Ahead of International Women's Day, we asked four female solo travellers to share their adventures, and what they learned.
'It was the most worthwhile and enriching journey I have ever taken...'
Barbara Feeney (30, above) is a producer for News Breakfast on ABC TV in Melbourne and formerly worked on Newstalk's Pat Kenny Show.
Solo travel is a frightening prospect for many. For others it's just something they do. I don't fit into either category. My practical and cautious self tells me to be careful. My carefree spirit spurs me on.
So when the idea of a solo journey entered my head early last year, the prospect both excited and worried me. I liked the thought of abandoning my routine, arriving somewhere new and spending hours exploring at my own pace, but I was also anxious about my safety as a female traveller. The decision to join a group of other solo travellers on a two-month trip through southern Africa seemed like a compromise; I was being courageous in the comfort of a group of strangers.
And so I set off on my quasi-solo 13,000km journey in the back of a converted Scania lorry. Africa does not have many well-worn tourist routes, so many backpackers explore the vast continent on four wheels, more familiarly known as 'overlanding'. There are a number of providers with various routes, timeframes and budgets. I ended up choosing one of the low-budget English companies, Oasis Overland.
I had obvious concerns about travelling in a group for such a long journey, but once I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, it was straight down to business. Passengers are expected to do almost everything except drive the truck, so there was lots to learn about our daily routine, about tent assembly, where we sat, charged phones, hid our passports, stored food and so on.
After some brief introductions, I was sitting alongside 19 strangers on a 10-hour journey through southern Kenya. It was an eclectic group: young and old, speaking different languages, diverse nationalities and backgrounds. I would spend the next 56 days doing everything with these people (even bush-loo visits).
We each played various roles on the truck. I became the on-board DJ and medical officer, dishing out prescription drugs I had stocked in my backpack. Others were biscuit distributors, storytellers, photographers and so on. We developed our own community, where we would negotiate treacherous roads, food budgets and deal with difficult immigration officers. Like anything in life, there were good days and bad days.
My initial worries about being a lone traveller quickly vanished and my anxiety shifted elsewhere, primarily to the creatures that could make their way into my tent and the proximity of the nearest loo in the various campsites we visited.
Most nights were spent camping, something my years at Electric Picnic did not equip me for. Luckily, my American tent-mate was well versed in outdoor life and soon learnt to deal with my irrational fear of insects. Showers, toilets and electricity were a regular fixture at our destinations, but sometimes there were none, so we would just embrace the dirt and isolation. Clean clothes were a prized possession, and space on my travel clothes line was a privilege among the group.
Our journey brought us through eight countries, starting in Kenya and zigzagging through Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and finishing in South Africa.
Our itinerary was full of visits to all sorts of wonderful places and well-known landmarks - we watched lions eat their morning prey in the Serengeti, rowed deep into the Okavango Delta, stood at Cecil Rhodes' grave in Zimbabwe, skydived over the Namib desert and met a witch doctor in rural Malawi.
There were smaller moments and personal encounters, too. The black-market foreign-exchange dealer in Harare, who dished out wads of local currency from a cooler box in his boot, while clutching a tumbler of whiskey. The topless Himba tribeswomen in Namibia who showed us how they smoked themselves clean, because their tribal traditions forbid them from using water to wash. The small children standing on the roadside selling a Malawian culinary delicacy - field mice on sticks.
Thirteen thousand kilometres is a long journey by any means, but in a lorry on dishevelled roads it's even longer, so there was lots of time to sit and watch. On designated travel days, I often just sat in silence, taking it all in as we passed through cities, towns and tiny villages. These moments in life are rare; we are constantly preoccupied by something else, so it was magical to just be present and watch the world go by.
When it was hot, we would roll up the plastic windows and let the air blow through to cool us down. When we grew tired of looking out the window, we would sleep, chat, play music and read. Phone signal and wifi were rare, so phones were of little use.
As for the people, there were so many along the route. Each brought the places to life. People like Collen, a Rastafarian walking guide in the Zimbabwean highlands who stopped on a rock halfway through our journey, lit up a joint and declared: "Mountains are my religion." He led us through rarely travelled paths on the Mozambique border, taught us about the water, the animals, and told us about his family's close encounter with death when Cyclone Idai destroyed his house last year.
Boarding that yellow truck in Nairobi was the most worthwhile and enriching journey I've ever taken. I started out as a solo traveller and finished surrounded by a group of friends, armed with all sorts of wild and wonderful stories that I could never share in a national newspaper!
'Sure you're never really alone, are you? You always have yourself...'
Sinéad Kennedy, 46, is a health and wellness coach based in Co Dublin. She runs cycling and yoga holidays to Spain (sineadekennedy.com), and will shortly publish a book on her travels, Flying Solo.
At this age (let's just say over 40 but totally fabulous), I never expected to be lying on a gorgeous beach in Cuba on another fantastic solo holiday.
I've now been to 65 countries and never tire of my travels. Travelling alone has changed my attitude to just about everything and everyone. Especially myself. I have new-found self-esteem, courage, fulfilment and joy for life. There's more fun and laughter in my world. Travelling solo is the best thing I ever did for myself.
Cuba was this year's adventure, and it was a real eye-opener. It's like the Land that Time Forgot - you may have seen photos of old-timer cars from the 1950s... well, they're not for postcards or tourists. They are their cars.
It's not just the transport that's old; it's absolutely everything. There are no appliance shops, department stores or anything remotely like a shopping centre. Somehow, everything is refurbished even though there are no new parts! I have seen terrible poverty in other countries, but this is different. Cuba feels stuck in time. 'Supermarket' shelves are mostly empty and if there is a product, you have two choices - take it or leave it!
Being there, I learned to appreciate all I have and it got me to restart my gratitude journal. I also gave away most of my clothes. They needed them more than I did.
Attitudes can feel outdated, too. Men will ogle you, so leave your feminist cards at home. They don't think like us and I am not so sure they ever will... ("Men are men," they might say.) I was chatted up by young and old alike, but mostly it was harmless, and sometimes flattering. I got very good at telling them: "My husband is having a lie-down!" A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do…
I don't find solo travel lonely or scary. Travelling alone opens your eyes way more than when you're with someone else. You obviously have to fend for yourself, but you get talking to locals and to other travellers too. You pick up books you might not normally read. You learn so much about yourself and the world. I got to improve my Spanish too… though my Irish-Spanish accent is still causing chaos! (As does my name, thanks Mam!)
Sure you're never really alone, are you? You always have yourself. You have to be able to enjoy your own company, like yourself and be your own best friend... I think everyone, whether solo or not, should go it alone at least once, even if it's just for one day. Think of the me-time you appreciate at home - why not extend it a little?
In Cuba, Che and Fidel are everywhere - murals, pictures, signposts, banners, monuments, even bus stops and, of course, in the pride of the people. There are 'Gracias Fidel' signs in offices and shops. The internet? Trying to get links to open is hard work; most are either blocked or take ages to download. There's also little to no environmental awareness. Poor Greta would explode if she came here! Black fumes spill freely from 70-year-old exhausts, people openly litter in the streets and everyone smokes. I thought I would die from passive smoking in the salsa clubs, even with their open-air roofs!
On the positive side, I found Cubans highly creative and artistic. Food is all fresh, local produce, with no pesticides and there are no global fast-food and coffee-shop chains (no harm there if you ask me). Dancing and singing loudly are the life and soul of the place. I went for a salsa lesson early on in my trip and it really stood to me. You never know when you may be called upon to salsa…
Don't I ever want to share my travel experiences with others? Yes, of course, but I also meet lots of other amazing solo travellers. All of us are more or less going the same way and out for adventure. A selfie stick is a must. I always travel with my Snoopy teddy, too - honestly, I do. I'm like Mr Bean! Everyone needs a comfort blanket/crutch and once I have him with me, I feel happy and safe. He's been all over the world and has his own photo album! Next up for us is an adventure to Panama and Costa Rica.
Downsides? Sure, I have been overcharged, have gotten upset tummies and have some funny stories, but that's to be expected. I've also made great friends and seen amazing places. Solo travel has pushed me to find new ways to challenge myself physically, mentally and emotionally. Not just abroad but in my personal life too. Knowing my self-worth and becoming my own best friend was only possible for me by spending quality time with myself. No longer a caterpillar stuck in a cocoon, I have emerged as this lovely, happy and very fulfilled butterfly!
I don't have a life adventure partner yet, but when I do, I will still take an annual solo holiday. I want to continue the good work I am doing on myself for myself. Plus, absence makes the heart grow fonder. It gives you both space to reconnect with yourself and each other when you return. So get yourself a travel teddy and go in search of the one person you have to live with. You!
'I never wanted that race to end...'
Holly Hughes (26) is Communications & Fundraising Officer with Vita - an Irish agency fighting hunger and climate change in Africa (vita.ie).
As a woman, being in control (or at the very least appearing to be in control) has been a constant theme of my solo travel.
Safety, control and dignity were the Holy Trinity I defended and preserved with a reverence bishops would be proud of - averting eyes, repressing emotion, denying curiosity, feigning ignorance and, most importantly, steadfastly refusing the allure of the international signal for 'hapless tourist' - the illustrated hostel map.
Yet, as I stretched my hamstrings on a starting line in Ethiopia, I found these careful boundaries desecrated and all my safety procedures disintegrating in the elbows, feet, shouts and impossible heat of the Great Ethiopian Run.
I had arrived in a group but, in the surge of the foot-stomping throng at the starting whistle, soon found myself dislodged from the herd.
I was suddenly cast adrift in the yellow-jerseyed ocean; faced with a stampede of 50,000 strangers now openly taking selfies. Caution, meet wind.
As a foot-hop evolved to a jog and jostling upgraded to undisguised shoving, I was faced with two choices: I could either stick with my Holy Trinity (probably resulting in severe personal injury and a barrage of Amharic swear words) or - and this was a revelation - I could just… go with it. And so I began to run - alone.
Reader, I loved it.
I once heard the All-Ireland hurling final described as "a kaleidoscope of colour and a cacophony of sound". Carried along with a crowd singing Ethiopian anthems I longed to know the words to; tugged by a tsunami of coloured jerseys and garish face paint, I thought that commentator had never truly seen colour or experienced sound.
Not like this, anyway.
Every kilometre was marked by a street party - festooned stages of costumed dancers blaring reggae, Latino, and soul music. Enormous hoses extended trunk-like over the athletes. Temporary bars lined the streets as friends made briefly in the breathless boogie were rediscovered several kilometres later, beer in hand, among mismatched tables.
With every stride, I joined this celebration a little more, relinquishing control to this strange, heaving mass. My body became not my own, but a communal entity to be pushed, prodded and sometimes forcibly rolled in the required direction. I forewent fear and instead leant into the ebullience of strangers - allowing them to carry me, trusting them to bolster me in the unknown.
This was increasingly necessary, as Ethiopia is really quite hilly and running really very hard. While my agile, athletic compatriots sprinted past me, showing off with languid strides and exemplary lung capacity, I - the short, hapless, pigtailed foreigner - was grappling with never-ending Everests, panting as I turned a darker shade of puce.
Yet, every time I trotted to a defeated walk, there was someone on hand to grab my wrist, slap my back and serenade me back into puffing again.
I never wanted that race to end. Even with the soreness, the sodden trainers, the voice hoarse from shouted salutations, I wanted the euphoria, the belonging to continue into the mountainous distance. Yet, even as I crossed the finish line and those strangers-turned-allies dispersed, their lesson stayed with me - stays with me now.
Leaning into fear is not only as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, it is worth chasing. I still have my Holy Trinity. But it is sometimes worth relinquishing control in favour of adventure, surrendering dignity to embarrassment, and fear of strangers to the hope of friendship.
It deserves a medal. And some of Ethiopia's finest carbohydrates.
'I'm trying to immerse myself in a city of death that is also so full of life...'
Isabel Conway, in her early 60s, is a veteran journalist and travel writer, and winner of this year's Travel Extra Travel Journalist of the Year award.
Sunrise turns the murky river to molten gold and I'm lost, scrambling up and down numerous flights of steps strewn with garlands of burnt incense sticks on the western banks of the Holy Ganges.
Coming close to a cremation, I can see the feet of a corpse and long coils of white hair from the deceased protruding from within the funeral pyre.
Most foreign visitors view Varanasi's historic cremation ceremonies from much further away on organised boat tours. In my embroidered salwar kameez (Punjabi tunic and trousers) and shawl, however, I'm trying to immerse myself in a city of death that is also so full of life.
Many years earlier, while backpacking with friends, I had wanted to visit this extraordinary place - but the Taj Mahal and Agra won the majority vote. Travelling solo, I am at last fulfilling a dream.
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi, India's oldest and holiest city, guarantees liberation from reincarnation and a never-ending cycle of birth and death. The pilgrimage site has been a cultural, historic and religious centre for more than 5,000 years.
You might think that open-air cremations, preceded by the procession that carries the deceased wrapped in white and yellow cloth down the steps for a final dip in the Holy Ganges where pilgrims bathe, are unnerving, even rather ghoulish. But the ceremonies that follow ancient rituals are intensely spiritual, moving and serene.
Varanasi's mayhem of markets, crowded alleyways, wandering cows, orange-clad sadhus (holy men) and auto rickshaws that relentlessly honk and belch their fumes unfolds close by. The humdrum lives alongside the holy, but it all feels perfectly natural. Saying a silent prayer, I move away. But the faces of the mourners, chanted mantras, tinkling bells and fragrance of incense are a lingering memory.
My journey to Varanasi from Lucknow took nine hours, delayed by lengthy breakdowns on the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh. My sagging first-class seat resembled a broken dentist's chair. The overhead air-conditioning unit dripped water. Using the toilet required an extremely strong stomach. The adventurous traveller's best weapons in India are patience, flexibility, fortitude and a sense of humour.
Sipping lukewarm, over-sweetened tea served by a cheery chai wallah (tea boy) who danced along the aisles, I chatted with fellow passengers, sharing out custard creams and digestive biscuits.
Three of us were female, middle-aged and travelling solo, so bonding was easy.
"Independent travel is not just for the intrepid and young backpackers," the woman from Germany in a floppy hat and combat trousers reflected. "But India can be tricky and confusing," said another solo traveller, a gentle soul from New Jersey who had visited ashrams and yoga retreats, retracing Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love.
We agreed that signing up to one of the excellent small guided tours in the country can add peace of mind, especially for logistics and a solo traveller's security. My arrival at Varanasi station, besieged by hordes of shouting taxi drivers and porters, is a case in point. So is the memory of being jostled and pestered by men while I strolled alone in a lit-up touristy district.
But you can find tranquillity here, too.
"Come as a stranger, go as a friend" is the motto at Aashray homestay in the Mahmoorganj inner suburb of Varanasi. Travelling to see the processions and pilgrims here, I chose a homestay to learn more about Indian culture, customs and food. It proved a wonderful immersion into life here, better than an impersonal chain hotel.
Mr and Mrs Kapur welcomed me like a daughter. They are devout Hindus, so all meals were vegetarian. The petite gracious lady of the house beckoned me to the kitchen to watch how she and her beautiful young maid (who looks like a Bollywood star) prepare a dozen varying dishes of vegetables, pulses and fragrant spices.
I have rarely felt so at peace with the world and myself.