Nina Karnikowski

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Nina Karnikowski, Travel Writer

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For women today, the options are endless. We are on the move and we are listening more than ever to our instincts and designing lifestyles that work for us. The growth of technology has allowed us to be location-independent with our businesses and tailor a life of our choosing, whatever that looks like.

Even still, turning lifestyle dreams into a reality can be scary and often involves risk, compromise and a whole lot of poise.

Enter Nina Karnikowski. Nina is a globetrotting Australian travel writer who – when made redundant from her full-time job at the Sydney Morning Herald – made a conscious decision to start living the nomadic life she always wanted. Nowadays, when she’s not travelling she runs her blog, Travels With Nina, between Sydney and the Hunter Valley region with her winemaking husband, Pete.

Writing for a string of travel publications, including Virgin Voyeur and Paradise in-flight magazines, YEN magazine, Escape in the Daily Telegraph and GQ India, Nina inspires her readers to live a life that follows a different script and to visit destinations off the beaten trail. I spoke with Nina about taking the plunge into life as a freelancer, maintaining balance, giving up fancy dinners and her never-ending quest for fresh content. Enjoy!


In recent years you’ve carved out a path for yourself that allows you to work as a freelancer. We’ve spoken about your decision to first handpick the lifestyle you wanted, and then take the necessary steps to make everything else fit in with that. Now, every day you do what you love most: travel, and write about it. Was this a hard path to navigate or did it come quite naturally?

The transition was quite organic, since I was made redundant from my on-staff travel writer position at the Sydney Morning Herald just over 18 months ago. It was upsetting at the time, but, as so often happens with upsetting situations, it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my professional life so far. I was forced out onto my own, pushed to start my own website, and to start writing for other publications, which has greatly broadened my horizons.

Of course financially it’s more difficult not having that fortnightly paycheck to fall back on, but I made a conscious decision to change my lifestyle at that point (no more visits to the hairdresser, no more fancy dinners out for no reason, those sorts of things) so I could continue working for myself. Because let me tell you, once I started doing that I could not imagine going back into an office.


Last year you launched your first e-book, Shopping for Shanti – I’m only a few chapters in but having known you for many years, I can certainly feel you in the protagonist, Margaux. Is the book fiction, or part-memoir?

They say that your first book is always a bit of a memoir, don’t they? It’s fiction, but there are chunks of me in there, along with bits of other people I’ve met in my life, stories I’ve heard, experiences I’ve had, journeys I’ve been on. I suppose I mashed them all up into something that really needed to come out. Writing Shanti was a really cathartic experience for me.


Your website, Travels With Nina, is a resource for all things travel: stories, guides, journals, your e-book and an online bazaar of treasures you have sourced from all over the world – how do keep the site fresh and the content flowing?

I think one of the best lessons being on staff at a travel supplement taught me was how to break a journey down into individual stories, so instead of coming back from a two-week trip with just one tale, you might have a dozen. This is so important when you’re a freelancer, when every word has a dollar sign on it and will pay your bills and fund your adventures. So when I’m not travelling, I’ve found I can draw on experiences from my travels over the past couple of years, and always have a tale to tell.


When you’re not off travelling to some exotic location, what does a day in your life look like at home?

I split my time between our apartment in Coogee in Sydney, and the biodynamic farm and vineyard my husband and his family own in the Hunter Valley wine region. When I’m at the farm, mornings involve walks in nature, tea, meditation, music and big, nourishing brekkies. I’ll write for most of the day, then usually my man and I will have an alfresco dinner with some delicious wine, surrounded by the cows, chooks and our dog Minty. When I’m in Sydney I swim in the ocean every day, go to hot yoga classes at my local studio, cook with my girlfriends, fit in all my meetings and see my family. And of course have some loose party time every now and again, vital for the soul I say.


Many people contemplate life as a freelancer, but there’s often a certain amount fear associated with taking the plunge. People want to take the leap of faith, but are overwhelmed with the prospect of life without a steady paycheck or the security of full-time work. What advice can you offer to aspiring freelancers?

Just go for it! I know it might sound much easier said than done, but it could also be infinitely easier than you imagine. Either way, not doing the things that matter to you and that you really want to do seems, to me at least, as big a tragedy as any problem of failure.

There will probably be a period of instability at the beginning, so try to build up a little nest egg to soften the financial blow, then just be persistent and work your butt off to get where you want to be. And tailor your lifestyle to your income: take the bus, buy vintage clothes, opt for cheaper dining options, come up with creative ways of spending your down time that don’t cost anything like hiking, ocean swimming, camping or cooking. You’ll probably find you end up much happier than you were before. I certainly am.


How do you maintain balance when you’re often in so many different places?

I learn from my mistakes. Last year I was away for almost half the year, one of my stints was for three months and that just turned out to be too long. I felt I lost touch with friends and family, I didn’t feel grounded, I stopped enjoying myself so much.

Having said that, things like bringing my yoga mat and tea with me, and asking for downtime when I need it, can help keep me balanced on the road. Often when I’m away on assignment the days are packed full from morning until night, and if I don’t stop to collect myself, to organize my notes and images and videos, then things can start to unravel very quickly.


Your stunning instagram is filled with photos of your days spent exploring the globe and visiting all sorts of destinations, it seems you’re pretty much living the dream – is there a downside to all the travel?

Not really. I have such a hunger to see the world, and to expand people’s ideas about this strange and beautiful planet we live on, that I see it as all one big wonderful adventure. Sometimes there are airport queues, sometimes there’s bad food and bad accommodation, sometimes you have to travel with people who give you the willies, but it just fades away in the face of seeing all these wonderful places that make my life, and the lives of my readers hopefully, infinitely richer.


As a writer and blogger, what are some of the challenges you have faced?

My biggest challenge was breaking into the world of freelance travel writing. It is such a small industry, and the gates are so closely guarded. But that’s where I learnt about being tenacious, and about being really, really nice to people, because people remember if you’re an asshole. The great Neil Gaiman once said that you need three things to be a successful freelancer: to make good work, to be easy to get along with, and to deliver on time. And you only really need two out of the three – as in people will forgive the tardiness of your work if it’s good and they like you, or you don’t have to be very good if you’re on time and it’s always nice to hear from you!

The exciting thing about being a writer right now, though, is that the gatekeepers are leaving their gates, and you can be as creative as you like about getting your work seen. The old rules of publishing are changing and nobody knows what the new rules are, so just go ahead and make good art, put it out there, and have fun with it.

Another big challenge I’ve faced – and this might sound strange – has been enjoying my work. I can get wrapped up in worrying about whether I’ve got the story, about whether I have enough work, or when the next assignment is coming. Sometimes the hardest thing has been letting go and enjoying the ride, which has taken me to some remarkable places.


What’s next for Travels With Nina? Any exciting trips on the horizon for 2016?

I’m looking at heading back to India at the end of March for a few weeks, then Kakadu in early May on an assignment which I can’t wait for as I definitely haven’t seen enough of Australia’s rugged beauty, then to cover a retreat in New Zealand. Peru is a possibility for July… We’ll see what unfolds.

How do you relate to the word ‘adrift’?

Adrift to me translates to being completely free to be who you are and to do what you want. Being free from society’s rules and playing your own game with your own rules, and to be utterly fearless in doing that. I think we owe it to ourselves to demand a little bit more from life than what society allows us.

Top 3 Travel Destinations

Nina mongolia3

/ Mongolia

Going on assignment in Mongolia was an incredible experience – a country where the nomadic lifestyle is still a reality for almost 40 percent of the population, where there are no fences and where the horses outnumber people. As soon as we drove out into that wild, open steppe, I felt my soul settle, my breath slow, my heart open. And when we arrived at our nomadic encampment in a quiet, bucolic nook of the Orkhon Valley where we spent two nights with a nomadic family, I felt that this was it, the way of life I had been searching for. Spending time with the nomads reminded me how little in life you need to be happy, how home can be found in the movement between places, and how important it is in life to be open to making connections with people vastly different from ourselves. How much we might miss out on if we don’t.


Morocco Nina

/ Morocco

From trawling the labyrinthine streets of the 1,200-year-old Fes medina and journeying by mule through the ochre-coloured Atlas Mountains, to chilling out in the exotic ancient souks and windswept beaches of Essaouira and glamping under the stars in the Marrakech Desert, Morocco had me at salam alaykom.


Nina india

/ India

I lived in India for almost a year, and from the moment I arrived I fell very deeply in love with every aspect of it. The colour, the chaos, the culture, the spices, the music, the clothing, everything. I miss buying stunning $2 flower garlands from the local market every morning, taking Bollywood dance classes, passing rogue cows on the street and incredibly beautiful women shrouded in glittering saris, smelling turmeric and masala in the air, being able to duck off to an ashram for a few days… Pico Iyer says that “home is not just the place where you happen to be born, it’s the place where you become yourself.” Well India was the place where I dropped into who I really am, and for that reason it will forever have my heart.


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