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Life-changing adventure for Burns sisters

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Sleeping in low-budget hostels and surviving on rice and soy sauce isn’t everyone’s idea of a perfect holiday.

It was a dream come true for sisters Jessica, Laura and Amanda Burns.

They’d each scrimped and saved $10,000 in order to visit 11 countries. The money had to last them nine months.

“We lived out of a backpack,” said 26-year-old Amanda. “I came with only a few pairs of clothes and one pair of shoes. Every day was filled with its own challenges. We had to figure out how we would get our clothes cleaned while we were on the road; we had to ration our food so if we had more breakfast one day we wouldn’t have as much the next. We had to budget for absolutely everything — from food to gas.”

The sisters started in Europe where their journey included stops in Ibiza and Barcelona in Spain and Nice in the south of France. The sisters then went on to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

They came up with the idea last year. Laura, 23, had just handed in her final assignment for her master’s; Jessica had a year left to complete her degree in business at the University of Warwick.

“I resisted the idea of going at first,” said 20-year-old Jessica. “I wanted to finish my degree and get it over with. Then around mid-August I realised ... life was too precious and there would almost never be another time to go on such a life-changing journey with my sisters, my best friends, for a whole year.”

She got a deferral from the university and left for the trip a few weeks later.

The siblings insist there wasn’t one fight throughout the entire trip.

“I think that’s because we stayed upfront with each other, so it was always civil. There was no battling, nothing,” Jessica said.

Their days weren’t planned in advance except for a few bucket-list activities. “I wanted to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef so we all agreed on the things we would pay money on,” said Amanda. “While in Australia we sailed the Whitsundays, went to a music festival called Stereosonic and also went skydiving.

“When we were in South Africa we went shark diving.”

Their parents, Kim and Michael Burns, met up with them twice — first in South Africa and then again in New Zealand.

“Our dad retired that year so it was good timing for them as well,” Amanda said. “We call our parents ‘gap-year crashers’. We saw them in South Africa so we were able to save money for that portion because it was considered our family trip.

“Then, because our parents honeymooned in New Zealand 28 years ago and always wanted to go back, we got to meet up with them again. It was really nice and definitely eased up our pockets before heading on to South East Asia.”

They raised the money for the trip through various summer jobs; a shoestring budget helped it last. In the Australian summer, they slept in a camper van “no bigger than the size of a shoebox, with no air conditioning and windows that wouldn’t wind down”.

In South East Asia they slept in crowded hostels with 16 people to a room; they allotted $1.50 for meals.

That was one of the hardest parts, according to Jessica.

“We thought we would love the food, but when you’re a backpacker you can’t invest much money on the high-class meals, so there were no restaurants. We ate what the locals ate.

“By the middle of our time in Asia we were going crazy. There were no vegetables and I was put off eating meat. I don’t really like to eat meat any more, actually. I was just eating rice and soy sauce. Now just the sight of rice — I can’t eat it. It was every day for four months.”

She counts their two-week stint in Cape Tribulation jungle in Queensland, Australia as one of the most memorable parts of the trip.

“It’s a secret paradise tucked away from the world,” she said. “We spent our days rising with the sun, hiking mountains, exploring the jungle, playing in blue lagoons and collecting coconuts from the palm trees that stretch for as far as the eye could see on the secluded beach in front of our camper van. There was only us, the jungle and the beach.”

Amanda liked the laid-back vibe and amazing surfing in Australia; as well as the interesting arts and culture scene in Malaysia.

By the end of their adventure they’d learnt a lot about themselves and each other.

“I’m so lucky to have seen so much of the world and to be able to share the experience with my two sisters truly made it that much more special,” Laura said. “Together we explored new places, encountered different cultures and took on new challenges.

“This trip has made me a more well-rounded person, having learnt a great deal about not only the wider world in which we live, but also about my own core beliefs, values and aspirations.”

She encourages anyone with the travelling bug to carve out time for a similar adventure.

“When I tell people I’ve just spent the last year travelling, the majority of people say something along the lines of ‘That’s incredible, I wish I could do something like that’, she said.

“My response: ‘You can and you should. Especially while you’re young!’ The more time passes, the more things will accumulate that are hard to leave behind. Life is short and the world is big, if you have the itch to travel, go!”

Laura and Amanda will study towards the Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice next month; Jessica will finish her business degree in the UK.

• The sisters plan to start a blog, Diary of a Burns Girl, later this year. Visit www.mytb.org/diaryofaburnsgirl in October for more about their trip or check out Jessica’s pictures on Instagram now: @jburns_bda.

1. Save up

Jessica saved about 30 per cent of her monthly paycheque from various summer jobs and internships. She put that money into a savings account for the purpose of her gap year. “I was also very frugal with my money,” the 20-year-old said. “I packed lunches for myself every day and rarely went out to dinner, allowing me to put aside what I didn’t spend into my savings account.”

2. Get a trusted guide book

Once you decide on where you want to go on your gap year you should start to prepare for things like visas but you don’t have to have everything mapped out. Amanda said: “Just book a ticket and go and buy a Lonely Planet guidebook. That will come in very handy on your trip as you don’t always get wi-fi in some of these places.”

3. Keep your entourage small

Although travelling with a big group sounds fun, the more people you go with the more complicated things can get. Jessica said: “Make sure you really get along with each person and that they will stick with you no matter the circumstances. While travelling you can find yourself in dangerous situations and if you travel with someone who is likely to go their own route when the going gets tough between you then go by yourself. It’s not worth the stress. I also say don’t be afraid to travel alone. Some places are easy for solo travellers to get around in and you’ll meet so many different people while on the road.”

4. Travel light

There’s no need to bring a different pair of shoes to match each outfit — when you’re on the road none of that matters. Essentials, like shampoo and sunscreen, are usually easy to purchase.

5. Leave valuables at home

The Burns sisters left their laptops and valuables at home — and actually preferred it that way. “A gap year is about detaching from society and learning what it’s like to wander the Earth with the bare minimum,” Jessica said. “I also suggest that people not carry a lot of money on them, or their passport on a daily basis. There are lockers in almost any hostel. Plus, keeping your valuables on you can make you a target.

“Wearing nice things such as jewellery or nice purses will [make you] stand out immediately and increase your chances of being robbed. Plus your passport is way more likely to be stolen if you are carrying it around with you.”