Things I Learned While Travelling Solo
Before this year, I had never travelled on my own. The closest I’d come was spending two weeks in Germany and Switzerland with my older sister, but she’d planned everything and I was merely a follower. So, when the time came for me to spend 5 weeks backpacking across Australia and New Zealand, I had no idea what to expect. I researched, I texted my sister incessantly (she had spent almost 5 months travelling around South America the previous year), and I worried. Should I have a detailed itinerary, or should I plan on the fly? Was it worth it to buy a bus pass? What would I do if I needed to hitchhike? Would I make friends?
1. That you can make friends anywhere
Yes, it really is true. You don’t have to believe me – I sure as hell didn’t. When I walked into my hostel in Auckland, I remember hopelessly texting my sister that I didn’t know how I was going to make friends there. But I soon realized that (almost) everyone in hostels wants to make friends - all you have to do is get over your insecurities and talk to people. I’ve made friends by doing everything from complimenting someone’s shirt to asking them if I can join a game of beer pong. Not every conversation is going to turn into a lifelong friendship, but you don’t need to be besties with someone to go on a hike together or hang out with them for a day. And you never know what will come of things – I ended up becoming good friends with a woman I serendipitously started a conversation with at that same hostel in Auckland.
Some friends from my hostel in Melbourne
Just be friendly – if someone’s rude to you, then that’s their problem.
2. You’ll learn what you really like to do (and what you really don’t)
While I’ve technically been hiking for my whole life (my parents literally carried me up mountains in a baby carrier when I was an infant), I’d never really done it of my own volition. While I liked hiking in theory, and it was an integral part of my childhood, at the end of the day I only remember ending a lot of hikes frustrated and with aching feet. But New Zealand is the land of incredibly scenic nature, and there was no way I wasn’t going to spend a decent chunk of time making my way up mountains. I – without any pressure from my family – chose to spend the majority of my time hiking. I chose to spend 10 hours scaling an incredibly steep volcano (a choice I later regretted), to do the uphill hike with rewarding views instead of the flat walk, to wake up at 2:30 am and hike a mountain before sunrise. By doing it on my own, I was able to learn that I truly enjoyed it and that it wasn’t just another thing that I did because my family liked it.
Hiking Roy's Peak for sunrise was definitely worth the view!
On the other hand, I learned I had little patience for crowded touristy areas and would rather do things at my own pace. I ultimately decided not to travel with several friends because I wasn’t interested in going to the same places as them. This was one of the best decisions I made, despite the fact that at the time it felt like everyone else was doing the same thing and I was the one isolating myself. Travelling solo is about doing what you want to do, not what everyone else tells you that you should be doing.
Arthur's Pass National Park was one of the most remote places that I travelled to, and also one of my favourite spots in New Zealand
3. You have to make time for the things that are important to you
I moved around like crazy throughout my entire trip. I only had a month to see the entire country of New Zealand, and I didn’t want to miss anything. But I soon realized that I needed to make time to relax and that there was no one else around to remind me to slow down so I didn’t get burnt out. There were several afternoons that I just relaxed on the beach or sat in my hostel and watched the Olympics. While I initially felt somewhat guilty that I was wasting precious time, I eventually realized that those days were necessary for me to be able to fully enjoy my trip as a whole.
Sunset after a relaxing day at Lake Tekapo
I also went out of my way to visit a couple places a little more ‘off the beaten track’ that I easily could’ve skipped. My route didn’t always make the most sense, but it worked for me because I went to the places I wanted to go. In the end, I regretted the places I skipped because I was in a hurry and loved the places I went out of my way to make time for.
Views from the Forgotten World Highway (State Highway 43) on North Island
4. How to ask strangers for photos
While this may seem like an insignificant part of the trip, I was so used to having my sister or my mom as a built-in photographer to document the trip that I didn’t know what to do with myself. My selfie-taking skills leave something to be desired, and my mom continually texted me demanding pictures. On one of the first days of my trip, I wandered around anxiously for about 10 minutes before I built up the courage to ask a kind stranger to take a photo of me in front of the Australian Open letters (per my brother’s request). By the end of my trip, I didn’t even think twice before asking a stranger to take a far more posed picture of me.
The photo that took wayyyy too long to get
Unless you’re being obnoxious, most people don’t care what you’re doing. And even if they did, I learned not to.
One of many photos from this beach photo shoot in Abel Tasman
5. How to push yourself out of your comfort zone – to an extent
While I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a well-travelled family, travelling solo was a big step for me. I didn’t know the first thing about planning a trip and the thought of not knowing where I was going to be sleeping every night gave me anxiety. But I didn’t want to ruin my trip by over-planning, and I learned to let go. I got on a 4-hour bus to a train station without having a train ticket. I drove on the other side of the road – through winding mountains and unpaved rural roads. I bungee jumped off the highest bungee in Oceania, and I loved every second of it (after I managed to make the jump off the terrifyingly high platform).
Don't look down!
But I also learned where I had to draw the line between pushing myself and being unsafe/too uncomfortable. I wouldn’t let myself get on a bus anywhere unless I knew I had a bed to sleep in for at least one night – a rule that proved useful after watching dozens of people get stranded without accommodation in Wanaka. In addition, despite assurances that New Zealand was the safest place in the world to do it, I never hitchhiked. While I knew many people who did so successfully and safely, as a woman travelling alone, I always felt more comfortable paying for a bus or shuttle ticket. I salute the people who were willing to do so and able to save on transportation costs, but it just wasn’t for me, and that’s okay.
Push yourself, but also know your boundaries.
6. How to appreciate the little things
Travelling solo is amazing, but as with anything, you’re not going to enjoy every single second. Sometimes it rains and ruins your plans. Sometimes the view isn’t as good as advertised. Sometimes the hostel doesn’t have enough plugs and you just really want to charge your phone so you can call your mom. But it was those moments that forced me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Maybe it was raining and windy and the weather outside was complete shit, but I was still in an incredibly beautiful place with stunning views. I had nowhere else to be, and any other semester, I probably would’ve been sitting in a classroom or doing homework. Hiking in the rain was invigorating, and it led to the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen.
Post-rain waterfalls in Fiordland
The view not being as good as you want it to be is not a real problem. Not having a place to charge your phone every time you want to is not a real problem. You’re going to get tired, you’re going to get cranky, and not everything is going to go your way. Travelling is an adventure, and I had an infinitely better time by focusing on the positives of the situation. At the very least, it’ll make a good story someday.
I may not have “found myself” while travelling solo, but I most definitely had the adventure of a lifetime. Travelling solo is terrifying and eye-opening and amazing and so much more. I had so much fun and learned so much about myself and I cannot recommend it enough.