When I was 21 I travelled around Australia. On my own. For a year. In my little red three-door Hyundai with a tent in the back.
I went up the centre and worked in a remote roadhouse in a small Aboriginal community; I sold movie vouchers door-to-door in Darwin; I meandered across to Broome and down the west coast to Perth, where I supervised floor staff in a massive Northbridge restaurant. I drove home across the surprisingly beautiful Nullabor.
I stayed in caravan parks, or in backpacker hostels when I wanted more company.
In central Australia, Darwin and Perth, I lived in share houses with people I’d just met.
Sometimes I drove 1000km a day and lost my voice when I sang Cold Chisel songs for too long.
I had the time of my life and it was also the making of me.
In the remainder of my 20s I took three more solo travel adventures and also managed to buy my first home – on the wage of a rural journalist, which was less than I would have earned full-time at a supermarket (that’s no exaggeration).
Saving to fund my trips and travelling on a tight budget taught me to be good with money.
I spent five weeks in Africa, sleeping in a two-person tent in national parks and camp grounds in Kenya and Tanzania, surrounded by wild animals at night.
I spent four weeks in South East Asia, crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam and marvelling at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Eight weeks after I got married at age 27, I took off to South America for six weeks on what became dubbed my ‘solo honeymoon’; taking in the sites of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. I explored the Amazon Jungle, hiked the Inca Trail, and hurtled down Bolivia’s ‘death road’ on a mountain bike.
In each case I did a mix of independent travel and tours.
It was magnificent.
Travel is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. It opens your eyes to the world and gives you a whole new perspective.
But travel on your own – well, that takes your learnings to a whole other level and is something everyone should do at least once in their life.
- You learn who you are.
When there’s no-one you know around, you drop your mask and your authentic-self shines through. You learn who you really are and you learn it fast.
You don’t have to meet expectations of family or friends. People don’t know your history or have preconceived ideas about your life. You get to be you. You get to know you. You get to see how you respond to challenges and learn what makes you tick.
- You work out what you stand for.
How much of your behaviour is dictated by expectations and the relationships you have at home, and how much is really you? What are your values? Do you really care about things like racism in practice? Or do you just pay it lip-service in theory when people you know are listening?
On you own, without the judgment of people you know, do you still behave the same? Or are you different?
I called out racism time and time again in my travels. I refused to serve a co-worker in the bar of the roadhouse I worked in when he used the n-word. Was it uncomfortable? Yep. Did I do it anyway? You betcha.
I had a line in the sand and I became more and more confident and assertive in expressing what that was.
- You get to be totally selfish.
Being selfish cops a bad rap, but when you’re prone to people pleasing like me, travelling solo is the permission you need to do exactly what you want, when you want.
Feel like hiking? Go for a hike. Want to laze around on the beach eating ice cream and read your book? Do that. Arrive in a town and decide you don’t like it and want to move on? Awesome – keep driving.
No questions. No compromise. Just the pleasure of doing what you want, when you want, how you want. It’s a freedom everyone should experience at least once (and preferably semi-regularly!).
- You connect with more people.
If you don’t have a friend of travel companion to talk to, you’re forced to connect with new people for your social fix. Rather than remain in your own little bubble with a permanent safety net, you form new friendships, have conversations you wouldn’t otherwise have, go on adventures you wouldn’t have considered, and learn more about how to communicate and relate with people from all walks of life.
I met some wonderful people in my solo travels over the years. Some of them are probably reading this article now. Hopefully they don’t start sharing our stories! (That’s another benefit of solo travel – no-one to spill the beans on what you get up to!)
I still keep in touch with a number of them thanks to social media. And although some of us were only thrown together for a couple of days, our connection through shared experiences in far-flung places will always remain.
- You learn about your strengths and weaknesses.
I cried for the first two hours of my around-Australia adventure, questioning whether I was totally insane or doing the right thing. It was the start of me learning how to overcome self-doubt and I developed an inner strength that still holds me in great stead today – whether the challenge I’m facing is physical or mental.
Staying calm in a crisis and using my communication and negotiation skills also emerged as strengths. I was able to talk my way out of some potentially dangerous situations, including waking up to find a strange man standing at the end of my bed in the middle of the night in outback Australia, and almost being robbed by scam taxi drivers in Vietnam.
My weaknesses were also exposed. I realised how futile and self-indulgent my perfectionist tendencies were. When you see firsthand the conditions and challenges the less fortunate face as part of their daily lives, your petty gripes and worries quickly become insignificant. It was a turning point for me trying to change my ways.
- You realise you’re going to be ok.
I was single for six years in my 20s and it really didn’t bother me.
Long term solo travel taught me to enjoy my own company and showed me I was perfectly ok on my own – even in challenging circumstances.
I was happy. I loved my life.
Back home, I worked in a job I loved; I bought my own home; I often went to the movies and out for dinner solo; and I knew that if I didn’t find a partner to spend my life with, I was going to be ok.
In fact, I would be more than ok – I’d be great.
For me to consider a relationship, the person was going to have to make my life better than it already was.
- You work out what you want.
This is the most important of all.
When I travelled Australia, I had just finished studying at university and my long-term relationship had ended.
Aside from wanting to travel the country, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted.
A year on my own worked that out. Everything became very clear.
I wanted to be a print journalist.
I wanted to return to Willow Grove to live (although I visited some stunning places and was offered promotions and long-term work, my travels highlighted how lucky I had it right where I’d always been).
I wanted a partner who supported my independence and didn’t try to control me. And if I couldn’t find that, I would prefer to be happy and alone.
I wanted a life of adventure and more travel.
I wanted all that and guess what? I achieved it.
It was early in my relationship with my husband that I knew he was the one for me. He gave me space. He didn’t badger me with phone calls or want to be with me 24/7. He wasn’t intimidated by an independent and opinionated woman. He wasn’t afraid to call me out for being ridiculous when I got stressed and grumpy.
We were engaged 14 months after we got together and married just four months later. A little over a year after that we had our first child.
I shocked a lot of my family and friends with how quick it all happened, but for me it was simple: I knew what I wanted and I’d found it.
I credit solo travel for that.
Male or female, I encourage everyone to travel alone at least once in their life.
Be smart about it and reduce the risks where you can, but do it.
It doesn’t have to be far, or for long – even a day or night away on your own might give you the time out you need to get clarity about who you are and what you want.
But make sure you do it.
Find your feet and tread your own path in life. The world awaits.
Leah Mether is a communications specialist, trainer and speaker with her own business, Methmac Communications. To find out more, or read more of Leah’s work, visit www.leahmether.com.au.