Lots of people do it these days; from grey nomads like me to fearless young girls with a backpack and a recipe for thin vegetable soup. Traveling alone has become a way of life for many. At a small hostel in Valparaiso, Chile’s main port, all the residents were young women, except for me of course, and every one was traveling alone. I sat with four of them around the kitchen table one evening: Nicole is twenty-one and from Stockholm. She is scrawny and wraith like with a sculptured doll’s face, dark clothes and a dark mop cap low over her eyes. She has a femme fatale appearance and chatters non-stop. She is spending four months traveling through South America. At the age of sixteen she spent five months travelling on her own through Australia. Marthe is from Hamburg but has worked for a London newspaper for the past eight years; suddenly she has given it all up to travel for a year. Brittany is from Minnesota and has been in Paraguay for six months before coming to Valparaiso where she is currently working at the hostel in return for a free bed. Valerie, who is not as young as the others, has perhaps the most interesting story. Born in China of Ukrainian parents she was brought up in Australia, has lived mostly in Canada but has always travelled extensively and though her natural tongue is English, she speaks Russian fluently. She has been staying with friends in Bolivia for the last few months and has decided to settle there. Sitting at the table, listening to these girls discussing twenty-four hour coach journeys through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Argentina: the best routes, the worst border crossings: safe and unsafe places: yellow fever certificates, the best hostels and where are the cheapest place to buy fruit; often with only outline itineraries, changing routes and ideas as they go, usually on a limited budget, you can only sit back and admire their courage and their confidence!
I thought about this as I walked out towards Cape Pembroke on the coast not far from Port Stanley in the Falklands. A disused lighthouse can be reached on foot via a picturesque route through sand dunes and along rough hedgerows and beachside scrub. The glorious sandy beach itself is heavily out of bounds with an unbroken barbed wire fence marked every few metres with graphic warning signs about the danger of mines. There are still a hundred and seventeen cordoned off minefields remaining on the Falklands. The four mile return walk, known as the Penguin Walk, is further and harder than it looks. And the penguins must have read the signs because there was no sign of any of these delightful creatures and neither was there of any humans. It was hard going, a mix of sand, loose jagged stones and rocks and deeply rutted tussock grass. I had time only to glimpse the lighthouse from three hundred yards before turning back- the day was wearing on.
There are pros and cons to traveling alone of course. Certainly there are times when it’s great to have someone there to share a special moment with and occasionally it seems sad if you can’t. It’s good too to have someone to share the difficulties with. On the other hand, apart from the obvious benefit of pleasing yourself when deciding what to do, there are times when being alone is part of making the moment even more special. I recall sitting on a remote and spectacular headland in Tasmania looking down on a rich blue and white swirling seascape far below, when a pair of white sea eagles flew over, no more than thirty feet above my head. It was a jaw-dropping moment. “Did you see that?” but there was no-one there. Not even when they flew back again a few seconds later! It was a two hour walk to the end of the gravel road that had petered out at a small isolated campsite; yet the fact that it was such a remote spot and that I was on my own, only made the moment seem even more special. It’s not only breath that gives you life, it’s the moments that take your breath away too. It was a time to relish the solitude. There are occasions of course when you ask yourself a question you can’t answer. As now, on the way out to Cape Pembroke- “What would happen if I broke my ankle, or worse, dislocated a hip?” You can make an effort to be cautious in difficult places but these things often happen when you least expect them. But then the whole world is full of “What ifs” isn’t it? I certainly don’t worry about having a heart attack or something similar, just a matter then of curling up for the long sleep. I do enjoy being with other people though, my old chums Glyn and Annwen and my new chum Betty are all excellent travelling companions. But I also enjoy traveling alone and these days I seem to have a good mix of both, which is a happy coincidence indeed. Anyway, since doing that walk, and others, and the occasional bit of single-handed sailing, I have given in to caution and purchased a personal locator beacon. When you pull the piece of string it emits a GPS linked signal to the nearest search and rescue service. “Is it guaranteed?” I asked the man when I bought it. “Of course” he replied. “But”, I said, “if ever I need it and it doesn’t work, you will never know. So how will I get my money back?”