Text by Kevin Rushby
A key moment in my childhood was when some kind soul pushed a copy of Jean Craighead George’s classic book My Side of the Mountain under my nose, the tale of a young boy surviving alone in the woods of upstate New York. Suddenly the purpose behind all those long summer days spent building tree houses and dens in various woods and hedges became clear. I needed a log cabin in the wilderness. I needed deep untamed forests and time to commune with Nature. More to the point, I needed to escape an older brother who shared the same bedroom.
That need for solitude, paradoxically, has always been a part of the human need to travel, an activity that would seem to bring more in the way of social contact and engagement. A quick glance back at travel literature, however, reveals a rich history of people travelling to be alone. From Henry Thoreau’s musings right up to the recent book by Sylvain Tesson, Consolations of the Forest, there is a big, long stream of solitary silence flowing through humanity’s restless journeying. Once the preserve of religious hermits, secularism has not diminished our desire to slip away and contemplate, in splendid isolation, the big questions of life.
My first travels took me to Africa and a thatched, mud-walled one-room home in Southern Sudan. Solitude was nowhere to be seen however, with a constant stream of entertaining neighbours and visitors. Did I want to buy some Zairean river gold? No! What about this leopard skin – mouldy on one side, but still useful?
I did have a sense of remoteness from the outside world, though I hardly appreciated it at the time. No phones, no television, no postal service, not even a radio after the nearest market ran out of Chinese batteries: it all seemed a natural part of an African bush experience. Little did I imagine that I was one of the last human generations to enjoy such pleasures without having to exert superhuman willpower – “Repeat after me: I will not switch on my mobile phone.”
I was reminded of this on a recent journey across the Andes when, looking down the bus, I noticed all the gap-year backpackers busily texting, emailing or simply surfing the web on their tablet computers. A ripple of communication passed down the seats: “There’s a signal!” I dug out my phone, of course, and checked my emails. And within seconds I was dealing with other concerns, future trips and old problems. I was not fully engaged with the Andes.
Is anyone actually “away” in the sense they once were? Let’s face it, mental solitude starts with the off switch on all the appliances and they must stay off for a very long time. Slowly your habits and instincts are reformed. Most of all, that incessant need for outside diversion is killed. Time stretches before you. In Sudan I became a specialist in the subtleties of boredom. All my books, hefty tomes that I thought boredom would drive me to complete, lay half-finished and apparently destined to be remain so: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Boredom gobbled up my willpower and turned my resolutions to mush. Every day I would visit Khalid, the shopkeeper. “Batteries?” And every day he would tell me that no lorries had arrived. Despite its sleepy tranquillity, our area was largely cut off by conflict and war.
But down in the bottom of my slack swamp of ennui and indolence something stirred. I learned to know time by the delicacies of sunlight and shade, by the sounds of birds and insects. The trips to Khalid became an entertainment in themselves and the batteries were forgotten. I emerged from the deserts of boredom unscathed, never to return.
The world is not like that now. Mobile phone signals are almost everywhere (though I do recommend Mongolia for escaping them). Email is ubiquitous, as is satellite television. When that bus across the Andes was stopped by raging winds and ice storms in temperatures of -20oC, those backpackers were on the internet immediately: “Stuck at 5,000m in the Andes – like me on Facebook.”
If anything, as solitude, real solitude, retreats ever further, the desire for it increases. I keep on searching for that perfect log cabin. There was one in France, down near Poitou, built by Diane and Bob Kirkwood (covertcabin.com) that came very close, and skating on the coast of a wintry Sweden I saw some contenders through the trees: “Who owns that place? The one with the broken windows – is it for sale?” I’m still in the hunt. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: utopia is a place where humanity is constantly arriving, then immediately departing as it spots a better alternative. And I am beginning to wonder: is the future of travel to stay still? To switch off the appliances and withdraw from contact? When I set out for Africa aged 21 I didn’t know a soul who had been there; now the majority of people seem to have visited. But everyone wants the same things out of travel – the out-of-self experience, the otherness, the dislocations that jolt and inspire – all those things. Maybe we just need to switch off.
In my Sudanese village one day I found Khalid beaming with smiles, “Ya Kevin!” he said, “Batteriyas!” The long-awaited White Elephant dry cells had arrived. I could, if I so desired, end my months-long sojourn in the wilderness of communication blackout. Little did I know, but inside those red and white canisters were Ethiopian famine and Bob Geldof, murders and hijackings, long-lost sports results and, perhaps most significantly for the world yet to come, news of the first Nintendo release. Except that when I did, inevitably, plug in the batteries and switch on – nothing.
At some time during its long silence the radio had been broken, perhaps when I was chasing that spitting cobra around the hut with a mattock. I felt a momentary irritation that soon passed. Then I got on my bicycle and went back to the market to chat to Khalid.
Gaze out to sea in Antalya
With more than 10 million visitors a year, the capital of the Turkish Riviera hardly seems like the place for solitude – but this little rocky outcrop off the main harbour isn’t the only place to find yourself alone. Minibuses will take you to Olympos, a little hippie haven in the woods around a perfect little beach. Where to stay: Olympos’s wooden Deep Green Bungalows blend in with the trees for the chance to commune with nature.
Sunbathe in Lofoten
The Lofoten archipelago is a classic escape fantasy – and the Gulf Stream means it’s warmer than it should be in the Arctic Circle, with temperatures of up to 30°C recorded. The Vestvågøy district is famous for its white sandy beaches: Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet voted Hauklandsand (pictured) the best in Norway.
Where to stay: Picture-perfect fishermen’s cabins on stilts in the harbour town of Svolvær
Cycle downhill in Zermatt
In summer, the gorgeous car-free resort of Zermatt is one of the world’s best spots for downhill mountain biking, with over 100km of trails overlooked by the mighty Matterhorn. It’s still quiet enough that you can feel like you’ve got a whole mountain to yourself. Off the bike, the highest open-air railway in Europe runs to the spectacular summit of the Gornergrat.
Where to stay: Riffelalp Resort, 2,222m above sea level and facing the Matterhorn, offers vintage luxury and mountain bikes to hire.
Walk the Kungsleden trail
The Kungsleden (or King’s Trail), 450km of beautiful nothingness in northern Sweden, goes through what’s said to be Western Europe’s last great wilderness from Hemavan in the south to Abisko in the north. You’re as likely to meet reindeer, lemmings and the occasional elk as you are humans in the trail’s huge glaciated valleys. The well-marked path is split into four sections which take around a week to hike, but you can do smaller chunks – the most popular section is the trail between Abisko and Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain.
Where to stay: Huts along the trail are run by the Swedish Tourist Association (or STF), and some have saunas. A mountain pass from SEK1,295 (NOK1,130) includes five nights’ accommodation.
Soak in a tub on a private island near Stockholm
Most of the 24,000 or so islands in the Stockholm archipelago are tiny, uninhabited and beautiful. One such spot is home to Island Lodge, a sustainable eco-retreat that opened last year with seven luxuriously furnished tents. Torkild Berglund, who owns Island Lodge with his partner Kristina Bonde, says: “We were inspired by African safaris, where you have the best food, the best wine, the best beds, but there’s very little between you and nature.” And all just 35 minutes on a boat from central Stockholm (they’ll pick you up).
Paddle around the Melissani Cave
Kefalonia’s Melissani Cave – a curious body of water in the middle of the forest 500m from the sea – was frequented by nymphs in Greek myths. Today, it’s not quite a hidden gem, and you’ll share the cave with other boats at midday, when the sun glimmers off the crystal clear water (a mix of saltwater and freshwater) – get a local boatman to take you closer to dawn or dusk, though, and you might just have one of Europe’s natural wonders to yourself. A 15-minute boat trip costs €7 (NOK55) per person.
Where to stay: The family-run three-star Sami Beach Hotel, right on a gorgeous stretch of white sand, gets consistently excellent ratings on Tripadvisor, with rooms from €75 (NOK578).
Post a letter at the world’s northernmost post office
Ny-Ålesund in the Svalbard archipelago is the world’s most northerly public settlement, at 78o55’N 11o56’E. Its permanent population of around 35 swells to around 150 in the summer, when researchers come from around the world to work at places like the new Arctic Marine Laboratory. If you go (there are flights from Longyearbyen, or it’s a regular cruise stop), stick to marked paths to avoid sensitive scientific devices. And don’t expect much entertainment – there’s just a single shop, a tiny museum and this post office.
Where to stay: The recently-refurbished Nordpol Hotellet (North Pole Hotel) has been around since 1936.