Occupation: Freelance travel writer
Star sign: Pisces
Favourite food: anything Japanese
You wouldn’t know it when you see Louise Southerden’s friendly face around town, but she’s one of Australia’s most respected travel writers. A regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald’s Traveller section Lou, as she’s known here, has won numerous awards, including the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ Travel Writer of the Year award four times, for her evocative portrayal of the places, people and cultures she’s encountered on her travels.
‘I never dreamed of being a travel writer,’ she says, having now been to more than 70 countries. ‘I was terrified of writing, actually. That’s why I studied science at uni instead of journalism.’
Her honours degree in psychology (she also studied zoology) led her into market research, but she didn’t stay long: after saving $20,000 in her first job, she took off for a year overseas, which opened her eyes to another world. Her last stop before coming home was Africa, where a three-month overland trip with 20 strangers in an old Bedford truck changed her life.
‘I had bought a second hand camera in London, an old Canon AE1, taught myself how to use it on the road and thought I’d get into photojournalism. But when I got back to Australia and sent some of my pics to a few magazines, the editors all said, “They’re great, but we need words to go with them.”
She reluctantly started writing, remembering that English had been her best subject at school and she had been keeping a diary since I was 12!
Her first travel story ‘A Day In The Life Of An Overlander’ was published in 1991 in a free Sydney magazine called Nine to Five. But it was during an 18-month working holiday in rural Japan soon after, one of the happiest times of her life, that she really found her writing voice, in between surfing and teaching English.
After that trip, a publisher friend asked if she’d write a working holiday guide to Japan, her first book, and she became something of a Japan expert for a while, which encouraged her to try earning a living from writing and taking pictures.
Fast forward 20 years and Louise is as surprised as anyone at where life’s twists and turns have taken her. A stint as editor of a women’s surfing magazine led to her second book, the best-selling Surf’s Up: The Girl’s Guide to Surfing. It was published in the summer of 2003, a month after the worst surfing accident of her life: a spinal injury that left her paralysed from the neck down for two weeks and made her switch to riding longboards, which she now loves.
These days Lou specialises in nature-based and adventure travel, with a big environmental focus. ‘Travelling really makes you aware of climate change so I’m always trying to minimise my impact by, say, flying less and staying longer, and hopefully doing some good with the stories I write,’ she says, referring to her passion for sustainable tourism.
It might be a ‘dream job’ but it has its challenges. ‘You usually have your travel costs covered when you’re on assignment, but you’re not being paid while you’re away,’ she says. ‘Doing 10 or 11 trips a year I got quite burnt out: I’d get home and have to hit the ground running to write up all the stories I’d have to do before the next trip and I wouldn’t be paid until sometimes months later, when the stories were published.’
As to how she found herself in Lennox, let’s just say she stopped here to check the waves during a surf trip up the coast from Sydney at the end of 2015 and she’s now part of our community through surfing and getting involved in projects such as Boomerang Bags and the new travel book room at Williams St Kitchen & Bar.
And if you happen to see Louise checking in for a flight at Ballina airport sometime, ask where she’s going. Chances are it’ll be somewhere interesting. Maybe Morocco, Jordan or Iceland, three places she’s been this year, what a life!
Best thing about your job? The freedom, travelling with a purpose, being able to write for a living and constantly learning about the world.
Worst thing? Freelancing can be an exciting, precarious existence, ‘like clinging to the bonnet of a speeding car’ as one of her colleagues once described it.
Hobbies? Surfing, yoga, movies and swimming in Lake Ainsworth.
Work/life philosophy? Make the most of this one precious life, and be kind.