Freelance travel writer and creator of travelswithnina.com, Nina Karnikowski lives the kind of existence most of us can only dream of…
Frequently on assignment in remote and exotic locales, the former Fairfax journalist and now freelance travel writer for the likes of SMH Traveller, Get Lost, Wild and SKY TV balances her often hectic work itineraries with a beautifully simple and organic lifestyle when home.
We caught up with Nina to chat about her favourite travel destinations, what her work life looks like when shes not on the road and her carry-on baggage beauty essentials…
When I’m in Australia I’m a real home body, probably because I’m out and about so much when I’m away.
BK. What led to your career as a travel writer?
NK. I first fell in love with travelling when I lived in France in 2006 as part of my journalism and international studies degrees. I did what we Aussies do best and squished in as much European adventuring as I possibly could that year. I never imagined it could become a career, though. Well not until after I’d been working as a lifestyle writer for four years at Fairfax Media and was then offered a position as a writer on the travel team. It was a total dream right from the start – in my first two weeks I covered a meditation retreat in the mountains of Ubud and a luxury adventure around New Zealand. Just a few months later my husband, then an art director, got offered a job at GQ India, so we packed our bags and went to live in Mumbai for a year. I continued writing travel stories for the newspaper which took me all around India and to Sri Lanka and Nepal. I finally went freelance and started my site travelswithnina.com three years ago, and I’ve had some of the wildest adventures of my career since – to places like Morocco, Zambia, Turkey, Papua New Guinea, China, Russia, Ethiopia and more.
BK. Did you travel extensively as a child?
NK. Definitely not! I didn’t venture overseas until I was 16, when a school trip took me to France. Adventures with my family until then largely consisted of heading out into nature, to places like Byron Bay, Barrington Tops and Berry. I had a morbid fear of animals and anything remotely adventurous back then; I remember standing frozen at the top of a hill in Berry, where my sister had ridden me on her bike, for hours because I was petrified of walking past the cows in the paddock at the bottom of the hill. I also remember going to Thredbo and not skiing because I was scared of that; and to Byron and not getting in the surf because I was scared of that, too. Ironically, my job now sees me doing things like rock climbing up waterfalls in New Zealand, surfing in Bali, riding horses in Mongolia and hiking and wild camping in Canada, so the adventure side of things is something I’ve really had to work on!
Nina wears the New Zealand | Aotearoa to Marrakesh scarf.
BK. Do you ever find your nomadic existence unsettling?
NK. It can be, which is why I really try to listen to my body. It usually tells me when it’s time to stop for a while. I have a pretty relaxed life when I’m at home, I wake up very early and ground myself with meditation and yoga, and do lots of walking and swimming, cooking and down time with my man and our two pooches. When I’m in Australia I’m a real home body, probably because I’m out and about so much when I’m away.
BK. What is your favourite destination and why?
NK. India. From the moment my feet touched Indian soil I felt very deeply connected to the country. I’d been warned that I would find it confronting and overwhelming, but actually I felt immediately at home, more so than I usually do in Australia. The explosion of colour, the constantly beeping horns, the marigold garlands strung up everywhere, the rogue cows on the street, the women shrouded in glittering saris, the scent of turmeric and masala hanging in the air… it was all just poetry to me. One of my favourite travel writers Pico Iyer says, “home is not just the place where you happen to be born, it’s the place where you become yourself.” India was the place where I dropped into who I really am, and for that reason I will return there again and again, for the rest of my life.
BK. What is your next dream destination, who will you travel with, and why?
NK. I’m heading to Antarctica on the weekend which has always been a dream for me. It’s a posh cruise, an assignment for the Sydney Morning Herald’s Traveller liftout, and I’ll be solo – no other writers, no PRs, just me and a bunch of (hopefully really interesting) strangers. Which is actually the way I most like to travel when I’m working, so I can focus on really soaking up and understanding the destination, with lots of down time for journaling and processing all the incredible sights I’m seeing. I’m hoping for penguins, seals and whales, icebergs, mountains and empty oceans, and lots of quiet moments out there amongst all that majesty to reflect on life.
* (Nina has since travelled to Antarctica… check out her Instagram to see her incredible pics!)
Nina wears the Morocco | Spice Alley scarf on her most recent travels to Antarctica.
BK. What are your carry-on baggage essentials?
NK. First, a refillable drink bottle, I love my copper one from Orchard Street. I’m that annoying person who calls the attendant before takeoff to ask to have it filled, because I hate wasting all those tiny plastic cups and like to stay as hydrated as possible on the plane. Which also means no alcohol for me on flights – boring, I know, but it really seems to help me with jet lag.
Second, face oil. At the moment I’m into Shemana’s ritual face serum, it keeps my skin feeling fresh and dewy no matter how long the flight.
Third, this beautiful cashmere eye mask I bought in Mongolia, along with a pair of silicone ear plugs (the kind kids use for swimming work best) and a cotton or cashmere wrap which I wear as a scarf to the airport, because I like to get as much sleep as I can while I’m in the air.
And finally, a good book. At the moment I’m re-reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
BK. What’s one thing you wished people knew about your job?
NK. That even though people think being a travel writer means you’re constantly on holiday, drinking cocktails by the pool and sleeping in fancy hotels, it actually means that holidays are a thing of the past! Once you start doing it you can’t quite switch the travel writing brain off, so even when you’re on a supposed holiday you’re always on the lookout for story angles so you can share this wonderful place with people. Also, it’s really hard work being on assignment! It’s usually incredibly fast paced, and you’re on the go from sun up to sun down, racing around, scribbling notes, shooting photos and videos, interviewing people, meeting PRs and hotel managers and the like. I wouldn’t change any of it for a million bucks because I really love my job, but holidays have for me now become quiet time at home.
BK. What does your work life look like when you’re not on the road?
NK. It looks like me, sitting at my desk, head down bum up for usually much longer than the typical 9 to 5. Because of all the time away from my desk (about four months a year all up for me), when I get home I spend most of my time writing. And editing photos and videos. And creating content for my website. And trying to keep up to date with social media. And pitching story ideas. And getting to as many work meetings and events as possible so people don’t forget about me. It’s a hustle! But like I say, I love sharing the world with people, especially the wild, untrodden parts of it, which makes it all worth it.
BK. Is there an adventure you’d love everyone to be able to experience?
NK. I recently returned from two weeks in Ethiopia and it was in the top three trips of my life. The home of coffee, our planet’s oldest known ancestor, the Queen of Sheba and one of the world’s hottest jazz scenes, it exceeded every one of my expectations. We met the remote tribes of the Omo Valley, which have hardly been touched by the modern world, saw the 1000-year-old rock-cut churches of Lalibela where we stayed up all night with 200,000 pilgrims from Orthodox Christmas eve celebrations, hiked in the otherworldly Simien Mountains where we hung out with hundreds of bleeding heart baboons, danced all night at one of the best bars I’ve ever been to in Addis Ababa, and brought in my man’s 40th birthday at the stunning Blue Nile Falls, the source of the Nile River. Everyone needs to experience this incredible country at least once in their life.
I recently returned from two weeks in Ethiopia and it was in the top three trips of my life. The home of coffee, our planet’s oldest known ancestor, the Queen of Sheba and one of the world’s hottest jazz scenes, it exceeded every one of my expectations.
BK. Lastly, what’s the best overseas dining experience you’ve had on your travels?
NK. Bar Palladio in Jaipur, India, leaps to the front of my mind. It’s inside the Narain Niwas Palace, in a stunning network of blue and white rooms. It’s a bit distressed (as all good things in India are), but that just seems to enhance the opulence. There’s frescoed ceilings, floral wallpaper, peacocks strutting around outside and small blue and white tents set beneath the mango trees. That’s where I nibbled a delicious gazpacho and spaghetti carbonara, glass of prosecco in hand, as I watched the who’s who of Jaipur come and go around me. Heaven.