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A Solo Trip to Australia Taught Me that Anyone Can Be an Adventurer

A Solo Trip to Australia Taught Me that Anyone Can Be an Adventurer
© Bruno Carrillo Bertens/Getty Woman hiker explores dramatic cliffs and rock formations in Australia's Northern Territories.
By Sara Polsky, Condé Nast Traveller

“You are traveling by yourself?”

I was at a picnic table in a tent in the middle of Australia’s Red Centre, on the other side of the world from my home in New York City. In front of me: a camel burger on my plate, a bowl of grilled kangaroo meat on the table, and seven German tourists who would make up most of my travel group for three days of hiking and camping in the wilderness. It was a trip I’d chosen to take alone, but I was nervous.

I grew up reading stories of travel as a solo adventure—solo physical adventure, like crossing Antarctica or climbing Everest. But despite a lifelong wanderlust, I had never been that kind of traveler. Serious hip problems since birth meant that I avoided long walks, steep climbs, and rocky ground. On a trip to Israel in college, I sat out the hike up Masada; when I attempted hikes back home with friends, I always had the feeling I was holding everyone else back.

I'd never been able to shake the sensation that traveling less actively made me less of a real traveler. Australia, I thought, could be a chance to change that. I had fallen in love with the country first through books—Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The Road From Coorain, novels by Melina Marchetta and Cath Crowley that seemed to have a looseness and openness I longed for—and then through people, as I met extroverted Australians in hostels or on group trips elsewhere in the world. In pictures, the outback looked relatively flat and manageable, the kind of place even I could handle on my own. If I were going to turn myself into the traveler I wanted to be, outgoing and able to accomplish the kinds of physical feats I’d read about, Australia seemed like the only possible place to go.

I cashed in a lifetime of frequent flyer miles and made my way to Sydney, where I wandered around the waterfront and botanical garden, took a walking tour of Bondi Beach with a guide who claimed to be a former child actor, and rode the bus to the Blue Mountains, befriending a woman from Singapore along the way. Then I flew to Alice Springs, in Australia’s Northern Territory.

After a night at a campsite so dark we wore headlamps to find our way to our tents, apologizing when we accidentally beamed the bright lights into each other’s faces, we rose before dawn and drove to Uluru, the 1,142-foot-high, 600-million-year-old rock formation in the Northern Territory. We walked around the rock’s nearly six-mile circumference and as the sun rose, fissures on the rock became visible and the sandstone changed color in the light, a slow unveiling.

I kept up with all but the fastest walkers in the group. As I often do when I feel relatively fit, I began fantasizing about more extravagant hikes I could do, the ones I hear other travelers in their 30s talk about that have always felt tantalizingly out of reach for me. Could I walk the Appalachian Trail? The Pacific Crest Trail? The Camino de Santiago? I moved into the Uluru dawn full of wild, unmerited confidence. That afternoon, as we drove from one site to another, the rest of the group called on me to repeat the guide’s words when they couldn't hear them. I turned sideways in my seat to shout out the names of flowers and geological eras.

I understood that travel would always be like this for me: a process of adapting.

Travelers to the outback are warned of heat and potential dehydration, but the next morning it was cold and gray, and I put on every layer of clothing I had with me for the last hike, the Kings Canyon Rim Walk, which would be the most challenging one of our trip. I still felt energized from the triumph of the previous day, and our guide, an older man, assured me Kings Canyon was a hike he did all the time, even with bad knees.

But when we arrived at the morning’s starting point, I looked up at the sharp, rocky first section of the climb and knew abruptly that I couldn’t do it. It was too steep and uneven, with no ropes, rails, or walls between us and the long drop to the ground.

As everyone else began to climb, the guide directed me to a shorter, gentler walk nearby called Kings Creek, and I set out alone. Soon it began to rain, and the rocks under my feet became slippery. I stepped more carefully, crouching, and reaching to grab hold of one rock for support while I moved to the next, and the version of myself I had imagined the day before disappeared. I understood that travel would always be like this for me: a process of adapting. But I had still made it, alone, to this rocky path on the other side of the world. Maybe travel didn’t have to be active, or an epic feat of endurance, to be real.

Eventually, the rain eased and light reappeared across the canyon walls. I made my way back along the creek path to the rest area, where a bright yellow sign in the bathroom warned of the possibility of bees in the water taps. In search of adventure, I turned on the sink.

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