is defying the odds, writes Rebecca Levingston

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Tori’s taking a trip. Not usually newsworthy, but we live in unprecedented times.

Tori is 22 and travelling overseas in 2021.

Last Summer she saved a man’s life on a beach and soon she might do the same while patrolling an ocean on the opposite side of the world. Tori is a lifeguard on the Sunshine Coast but she’s got a new job keeping watch at Newquay in Cornwall. New sea, new home, new waves in life to navigate.

Like so many young Australians, a working holiday in the UK beckons as a rite of passage and since Tori has a British passport (thanks to her British dad) next week she’ll board a plane in Brisbane and land in London. Disembarking to embark on the adventure so many antipodeans took for granted until coronavirus changed the gap year of a generation.

In 2020, nobody got on flights, everybody stayed home. That’s why Tori’s feet are so itchy. So, she’s choosing to go from freedom in Oz to lockdown lifting in the UK. These days her focus is on Boris reopening pubs and restaurants as well as how fresh those North Atlantic winds will be compared to Noosa, where you usually find her on patrol.

What are the beaches like in Cornwall?

“Yeah, it’s cold,” she says briskly.

But she reckons a 5mm wetsuit (that’s a thick one apparently) will keep her tanned Aussie skin warm. A “full length steamer” should suffice. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I hope she has a warm jacket to put on every afternoon after the flags come down.

It’s not Tori’s first trip to this beach. In 2016, she competed in the World Surf League Qualifying Series and says the Newquay ocean isn’t too different to Australia’s east coast. A bit darker, moody at times, Tori tells me. Perhaps a bit like the British psyche right now.

In a regular year, 35,000 working holiday visas to the UK are available to adventurous young Aussies. You’d have to think the number of passport stamps given out in 2020 dropped dramatically.

I called a company that specialises in UK working holiday visas to ask how they’re travelling – nobody called me back. I asked the Australian Bureau of Statistics if they knew how many 20-somethings tried to take a working holiday last year. The ABS told me they don’t have information on outgoing passengers, only those who’ve returned from the UK. There are many more who’d love to come back.

So why go?

“A different country, different culture, different sea,” Tori says.

After 14 months of staying put here in Australia, she doesn’t want to keep her dreams on hold. She says the risk of getting stranded has crossed her mind, but she’s willing to go.

As the Brits emerge from lockdown, no doubt the beach will beckon. An Aussie lifeguard on patrol dealing with a population not quite as experienced in the water adds to the challenge. Tori has to pass a fitness test as well as a timed swim and soft sand beach run before she pulls on the Cornwall cap. A different uniform but the same ethos.

Tori recalls the moment on her picture-perfect Sunshine Coast beach recently where a man had a heart attack while surfing. He was brought to shore where Tori and her team called for back-up. She pumped his chest willing him back to life. Compressions, defibrillator shocks, adrenalin and professionalism saved that man. I ask her how it felt to see him taken away by the ambulance, conscious. She answers in typically laid-back surfer style.

“Pretty rapt to be honest.”

“He was dead and we brought him back.”

She pauses for a second and I can tell she’s back in the moment.

“He’s alive.”

Maybe that’s why Tori’s off on this next adventure. She knows that life is short and full of risks. Sometimes you have to dive right in and swim. Just make sure you do it between the flags, no matter which ocean you face.

 

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