05 July, 12:00
Life isn't always fair or easy. It can and will deliver you some pretty tough blows. The difference is made in how we react to those blows - do we crumble and fall or stand strong and fight
Published by Sarah Booth
Life isn't always fair or easy. It can and will deliver you some pretty tough blows. The difference is made in how we react to those blows - do we crumble and fall or stand strong and fight. This was the dilemma facing our ACAI Adventurer Emily Abrahams when her life changed in a heart beat. It was her instinct to fight that triggered the beginning of a world wide adventure with her best furry friend Loki. Join us as we speak to Emily about van life, her extensive travels and what it's like to explore with her most trusted companion.
Emily and Loki, thank you for taking the time out to talk to us about your worldwide travels! Can we start by asking what triggered your decision to leave your hometown in Victoria, Australia and fly over to Europe?
Loki’s too sleepy to take the interview so I’m doing it for both of us!
So the main catalyst for leaving, was that I found out my now ex-husband was cheating on me. I remember lying in bed that night thinking to myself, ‘if you could do anything in the world right now, what would you do?’
The answer was almost instant. I would take Loki and move to Sweden (where there is some of the best dog agility in the world, plus my brother was living there at the time).
Later, the idea shifted and merged with the influence of another ex telling me that her dream was to buy a van and do the “van-life” thing. I thought to myself, if I had a van, I could travel everywhere; get lost in mountains and forests, and visit ALL the amazing agility trainers in Europe, not just those in Sweden.
Also, I never felt like Australia was truly my home. I was born there, spent my whole life there (apart from travelling) but always felt there was somewhere else I belonged. Somewhere I would be happy. Perhaps most of us have that “grass is greener” feeling, but most of us are also content with where we live, in the core of ourselves - I never have been. On the two occasions I travelled to Europe before this trip, I found myself absolutely enthralled by the forests, the lush green foliage, the rocks, the trees and the cool, dark places beneath. I loved the lakes and rivers dotted everywhere, I loved the small farming towns and the rich history and culture that stretches hundreds of years before Europeans even knew Australia existed. I wanted to surround myself with these places and see if I could find somewhere that called my heart to stay.
'So the main catalyst for leaving, was that I found out my now ex-husband was cheating on me. I remember lying in bed that night thinking to myself, ‘if you could do anything in the world right now, what would you do?’
The answer was almost instant. I would take Loki and move to Sweden (where there is some of the best dog agility in the world, plus my brother was living' there at the time).'
— Emily Abrahams
You used to be a teacher but you made the decision to hand in your resignation and focus on dog training and agility instead. What motivated you to make this change? Has competing in dog agility always been a dream of yours?
So, I’ve been competing in agility since I was 18. At the time I was one of the youngest competitors around (at least in Australia), so by Australian standards I guess I’ve been doing it a long time. With my first dog, we did pretty great, and so when I got Loki I knew I wanted to go further. I never dreamed that I would be here competing against former World Champions, chatting with them outside the ring, patting their dogs. What a crazy journey for a little agility nerd!
As for teaching, I never believed that I would teach forever, at least not kids. Maybe I will teach adults how to do agility if I ever get good enough to do that here in Europe. I’m lucky that back home I could take a year’s leave of absence, which gave me a nice safety net if I decided I hated it here and wanted to go back. But I don’t want to go back, so I have officially resigned now. That being said, as of the end of this year if I want to stay in Europe I will have to find a job in order to get a visa and teaching will definitely be the easiest way to do this, at least for now. If I had unlimited money and didn’t have to work again, I would train dogs and write books. That would be my dream.
Loki and yourself are very much a team. What have been the challenges and rewards of traveling with a dog?
Someone said this to me the other day, that Loki and I must have such a special bond now after spending 24/7 together for the last 10 months. I realised it myself the other day and it brought me to tears – it is again right now, actually – this journey we’ve been on together. What a strange thing it is that a non-human can hold such a special place in our hearts. How do they do it? It’s like some kind of magic.
Anyway, the rewards of travelling with Loki have been having a constant companion; I am absolutely never alone. I talk to him as if he was a person, we cuddle at night when it’s cold, I kiss his furry little head and tell him, “I love ya, you know that? I hope you know that,” and he licks my face as if to say, “I know, I know.” He is my reason for finding lakes and rivers (he loves to fetch sticks in the water) and little forest paths. We train and learn together and there is such an indescribable joy that comes from pulling it all together in agility and finding our flow and rhythm. It’s the best feeling in the world. He has allowed me to meet people from across this continent, maybe for training, maybe just to go for a walk with them and their dogs. People I would call friends, who I look forward to seeing again, who we came to know only because we both have Instagram, dogs, and I happened to be in their country with Loki.
There are certainly challenges too. The main one is being constantly aware of Loki and his wellbeing. His wellbeing is so innately tied to my own that if he is stressed, sore, or hot, I am also feeling the stress and guilt of those things. For example, over the last few months he has become quite afraid of trucks and buses. This has not only limited where we can comfortably go, but has made me hyper-vigilant whenever we’re anywhere near traffic, ready with food and other strategies to help manage his fear and stop it escalating. He is also terrified of me killing (or looking for) mosquitoes. You can imagine how much fun this is in the Swedish summer (mosquito central). So again it becomes about finding strategies to manage his anxiety so things like covering head with towel, pants or sweater, pat his head with one hand and like a damn ninja, kill the mosquito with the other!
Of course there’s other, normal dog stuff. How to go grocery shopping when it’s warm outside? How he will cope with -15C temperatures when we’re in the north of Sweden in winter? What do I do when he suddenly develops a weird cough but I’m in Croatia and have no idea what vet to go to? Damn, I forgot to buy food for him and it’s Sunday and I’m in Germany - that kind of thing.
But I’m lucky he’s a pretty easy-going dog, buses, trucks and mosquito killing notwithstanding! At restaurants, he lays under the table to sleep. If we go to a friend’s place or a hotel, he gets on the bed and goes to sleep. He used to be a bit weird with dogs but he’s met so many dogs here that he’s decided not to worry about them any more. He’s amazingly trustworthy off lead even with deer around and he doesn’t really mind spending a few days cooped up inside if it’s raining. I really couldn’t have asked for a better travel companion.
'I think what has inspired me since I began the process of this trip, is the idea of this being our only life; we don’t get second chances, this isn’t a dress rehearsal. All that corny stuff on motivational posters, but it’s true. We can’t wait until the perfect time to chase our own happiness; we have to do whatever it is that makes us happy right now.'
— Emily Abrahams
You’ve been on the road for 10 months now – have you developed a specific routine for van living and is this routine important to you both?
We do and we don’t have a routine. There’s normal routines in the morning – get up, go out for the toilet, come in for breakfast for both of us. Sometimes I get Loki to do some exercises for his breakfast, sometimes not. Then it depends on what the plan for the day is. If I’m writing all day, or am totally content with where we’re parked, I might leave the van as a mess, bed down, relaxing, going for hikes, swimming in lakes, writing in my book or whatever. If we’re going somewhere, the van gets packed up and we get on the road.
This part of the day has no routine. Maybe we go somewhere to do some agility, maybe we find somewhere to take a long walk or a swim, maybe we meet with a friend or get some groceries or find Wifi service at a McDonalds!
Then by evening, it’s almost the same routine as the morning but in reverse. Find somewhere to park (or return to a favourite safe spot), make dinner for us both (maybe exercises for Loki), then sit back to write, watch something on Netflix, go find somewhere to watch the sunset.
I wonder sometimes about how our lack of routine affects Loki. As a Border Collie, he’s a highly routine-driven dog. He understood routines way better than my other dogs back home. In the mornings, if I forgot to feed him, he would come in and stare at the food cupboard until I took a hint. So when suddenly he’s somewhere new, doing something different every day, what does that do to him? I wonder if this contributes to amping up his anxieties a bit?
Having your van must give you a great flexibility to discover hidden places. Has there been any place in particular that sticks in your mind as being your favourite so far? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes. This is one of my favourite stories, and I wrote a blog post about the hike, but here it is again and just to warn you - it’s a long one! So, when we were in Austria last year, waiting between weekends for seminars, I decided we were going to find some lakes. Loki loves lakes so I’d started opening Google maps and just scrolling around on satellite until I found a nice looking lake and then we’d go check it out.
On this particular day I programmed a lake into the GPS and off we went. It was about 8am so we had all day to explore. As we were driving, I spotted a sign for ‘Bodensee’. I slammed on the brakes and took the exit off the main road because ‘See’ in German means lake! It wasn’t the lake we were aiming for but since we had so much time I figured why not, we might as well go and check it out.
We got to this little tollbooth with a lady inside. She came out, telling me it would cost 3 Euros. This seemed a bit steep for a lake on a not particularly sunny day, so I asked her in my bad German if it was nice up there. Her eyes shone, “it’s beautiful,” she said. So I paid my three Euros and off we went. The drive itself was stunning, with snow-capped mountains rising up either side. Now look, everyone thinks that as an Australian I’ve never seen snow. I have, but I still love it. It’s so fun and awesome and especially on mountains - REAL Alpine mountains - not softly rolling green hills like the mountains back home. I pulled the van off to the side of the road and took photos, not even at the lake yet.
We finally pulled up in a big parking lot. I grabbed our supplies – pack, hiking boots, harness for Loki, leash, and off we went. There was a map that talked about a ‘3 Lake Hike’ and I decided that because Loki loves lakes, we’d give it a try - 3 lakes for the price of one. Jackpot! Walking along the nice flat road, taking more photos, suddenly a lake opens up ahead of us. Like something from a painting or a story book; emerald green, with two layers of mountains rising behind, the most distant layer snowy and white, the closest with a waterfall tumbling straight down into the lake. I decided then and there that even if the other two lakes were boring, this one had already made the three Euros worth it.
We skirted around the lake and began the long hike up. Up and up and up some more. Up so much that I had to stop, catch my breath, and force myself to continue. You know how you get to that point and you’re like: Well if I turn around now then I’ve just wasted all this effort. It can’t be THAT much further… and then you keep going. Up, and up. For the Austrian mountaineers in the area, it was probably an easy Sunday stroll. But I am no mountaineer; my land is not mountainous!
Eventually, we (I) struggled over the top of the hill and as if the first lake couldn’t have been any more beautiful, the second one blew it away. Maybe it was a combination of the absolutely incredible scenery – the view back down the hill to the first lake, the second lake surrounded by forest, crystal clear water and those snowy mountains now looming like giants just behind it. This wad all topped up by a sense of accomplishment. We’d done it. We’d climbed the mountain.
At the second lake was a little restaurant. After letting Loki have a swim, I sat down for a rest and some tea. I asked the man working if it was worth going UP AGAIN to the third lake, whether it was as nice as this one (frankly not believing that any lake EVER would be as nice as this one). He nodded sagely, “it’s nicer,” he said. I sighed in resignation, finished my tea and shouldered my pack. Off we went.
The hike up wasn’t as bad as the first one had been and sure enough when we got there, the third lake WAS beautiful (I disagree with the guy though, the second lake was still my favourite). This one still had a slight layer of snow around it, so everything was white and black and deep shades of green. Some guys were cooking over a little gas stove and Loki tried to steal their tuna, and then demanded he be allowed to swim!
Eventually, we slowly made our way back down, legs and bodies sore, but smiling, and so full of all of it that it felt like we would burst. This hike, for me, embodies the freedom that has come with this way of travelling. See a sign for a lake? Go check it out and accidentally find paradise at the top.
Who or what inspires and motivates you in life?
What an interesting question. I used to be inspired by specific agility trainers, but having met so many now, they’re just regular people who have managed to create a life that allows them to dedicate a LOT of time to training. With more time and access to training facilities, I think we could be pretty awesome too.
So maybe “what” inspires or motivates me is a better question, because I really don’t think there is any one person who does.
I think what has inspired me since I began the process of this trip, is the idea of this being our only life; we don’t get second chances, this isn’t a dress rehearsal. All that corny stuff on motivational posters, but it’s true. We can’t wait until the perfect time to chase our own happiness; we have to do whatever it is that makes us happy right now. I think in “real life” we get so bogged down in needing to save enough money, to have a reason to leave the job, to wait until this or that… and in the end, there’s always something else to wait for. In the meantime our life is going by and we’re just… floating downstream.
I’ve been writing a series of books, and in one scene two of the main characters have a discussion about destiny versus taking control of one’s fate.
The main character has this analogy that life is like being on a boat on a river. If you do nothing, if you just let the currents of your life take you along, you will drift along downstream and when things happen, you react to them and everything is fine. Maybe sometimes you don’t see the rocks coming and so you have to try and fix your boat or whatever, but essentially you’re just carried down by the current… OR…instead, you make this conscious effort to row the boat to shore and you drag it where you want to go. Maybe it’s hard because you don’t have any shoes and the boat is heavy. You are pulling against the flow of the stream and you have to work for it… but during this struggle you get to feel the moss under your feet and wonder at how soft it is, or you wade across a little stream and see some tiny fish, silver and shining in the sun. Maybe after a while you get back in to the boat and float downstream again and that’s okay too, maybe sometimes you have to do it like that because the way is too hard for a while.
So for me, I’m inspired by finding joy, by feeling the moss under my feet, by wondering at a perfect orange-gold Swedish sunset at 10pm over a lake, at Loki bouncing in the forest with a stick, pure happiness in a black and white body, at the absolute silence of snow beneath the glow of a streetlight,trying to think of how I would describe the sound it makes as it hits my jacket and slides off, by being hemmed in by giant mountains and following an unknown path to see how close we can get to their feet, at Loki randomly dragging me off a hiking track to reveal the most incredible crystalline-blue pool with a perfect waterfall in a Croatian national park. Finding these moments of joy and gratitude are my inspiration.
What has travelling taught you about your own strengths and weaknesses?
Without doubt it has taught me that I am way more capable than I ever thought I was. There are so many things I used to have anxiety over that no longer frighten me (or if they do, I know I’ll be fine because I’ve done it all before). Simple things like driving in the snow, finding somewhere to park in or around a city, asking for help in a hardware store (with a language barrier), stopping a random stranger to ask something, this used to make me panic. NO WAY would I ask a random person something… and yet, it can make the most unexpected things happen. The other day we were walking in a forest here in Sweden, and a woman was leading two horses the other way. As we passed, we both said “Hej”. A question sprang to my mind and before I could think about whether I would sound like a fool or not, I blurted it out. “Hey! Random question! Do you know somewhere I could go on a horse ride and take my dog?” It had been a dream of mine to do this as I grew up riding but had never been able to take Loki. The lady pointed me to some riding place just around the corner and that night I messaged them. By the next day, we were saddling up my paint quarter horse and heading out into the Swedish forest, Loki trotting along in front or behind – I had made my dream come true. I have actually become MORE social and outgoing because of this trip, despite spending most of my time alone.
As for weaknesses, I don’t know. I obviously don’t think I’m perfect, but I can see so much good in myself right now, so much strength and capability and positivity that I’m finding it hard to see the weaknesses. I think maybe not giving myself enough credit is one thing. People are always saying how brave I am, that I need to publish my book… I haven’t even told people that I’m competing at this huge international agility event in August because I don’t want to be seen as “showing off”… but maybe I need to just embrace what I’ve done and be proud of it.
What advice would you give to other women who are contemplating traveling with their dog, whether it’s short holidays or longer round the world trips?
Do it! Don’t be afraid of travelling and don’t be afraid of travelling alone. It is okay to be alone, to feel lonely and to feel solitude, it is okay to be without noise and talking. There is such beauty in the heavy, deep stillness of absolute silence. You will be okay without people, and you will find people along the way. Plus your dog will be the best companion ever. They won’t complain about you needing to stop a dozen times to look at things, they’re happy wherever you go, and they’ll keep you warm at night.
Also, don’t be afraid of being a woman travelling. People seem so surprised that I travel alone. “Aren’t you afraid?” they ask. Call me naïve but I’d like to believe that MOST people are good and aren’t going to hurt me. I’m also smart. I don’t sleep in places that feel dangerous. Surprisingly, I spend most of my time in isolated forests but here’s the thing – as soon as I’m in the van with the curtains up, nobody knows who’s inside. Sure if I’m wandering around with Loki and there’s some seedy looking guy watching me, I’ll probably drive off and sleep somewhere else. It’s just about being aware and being smart. Personally, I feel less safe walking in cities during the day than I do walking around on forest trails.
As for taking a dog, I think you need to look at your dog and consider whether travelling is fair to the dog. I think sometimes we let our ideas of what we want get in the way of what is best for them. I left my fourteen year old dog with my aunt in Australia because he couldn’t travel. I left my Aussie shepherd with my ex because while she was more his dog than mine, she also had a whole host of anxieties and issues that would have made SO many aspects of travelling hard and just not that fun for her. So if you’re thinking about it, look at the dog you have and ask if they are suited to travelling. Can they handle long car rides, how do they react to being in new places? How do they react to other dogs? To a lack of routine? Are they good off lead or are you okay with keeping them on all the time? Do they have any fears or issues that would make travelling unpleasant for them?
I do a LOT to manage Loki’s fear of trucks at the moment, sometimes just hanging out beside a busy road and feeding him for traffic. If I saw these fears escalating and becoming generalised to regular cars, I would very likely find some house to stay in for a while so we could work through it in a controlled way. I wouldn’t continue travelling just for the sake of travelling if it was making him stressed.
Do you have an ultimate lifestyle goal or vision that you are currently working towards?
I think I mentioned this above! My first priority over the next few months will be to find a job that grants me a visa somewhere here in Europe, probably a teaching job.
The ultimate goal is to have a small house (I very much like the “less is more” approach that living in the van has been teaching me) with a view of some nature, something green, some space for agility, a couple of dogs and somewhere nice to hike nearby. I dream about time and creative energy to write my books, time to train and to condition those dogs and myself. I want to run World Championships and I want to run them well. I’m not aiming to win, but I want to run and be proud of how we ran. I would like to publish my books, not so I can become some famous author, but so people can enjoy what I’ve written, what I’ve spent countless hours of my life doing because I enjoy doing it. It would be nice to share that with someone other than my mum (although she’s my biggest fan so I always enjoy hearing what she thinks of my books!).
Living in a van must be a great way of enjoying the simple life, is there a way that you and Loki treat yourself every now and then to a slice of luxury or indulgence?
When we first got here and started travelling, I would book some cheap AirBnB once a week or so. I really needed that, to get out of the van, have a shower, download some Netflix, sleep in a real bed. But as we became ‘full time’ and the van really became home, we’ve been doing that less and less. Now, when I go visit a friend I almost don’t want to stay in their house in their unfamiliar bed. Everything I need is in the van!
I think our slices of indulgence are booking into seminars with cool agility trainers and buying fruit, candy and kanelbullar (cinnamon roll). Yum!
And finally, we at ACAI love being outdoors. What do you love most about being outdoors and what kind of benefits do you get when you’re out on the trails?
There is something settling about being outdoors. I wonder if it’s the same for everyone, even non-outdoorsy types? Something that’s like your soul breathing out a slow sigh, a letting go. For me, I feel this most in the quiet forests (especially in Sweden with the rocks and pines), and amongst the mountains; it’s a letting go and a release, a centering.
When I’m out walking with Loki, I can let my head buzz with a thousand things and not hear them, not worry over them, not dwell on them, just let my mind do what it needs to do to sort out whatever is going on.
I think there is also a great therapy in being outdoors with Loki (actually I can’t imagine going outdoors without him now). Just watching him be a dog. He is so at ease in forests especially. I’ve heard them called ‘decompression walks’ and I suppose they could be that for us as well. Seeing Loki trot along the track, pause to investigate some invisible smell, the sun streaming down through the branches, and he looks up at me with his amber-gold eyes, mouth open, as if to say, “isn’t this great?” I have to smile. What else can you do but smile?
If you would like to follow Emily on her adventures or catch up with where she has been so far, then we encourage you to visit her incredible blog 'A Breath of Wild Air'