Meet the world's luckiest traveler

Meet the world's luckiest traveler

How an English charity worker gets paid to globe-trot and preach the joys of travel
Ben Southall -- Best Job in the World
Ben Southall on the lookout for his next big travel adventure.

It’s a bold boast and one we’d all like to lay claim to, but what makes Briton Ben Southall the world’s luckiest traveler?

Try this for starters: winner of Tourism Queensland’s 2009 “Best Job in the World” -- a six-month stint as caretaker of Hamilton Island that paid AU$150,000 (US$154,000) -- Southall beat 34,684 hopefuls from 200 countries to get the job of a lifetime.

While that should be enough for the former charity fundraiser from Hampshire, Southall’s luck just keeps on rolling in.

Since completing the caretaker gig a little more than two years ago, he spent six months traveling Europe, Asia and the Americas as the face of a global sales mission for Queensland.

The journey saw him eat scorpions on Taiwanese TV, visit a travel agency in Guangzhou that was plastered with his photos and hobnob with John Travolta and Greg Norman in Los Angeles.

Southall also conceived, organized, raised funds for and led the “Best Expedition in the World” -- a four-month 1,600-kilometer kayak trip through the Great Barrier Reef.

Nowadays, the 37-year-old works as Queensland’s tourism ambassador, digital-media whiz kid and “famil” host, taking journalists, photographers and TV crews to remote and exotic parts of Australia’s Sunshine State.

Gift of the gab

Southall looks like a fit young man but he’s still just an ordinary guy. He hasn’t studied film production or tourism management. He doesn’t speak any foreign languages and the fact is, he’s a bit of a nerd. So the question begs -- why him?

The answer came to me a few hours into a recent trip to Tropical North Queensland, where Southall helped me research a story on Australia’s riskiest watersports.

While walking through the marina at Port Douglas, a woman rushed out of a dive shop and threw her arms around him, thanking him profusely.

Then, when dining at a fancy restaurant that night, the chef sent an off-the-menu item without his asking -- a vanilla ice cream and double-espresso cocktail.

When I commented on it, the a local tourist representative who joined us for dinner told me about Southall’s predilection for caffeine and the restaurateurs’ parallel predilection for making Ben happy. And so on and so on ...

Ben Southall -- Best Job in the WorldMackay Cay on the Great Barrier Reef in Tropical North Queensland. During the Best Expedition in the World, the crew anchored for a couple of days by this stunning sand island.

Wherever we go, the largesse is laid on thick; it’s like he’s Tony Soprano and we’re in New Jersey.

“Ben has the gift of the gab and an uncanny ability to engage with people,” says Tourism Queensland CEO Anthony Hayes, the guy who signs the paychecks.

Southall’s hyperactivity is another winning quality.

When I dragged myself to the breakfast table in the mornings, he’d already been up for hours filming the sunrise.

During a mountain bike ride in the highlands, I saw him running up and down hills with a video camera and microphone.

And he reportedly fielded more than 100 interviews in the first 24 hours after being named winner of The World’s Best Job.

“I have very little time to myself,” Southall says. “It’s non-stop.”

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The good, the bad and the painful

Ben Southall -- Best Job in the WorldDiving the Whitsundays -- Southall is surrounded by yellowtail fusiliers on a dive around Hook Island.

“Feed fish, clean the pool, collect the mail” read the job description for The Best Job in the World. But the position entailed a lot more than that.

Southall spent only 16 days of the six months “caretaking” Hamilton Island -- the super-luxurious jewel in the crown of the Whitsunday Island Group.

He spent the rest of his time hopping between 62 islands “seeing what they had to offer, reducing my heart rate enough to relax for a bit or speeding it up for adventure sports.”

He also stayed up late every night creating and posting Best Job blogs embedded with still and video imagery.

“Ben posted more than 730 tweets and 60 blogs made up of 75,000 words, 200 photos and 47 video diaries in six months,” Hayes says.

“He helped attract more than 8.6 million people to our websites.”

There were stuff-ups too. A few days before Southall's first six-month stint came to an end, Ben ignored advice and went Jet Skiing without a stinger suit at the peak of Queensland’s stinger season -- a time when millions of venomous jellyfish invade the coast.

Sure enough, he was stung by a lethal Irukandji jellyfish and had to be airlifted to hospital.

The stunt ruffled a few feathers at Tourism Queensland and cost their insurer an arm and a leg.

Ben Southall -- Best Job in the WorldThe Cairns Indigenous Art Fair takes place every August. Four artists created this wetsuit for Southall, complete with a Torres Strait codpiece.

More recently, Southall was reprimanded for a tweet that included a photo of a coworker in frame with a glass of wine during working hours -- a serious misdemeanor for a civil servant in Australia.

And as for the AU$150,000 salary, well ... it turned out to be AU$75,000 after tax. Southall won’t disclose how much he earns in his current role but his boss said he’s “motivated by travel.”

Southall is now based in Tourism Queensland’s headquarters in Brisbane. While he still takes a lot of cool trips, his is a desk job and a serious one.

“My role is one of immense responsibility as there are 150,000 businesses that rely on tourism around the state and I represent all of them,” Southall says.

“It may still be The Best Job in the World, but I’m sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”

From Africa to the Outback and beyond

“Why me? The harder you work, the luckier you get.

“I took a lot of risks to get where I am today. A few years ago I made plans to drive around Africa with a mate in a Land Rover for a year. The week before we left, my mate bailed.

“Suddenly, my fuel budget was cut in half but I went anyway. I drove through 30-odd countries, climbed the five highest mountains in Africa and raised AU$50,000 for charity. 

“I think the reason I’m here today is that I inspire people. And I can do that by using my skills to document my trips by way of blogs and websites. I’m just a normal guy, so if I can do go kayaking in the Great Barrier Reef, then you can too.”

Ben Southall -- Best Job in the WorldIhaha Camp on the banks of the Chobe River, Botswana. A local warthog walked into camp. It took Southall an hour to befriend it.

So what does the coming year hold for Southall?

There’s the Outback Trailblazer event, where he’ll be joining a convoy of 60 vehicles racing around Outback towns and raising money for Angel Flight, a charity that flies sick people from the country to city hospitals.

He’ll also be spending a bit of time at Harvey Bay documenting the annual Humpback Whale migration to Antarctica. 

“How long can I keep it up for? I think there are still a lot more ways to promote tourism here better,” he says.

“And looking longer term? I’m thinking about starting up my own production company that helps companies produce content for digital platforms, but who knows? There’s a lot more to come.”

Follow Ben Southall’s adventures on Twitter @bensouthall

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Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specializing in adventure travel. He has reported extensively across East Asia and the South Pacific and is the author of two travel novels, Getafix (2004) and Maquis (2006), which is being turned into a feature film in consultation with Fox Studios.

Read more about Ian Lloyd Neubauer