“All good things are wild and free.” Those are the words of one of my favourite writers, Henry David Thoreau, in his essay titled ‘Walking’, which he delivered many times during the mid 19th Century.
My connection with Thoreau’s writing is underpinned by his struggle between the love of nature’s simplicity and it parallels with a sense of freedom. Like Thoreau in much of his writing (see Walden), I feel a constant pull to balance my life in the civilised (yet, no doubt stimulating) home of inner-Sydney, with the liberty and simplicity experienced in the wilderness .
My love of nature came later in life. My childhood was not centred around frequent travel to remote locations, outdoor activities, camping and isolation. The contrary in fact, I don’t remember doing much of this (if any) until I was an adult, with much of my upbringing involving athletics, racquet sports, hotels and sterile environments. Even to this day, many of my family and friends do not understand the love I have for being outdoors. Perhaps being a product of a privileged life gives you the choice of a simple life, rather than it being forced upon you.
Some 40 or so years ago, my mum immigrated to Australia to study at university in Sydney. Without a doubt, it was a battle. I can’t imagine living in a foreign country where I could barely speak the language and trying to survive as a student with little money- she was one of six children living abroad from Malaysia, away from her family. Sure, she had interesting experiences where she worked as a house cleaner for a prominent politician (who would be one of our future Prime Ministers), but that was interspersed with much of the flagrant racism that existed across Australia during the 70’s. So considering the isolation, ostracism and struggles that she experienced early in her life, perhaps she reach her quota when she had kids.
Travelling alone is one thing that forces you to grow-up quickly. When you’re alone, you need those problem-solving and decision-making skills to kick in pretty quickly without the safety-net of your family close by. My travels have not always been smooth sailing. I have had cancelled flights because of bad weather which have forced me balance a 20kg hiking pack on the back of a motorcycle down a 30cm-wide cliff edge in the Himalayas to get a flight back to Australia with my friend Colin; I have been swept up in an underground gambling ring when travelling solo in Ho Chi Minh City and managed to escape unscathed and unbelievably, with all my money (a word of warning: be aware of a stranger in a park bench offering “the local experience”);
I have woken up to a doctor transferring me to a Peruvian hospital for oxygen treatment when my ex-boyfriend and another friend could not wake me from the effects of high altitude; I have been followed by a dog who ate my vomit for the first two days of the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal when I suffered from a severe bout of food poisoning; and I have had my camera pick-pocketed in Chile on the second last day of a South American trip, losing all the photos I had taken. But here I am, I survived.
Without a doubt, the best experiences are the ones that are shared. However, the most defining experiences are the ones when you are alone, with just you and the rest of the world in front of you. It can be additionally scary to be female and travelling alone- it puts you in a vulnerable place and can expose you to a great amount of confronting situations. When taking a bus from Thailand to Cambodia in 2006, I met travel writer Paul Theroux who advised me to wear a wedding ring when travelling alone in many countries. It’s thanks to him, and an inexpensive Swarovski crystal ring, that I have been able to get out of some sticky situations.
With this said, I still crave to be out and alone, particularly when hiking. There are only a few people that I can hike for long periods with. They are the ones that understand I need to walk alone from time-to-time; who know that I generally hike way ahead of the pack or tail in from the back, never wanting to be in the thick of a group of people; they know that I will be the one to go off track and hike up a mountain to get a good photo angle; and they know that I tear myself apart in frustration when I can’t keep up physically with the guys ( I really wish I could get over that one).
Recently I went on a tour when travelling to Central Australia, something that I don’t usually do. The trip ended up being one that I travelled solo (which wasn’t the original intention), so I booked a 4 day camping tour to see the best of Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon to make things easier and cheaper, and to sleep under the stars.
You can find more about the walks I did here:
While the tour was great, and the people on it were friendly and fun, walking with a large group often distracted me from the place that I was in. I found myself going around the base of Uluru and forgetting that this massive, culturally significant rock was there. I was focussed on getting somewhere, rather than being somewhere. So when it came to The Valley of the Winds and the Kings Canyon Rim Walk… I ran away. Well kind of, all within reason of course. When we were given options of walks, I wouldn’t hesitate, and would start my chosen path running (not always the best option in 35+ degree heat). I would also run out alone onto sandstone outcrops, still in the view of my guide, but away from the group. I may sound very anti-social, but quite the contrary, I love being around people and adore delving into someone’s loves, fears and complexities. But when I am in nature and walking, the need for words seems to melt away and the need to feel free overcomes me.
In a couple of weeks, I will be doing a 82km solo walk in Tasmania. While I will get the freedom that I crave, hiking alone and carrying close to 20kg over a week will be tough. Not withstanding this physical struggle, being alone with my own thoughts and fears will be an interesting adventure (sometimes the hardest conversations are the ones that you have with yourself).
So wish me luck, let’s hope it reinforces my love for being wild and free: go you good thing!