Russian and Ukrainian Hitchhikers, What Could Go Wrong?

On the side of the road, I noticed hitchhikers with large backpacks. I was driving too fast and passed them. Then my gut told me to go back and see if I could help them with a ride.

Day 315

After spending two hours talking to a bartender at a gin bar, I drove 20 minutes in the dark before arriving at my next hotel. The drive was incredibly curvy, and a sign read, “High Crash Zone.” It was too dark to see the view, but I imagined that it was breathtaking. After checking into the hotel, it was 8:00 pm, and the grocery store was closed. I walked to a pizza place and ate my dinner while watching Crazy Rich Asians on my Ipad Mini, trying to relax from the busy day. 

Most of the hotel and Airbnb check-out times in Australia are by 10:00 am, which for a night-person, stinks. The one good thing about an early check-out time is that it forces me to get packed up and get on the road. I was in Lorne, Victoria, and driving The Great Ocean Road towards Adelaide. Before starting my drive that day, I enjoyed breakfast at a small outdoor cafe off of the ocean.

I drove to Erskine Falls for a hike that would lead to a waterfall. Giant trees covered the near-empty parking lot. It was the beginning of May, which is the perfect time to avoid the large crowds. The weather wasn’t too cold yet either. The never-ending stairs disappeared into the thick vegetation. I only passed one couple who were climbing up. 

When I arrived at the bottom, the shade from the trees made for a dark, damp, and cold atmosphere. There was one man who appeared to be in his 60s who was filming the river. I quietly waited for him to finish his video before I walked closer. Once he finished, he thanked me for not making any noise, preserving the natural sounds of nature. 

The man, Brian, was from Queensland, Australia, and was driving around the country with his wife, Cheryl, over seven months. They were in an R.V., which was the most common way to travel around the country. I told Brian that I was considering driving around the country as well and wanted his advice on whether or not I could make the drive in a car. Many of the things I read online said you need a 4×4 vehicle because many roads are not paved. Brian assured me that I could drive a car, but I’d need to stick to the main highway.

Brian and I walked a little bit near the river and continued talking. He cautioned me about the spiders and snakes in the country. “Nine of the ten world’s deadliest snakes are here in Australia,” he said. Just then, we came across a sign that warned of, “Flash Flooding, Slippery Rocks, Trees May Fall Take Care, Snakes.” I paused and slowly looked around, making sure I wasn’t heading into certain death.

Brian said that the Redback Spider is only in the north, where he’s from, and they are very poisonous. In the south, where we were, the White-tailed Spider is the deadliest. We talked for about 20 minutes, and Brian told me that Lyme disease is in Australia, even though some people think it’s not there. I explained that I grew up in Missouri, and ticks are a problem because they spread Lyme Disease. 

I started climbing back up the stairs, and Brian followed, but then he kept stopping to take more videos (and to catch his breath). The fresh air felt good against my sweat that was forming from the climb. As I left Brian, he said, “If you see my wife up there, can you tell her I’m still down here?” Sure enough, close to the top of the trail, his wife was sitting on a bench. I overheard her ask a couple in front of me if they had seen her husband. The couple replied, “Is he the guy with the camera? Yeah, we saw him.” 

I jumped in, “Is your husband, Brian?” I explained to Cheryl that Brian was telling me all about the deadly snakes and spiders that are in Australia. As brian approached, Cheryl scolded him, “Don’t you freak her out now!” They were really friendly, but I continued up the stairs to continue my drive. We agreed that we’d probably see each other again because we were driving in the same direction. 

I drove to the visitor center and picked up a map that listed points of interest. Next, I drove to Teddy’s lookout that was on top of a mountain. As I walked towards the viewpoint, I saw Brian and Cheryl again! They were heading back to their vehicle and said the view was worth the short walk. A local told them that in the summer, thousands of surfers pack the area. The water was incredible, with shades of green and blue.

I kept driving north towards Apollo Bay. On the side of the road, I noticed hitchhikers with large backpacks. I was driving too fast and passed them. Then my gut told me to go back and see if I could help them with a ride. I turned around and found out they were headed towards Apollo Bay to start The Great Ocean Walk. I told them I might stop to take pictures along the way, and they were fine with that, so they got in the car.

Alina and Leo appeared to be in their late 20s, and they were a fit, married couple. We had about 30 minutes before we’d arrive at Apollo Bay, so we got to know each other a bit. They lived in Russia, but Leo is from Ukraine. I couldn’t help but laugh under my breath because the U.S. was currently talking about “Russian interference” with the 2016 election. After that investigation, there was the “Ukraine scandal” with president Trump.

Leo used to be a police officer, but he didn’t enjoy the job, so he moved to Russia. They are Mormon, and Leo did a two-year mission in the Baltic. He told me that he has family in Utah (USA) but he hasn’t been there. He was worried that it was too dangerous in the U.S. 

Leo and Alina’s travel story was incredibly fascinating! They had spent five weeks in New Zealand before coming to Australia, and they absolutely loved it there. They had been in Australia for three weeks at that point, and they started in Sydney. The couple planned to travel for a total of six months. After seeing some of Australia, they wanted to go to Fiji, Southeast Asia, and then back to Australia. 

I had never heard of The Great Ocean Walk, but Leo and Alina told me about it. It’s a walking/hiking trail that is 104 kilometers (64 miles), and it starts in Apollo Bay. They planned to hike it and camp along the way. In their eight weeks of travel so far, they hadn’t paid for a single night of accommodation! They were using couch surfing apps, staying with friends, and stayed with people they met at church. On Sunday’s they would go to a Mormon church, talk with people after service, and inevitability; someone would offer them to stay the night at their house. 

I wanted to know what it was like couch surfing. I had heard about these apps and websites that allow people to offer their couch for budget travelers. They do it to help other travelers and to meet new people. Leo told me that most of the time, they actually ended up getting a bedroom all to themselves. There was only one time that there were ten people at the house and they were the last to arrive, so they slept on the floor. 

The only money that Leo and Alina spent on transportation was for a train ride in Melbourne because they were staying outside of the city. It cost $30 for the day for both of them, and they weren’t pleased about that. The rest of the eight weeks of travel, they used hitchhiking as their only means of transportation. 

The couple had a tent, and the night prior was the first time having to use it in Australia. They ended up setting up their tent after it got dark so they could camp right on the beach without the authorities knowing. Then they packed up early and started walking before the beach opened. 

I couldn’t believe their travel stories, and I was genuinely blown away by what they were able to accomplish. Leo told me that he once went to Thailand for three weeks, with only $100 in his pocket. He hitchhiked everywhere and stayed with people (friends and family from church). Sometimes the places he stayed the night were very fancy and luxurious. 

Their funds were running very low because of the high prices in Australia. They admitted that their budget was minimal, but they planned to look for work for a few days or a week picking fruit on a farm. They didn’t have a work visa, so they planned on looking for jobs under the table. 

When we arrived at Apollo Bay, I went to the visitor center because I’ve found them to be a great resource. Leo and Alina came inside with me. The woman who worked there told us about a lookout point and a lighthouse that was nearby. She also made Leo and Alina worried when she said the Great Ocean Walk would take them much longer than they anticipated because of the terrain. 

Leo and Alina decided to come with me to the lookout point and lighthouse. It would cut a large portion off the hike, making it more doable with their timetable. When we got back into the car, Alina pulled out a Tupperware container with sandwiches for them to eat. I had a box filled with small bags of chips, so I offered them some to compliment their sandwiches. I also had extra chocolate from the chocolatier that I went to the day prior, so I shared that too. We were quickly becoming friends.

We drove to the lookout point, and it required a quick 10-minute walk. It was beautiful and provided a vast vantage point. Next, we drove towards the lighthouse. The road curved through the mountains and the forest, so we stopped occasionally to take pictures.

At one point, I pulled over and we walked down an old dirt road where we saw wild kangaroos hopping around. It was their first time seeing a kangaroo in the wild. 

On the drive, we talked about the differences in our countries, politics, and immigration. I told them that I’ve lived in 14 different houses/apartments in my life. They were shocked and said they don’t move around much in Russia and Ukraine. Alina has lived in the same house her entire life. Leo said that often, many generations live in the same building. 

When we arrived at the lighthouse, it cost $20 to go into the park, which gave access to the tower. It was 4:30 pm, which was the final entry time. Leo and Alina said it was too much money, so they decided to start walking down one of the hiking paths. I was concerned because it was getting colder and the sun was beginning to go down. We were also in the middle of nowhere. They assured me that they would be fine, and they’d find a place to camp that night somewhere in the woods. 

Leo and Alina got their backpacks from the trunk, and we hugged goodbye. We had spent the afternoon together, and I was so happy to have their company. They were friendly, fun, and super interesting to talk with. We exchanged contact information and I look forward to possibly meeting up with them in Ukraine. I wished them good luck on their travels, and then I headed into the area with the lighthouse. 

The large property had other things to view and read about, but I headed straight to the lighthouse before I missed it. It was classic, looking like something out of a postcard. I walked up the spiral staircase and walked outside to the top. There was a section that I could walk around and see the ocean crashing below. I was feeling really happy and blessed to be there. 

I didn’t get a chance to see much else on the property because it was closing. I quickly looked for a place to stay that night, but the closest motel was an hour and 20 minutes away if I didn’t want to backtrack. Before I lost cell service, I booked it and started driving. The sun went down, and it was pitch black outside. Once I left the main road, I had to drive down a gravel road for at least two miles. There was nothing around except trees and some small farms. It sprinkled rain on and off, making it feel very eerie outside. Suddenly, I saw the driveway for the motel. 

The motel was in the middle of nowhere, and the local owner showed me to my room. The heater was broken, so he rolled a portable one into my room. That didn’t work, so he got me another one. I turned on the T.V., which only showed fuzzy snow. I asked the guy about it, and he said that their satellite was out because of a storm that came in the day prior. The motel was outdated and old. It was shaping up to be like something out of a horror movie. 

Trying my best to ignore my surroundings, I took out my contacts and squeezed into the small, square shower. I was enjoying the warm water when I noticed something black in the corner of the shower floor. I can’t see very well without my contacts. It was a fuzzy black circle about two inches in size. When I was in Asia a few months earlier, at least five European travelers warned me about the snakes and spiders in Australia. They told me, “You have to check your toilet for snakes and spiders, or they’ll hide and bite you.” I thought they were stereotyping, and surely they were exaggerating. 

Trying not to panic, I decided it was most likely lint. I quickly washed the conditioner out of my hair and turned the water off. As I turned the nozzle, water dripped from my hand on to the black circle, and it slightly moved. 

“Oh no, it’s alive!” I gasped. With my heart racing, I slowly opened the door and inched my way out of the shower. I put my glasses on, revealing a giant spider! After being bitten several times by a spider in Canada the year prior, I wasn’t taking any chances. 

Terrified, but also determined to show the hideous monster who was boss, I grabbed a shoe and smashed him! I posted a picture of the spider on Facebook, and an Australian friend informed me the spider was a White-tail Spider, which has a nasty bite. I had a hard time sleeping that night, checking my bed over and over to ensure a spider wasn’t trying to accompany me to bed too. 

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Throughout her wild 3-week journey backpacking 220+ miles in the California Sierra Mountains, Christy encountered freezing temperatures, pelting hail storms, and losing her way, but found trail family, incredible views, and experiences that would change her life forever. Hiking up and over ten different mountain passes gave Christy a lot of time to think about why her nine-year marriage was falling apart, gave her the chance to truly embody her individualism, time to make new friends, and the strength she would need on and off the trail. Her life could never again be the same.
This is one woman’s account of the three weeks she spent on the iconic trail.

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