Positive Life NSW Blog

Backpacking with HIV

Posted by on in Treatments

IMAGE: A man sits on a bench at a train station with his backpack.

David shares his story of travel and being diagnosed with HIV.

“I’m sorry, but your bloods came back with HIV cells present. It shows that you’re positive.”

That cloudy evening on Oxford Street in Sydney, I sat in the a[TEST] clinic stunned and frozen from shock. I was in the process of living my dream, travelling the world with the lightest backpack on my shoulders.

Up until that point of my diagnosis; I had been travelling for nearly five months around numerous capitals in America. From working in New York with children with disability to riding horses, cowboy style, in Monument Valley, Utah. Now here in Sydney Australia, being told I was HIV positive, suddenly my light backpack became very heavy with thoughts of stigma, death, denial and that my dream of travelling would have to end abruptly.

Looking back, I am sure that it was while I was in New Orleans, USA, when I contracted HIV. Like most backpackers who get absolutely wasted on alcohol and can only remember small details from the night before, I did recall the guy having deliciously blonde hair and stunning blue eyes. However we had sex without a condom and I never saw him again. I didn’t even catch his name.

It wasn’t long before I noticed little changes in my body. I developed diarrhoea and the rate at which I was going to the toilet had escalated. I was so tired and I began developing symptoms of HAND (HIV-Associated-Neurocognitive Disorder) like losing my concentration really easily.

It was about three months later, when I got to Australia and was attending a Surf Camp at Seven Mile Beach in NSW, that the process of seroconversion really hit. As I lay on my bed nursing a high temperature and the beginning of a chest infection, my friend thought it was a good idea to get laid in the bed opposite me. At least someone was having a good time.

As I sat there in the a[TEST] clinic, paralysed with fear from my diagnosis, I was unable to move. I needed support and luckily a counsellor from ACON managed to lure me out of the room with a hug and a cup of tea (I am English after all).

The last thing I was going to do was give up on my dream of travelling. So slowly, I began putting things into place. I decided that I had to tell a friend. To my relief, that friend was understanding and appreciative of my predicament, which allowed them to disclose a few issues about their medical condition. I saw two counsellors on a Monday and I’d booked in for regular check-ups with my doctor over the following six months.

Meanwhile, my HIV symptoms were getting worse. I noticed my memory wasn’t so hot, my viral load was far too high and my white cell count had literally hit the floor, it was so low. My doctor suggested that I start medications immediately as he didn’t want my brain and memory issues to escalate further. Luckily I applied for Medicare as I was eligible for reciprocal healthcare with Australia through the UK National Health System.

Starting medications was a massive step for me as it put me on a path to acceptance of HIV. I only need to take a tablet a day for the rest of my life to stay healthy and on top of things. This little pill would become my best friend.

As a backpacker still travelling, attending appointments every two months to collect my prescription was annoying, especially when it came to doing farm work for my second year Working Holiday Visa.

My main problem in rural NSW, was the nearest town was at least 60 kilometres away. I needed the farmer’s help to drive me there and I knew he would have to be informed of my status in case anything happened to me on the farm. This raised my fear of stigma and being discrimination against. The farmer was a solid guy who didn’t really show emotions and I was nervous talking to him. To my surprise, when I revealed my situation, he began to ask me questions, and showed concern for my well-being and gave me a big bear hug. The following morning, he had organised a truck to pick me up and drive me to the town so that I could collect my meds. It was a beautiful moment.

My journey has been a learning experience. Over the past 17 months since my diagnosis, living with HIV has made my journey as a backpacker more insightful, and allowed me to face new challenges, both mentally and physically.

From dealing with immigration issues to dating guys who were surprisingly accepting of my status. From parachuting out of planes over the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, to cycling throughout South Australia on a $99 K-Mart bike, I want to show people that I am healthy and I still able to make my own choices in how I live my life. My white cell count has risen and my viral load is now undetectable. And as for the weight of that backpack on my shoulder? It now feels light again and I am still travelling!


If you have any concerns about HIV treatments you can contact the Treatments Officers at Positive Life NSW by calling (02) 9206-2177.

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  • Guest
    Om Bong Friday, 10 May 2019

    Thanks for replaying my email. Your story strengthen me to travel more. Keep up your spirit.

  • Guest
    Chris Thursday, 02 May 2019

    Thank you for sharing your story mate. I'm applying for student visa and I need some advise. I'm also undetectable viral load healthy and top shape. Will I be refused entry to have a work Visa in Australia? Idk who to reach out too as this can be too complex and expensive. Hope you can give me some inputs.

  • Guest
    Positive Life NSW Tuesday, 21 May 2019

    HI Chris, please call us in Australia on (02) 9206-2177 or email us at contact@positivelife.org.au so we can respond to you query. cheers!

  • Guest
    Nigel Friday, 24 March 2017

    A really heartwarming story, which took me back, quite vividly, to 1992 when I was diagnosed. The issue about those dark distant days was that there was no medications available, other than AZT and I was advised, quite rightly as it turns out, to keep well away from it. We are now all on a far more interesting journey, where I am confident, there will very significant and substantial improvements in how our situations are managed. Much to look forward to.

  • Guest
    Tom Fry Tuesday, 21 March 2017

    Be fabulous all the time not just on holidays woof mate

  • Guest
    Dimitri Tuesday, 21 March 2017

    Oh go you, beautiful man. Keep up the great work David!

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Guest Saturday, 28 March 2020

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