Solivagant – (noun) a solitary wanderer, (adj.) wandering alone
Reading about and listening to exotic experiences of solo ‘wander lusting’ backpackers fanned a flame somewhere in my soul. I always liked the idea of traveling alone, at least in theory. I knew I would like to travel far by myself sometime in life. But it was not until very recently that I finally decided to embark on my first solo-backpacking trip to Australia! Having always traveled with friends & family, this was a bold decision for me to take.
I read somewhere that, to take a trip alone is to take a journey into yourself. And so, intrigued and wanting to know more, I began my own adventures to the land down under. Here are 30 things I learnt about traveling alone & Australia!
- If you want to travel far, wide & happy, travel light! Rucksacks rock! (Thanks for letting me borrow yours Niks!) J You will be surprised how much you can fit in and the freedom it provides. Traveling light is definitely an acquired art. There is a certain skill involved in sorting through all your earthly possessions and picking the most essential belongings. For some it’s their numerous pairs of shoes (I can totally understand this!), and for others it’s their travel journals/sketch books/camera. Think about it this way. If you were stranded in a foreign land for three weeks, what else would you absolutely need apart from your passport and money? That’s what you really require to take along .Same goes for souvenirs;Keep it light. I usually carry back magnets from my travels!
- Ping friends and family in the countries you go to! It’s a boon to know people who will work around their schedules to come pick you up/drop you off at the airport at all odd hours of the day/night if it’s your first time in the country, even if you tell them a million times that you will take a cab to their place, they won’t hear a word of it. That’s what makes them oh so adorable!
- To feel at home, stay at homes! Home stays/hostels with either friends you know, or complete strangers are much more personal & warm rather than staying in hotel rooms. It’s an education in “lives lived around the world!” You get to closely experience someone else’s daily life and routine with them. Make sure you do something special for the people you are staying with. It could be a quick breakfast for someone who almost never eats before going to work or a hot meal after they get home from a long and grueling day’s work. You will almost definitely bring a smile to their face!
- Australia is a MASSIVE continent! There is no way you can cover all of it in three weeks. You need to make tough choices about where you want to travel and stick to them. This meant leaving Cairns, Darwin, Alice Springs, the great outback, the Great Barrier Reef, and Perth for the next visit. I chose to travel to two major cities (Melbourne & Sydney), drive along/be driven along the Great Ocean Road to see the twelve apostles, visit vineyards & breweries, laze along beaches & light houses, visit a monastery, the three sister’s gorges in the Blue Mountains, and about eat at scores of cafes and restaurants. Managed to fit in a lot more!
- The northern and southern hemispheres have totally opposite season cycles. My geography lessons escaped me completely. When its summer all over the northern world it would be winter in Australia! So I literally went from a ruthless winter in the United States to a reasonably cold winter in Australia! But thanks to my awesome cousin’s orange jacket, a friend’s Katmandu gloves and a green beanie which literally saved me throughout my travel! Crowdsourcing to the rescue. (& way too many pictures in the same jacket!)
- Don’t be scared to travel alone. And more importantly, don’t be afraid to like it. One of the best things about travelling alone is that YOU get to decide what you will do every day. It could be, spending the whole day in a museum, going back to the same museum the next day to look at the same exhibits again, sitting at federation square in Melbourne for hours looking at Gulls, riding the city trams all day, public garden hopping, or just sleeping in to take a lazy two hour lunch later in the day! So go solo whenever you feel like it, and can.
- The feeling of being anonymous in a country/city you have never been to before is oddly unsettling at first. But the more you think about it, the more you realize how this anonymity gives you the freedom to be totally goofy! Feel like singing in the middle of a busy street… Go for it! Want to take a million selfies till you get the one you really wanted without worrying about being thought of as oh so vane… Definitely go for it!
- For once, put down the map and get wonderfully lost! Have a skeletal plan of what you want to do on your travels, but don’t be afraid to steer away from it, a little or even a lot! Lawrence Black once said, “Our happiest moments as travelers always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else”. Like finding a café which had the quirkiest restroom where you could spend hours reading stuff on the walls, while I was in search of another café which closed for that day. I spent the next three hours in the café and restroom. Collectively ;)
- Do as the locals do! Travel books as fun a concept as they are, only showcase the opinions of a chosen few travelers. Use them by all means if you want to, but I found that asking locals and random people on the street for candid recommendations on what to do, where to eat & which to pick has almost always been more rewarding than mechanically ticking off things in ‘Discover Something’ books.
- People-watching is super fun! Long layovers at international airports are not all that boring if you start observing the wide range of people around you and make up stories about their lives or why they are traveling! Neither are busy pedestrian crossings in cities.
- Walking is the best way to experience a new city. You are not limited by traffic, one ways, parking, or even lack of a path. You can almost always make your own. You stumble upon café’s you don’t find on google maps, little book stores, antique shops, and interesting alleyways. You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything or it could be nothing. But the fun I found is in the pursuit of finding out!
- Traveling the way the locals do can be extremely rewarding to view a city from their eyes. Getting familiar with the public transport in a new city quickly can be super useful! Top up travel cards like Opal for Sydney and Myki for Melbourne can be used on bus, trains, trams, even the ferries! Local travel apps also give you timings for all these modes of transport. In my opinion, cabs are extremely expensive and not the best way to experience the city. Of course should be totally used in case of emergencies if stranded in the middle of nowhere!
- Aim to be a traveler, not a tourist. When you are traveling alone, you will find out very early on if you are a tourist or a traveler. For a number of years, I didn’t think there was a difference, until in Sydney when I finally saw the opera house and the harbor bridge emerge on my walk towards the ocean. I frantically took a million pictures and then just felt like putting my phone away. I sat there for hours just watching the sun set and sipping on my hot chocolate. All three days in Sydney, no matter where I went during the day, I came back to the same spot every evening to witness the bridge and opera house light up…if you are only concerned with clicking pictures as proof of visiting a place without actually breathing in & taking in the sights, the people, the air, you haven’t really traveled to it yet; you have only toured it. It’s been a personal mission on this trip to ‘travel’ more and ‘tour’ less.
- Cooking and eating in a foreign country may be the surest, truest way to its soul. I know in my heart that one of my favorite parts of the trip was searching for/stumbling upon quaint cafes in Melbourne and Sydney. More in Melbourne than in Sydney ;) Deciding what to eat for brunch each day had become an enjoyable ritual. Australia, I realized very soon, is big on most things organic and responsibly sourced. Hearty & fabulous meals soon fueled my on average 4 mile walks every day! So don’t shy away from that decadent almond croissant or the sumptuous dollop of butter on your whole grain toast! I definitely didn’t and have no regrets what so ever.
- Unlike every other country in the advanced world, Australia does NOT do Starbucks! The first Starbucks opened in 2000 in Sydney. 84 stores and 8 years later it stacked up $143 Million in recorded loses and was forced to shut down 60 stores. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to figure out what went wrong here. Starbucks bombarded Australia with a coffee chain devoid of any real personality, cookie cutter lattes, high prices and questionable customer service – A brew bound to fall flat. In contrast, Australia’s café culture is just too damn good! Along with the 1950’s wave of Italian and Greek immigrants, Australia adopted the art of espresso as part of its very social fiber long before Americans did. People take their coffee seriously! One of my housemates, a total hippie, is a coffee connoisseur, training to work with some of the most authentic cafes in Melbourne. (She is also vegan and only consumes organic, including the water she drinks…not even sure what that means honestly!) It’s definitely a way of life. Despite not being a big coffee drinker, I looked forward to a freshly brewed latte/cappuccino from a quirky new café each day.
- Australians take immense pride in socializing around food and coffee. It definitely compliments their relaxed lifestyle. I would often sit in cafes for hours together and find others just like me. Maybe they were on vacation as well; maybe they were just relaxing, or even working. Who knows & who cares! It was definitely a welcome change from the fast-paced work-oriented constant running around American (and even Indian) way of life I had experienced. Ps: You can run into Bollywood celebrities; I brunched next to Anil Kapoor when he was down for the Melbourne Film festival. Just saying. A second housemate, the hippie housemate’s hippie boyfriend was a musician by day and a food volunteer by night at “Lentils as anything” – a ‘pay as you feel’ community center run entirely on donations and volunteerism. A wholesome buffet style vegetarian meal, cooked, sourced, served entirely by volunteers. Musicians/artists/comedians performing for the pure joy of entertaining. You could spend hours reading quotes and thoughts posted by hundreds of thousands of travelers who set foot each year. Best meal I have had in Melbourne!
- Melbournians are artsy & have a strong rebellious streak. Evident as soon as you step foot in Hosier lane filled with Graffiti on every square inch of wall space along with art installations. I was so smug in the knowledge that I left some of my doodles on the walls for eternity only to later learn that the walls are dynamic, with artists re-spraying every couple of weeks! Well at least I tried leaving a piece of my art behind, on some level of layer ;) On a similar note, I could write a whole blog post about just the art museums in Australia, so I am not even trying.
- Melbourne has quirky buildings. Period.
- Sunsets have a calming effect no matter where in the world you go. Chasing sunsets at both the St Kilda beach in Melbourne and the Dandenong ranges a few hours from the city will always be locked away in my mind’s eye.
- Australian waters & blue skies are therapeutic. Ferrying around Sydney’s harbor with its blue skies, shifting white clouds, naughty winds, and dancing waters for as far as you could see is a feeling I cannot describe in words. You have to experience it for yourself. The ferry to Toronga Zoo reveals the panoramic view of the Sydney harbor.
- Australia has some of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world. All you need is a cool car, great company, bundles of sunshine & tons of battery on your iPhone. Each bend and curve reveals a delicious blue stretch of pristine beach. I was often lost amidst the windy roads, mysterious looking flora, green meadows with free range animals, and soon found myself again as we ran parallel to the great Indian Ocean for as far as our eyes could see. The quaint surf towns of Geelong, Torquay, Anglesea, Lorne, and Apollo bay gave way to the marvelous wonders that jutted out of the ocean – The Twelve apostles! Suddenly it all felt like I was on another planet. The Great Ocean Road drive was an exotic love affair I will not get over anytime soon…
- Vineyards in Australia are as beautiful as the ones in the United States, but a lot larger in acreage and tastings are far more reasonable. It’s hard to not stock up on wine or sign up for membership programs despite knowing very well that you are only on vacation. PS: most wine bottles I encountered were twist offs for some reason – for those of you who aren’t particularly deft at opening cork top bottles, I hear you ;)
- Public Libraries are a great place to find some quiet (and charging points)! Melbourne’s Victoria State library was by far the most beautiful library I have ever been to. Often a great respite on a rainy/cold/too sunny day if you are not someone who likes malls too much, holds art exhibits in its galleries, and hosted the Melbourne Fashion week & various artists on its grounds outside.
- Don’t be afraid to walk into interesting alleyways. Of course, don’t be stupid and walk into one that screams “you could get mugged & stabbed here!” You can honestly never tell, but following your gut and instincts is the way to go on this one. I almost walked past a particular alleyway in Sydney before I walked back. It was a thought provoking art installation of bird cages strung across two buildings with speakers playing recorded bird songs of all the birds that have gone extinct due to massive urbanization. Etched in metal in the cobbled road were the names of all those bird species.You could stand in that alley eyes closed for several minutes imagining all these birds around you, before you realize that none of these birds exist anymore.
- When it comes to taking care of yourself, you can be quite a badass! Everything from taking care of your belongings to travel logistics to gauging people’s intentions, to climbing the Harbor Bridge, you will put your self-sufficiency skills to the ultimate test. You will come out with flying colors often. This is a re-assuring & liberating feeling.
- Kangaroos do not randomly cross streets in Australia (despite what the signs say), just like snakes and elephants do not cross streets in India (except for in forests and some cities). I actually went out the very first night in hope of sighting a kangaroo in a neighborhood where they apparently hop about free all the time! After standing out in the dark and the cold for what felt like hours and after what sounded like a dog barking in the distance, I gave up. Three weeks in Kangaroo land and no kangaroo. (Only some wallabies at the Toronga Zoo in Sydney. Here is ‘hopping’ for better luck next time.)
- A little history, even on vacation hurts no one. The Sovereign Hill in Ballarat literally lives out history in today’s times. It’s a historical amusement town which plays out life during the gold rush. Candle making, blacksmithing, horse drawn carriage rides, apothecary stores and candy making etc. A goldsmith actually demonstrates smelting a Kilogram of real gold into a brick every half hour. My mom would have absolutely enjoyed the gold museum which showcased the history of how gold gained its status as the most precious metal today.
- Don’t be afraid of meeting new people, and don’t be afraid of enjoying & celebrating their company. Partying and traveling with people you just met or friends you met after years is just as fun as with friends back home.
- Learn to enjoy & love your own company. On a solo backpack, you will be alone for the most part. Surprise! You will be walking alone, eating alone at a table, and spending a lot of time with yourself and your thoughts. Being someone who thoroughly enjoys traveling with friends and loved ones, this was a slight transition for me. But it stopped bothering me soon enough because I never once felt ‘lonely’. There is a big difference.
- We never remember days, we only remember moments. If you ask me what I did each day in Australia, I will fumble to tell you. But I can most certainly describe what it felt like to sip on hot chocolate on the Yarra River in Melbourne on a chilly afternoon, to feel the wind in my hair looking at the blue Pacific Ocean waves at Kiama beach, and to celebrate life with fabulous Australians at the hippest joints in town…
Most of all I have learnt that solo travel is rebellion in its purest form.
We follow our heart. We free ourselves of labels.
We lose control willingly. We trade a role for reality.
We love the unfamiliar. We trust strangers. We own only what we can carry.
We learn to live more with less. We fill our mind with a lifetime of memories, stories and tales.
We figure out what matters most to us. We search for better questions, not answers.
We truly graduate. We are never ourselves again.
We feel a sense of loss after every travel because we leave a part of our soul with the places we step foot on, the people we meet, and the adventures we partake in.
So, no matter what your age, your relationship status, or stage of life…consider taking a solo trip. You never know what fabulous secrets you might discover about yourself…