Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Back to Australia

I’m typing this as I sit in the airport. I’ve been bawling ever since I said goodbye to my parents at the Gautrain and the waterworks have been going like a burst mains on and off ever since. Some of the strangers passing me might have noticed the tears streaming down my face and assumed I’ve just parted from a lover. It’s much, much more complicated than that.

For four years, I have not allowed myself to think about Australia. Not really. Yes, it always hovered there in the past, a part of my story, the one I started blogging about when I first started writing for Thought Leader. I tried not to dwell on it. Forrest Gump’s mother was wrong: life is not like a box of chocolates. It’s much more like riding a bicycle. If you don’t keep going, you fall over.

But I’ve been forced to think about it again, because my permanent residence visa expires at the end of March, which means that either I have to move there permanently in the next 10 days, or give up the right to live there. I’m travelling there now because there are loose ends to be tied up, things that involve going into bank branches with my passport, and that means I have to get onto a Qantas plane and go there in person.

It also means confronting things I’ve been putting off for years. Quite frankly, I’m terrified of the uncomfortable and awkward feelings this will trigger. Nothing is worse than having to make choices. Life is so much easier when they are made for us.

For those of you who don’t know, the past five years can be summarised as death-emigration-retrenchment-reverse emigration-divorce-panic attacks-severe depression-slow and painful recovery. Australia brings all of this flooding back. To explain, because these things always need explaining: I emigrated to Australia because my husband wanted to go; he needed my five points to qualify for a permanent residence visa. I moved to Sydney in May 2008 under strange and difficult circumstances; the sudden death of my mother-in-law meant my husband couldn’t move with me, and for seven months I lived alone). I loved my life in Australia, exploring a different part of the city every weekend and starting a collection of Australian insults to force myself to study up on the local culture.

But there was a recession and I was made redundant and everything fell apart. After that, I spent a lot of time lying on the floor in my apartment in Mosman sobbing. Then I got on a plane back to South Africa and vowed never to look back.

Apart from sorting out my bank accounts which trail like threads from a frayed hem, I’ll be visiting Melbourne and Adelaide. The latter is a little off the usual tourist track, but it’s where JM Coetzee lives, and I want to try and understand the attraction. I’ll visit my Twitter namesake in the Taronga Zoo and explore my old haunts in Mosman. Maybe I’ll meet my ex-husband for a drink at the Opera Bar, the way we said we would when we got divorced, though I don’t know if I can actually face it. Too much water under that particular Harbour Bridge.

My journey to Australia and back is inextricably entwined with this blog and its readers. I’ll be documenting the trip as a Mampoer Short, and it will be available as an ebook in a couple of months’ time. It’s only part of the story; if this episode does well, I’ll write more. We’ll see.

If you want to read more, you can check out my Trekking Across Gondwanaland blog here.

People say: “Have a lovely trip!” like it’s a holiday, but it isn’t. It’s a journey to a whole lot of places I don’t want to particularly go, but must. Anyhow, the other economy-class passengers are being called, and I must go. I’m in 69G; I hope there’s nobody next to me.

Just to make it clear, writing this isn’t about getting anyone’s approval, or asking you to agree or disagree. Emigration is an emotive issue for people on both sides of the fence; I’m sure I’ll be getting lots of hate mail.

This is just my story. It is what it is. Because in the end, all we have are our stories and all we can do is tell them as best we can.

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  • Steve

    Don’t judge Adelaide as you might find it now, the end of summer which is always hot (up to the mid forties sometimes), very dry and as vaal as the Highveld in winter. It is a lovely place with many quaint villages in the hills which are as green as England in winter. Really good restaurants too, and the Barossa Valley and Fleurieu Peninsula just around the corner. After a move there four and a half years ago, also with about a week to go on the PR visa and the family following 6 months later, we are now happily settled in south-west WA, another little-known gem. North Adelaide (e.g. Melbourne Street) is a most agreeable place to stay when visiting Adelaide. Good luck

  • amandzing

    Hang in there. Come back soon.

  • Just saying…

    Lucky you!

  • Enough Said

    I have so many friends who are 3rd and 4th generation white Africans, they would love to be back here but say Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK are the best choice for their childrens future.

  • nic batt

    Hate mail? More likely boredom mail.

  • Dry Brown Land

    Good luck! Will follow your blog with interest. If they require you to make a decision, it’s important to choose wisely. Understand that either way, there are unpalatable things that one has to accept.

  • mundundu

    reading this, i decided to look up the points test just for laughs. i’m apparently nine months too old to get a near-automatic permanent residence visa for australia — that’s kind of funny.

    not that i would want to live there, but still. i’m just amused.

    [clearly, this is an indication that i’ve honestly and truly become south african; not fluency in afrikaans, not working knowledge of xhosa, not the groot boep, but looking up if i have enough points to migrate hassle-free to australia. i have a passport which enables me to visit whenever i want, so it’s no big deal, though. but still.]

  • Dave Harris

    Godspeed and hopefully you will gain closure to that phase of your life. I believe Coetzee tried to emigrate to the US in 1971 but was denied. His move to Adelaide seems to have been smoother since his partner lives and works there.
    Anyway, will try to follow your new blog if you make it exciting enough 😉

  • Enough Said

    Shit, even Dave Harris has a sense of humor!!!

  • Bruce C

    Keep writing for Thought Leader, get your Aussie passport and then decide where you are happiest, taking all things into account. You may meet a great Aussie bloke!!!!
    All the very best!

  • Al

    God Speed – have a safe journey and may you come back with many happy memories and feeling better.

  • bernpm

    You say: “Nothing is worse than having to make choices. Life is so much easier when they are made for us. ”

    This attitude to life could be the main source of some of your miserable experiences. It is like being blown by the wind. If there is no wind, no movement. As you say yourself…if you stop peddling on your bicycle, you fall over (unless you have one of these home machines).

    You have been in both countries. You can make an informed decision. What you did not like then, you will still not like after a little while. A little like a divorce and re-union: the reasons for a divorce don’t go away, They come back quicker.

    Keep well and enjoy the trip. Life is too short to be miserable and has enough opportunities to have fun. Having made your own decision for the fun, creates some extra fun in your soul.

  • possum

    Other countries celebrate their citizens leaving the country to better themselves, but here you are seen as some sort of traitor. Although Australia would be my very last choice, best of luck to you. Having left, I’m sure you know you will not be permitted to engage in criticism of South Africa of any kind. You will battle to find things to write about and cannot count on some of your ex-countrymen celebrating your new life. Don’t discount the role of envy in the way people will treat you on your blog in the future. Sorry to say that you are going to get your fair share of abuse, it’s a SA thang. We can only hope that in the future SAcan’s will be able to embrace those who leave with generosity and maturity on the understanding that nothing is forever, and that the ties to your country of birth are the strongest there are.

  • Joe Soap

    Why is divorce so expensive?

    Because its worth it.

  • Rod MacKenzie

    My best wishes Sarah, from a fellow nomad also going through some form of PTSD here in Auckland, NZ, but eish it gets better by the day :). Identified a lot with the picture of you sitting alone in a departures lounge, writing.

  • Paul Pereira

    What a beautiful piece. Come home soon.

  • Momma Cyndi

    The only thing permanent is change
    Take up your walking stick, pop on your hobbit hat and have an adventure. A book with origins in SA and acted out in Australasia – just like you 😉

  • Maria

    Sarah, you should read J-P Sartre on the freedom we cannot escape. It may seem that, at times, decisions are made for you, but in truth you are still taking the decision to go with the flow, as it were. Don’t pass the buck on choice; you cannot escape responsibility. It is better to face up to the inescapability of free choice, then one’s acceptance of the consequences is easier. Think of it, as bernpm says above, as an informed decision.

  • Charlotte

    In preparation for a guest speaker addressing us on writing biography, we were asked to describe a turning point in our lives. I quoted your two sentences as my introduction:
    “Nothing is worse than having to make choices. Life is so much easier when they are made for us. ”
    The speaker asked me to repeat them.

    We can never blame ourselves for a bad choice when fate plays the hand:
    You have no option but to take this opportunity. It has been spelt out for you: Who knows what adventures lies ahead? …. if things don’t pan out, we’re still here.(we hope) You can always come back: If you don’t, you made the right choice.
    (And luckily, as in your case, you still have choices). In fact, either way you’re making the right choice.

    The distance between continents is now electronically a click away.
    Today, with e-mail,skype etc., we are often closer to people living overseas or not in close proximity, than we are to ‘habit’ friends or relations.
    At least you’re not sitting on your backside doing nothing except drowning yourself in indecision.
    Anyway, hindsight is 20/20 vision. Better ‘older and wiser’ about what you did in life – than what you didn’t. Lots of luck. Go well.

  • robert in sydney

    this makes no sense to me. we all know that emigration is not for the faint hearted and leaving south africa is especially difficult as it will not be possible to get in their new country what they were used to in sa – namely cheap domestic help and help with bringing up kids – never mind being able to access illegal workers who are paid next-to-nothing as they have no choice. so why put yourself through more turmoil esp you have no kids – which appears to be the case with sarah. in addition aus is now a very expensive place to set up home – esp if you are going to hang out in mosman – most expensive real estate in aus. finally emigration is for the young people – the earlier you start the better. just accept you are an economic refugee in sa – and get on with life

  • Charlie

    Sarah you should try New Zealand

  • GrahamJ

    This is your life. You have brains and beauty that you don’t use. Stop locking out what you don’t want. This is just a dot in space and you are just a dot on it.

    For goodness sake, join and enjoy the dots.

  • Gary Koekemoer

    Safari njema… sounds like the start of a great journey, may it be filled with many choices, lots of tears, lots of challenges, and adventure. May you bump into old memories around every corner! Africa is probably going to hang around for a while, so it will still be here if you should return. It will never leave you. You took the plunge, you bought the ticket, said good bye to the parents and climbed onto the plane. Sounds like you’ve made plenty of decisions already. Seek out the good spots and the good people, they must have a few in Oz. Enjoy!

  • Scott

    Hot off the presses indeed! :-]

    Thank you for your wonderful & candid sharing, Sarah… I certainly enjoy your insights and at times it seems as though I’m riding with you in your rickety little boat on that great ocean of emotion! (sorry, couldn’t resist that hideous little alliteration!:)

    I find the comments of your ‘readers’ as amusing & interesting for their insights as for their often astounding lack of them! I don’t think blogs should allow comments… ;-]

    I do wish you luck as you boomerang about the southern hemisphere. I hope your trip to the South Land brings the closure & insight you desire and I’m certainly looking forward to your next submission!

    Will she emigrate again?!?

    All the best,


  • Blogroid

    it is hard to imagine that Australia has as much happening in a month compared to a normal day in Jozi… Which may well make the writing part of your life mundane in a way unimaginable here in Jozi.

    nonetheless may you find the so-called Mojo, and settle what needs to be settled and I’m sure you will find pleasure … Bon voyage

  • Joe Sm

    Welcome to Australia. Don’t look back. Look Forward. The two animals on the Australian coat of arms cannot go backwards, only forwards.

  • Thomasb

    Best Wishes Sarah – thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us, that’s brave! Hopefully you wil continue to do so.

  • J

    Enjoy your trip Sarah. I empathise with what you are going through, as have many South Africans who have moved, it is somewhat apart of many of us, people on the move.

    Enjoy Australia, for however long you are here, and with open eyes for what it is, a beautiful, multi-cultural, egalitarian and democratic country (definitely with its problems though), these things are rare in this world. You would know this but maybe it is nice to be reminded. I really should work in tourism….that was a mouthful..
    Anyway, thankyou for your blogs, living in Aus, I appreciated them, and it is such a nice change to read some of your personally relatable and light hearted stories.

  • nguni

    Hmm… Don’t feel bad Sarah, most women (REAL women, not feminists) prefer the big decisions to be made for them. It’s the way your hormones wire you, nothing negative about it. Maybe you will bump into your ex, and who knows, maybe even a reunion? Whatever happens, your blogs have always been a refreshing change from the usual political hick-hacking in TL and I’ll miss them if you decide to call it a day.

  • Gary Koekemoer

    @ Nguni sorry Bro, it must be because it’s late and proper English escapes me, but WTF? REAL women cannot be feminists? MOST women prefer the big decisions to be made for them? Women can be forgiven because of hormonal wiring? Here’s a simple test, if you are a REAL man, take these beautiful theories of yours and announce them to a significant woman in your life (mother, partner, colleague, sister) and see how quickly they make the big decisions… I’d wear a crash helmet if I was you and give the ambulance and your dentist a call prior to doing so!

  • Brian B

    Why bother if you feel so bad about it. seems like a bit of a soapie to me..

  • nguni

    Expected to yank a few chains with that statement but I didn’t expect a guy to rally to the ladies support. :-) My significant other was NOT charmed but as I’m 2m/120 kg her protest remained verbal..

  • Carly

    Good luck.

  • Marc

    You can’t give up every time you get canned.

  • Peter Anthony

    Sarah – it’s easy to say this, but go out and chill. Try bungy-jumping, sailing, white-water rafting. I did the emigration thing with my family : came over with no job – and have been made redundant three times since. Each time it took me a while but I ended up with a better role ! I know that’s only half your story but stress is multiplicative. Deal with it bit by bit – and like the AA, hour by hour…

  • Barbara Peirson

    Sarah, you have touched my nerve endings and heart with this. Mandela is hanging by a thread … perhaps we Africans of pastel complexions are all suspended beneath him. May I never have to go back to live in ‘Blighty’. May everything ‘ravel’ for you in Oz. Amandla!

  • Brian B


    Based on your Height (200 cm) and your Weight (120 kg) your BMI is 30.0
    This means you step in the Overweight range
    You are over optimum weight for your height and you may be facing health problems so losing weight would be a good idea.
    A balanced diet and exercise program is an essential part of achieving weight control. .

  • robert in sydney

    sarah – you also need to be aware that the authorities are clamping down on visas – off all sorts. there is a witch hunt on for the 457’s – which is how most jappies have entered recently. they are clamping down on people like u who were granted permanent residence but who have never spent the requisite time (i think it is 2 years) to become a permanent resident. not to become a citizen – just to get that pr in yr passport. u will need to consider these issues very carefully. of course the question is – have you been granted another pr visa where u can leave immediately?

  • robert in sydney

    sarah i may need to apologise. i have just re-read your pre-amble and it appears that you have decided to take up residency in oz – well done. no doubt u will consider re-locating back to mosman – which seems to draw jappies like a honey pot. but just be aware sydney is now very very expensive and mosman tops that list. so sure move into mosman – but on the assumption that like most jappies the RRR do not add to many $$$$ and that you want to buy yr own property sometime in the future – u may want to consider less expensive areas – but of course if u do – up goes the commuting time exponentially!

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