The benign insanity of the long distance, solo traveler

I’m standing on a beach, all alone, many, many miles from the nearest humanoid. I stare out at the grey-blue Atlantic Ocean. Waves roll unceasingly onto endless white sand. Under my feet lies the exposed skeleton of a ship. Steel, deep-red in color, flakes off under my hand, fluttering onto the sand. Gulls call, spreading the news that whoever came ashore here, must have perished.

And then a joke.

“Imagine someone being wrecked ashore here,” I say to my trusted travel companion—me.
“Oh! Thank God! We made it!” I reply. “We got to land. Praise be the—”
A look about. White emptiness stretches on both sides to the distant horizons. In front, a barren range of dunes almost fills the sky.
“Hang on a minute.” Another pause. “Maybe I should get back into the boat.”

This is the joke I shared with my camera minutes after suffering a bout of what I call ‘benign insanity’ —the result of being all alone all day, every day, day after day for days on end.

Few people get the chance to experience this bizarre illness.

The symptoms include:
1. Talking out loud to one’s self and feeling just fine about it,
2. Talking about really trivial things that become very important,
3. Rationalizing out loud on even minor decisions,
4. Enduring the unshakable feeling that you are being watched, even though you are the only person in a thousand miles.

That was in 2010 and I was on the first part of an expedition to find the source of the Okavango River. The first part included a six-day solo drive through the Namib Desert. I was on day four, deep into the Skeleton Coast, on a search of a shipwreck. I was standing on it when the attack occurred.

But I was no stranger to the illness.

Two years earlier, I had crossed the Kalahari Desert, on my own. I did it because I had read of the exploits of Tom Sheppard and his solo trips to Algeria and Tunisia. I was determined to find out why he preferred to travel alone. So I packed my Land Cruiser 76 wagon and headed out. I spent the first three days in the Kalahari fighting off the insanity—and giving my laundry-man a challenge when I had a close encounter with a Lion. The scariest moment of my life. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Not at all.

Then I had a catastrophic tire failure. That forced to me to consider my options. With suspect tires and only one spare, I had hundreds of miles to go in very rough terrain with only a small possibility of seeing other people. I had intentionally not carried any form of communication device with me because I hadn’t wanted one. The whole idea was to see how it felt, not to just be alone, but to be completely isolated from the world. I had to rely on my own wits to keep me alive. I decided to turn back.

This first attempt, while it could be considered a failure, wasn’t one. In fact, I considered it to be an unmitigated success. I learned from the experience that preparation is key to enjoying solo journeys. If well prepared, communication devices are not necessary or even undesirable.

But the best news of all is that benign insanity is something one should not just get used to, but welcome. It’s okay to be a little mad. As long as nobody is looking. With me, though, I am always watched by my TV and web audience. My solo trips are among my most popular shows. I guess it’s because they are always a bit of a surprise and make people laugh.

Finding places to be alone for long isn’t easy. Even in Africa, I can’t drive across the remotest Kalahari for more than two or three days before bumping into someone, no matter which track I take. In the Namib, especially in the sand seas off the coast, one can go for longer. But six days is probably the maximum. So if one wants even longer stretches of insanity, a yacht may be the only option.

Every day on the trail, I experienced the almost unnerving feeling that I was being watched even when I knew that there was no possibility of anyone within a hundred miles.

And then there is the odd sensation that you have nobody to worry about except yourself. It might appear selfish, but I think this is what I enjoyed the most about these trips. In our everyday lives, there is always someone else we need to consider. Our children need a ride, wife asks us to help with something, or wants to go to the movies with you. The dog needs feeding and the bloody lawn is still growing. And I haven’t even got to my office yet. But alone, in the wilderness, the experience is so utterly different to any other life environment because there is no one to consider but one’s self.

That didn’t mean I had time to goof off. I always found myself busy, no matter what. In the evening, a fire, and a meal to prepare. Tidy the vehicle. Check it over for the drive tomorrow. Watch the sun go down. Open a beer. Be in the moment. It’s fantastic.

Good parts about solo travel:
• Benign insanity and laughing at one’s self.
• Only yourself to look after.
• It’s exciting being in a potentially dangerous situation and being cool about it.
• Feeling of accomplishment

Less good parts:
• Loneliness, especially after dark.
• Missing family and friends.

As far as the risks are concerned, I learned what to anticipate before I headed out. The dangers included:
1. Fire, because it would deprive me of life-giving shelter, and water.
2. A debilitating fall. I slept on the roof on my wagon, sans tent. There’s nothing quite like opening one’s eyes to a Kalahari morning under the sky. But a ladder slippery with morning dew could result in a slip and fall, which could mean death. I knew it, and I reckon if you’d seen me climb down from that rack, you’d have mistaken me for a crippled old man. I was very, very careful.

My next solo trip will be in Australia. I don’t know where or when, but it’s calling as loudly as that lion called that first night solo in the Kalahari.

Here is where I post my shows were at some time, I suffered bouts of what I call, ‘benign insanity’ It’s what the solo traveller suffers after a time utterly alone.


There are three film links that follow.