I remember my first solo trip in 1981 when I set off as a naive 20 year old clutching an inter-rail ticket and a map of Scandinavia. I couldn’t find any-one else interested in following my plan (with whom I could spend that length of time) but I was determined to test myself; to discover whether I could manage on my own. I could, so the following year joined a group of like-minded strangers trekking around the south-eastern corner of Iceland. We bonded at the time and waved a cheery goodbye to each other at Keflavik airport. Another successful holiday.
I feel sure that I was embraced by other experienced travellers with more enthusiasm as a solo ‘explorer’ than if I had not been alone. The relationships may have been transient but were a pleasurable diversion from the stunning views from the train windows. However, I did miss someone to share the awe of fjords, Lofoten Islands and midnight sun. My diary was a weak substitute and the handful of Kroner coins fed into an occassional payphone my only contact with friends and family. In recent years my travels have always been with selected company and the compromises have brought unexpected benefits, visiting places I wouldn’t have chosen but enjoyed immensely. I never wanted to ‘find myself’ but had no significant other with whom to share these experiences at that time, and didn’t want to miss out.
I travelled alone in the pre-internet and headphone era. Solo travel these days must be so much more isolated where people can be within inches of each other but never engage. Would I be able to approach someone else who appears to be alone but connected to a device, interrupt them, ask them if they want to join me for a coffee/walk/etc. or if they know of anywhere to go or have been? Would I be brave enough to take the initiative and engage with a stranger? The worst that could happen is they say ‘no’ but they may want a personal interaction as well.
We took a fantastic road trip around Morocco several years ago in the company of a group of Aussies with Gecko travel. Landing in Casablanca we found ourselves discussing the Milliband rivalry for party leadership with 2 strangers in the queue for rail tickets into the city. I vividly remember passing a recently harvested field where every single stump appeared to have grown a plastic carrier bag, all billowing left in the breeze.
Watching the Saharan sunrise from high on a sand dune overlooking our strings of trusty four-legged ‘ships’ truly is unforgettable. We had pulled the mattresses outside of the Berber tents to enable us to sleep under the most amazing canopy of stars.
A shower hit us before we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, but it wasn’t raining there. We crossed the dry riverbed on foot to visit the fortress, from where we watched a wave of water sweep down from the rain-soaked hills and fill the chasm. Our return trip was on a mule to keep our, but not his, feet dry. These beasts of burden took the manic traffic of Marrakesh in their short stride, steadfastly pulling their carts whilst jostling with cattle laden trucks, coaches and Porsche Cayennes on frenetic roundabouts.
Every sense was stimulated by vibrant colours of the strata in the Atlas Mountains and sacks of spice in the bazaars. The noise of car horns and hammering of metal accompanied the background calls to prayer. The cool feel of traditional tiles contrasted the soft smooth textures of handbags and slippers hanging in the leather dying sector of Fez, which elicited some particularly pungent smells. Unlike Djemaa el Fna, where the aromas of the food stalls were enticing, but we only dared drink the thirst-quenching fresh squeezed orange juice.
The sea was calm in the flooded Solent valley; soft and smooth as chiffon. Ripples diverged from an arrowhead as an early morning swimmer paced between the groynes. The water was the warmest she’d known for many years. These exercise sessions had become a pleasure since the water quality improved, but now even the temperature was benign. Emerging into the pre-commute air there was no need to leap across the pebbles and wrap herself in the huge striped beach towel to stave off hypothermia. It was as pleasant as on a summer’s afternoon.
This was the prime time of day during the summer of 2018. By afternoon the air would suspend a humid 33 degrees. An on-shore breeze would churn the surface but not be refreshing, more like a full body hair-dryer. The waves would continue to deposit seaweed on the stony shore, the detritus of humankind reduced to an occassional piece of debris as light plastic glared from the deep greens and browns of the ocean’s foliage.
The grass adjoining the land-side of the promenade was scorched, parched, looked dead but usually recovered. Some people chose to sit up there rather than down on the unforgiving pebbles, more bodies this summer than ever before. Multi-coloured windbreaks stood guard, but for what purpose? Perhaps just a habit at the English seaside. Barbeques abounded and groups loitered until late into the evening, watching the sun set behind Fawley Power Station. The only time when it isn’t an ugly carbuncle on the horizon. What would Queen Victoria have thought of that blot on her view if she had spied it from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight?
The trees on the island appeared to have retained their various shades of chlorophyll green, high-lighting the straw coloured fields. The water dividing this outpost from the mainland provided a playground for weekend sailors in shorts and T-shirts. No need for so’westers in this tender climate as they dodged the overloaded container ships and towering cruise liners. Those holiday-makers may have been traveling to cooler climes. Not what they’d expected when booking their vacations in the sun.
But for how much longer would these Mediterranean conditions last? How long until the weather returned to normal? Until the wind splatters the rain onto the window pane? Until the blue sea turns to tormented lead? Until the grass resumes its verdant self? Until stoic souls walk the promenade under coats, hats and scarves? Until the gun-metal of Fawley Power Station blends with the skies, even at sun down?
35 years ago I took a walking holiday in Iceland. A disparate group of 22 strangers were guided by a delightful Frenchman who spoke minimal English, but we had an unforgettable experience. On the first evening I ordered a local delicacy: baked sheep’s head, in the salubrious surroundings of Rekjavik bus station. Dried food held a certain attraction after that. A recent BBC programme on walking in Iceland’s interior featured the type of mountain huts we stayed in but now as emergency accommodation. These days hikers enjoy electricity, showers and proper beds in wood buildings which defy the word ‘hut’. We used torches, smelt of sulphur after bathing in thermal streams and pulled our karrimats outside to sleep as we were cooked by the heating derived from the adjacent dinner-plate sized hot spring.
Rekjavik, Tjornin lake, Free church (Frikirkjan), National Gallery and Hallgrimskirkja church
Three of we four girls had our birthdays during this 2 week escapade, all Leos?! The melted mars bar, marathon and milky way birthday ‘cake’ was a gastronomic masterpiece. When crossing the bridgeless rivers each of us was escorted by two of the chaps, linking arms as we crossed the fast thigh-deep waters. We wore shorts as there was no point soaking our trousers, even if that did mean braving a blizzard on 31st July bare-legged. But we warmed up sunbathing on 1st Aug, before skiing down a hillside of larva dust.