Staff writer at the Sydney Morning Herald for six years, including 18 months as their in-house travel writer, Nina Karnikowski’s bricks-and-mortar writing job came to an end when a round of redundancies in the company became the catalyst for making a change of her own.
“I took it as the universe telling me to take the plunge and go out on my own,” Nina tells Collective Hub of her decision to quit. “[Then] I started freelancing and found my online home at travelswithnina.com. At that point, I made a very conscious decision to stick with travel, at least for a few years to give it the best go I could.”
Since June 2014, Nina has been on the road and documenting the results, connecting with readers through her website. But while being a digital nomad seems like a flexible fulfilling job, it’s still work.
Here’s what the life of a full-time travel writer really looks like.
Where’s the last place you went on assignment? And where are you off to next?
A couple of weeks ago I was in Malaysia, exploring historic Penang with its rich mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European cultures, wild street art and famous hawker market food, and Langkawi. Langkawi is a UNESCO-listed Geopark because it’s surrounded by the most majestic 550-million-year-old limestone karst mountains that I hiked and boated around, and mangrove forests that hold a rich and fragile ecosystem filled with eagles, vipers and rhesus macaque monkeys.
Next, I’m heading back to Nepal with Crooked Compass, a company that explores off-the-beaten-track destinations which means we won’t be doing the classic trekking trip. Instead, we’ll be visiting remote farms and villages, and intimately getting to know the locals and their culture.
What’s one thing you wished people knew about your job?
That it’s actually really, really hard work! When I’m on an assignment my days often start at 6am, and from that moment on I am furiously meeting and greeting, taking notes, snapping images and filming. I cram as much as possible into the day before collapsing into bed at 10pm after collating said notes and pictures and videos, to try to get enough energy to do it all over again the next day. It’s a hard slog, and you couldn’t do it if you didn’t love it.
Without the support of a team everywhere you go, in what ways have you had to up-skill when flying (and chronicling) solo?
I’ve had to hone my photography skills, teach myself how to shoot and edit videos, how to use a tripod to shoot imagery and videos of myself for stories when there’s no-one around to help. I’ve taught myself how to write for the web, how to set up a website, how to build an audience. The learning curve never ends. I love that.
How has your blog evolved since launching?
When I first launched my online portals two years ago, I threw myself in there as nimbly as possible, knowing that I’d alter things along the way. It was important for control-freak me to not overthink it and get caught up in the details. I knew if I did, I’d never get it out there at all. That means, of course, that it has all evolved a lot! My writing style, aesthetics and interests have all developed so much in that time, so naturally I’ve changed the look and feel of my sites along the way, as well as the way I do videos and my photography style. I’ve added an online store, I’ve published my first novel on my site, and I’ve added a second journal section about life outside of travel so I can express that part of my life, too.
What does your work life look like when you’re not on the road?
Usually, just me holed up head down bum up either at our apartment in Sydney or at our little house on my husband’s family’s vineyard in the Hunter Valley. I’m an early riser so it’s usually a 5.30am wake up for tea, journalling and meditation in my little ashram space, a nature walk or yoga and brekkie. Then tapping back into the online world to update my social media sites and website, and to find out what’s happened in the world overnight. I’m usually working by 8.30am, writing freelance travel stories and columns, pitching stories, sending off photos, editing videos, and researching and organising upcoming trips. At 6.30pm, I turn my phone onto airplane-mode so I can cook dinner, spend quality time with my husband, read and listen to music, while giving my brain a much-needed rest.
How do you keep in touch with the industry?
Social media is, of course, invaluable. But for the travel industry specifically, there’s a fantastic portal called TravMedia, where editors, writers and PRs come together to pitch, share news about their work and what’s happening in the industry. There’s also the Australian Society of Travel Writers, and while I haven’t applied to be part of it yet, I often attend their events with friends as they’re a great opportunity to connect. Then, whenever I’m in Sydney I try to schedule meetings with my contacts, old and new, to find out what opportunities they’ve got going and to let them know what I’m up to. The travel industry is so much about those interpersonal relationships; often if someone likes your energy, they’ll take you away with them. Of course, your work matters more than anything, but your personality and ability to be put up with for weeks on end on a trip really count for a lot, too.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d offer to aspiring writers?
Just go for it. I know it might sound much easier said than done, but it could also be infinitely easier than you imagine. Either way, not doing the things that matter to you and that you really want to do seems, to me at least, as big a tragedy as any problem of failure. Be persistent, work your contact list, and work your butt off to get where you want to be. Read and write: simple, but there are writers out there who don’t do much of either.
Is there an adventure you’d love everyone to be able to experience?
India. I lived there for a year back in 2013 and it changed my life in so many unexpected and magical ways. I’d urge anyone who’s looking to go deeper into themselves, or tap into any latent creativity that they feel they might have, to go there. India has a way of forcing you to turn inwards and ask yourself the hard questions: why is there so much injustice in the world? Why did that situation just trigger me? What do I really want out of life? What does it all mean? With its colour, chaos, culture, spices, music, plus plus plus, it’s a place that lets you drop into who you really are.
Where’s the most unexpected destination work has ever taken you?
Visiting a nomadic encampment in eastern Mongolia in a quiet, bucolic nook of the Orkhon Valley. Spending time with the nomads reminded me how little in life you need to be happy, how home can be found in the movement between places, and how important it is in life to be open to making connections with people vastly different from ourselves. And how much we might miss out on if we don’t.
What’s the best overseas dining experience you’ve had on your travels?
A dinner I had last year at Restaurant Numero 7 in Fes, Morocco. It’s buried so deep in the labyrinthine medina that you need a guide to get there. I loved it for its superb interior design by owner Stephen di Renza (creative director of the Jardin Majorelle; think intricate black and white tilework, marble floors and glossy indoors palms), and for its soul. It employs locals who’ve never worked in the hospitality industry before and trains them up to help them work towards a brighter future, and runs on a chef-in-residence program that brings celebrated chefs from around the world to the kitchen for one to four months. I feasted on pickled eggplant and peach on toast, zucchini with spiced labna, and a delectable banana concoction topped with fluffy caramel cream, burnt white chocolate and peanuts. It was modern Moroccan cuisine at its best.
What are your carry-on baggage essentials?
My laptop so I can do a bit of writing or photo editing on the plane. My Weleda Iris moisturiser; it’s biodynamic and created by Rudolph Steiner and comes in a 30ml tube that’s perfect for travel. A cashmere eye mask I got in Mongolia and silicone ear plugs so I can get some z’s in. A comfy pair of socks; I love what Homecamp have done with their NZ merino wool creations. And a good book; I recently finished the owner of G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip’s Looptail, all about responsible tourism and so inspiring.