Jessica Thomas has the best job on Lord Howe Island. Instead of cleaning bathrooms, scrubbing dishes, or cooking breakfast, Jess guides a small number of fit and motivated guests on our Seven Peaks Walk. Her work duties including hiking, swimming, eating, telling jokes and hosting lovely people on holidays. Sound easy and appealing? Would you like to give it a go? Well, don’t quit your day job just yet. Jess is actually one of our most highly trained staff members, and has a level of ability and confidence that’s hard to find in people many years her senior.
Jess can run a marathon, rescue people, administer advanced first aid in remote places, navigate by map and compass, shoot an F88 Austeyr rifle with precision marksmanship and somehow – almost like a hypnotist – she can convince guests to do things that they don’t want to do (or don’t do things that they do want to do). She manages people’s enthusiasm, bravado, fear, exhaustion and general recalcitrance with the deft touch of an Australian Army officer cum yoga instructor (because she’s both of those). It’s amazing to watch.
In her spare time, Jess is slowly riding her bike around the world, and has ridden 20,000km through thirty countries – so far. If you’d like to absorb a bit of youthful enthusiasm and inspiration, maybe to distract you from your health niggles, land tax bill, work stress or retirement anxieties, then come and spend a week with Jess on the Seven Peaks Walk. You’ll go home with a fresh perspective.
Where are you from? I grew up on a farm on the north coast of New South Wales near Wingham, and then we moved south of Sydney to Moruya for an integral five years of my teenage life. Mum and Dad still live there in a big, open house on a hill with our Springer Spaniel, Winnie.
Where did you go to high school? Moruya High. I was into extracurricular activities and quickly became ‘queen’ of the student representative council and the school vice-captain. I was always organising events, and my friends said I was “saving the world one disco at a time”.
What did you do for fun as a teenager? I’d visit the local markets on a Saturday to sample jewellery and eat free caramelised macadamias, then I’d ride my bike to the beach before making pizzas with the girls at one of our homes. On Sunday, I’d go to the surf club and then watch an afternoon movie with the family.
Where did you go to university and what did you study? The University of New South Wales – I started my degree at the Australian Defence Force Academy and switched to UNSW to do International Studies majoring in development. I also had an exchange year in Madrid at the University of Carlos III. I loved every moment.
What did you do in your spare time at university? I started off in military university, where there was no spare time between marching on the parade ground and practising shooting. When I switched to mainstream uni, I was a full-time live-in nanny, so I wiped bottoms and cooked three versions of every meal so the whole family was happy. Whilst in Spain for fourteen months, I became a loyal RyanAir member and travelled every weekend, hitching and cycling around Europe. I rode my bike around the periphery of Europe while at uni, and started my love affair with cyclo-tourism as a mode of travel.
List the countries you’ve visited: I’ve covered about one third of the 195 countries so I think you’ll get bored if I list them. But I’ve been to Nepal five times and India three – they’re my current favourites. Other favourites include Kenya, Mongolia and Iceland. I’d like to travel to Patagonia, Antarctica and the Stan’s over the next decade.
Which countries have you lived in for longer than 6 months? I’ve spent plenty of time in Nepal and New Zealand, guiding groups, and I was an exchange student in Spain for six months (although I spent most of my spare time riding around Europe).
What languages do you speak? Terrible Spanish….
Tell a story about an unforgettable travel adventure you’ve had: When I was 21, I hiked the Camino de Santiago and then caught the train to Geneva. I turned up at 11pm with brown legs, an unwavering belief in universal kindness after my spiritual conquest, and a dirty backpack. I thought I would be able to sleep in the train station, but there were too many homeless people thinking the same. I walked into Geneva with a paper map and thought I could sleep in a hostel, but there were only two in town and they were completely full. So, I walked to the red-light district thinking I would find the cheapest hotels in town, but the cheapest I could find was $200 for one night and it was already past midnight so it was even less worthy of my money (I was used to staying in pilgrim hostels for 5 euro and eating bread with olive oil).
I went out to the street and decided I would have to get out my sleeping bag and stay on the concrete for the night. I started crying. A group of tall men surrounded me and tried to give me words of consolation, which only made me cry more. A Swiss couple, a bit older than me, walked past and stuck their head in the circle to ask if I was alright. The words came straight from my soul – “No, I need somewhere to sleep tonight. Can I stay with you?”. They looked at each other and nodded and we walked off via the kebab shop to their house.
The following fortnight was a whirlwind of good fortune. I woke up to Swiss hot chocolate and my new friends told me they had gathered another two mates and taken a few days off work to show me some of the sites of the country. I ate chocolate on bread and hiked in Interlaken. We had an awesome time, but after a few days they had to go home. Their mother, a filmmaker, called to tell them not to bring me back to Geneva. “Drop Jess at a train station and give her directions to a place where one of her friends lived in an Alps”. Late at night I met a tall man wearing a cow poo smelling tweed jacket. We got into his tiny Reno and drove up into the mountains. We arrived at his house, and with no English (and no Swiss German on my side), we walked up creaking stair boards and he showed me to my room.
I woke to the sound of cow bells singing in the mountains and went down to find a toilet. The view from the toilet was, no joke, the snow-covered alps of Western Europe. Mont Blanc was part of the furniture up there. I was in a Swiss paradise. I stayed for eight days helping look after the toughest two children, making 25 kg slabs of cheese and cleaning a little hotel. There was a huge copper bowl heated by fire that served as a spa. We ate every dairy product imaginable for breakfast. My stern Swiss mother farewelled me at the train station down the bottom of the mountain by buying me an ice-cream to overcome the language barrier while we waited together.
While I licked my ice-cream on the train, heading to Italy, I didn’t know how much of a profound impact that week had on my life. I had begun to fall in love with spontaneous adventure.
Tell a story about a funny situation you’ve had while travelling: I was busting for a wee. It was my first night travelling in Africa. I had $2000 in my bag to pay for a tour and had been warned that people would chop off my hand for this type of cash. I was staying in a hotel and there was a Massai guide out the front, but the toilet was across the courtyard. I couldn’t find the key to my room and I didn’t want to leave it unlocked with the money inside while I went to the toilet. I was back and forth between the door not sure whether to run to the toilet or keep looking for the key. When I’m busting, I’m irrational, so in the middle of the night in my dark hotel room in Tanzania I decided to pee in the sink on the wall. With a big effort I climbed up and perched myself on it. I let myself finally pee and less than a second later I heard my hotel floor being blasted with liquid – the sink wasn’t attached to a pipe. I couldn’t stop the stream so I just stayed up there in the dark and kept peeing all over my floor – the long way. No one stole the $2000.
What other jobs have you had? Soldier, officer in training, fairy floss maker, sports shop attendant, waitress at the football boxes, barista, babysitter, tour guide (also like babysitting), hiking guide, general hospitality
What got you interested in hospitality? I come from a coastal town with loads of tourists – if you’re young and socially apt you naturally fall into hospitality.
What’s your perfect job? I’ve landed it! A hiking guide on Lord Howe Island combined with international guiding work to get my travel fix!
How do you spend your spare time? I plan the next adventure, practise yoga, hike, listen to podcasts, hang with friends, eat great food, connect with my friends around the world, and solve the world’s problems….
Tell me three things that other people find interesting about you? 1. My earrings – I love choosing bright and beautiful earrings, 2. I can’t live without 8 hours sleep a night, 3. I’ve cycled about 20,000km through thirty countries.
What have you done (even something really small…..) for humanity? When I was 15, I was a real go-getter and single-handedly raised enough money for 58 wheelchairs to be sent to developing countries.
Meet our staff – Alasdair Nicolson