Life after cancer is full of adventure for these grey nomads

After Tony Southwell fought off throat cancer, he ended up with terrible survivor’s guilt. So, Tony and his wife Lisa, from Queensland, hitched up their caravan and took off to take the time and space to mend physically and mentally. 

What was initially meant to be a six-month holiday eventually turned into more than two-and-a-half years, and after Lisa – an ex-ballet dancer – had surgery on her ankles earlier this year, they’ve headed bush again. 

Tony and Lisa feature in the new Australian Seniors podcast series Life’s Booming, and here Tony gives his take on the grey nomad lifestyle.

Tony tells their story:  

When we set off in November of 2016, I’d gone from 108kg to 78kg, due to the cancer and my treatment. I was weak and I thought, what’s the point [of staying in one place]? I told myself that I had to get out there, because the uplifting spirit I would get from enjoying life could perhaps help me recover. 

We pulled up to the Gloucester Tree over in Western Australia and I said to Lisa that I wanted to climb it. The Gloucester Tree was used for a fire platform and so you can climb up the side on steel spikes all the way to the top. It’s a massively big climb. But at the bottom of the climbing platform it says, “If in doubt, don’t attempt to climb”. So, I started to climb, I got to about ten metres and then I started to feel the pain in my legs, because I’d never used my legs for that long. 

So, I realised that the last thing I wanted to do was get up there and not be able to get down. That was the moment, for the first time in my life, that I’d actually realised my body was not invincible. I’d been through all the cancer [treatment] but that was the moment when I realised that my body (just a few months post-final treatment), was just never going to be capable of climbing this tree.

So, I knew I had to take the time to [properly recover] like all the doctors had warned me. I knew I shouldn’t try to rush it and that understanding actually helped me move forward. So, that was my nearly teary meltdown moment – but I got through it.

[My cancer diagnosis was] the deal life gave me, but that realisation inspired me, it helped me stop worrying about trying to rush things. I knew that I could work towards getting better, and now I can really confirm that the journey has helped me get better and to get through all of these fears I had.

Look at your own backyard before heading abroad 

As a population we tend to want to rip off overseas to see amazing scenery, but when you take the time to have a look at what we’ve got here in Australia, you’ll never be disappointed. Anybody who’s been to the gorge at Karijini National Park will turn around and think, oh my god, we’ve got [this amazing landmark], it’s here and it’s in Australia. It’s absolutely sensational. If you go to Lawn Hill Gorge at Boodjamulla, you’ll find yourself north of Mount Isa in [a very remote location]. You’re just driving through absolutely nothing and then you come across the gorge and it’s like the Garden of Eden.

The characters you meet are remarkable

We met this 94-year-old bloke over at the Devils Marbles (Karlu Karlu), and he was just amazing. He was also a bit of a bird watcher and I asked him if he was afraid of being on his own at 94. He replied, “Oh, you sound like my daughter saying that! She wants me to pack up and stop travelling, but I’ve told her that I’ll pack up in another four or five years.”

He made me think about how good it would be to live on the road and be independent at 99 years of age, still going strong. I’ve often read about people who retire and die because they don’t know what to do [with themselves] and yet we all have this amazing window of opportunity to just get out there and have a good time, no matter what age you choose to start at.

The secrets for success on the road

People often ask us what we always take with us, and [I tell them that] a spirit of adventure and a sense of humour are the most important things when you’re travelling. You need a sense of humour for when things [go wrong], and they often do. For example, you’ll be pulling into a place and it’ll be absolutely chucking down with rain, so you’ll get bogged, or you’ll get a flat tyre – but you have to remember that you will be able to look back on those times and laugh. A spirit of adventure is also really important, you need to aim to just really experience everything. Anything that you accidentally leave behind you can always buy, but you can’t buy a sense of humour or a spirit of adventure. Don’t leave those two things behind, or you’ll be lost on your journey.

Hear more about Tony and Lisa’s journey by downloading the Life’s Booming podcast


This article has been edited from a live audio transcript. In some cases, words have been altered for clarity, while maintaining integrity to the meaning of the interview. For a full audio version of Tony and Lisa’s story head to (episode 1).