By Kathleen Kemsley, (c) 2020
Experienced globe trotters praise solo travel. When journeying with a spouse or friend, they say, the two of you form a unit which appears impenetrable to outsiders. When alone, however, you become both more self-sufficient and more open to strangers, as you ask for help or reach out to connect. In the first few years after my husband passed away, I took international trips with several different friends. But finally, in the fall of 2018, I decided to take the big step of setting forth to a foreign country all by myself.
I picked an easy country to begin with: Australia. At least they spoke English – sort of – and I could get myself around Queensland at my own pace in a rented camper van. But my first night at a hotel near the airport in Brisbane, I awoke from nightmares about driving the wrong way on the road. With no co-pilot, how would I navigate my way? There was nothing to do but walk to the rental agency, claim the van I had reserved, and give it a try.
It turned out that getting onto the freeway was fairly straightforward. However, on the northern outskirts of Brisbane I saw a sign for Woolworth’s – the Australian equivalent of Whole Foods – so on a whim, I veered left at the exit. What followed was a kaleidoscope of random turns, cars pulling in front of me, brakes squealing. When I finally came to a stop, I was parked crookedly in a movie theatre lot on the wrong side of the freeway from the grocery store. Hyperventilating, I killed the engine, grabbed a sticky note, and drew an arrow which I attached to the dashboard to remind me which side of the road to use.
Escaping the multiple lane freeway farther north, I eased onto a two way country road lined with eucalyptus trees which bent to form a tunnel. Intermittent signs warned of kangaroos crossing. I pulled in to the exit driveway of a roadside strip mall, again parking sideways in the lot. On foot I walked the length of the shopping center, then entered an IGA convenience store where I bought staple foods – fruit, bread, cheese, peanut butter, coffee, and chocolate. Not Whole Foods, not even close, but the idea of healthy eating had gone out the window when I missed the Woolworths. Asking the clerk for a recommendation for lunch, I was directed next door. There I scored two hot meat pies, greasy and delicious, for $3 each. A beverage store at the other end of the strip mall netted me bottles of cold lemonade and diet soda.
Buoyed by food in my stomach and supplies in the van’s refrigerator, I continued northeast toward the Sunshine Coast – where, naturally, it had begun to rain. I fumbled to find the windshield wipers, instead flicking the turn signal. At a junction, without warning, I encountered my first roundabout. Automatically, I started to veer right. The oncoming driver laid on his horn. “Sorry, sorry!” I shouted out the window. “I’m American!” His fist turned into an open-handed wave for me to go ahead.
Another roadside stop to hyperventilate. Another look at the map. Another bite of chocolate. And a determination, spoken aloud, to get back onto the wrong side of the road. “You can do this,” I told myself. “Leftie bestie. Rightie wrongie.”
Eventually I reached Coolum Beach, where I drove up and down the main street only three times before locating the turn into a large campground. The kind woman at the front desk, seeing how frazzled I looked after a mere two hours of driving, assigned me to a site next to the beach front. Moored at last! Relieved, I turned the van off and began to set up the camper. Before I could even finish, a friendly couple at the next campsite wandered over to talk. The man helped me stretch the awning, while his wife figured out how to set up my portable table.
The standard camper conversational opening, “Where ya from?” turned into an evening of visiting. I learned about their home town (Balmain, a suburb of Sidney), their careers as commercial pilot and flight attendant, and their experience with camping in Australia – “there are campgrounds everywhere!” They taught me the proper Australian word for a bathing suit – “Cossie,” as in, Bathing Costume. And they offered some “lollies,” Australian sweets. My favorite was the TimTam, something like a KitKat, but better, especially when sharing with new friends.
Was I lonely, traveling alone? Never. I had company when I wanted it, and when I didn’t feel like socializing I could duck into the camper like it was my turtle shell. Was I fearful? In the beginning, of course. But by the end of the monthlong journey driving around in Australia, my confidence in solo travel soared.