Ahhh, me time. How I do love my me time. How much time you can bear to spend alone differs dramatically between each and every person. There are those who can reside like hermits, quite happy in their own company for weeks, and those who dread every second of silence lest the cruel thief known as loneliness creep up on them and wrestle the happiness from their clutches.
People get mighty weird about confessing to loneliness due to misplaced shame and pride and fear of what that particular emotion might mean. Travelling solo in a strange continent, and moving to a country where I’ve previously known no one means I’ve experienced my fair share of being alone — and yes, from time to time, that’s meant being lonely too.
When people tell me I’m brave for going abroad on my own, what they really mean is that I’m brave for staring loneliness square in the face and taking a chance on it not ruining my fun. The truth is though that I get a kick out of making my own little way in the world and having no set plans, and I’m more than willing to take the risk. Loneliness happens sometimes — it’s part of life, but if you can learn to quell it, to master the art of being alone, I have discovered that it doesn’t half make the rest of life more pleasant and easy, and at the best of times, more exciting!
I remember my first Sunday in Brussels — I had yet to start work, and so I knew not a soul in the city, or even the country. I was a stranger to everyone and no one expected a thing of me. I went shopping and bought a rug for my room. I found a secluded city park, spread out the rug and lay there all afternoon, reading and napping. It was balmy autumnal day and I felt completely happy and completely at peace. The only person who interacted with me was a tiny Belgian girl who took a shine to me and kept bringing me conkers she’d found. Like the sentimental fool I am, I took one home and kept it on my mantelpiece for the rest of my time there — giving it a little Mexican hat from the top of a tequila bottle when times became more sociable.
Nothing compares though to the experience I had on Crescent Island in Kenya. Crescent Island is a game park with a moat. It is filled with all the gentlest, loveliest creatures from the African savannah, and no dangerous predators, meaning you can go roaming about on foot without fear of being mauled and eaten. Nestled in the middle of Lake Naivasha not far from Nairobi, it’s hardly a well-kept local secret, but it sure feels like it is when you find yourself there with no other humans, or signs of any.
My gangly guide Moses spent the first hour of my walking safari manically bounding around pointing out day-old giraffe and searching for dik-dik (the dinkiest and most Bambi-like of antelope species) in the trees, before leaving me and the animals to make friends. I stood and turned and stood some more as Moses loped off in the direction of jetty. With a smile and a wave he disappeared over the ridge and I was suddenly very alone.
When all is quiet and still and there’s nothing to do but walk and stand and look, the scale of the world doesn’t half impress itself upon you in a rather intimidating way. It’s momentarily terrifying, and then suddenly utterly glorious.
Once I’d reassured myself that no woman is an island, even when she is alone on an island – or somesuch – and I saw the sun break through the storm clouds over the water in a way that made me feel like I was watching a full-scale dramatization of the book of Genesis and Morgan Freeman had just boomed “Let there be light!”, I basked euphorically in all that silence and tranquillity until the cows came home. Or, for the sake of accuracy, until the boat returned to pick me up.
Being okay with stillness and silence is, for want of a better phrase, utterly liberating, particularly when the only thing in the world that reacts to you is an animal that stops chewing its grass for a moment to give you a brief once over before returning again to its grass. There’s something hilarious about having a staring competition with a giraffe, and something even funnier about the fact that you’re standing alone on an island and laughing out loud to yourself with no one else to hear it or share in the joke (just the giraffe and his tessellated friends, all of whom are probably thinking how annoying you are and wishing you’d go away). You could be the first person in the world or the last — the giraffe of Crescent Island don’t care. Neither do the zebra, nor the wildebeest, nor the antelope. How’s that for some life perspective?
The long and short of it is that you should always go on a walking safari if you get the chance. It makes you feel closer to nature ‘n that. But all the better if, like me, you have the opportunity to experience the thrill of doing the thing alone on an island, when everything’s at its most peaceful and untouched by human influence — when the nearest thing to you that can talk human speak is separated from you by a body of water. At that point it’s just you and the wild animals, the land they’re stood on and the sky above — and oh boy, is that something pretty special right there.