The Hump

Climate hump
Auckland skyline, Jan 2020. Photo credit: Karen Kao

In month 5 of our 7 month round-the-world trip, I hit the hump. We had just arrived in Auckland. It was the start of a 5 week stay in New Zealand. The day we landed, the sky lit up with particulate matter drifting over from the bush fires in Australia. My husband and I had great plans for hiking the North Island and wine tasting on the South Island. There was talk of a book reading for me in Dunedin.

Then, the travel fatigue set in.

Google the term “travel fatigue” and you’ll mainly find information on jet lag. Try the term “travel hump” to see images of camels, air pillows and speed bumps. My hump was none of these things.

Tick Tock

Apparently, backpackers hit their travel hump in month 6. By backpackers, I mean those free spirits who hoist a pack (or two) to head down the road without any particular destination in mind. The excitement of the open road, new faces and places, the adrenaline pumping through your veins.

Folks like me who don’t literally hike their way around the world may need longer to hit the hump. What exactly is a travel hump?

Travel fatigue is a total exhaustion caused by too many days or weeks of constantly being on “alert” while you travel. It manifests as apathy toward travel activities that usually excite you, and a lack of motivation [to] enjoy local culture and cuisine. Like other types of burnout, travel fatigue is a feeling of deep weariness and disengagement.

Shannon O’Donnell, “A Little Confession… Learning to Recover When Travel Fatigue Sets In” from A Little Adrift, last updated 20 July 2020

The cure for travel fatigue is obvious. Slow down. Sleep more. Eat better. Go ahead and binge-watch Downton Abbey like you would at home. It’s ok.

Problem was: my hump did not present as weariness or disengagement. I wasn’t tired from too much alertness. What I felt was far more familiar.

Back in the old days, when I was still gainfully employed, my holidays always broke down into three parts. Part 1 was getting sick — a cold or the flu. Part 2 was the actual vacation, having fun and seeing the sights. The holiday always ended with part 3 when my mind had already traveled home.

Home Fires

In Auckland, I had reasons to think about home. For one, we could not board our flight from Honolulu to Auckland without showing an air ticket departing New Zealand. It was a problem easily solved but it soon gave rise to a new one. We could no longer put off choosing the final stops of our journey.

This whole round-the-world business started because I wanted to see Australia. Accordingly, I had penciled in Tasmania, Melbourne and Sydney as tentative stops.

In November 2019, bush fires erupted in New South Wales which quickly spread across the country. By December, the local news was comparing the air quality in Sydney to smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes per day. The fires would continue to rage until February 2020. By that time, we would have arrived in Sydney. Or not.

Sammie at home. Photo credit: Karen Kao

If the Australian border police were anything like the Kiwis, we would need to show tickets out of Australia. My Aussie friends often told me there was no easy way to get from there to here. It would all be painful. I found flights via Hong Kong and Shenzhen, Singapore and Bangkok. After 7 months on the road, half of which in Asia, a mini-reprise of our Asian journeys did not feel like a good idea.

While we debated stops and routes, news from home arrived. My school wanted to know when I’d be available to teach. Our cat, Sammie, got herself into a fight. The result was an abscess that might require surgery.


Stress is a major cause of travel fatigue. A setback that might have felt minor at the beginning of the trip can feel overwhelming later down the road. Loneliness is another significant factor. By month 5, I was missing my children, my friends and the writing community in Amsterdam. Not to speak about sleeping in my own bed.

I have searched in vain for wise words about anticipatory returns. The travel writers I know (Alain de Botton and Pico Iyer) do not address the travel hump. Travel is apparently a binary state of mind. Either you’re on the road or not.

I returned to London from Barbados to find that the city has stubbornly refused to change. […] I felt despair to be home.

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (Hamish Hamilton 2002)

It seems like there should be a third category: the anticipation of home and the hump it creates in the road.

We scrapped Sydney from the itinerary, which shaved a week off our trip. We would arrive home on or about Day 200 by way of a direct flight from Perth to London. Now that the homeward journey was secure, I hoped I could get over my travel hump.