In her bestselling book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Ruben talks about her Secrets of Adulthood, namely the lessons life has taught her. Gretchen's list includes both supremely simple items and some that are more profound. Within it I found numerous lessons I related to, including ‘People don't notice your mistakes as much as you think', ‘What's fun for other people may not be fun for you - and vice versa', 'If you can't find something, clean up' and 'Bring a sweater'. I enjoyed coming up with my own list and one of the first to spring to mind was ‘Always take the time to explore your own backyard'. I can even pinpoint exactly when I learnt this valuable lesson.
You see, I spent the first 25 years of my life living in the beautiful English county of Dorset but it wasn't until Bradt Travel Guides asked me to write the book Slow Dorset that I took the time to really explore the county. For those first 25 years I had spent much of my time planning to discover faraway places and overlooked what was right in front of me. To be fair, I was following the example set by my adventurous parents - when I was 7 years old they took me out of school for a 6-month ship voyage around the world, and even short breaks, like half-term, were invariably spent in Europe.
By the time I started researching the first edition of Slow Dorset back in 2011 I had been living in Australia for nearly a decade. Returning as a visitor and one tasked with researching what makes Dorset special opened my eyes to what a fabulous place it is to explore. I saw more of Dorset in the six months I spent researching the book than I had in the previous 35 years and I gained a new appreciation for the place I still refer to as 'home'.
I swore I would never make the same mistake again and that I would always make an effort to really get to know the area where I was living. And while I can't claim to have done everything there is to do within easy reach of my base of the past 15 years, just outside Canberra, Australia, a day trip to the NSW coastal town of Narooma earlier this year reminded me of the value of exploring your own backyard.
Narooma is around a five-hour drive south of Sydney and three hours from Canberra. We set off from our house and within 90 minutes we had our first glimpse of the sea, a sight which always seems to flick an internal relaxation switch. We made our customary stop at the Bodalla Cheese Factory and Dairy Cafe, which serves some of the best lactose-laden treats you can imagine, including superb milkshakes and a delightful, award-winning cheese laced with Tasmanian pepperberry.
On a dairy-induced high and having stocked up on picnic ingredients we continued on to Narooma. The name 'Narooma' is derived from an aboriginal term for 'clear, blue waters', which gives you a clue as to part of the appeal, and the sea here is protected by a marine reserve. Wildlife thrives in this safe haven. Fur seals are almost always to be found sprawled casually on the rocks of the breakwater, like hursuit Boticelli nudes. That day, I watched as the seals periodically slid from their rocky sun loungers into the water where they glided through a series of synchronised swimming moves. Curious pelicans were quietly spectating, and I half expected them to hold up score cards as the display finished.
The boardwalk along the coast is another highlight of this small town. The water is so transparent that as you look down it’s like snorkelling without getting wet. My husband, son and I walked slowly, mesmerised by the underwater activity just beneath us - an octopus deftly overturning rocks in search of tiny sea creatures, diminutive fish darting backwards and forwards, and, near the tables where fishermen gut their catch, half a dozen giant rays scavenging for fish scraps, swirling around each other like dark, gloomy, Halloween-inspired dodgem cars. The boardwalk leads to a beautiful waterside park and a sheltered beach with safe swimming, perfect for children. It was here that we chose to settle down for our picnic, a fitting end to a memorable day of simple pleasures. Narooma really is a magical place but it doesn't seem to known it - it has an unassuming air about it and thankfully it doesn't attract the crowds of better-known coastal spots.
I’m always amazed just how much one can fit into a single day. On our spontaneous day trip to Narooma my family spent valuable time together and made some incredibly special memories. We have since relocated to the UK but we did so knowing that we had made the most of our time living near Canberra, that we had got to know the wider area and what makes it distinctive. So, while we all enjoy planning our annual overseas holidays and our once in a lifetime trips, it is worth remembering that happiness experts tell us that what we do every day makes more difference to our happiness levels than what we do once in a while. So, I entreat you, next time you have a free day, make it a day to remember and explore your own back yard.