The first tentative steps can be terrifying, but this seasoned traveller revels in the ‘addictive’ sense of freedom gained from being a party of one
tanding in a fug of heat outside Cairo airport, taxi drivers shouting at me, night falling fast and without a single coherent idea about what I am to do, I stare into space, resisting the urge to turn around and buy a one-way ticket back to Heathrow. I have left England only once before, on a school trip. In my pocket I have £300 and the Nairobi address of a distant relative I’ve never met. This is supposed to be my great African adventure. It doesn’t feel that way.
It was 1982 and if anyone had asked me on that night, “What are the pleasures of solo travel?” I might have burst into tears. What I did was take a bedsheet from my backpack, creep to a dusty space under some trees, lie down and hide beneath it, pretending to be asleep. Solo travel, it seemed at that moment, was the worst of all possible worlds.
And so it can be. You are vulnerable and isolated, prey to crime, depression and homesickness. For female travellers there are extra challenges and dangers. There’s no one to watch your bag, or your back, no one to take the strain, not for a moment; and there’s never anyone to remind you why you came, remind you of the dreams that inspired the trip. Several times at the start of my first solo trip, I found myself pulling that sheet over my head, either literally or metaphorically.
But … Some weeks later, having survived my Cairo ordeal, I got off a truck in the Sudanese region of Kordofan. The town – I can’t even remember its name – proved to be a village. There was no hotel, but there was a secondary school. There I found a lone teacher – Muhammed, I later learned – packing his bags for the holidays. Two bicycles were parked inside the staff room.
I introduced myself and asked if he knew of anywhere I could stay while waiting for the next truck south. He looked me up and down. “There will be no more trucks for a few days. Can you ride a bike?” I nodded.
“Can you eat our food? Drink water from holes in the ground?” I nodded, perhaps less confidently.
“Then you can come with me to my village.” He gestured to the bikes.
Twenty-four hours later I was with the Baggara tribe, sleeping on a palm mat in a grass shelter and drinking the greenish water that seeped into dry river courses. For about a week I experienced a way of life that neither I nor those around me realised was soon to disappear: a life without electricity, running water, communications, plastic, indeed almost anything from the outside world apart from two Chinese-made bicycles. It was, and remains, one of the most remarkable episodes of my life and it happened because I was alone. There were only two bikes.
That is when it works. You are forced into contact with people. Villains are soon spotted, trustworthy individuals embraced. You ask questions and opportunities come your way. You make decisions and your route changes drastically, without anyone to argue against. You draw pictures and learn languages. The sense of freedom that comes, after a time, is addictive, even euphoric. At least, I would say it will come, if you resist the lure of the internet and the phone, the modern siren voices to wreck the solo traveller’s odyssey.
A friend’s daughter, embarking on a trip to Thailand, recently asked my advice. I said, watch out for people spiking drinks, and take things slowly. The most vulnerable moments are when you arrive, so prepare for that. Find a base, among people you trust, and stick around for a while. If solo travel works out and you find your feet, I recommend a hard-nosed attitude to communications. You emerge at the other end, perhaps a little scorched by homesickness and hardship, but able to survive and make your way through almost any tricky circumstances. And when you find a friend, you never forget them.
Like Muhammed. We rode all over his area, meeting other tribes who were passing through. There was a memorable breakfast with the Ham’r camel-herding tribe. There was an interview with a chief. One evening a man came galloping over to the hut on a fine horse to deliver the news that a souk truck was waiting for me by the three baobab trees. I hadn’t even understood that Muhammed was taking care of all this.
Next morning he and I rode for two hours through a delicate pinkish sunrise and I climbed aboard a truck laden with sacks of onions. I never saw him again, but we exchanged letters for a few years. Since then I have travelled alone a great deal. The lows are still lower, yet the highs are higher. It remains more intense, more extreme, and the experience is always much richer.