by Dervla Murphy, The Telegraph, January 18, 2018
When I first journeyed beyond Europe, 55 years ago in the pre-globalisation era, one could easily travel solo for weeks on end without meeting a fellow westerner, encountering electricity or food-industry product, or hearing an internal combustion engine. Also, being way beyond reach of post offices and telephones, one could forget about family and friends. Travellers were free to concentrate on an unfamiliar world undistracted by calamities back at base.
Are such journeys still possible? Travel companies are waking up to the growing appetite for solo travel. The Association of British Travel Agents’ 2017 survey found that 11.5 per cent of people reported taking a solo holiday in the past 12 months.
But, how solo can solo be in the 21st century? While independent travel unassisted by anything more complicated than a compass no longer seems to be possible in this day and age, the reasons for going it alone remain the same: meeting kindred individuals and locals in the hope of enriching the travel experience. And besides, nowadays, venturing out on your own is really an invitation to meet other like-minded people as solo travel, is by its very nature, sociable. For instance, dinners on the road are much more pleasurable when spent swapping stories with intriguing new companions and discoveries are more likely to be made with the assistance of friendly in-the-know locals.
Several of my most enduring friendships began many decades ago in far-flungery where one occasionally meets kindred spirits. The solo traveller, being wholly dependent on whomever is met, conveys that s/he completely trusts them and is happy to adapt to their way of life, is grateful for the shelter of their homes, relishes their food, discreetly adjusts to the limitations of their latrines and tolerates the attentions of their bed-bugs/fleas/mosquitoes.
The key word here is trust, which must be recognised as a two-way requirement. In some isolated areas, inexplicable foreigners can be quite scary – who or what do they represent? Lone women, being less alarming, are less likely to arouse suspicion-tinged hostility as a first reaction. Hence my oft-derided argument that in certain circumstances HE may be at more risk than SHE.
On this theme, in traditional rural Muslim communities (with the exception of eastern Turkey) I always inspired the menfolk’s protective instincts. The old-fashioned courtesy might have been resented by a feminist campaigner but I found it charming.
Other friendships began when, as an incapacitated foreigner, I found myself dependent on the kindness of strangers. Usually misfortune struck where medical care was rudimentary – tick-bite fever in the Transkei, a broken foot in Laos, gout in Madagascar, concussion in the Carpathians, cracked ribs in several places, bronchitis in several others and a dislocated knee on the northern shore of Lake Baikal. An incidental advantage of solo travel is freedom from guilt when plans change.
While my Baikal knee was slowly mending, it seemed a good idea to take a paddle-steamer down the Lena river from Ust-kut to Yakutsk. The ship, 72-metres (233-ft) long, built in Hungary in 1959, carried a few dozen passengers and a lot of freight; rivers replace roads in this part of Siberia. The one single cabin was allocated to me as the foreign passenger and my ticket cost $130 – excellent value for a 1,270-mile (2,044-km), seven-day voyage.
The Lena, Russia’s second-longest river at 2,759 miles (4,440km), winds its way from the mountains west of Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean and is seen from space as the biggest “S” on our planet.
Its course being so sinuous – rarely can one see more than a mile or so fore and aft – it was never possible to guess what the next hour might reveal. Perhaps steep forested slopes of autumn gold, or multi-coloured, erosion-sculpted cliffs hundreds of feet high, or a gentle foreground of irregular hills with towering, dark-cragged ranges in the background.
And most late evenings, the Lena briefly became a tranquil sheet of blue, flawlessly mirroring its banks.
That voyage through Siberia’s immense silence and austere beauty remains among the most cherished of my travel memories. Often during that week I recalled a classic river journey made by my favourite solo traveller, Isabella Bird Bishop, born exactly a century before me (1831).
Her last book, The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, describes her seven-month voyage up the Yangtze by junk at the most perilous season. She then rode for weeks across trackless terrain and over high snowy passes along the Tibetan border.
For my 60th birthday, more than quarter of a century ago, I presented myself with a Dawes Ascent mountain bicycle, then the two-wheeled equivalent of a Rolls-Royce, and planned a relaxing four-month “Mystery Tour” during which nobody could know which continent I was enjoying. At once, relatives and friends accused me of being selfish, obstinate and irresponsible – simply because I wanted to protect my privacy while travelling solo.
This greatly exasperated me, especially as I was tempering the wind to the shorn lamb (ageing body); a 3,000-mile (4,828-km) cycle ride to Zimbabwe was much less demanding than earlier journeys through roadless regions.
As I attached the pannier-bags at Nairobi airport, it amused me to hear an echo of my friends’ critical chorus. A worried-looking official asked, “Why did you bring a bicycle? It is better for old people to travel in vehicles.” His concern marked one of the advantages of being grey-haired in Africa, where elders are cherished.
But of course solo travel isn’t the preserve of Oldies like me. There’s a solo trip for just about anyone of every age – whether you’re 25 or 55 or whether you’re an intrepid traveller or an experience seeker.
Dervla Murphy has written 24 travel books covering 54 countries. They include Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965) and Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine (2015).