Somewhere in the middle of a nine-hour bus journey from Tauranga to Wellington, I began to feel like I might be doing the whole solo female travel thing wrong. I’d been singing “Wheels On The Bus” with an eight-year-old girl for the past six hours and was already questioning almost everything I’d been told about going on holiday alone. If this had been a rom-com, I would have ended up next to the love of my life, not babysitting free of charge.
Before leaving for New Zealand, I considered the fact that I was traveling alone merely incidental. I enjoy hiking and swimming, and that’s kind of New Zealand’s whole “thing.” Whenever someone responded to my travel plans with “by yourself?!”, I shrugged it off, indifferent and somewhat bemused by their concern. I’m introverted, happy in my own company, a reader and someone with a ceaseless inner monologue that is both entertaining and exhausting—being alone would not be a big struggle for me. Resisting the near-constant availability of fish and chips on the other hand? Now that would be a challenge.
New Zealand had been on my bucket list for some time, and so I was raring to go, whether anyone would join me or not. I was unfazed by the almost 50-hour journey I would have to take, and played down my belated realization that my great summer abroad would, in fact, be during the winter. I had six weeks to loop around the two islands, guided by my own whims. Nothing to lose, everything to gain, I headed off with no adaptor, plan, or itinerary—and thus a pretty loose set of expectations.
And yet, in an unguarded moment on this godforsaken Intercity bus, I started to worry. While Spotify was insistent—and, might I add, a little pointed—in recommending the “My Life Is A Movie” playlist to me, the trip had not turned up the stuff of Hollywood scripts. I’d had a toothless skipper ask for my number, and suffered a series of unprofitable currency exchange miscalculations. Most embarrassing of all, I did not have one epiphany to show for it all. I was utterly failing to live up to the myth of the solo female traveler.
This trope is everywhere in pop culture. She is there in the great odysseys of Eat Pray Love, Wild, and Under The Tuscan Sun. She is Celine in Before Sunrise, Ann in Roman Holiday, the girls in Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants. She is inescapable. And she is the standard against which you will inevitably measure yourself should you ever find yourself trotting across to the other side of the world.
Even if you are not a movie watcher, you won’t have avoided her cultural clutch. In this age of the “self” and heightened individualism, she has become both a derided cliché and an envied ideal online. At the time of writing, there are some 7.7 million #solotravel posts on Instagram. As I traipsed across New Zealand, looking the part with my monstrosity of a backpack, I was still idealizing other people’s posts of their adventurous travels, regretful that I was not donning a couple of toe rings purchased at some admirably obscure market in Indonesia.
Many of us will find ourselves wandering solo at some point in our lives, with women making up an estimated—and astonishing—84 percent of all solo travelers. A 2019 HostelWorld report declared that the “future of travel is female.” “Where solo travel was once seen as brave and risky for female travelers,” it reads, “a shift in attitude has meant that it is now an adventurous, exciting experience that allows them to feel free, and empower other women to do the same.” In the four years preceding the pandemic, searches for “solo female travel” increased sixfold according to Google, and this trend has only reasserted itself with more vigor since borders reopened.
These stories of travel-induced transformation have no doubt paved the way and inspired countless women to journey to places they never would have otherwise, but their influence can be stifling. Almost 70 percent of women cite “transformation and self-discovery” as their primary motivation for solo travel, but I hope they aren’t waiting around for a crisis to give them permission to go on a trip by themselves, nor pinning all their hopes on achieving enlightenment along the way.
Truthfully, my first hike in New Zealand was just pure joy and delight. As I walked along Piha’s coastline, the feeling of being on the edge of the world was overwhelming and breathtaking and completely gratifying. It somehow filled me with a sense of both calmness and giddiness, not to mention immense disbelief at actually having made it there. The trip was punctuated by a number of other such moments. I did the Pinnacles Walk and felt as if I had been catapulted straight into The Lord Of The Rings. The next week I was in Kaikoura, and was splashed by a humpback whale that breached directly in front of our boat. I got to snowboard in Queenstown, see dolphins in Milford Sound, and even stayed with some friends in an old lighthouse keeper’s hut at the very tip of Cape Brett.
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Sure, self-discovery on the road is possible—but no more so than it is in day-to-day life. Solo travel is just a concentrated form of your usual experience of the world. Removed from your routine, you experience moments of abject normality in a more intense, vivid way. My trip may have come up short on epiphanies, but it did give a shiny novelty to the most mundane of moments—the sheer delight of making it onto the right bus, the giddy disbelief at making it from point A to point B in one piece… And, of course, the satiating pleasure of a good plate of fish and chips.