Adventure Travel: Go Solo or in a Small
Article and photos by Lies
A group adventure climbing a
sand dune in Namibia.
What motivates some adventure travelers
to go it alone, and others to join small group tours?
The former often claim that you cannot
really call it an adventure if you don’t immerse yourself
solo in foreign lands. They also view group travel as usually
stifling their independence and potential for spontaneity.
Money can also be a factor: traveling with a group is generally
more expensive, because guides, office workers, and subcontractors
need to be paid as well.
Meeting a villager in Madagascar.
Meeting a local woman in Yunnan,
The proponents of organized small group
tours prefer to leave the sometimes-complicated logistics
of adventure travel in the hands of a tour leader, whether
it is because they hope to enjoy a stress-free trip, because
they lack the time, energy, or knowhow to do it on their
own, or because they believe that traveling alone is boring,
lonely, or dangerous.
Kayaking in the Arctic is perhaps
best done in a group.
Joining a helicopter ride
over the Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Are You an Introvert or an Extrovert?
Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert
may also play a role in the decision to travel solo or in
a group. Extroverted people feel often more comfortable
in a group setting, see it as an opportunity to meet new
friends and have fun, and gladly share their thoughts and
experiences with others.
Introverted people tend to talk less
and observe more, and need more alone time to process their
impressions, thoughts, and experiences. Introverts find
it usually a chore to be “on” most hours of the day and
to adapt to the dynamics and schedule of a relatively unknown
group of people for an extended period.
Choosing Between Traveling Solo
or in a Group
As for myself, I alternate between both
modes of travel. Or I may opt for a third possibility: solo,
but in the company of a reliable local guide/driver, who
can assure more safety, provide plenty of inside information
and speak the lingo of a specific area. In that way, I have
shared and learned a lot about nomads in Mongolia and Tajikistan. I was introduced to remote tribes in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mali,
But such travel can come with a hefty price, especially
when it involves the rental of a 4x4.
During my most recent journey through
various African countries, I traveled solo through South
Africa by public transport and via home stays. I joined
small groups for both a cycling tour and a camping road
trip through Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. And I headed
solo for Madagascar, where I hired a local guide/driver
for a 10-day tour along unknown tribes in remote corners
of the island. So what made me choose these different formats,
and which one seemed to work best?
Spotting cheetah on a group tour
in Botswana might have been harder traveling solo.
Whether I travel completely solo, with
a local guide, or in a small group depends primarily on
the kind of adventure in which I am going to engage. Am
I going to explore unknown cultures and learn about different
customs and ways of life? Will I participate in activities
such as white water rafting, trekking through the outback,
or more extreme sports? Or is the main goal of my trip to
come eye to eye with world’s natural and man-made wonders
such as the Rain Forest, Machu Picchu, or the pyramids in
Northern Sudan? Or all of the above?
When I want to immerse myself fully
in a foreign culture (i.e. meet nomads and tribes, learn
a foreign language or other particular skill, or live like
a local to get the feel of a new place), I definitely go
it alone, and if that is not feasible, I research and ask
around for a reliable local driver/guide.
Experience has taught me that when I
travel in small groups, I often end up conversing more with
fellow travelers than with the locals themselves, and that
I inadvertently become more wrapped up in-group dynamics
rather than in local customs.
Visting Wadi Rum in Jordan on
a group tour, as well as hiking, involved plenty of
enjoyable interaction with fellow travelers.
When I travel solo, I am like a sponge:
I soak up the ambiance, strike up conversations with locals,
walk for hours on end, observe a scene from a particular
vantage point, and try to blend in as much as I can. And
that paves the way for experiencing the most unexpected,
humbling, and memorable situations and encounters.
A chance solo encounter on a
mountain path in Ethiopia.
The same could be said for immersing
myself in nature. Nothing can be more fascinating than being engulfed
in the silence of the Arctic, or lie quietly under the starry
skies of the Sahara; witnessing the snow-capped
mountain ranges and glaciers of Patagonia, the Himalayas,
or Kyrgyzstan; or watching rare animal species in the African
bush going about their daily life. Who needs banter from fellow
travelers during those unforgettable moments? Or a tour
leader who reminds you of the next destination on the program,
while you would desperately like to linger a little bit
But here’s the catch: How do you get
to those faraway places? Where do you spend the night in
the middle of nowhere? Who will be there to “save” you when
you break an ankle or loose your important documents, just
to name a few of the potential misfortunes you may encounter
on a trip?
When Group Travel is Preferred
So let’s be realistic. Although my preference
for solo travel is obvious, going it alone is not always
viable. In certain countries, it is simply too dangerous
for a single woman to travel alone, or, at best, it is heavily
frowned upon. In other countries, not speaking local tongues
may get you into serious trouble, for instance at police
check points or border crossings.
Moreover, certain regions are highly
inhospitable, barren, or vast, and may lack any infrastructure.
In those cases, solid means of transportation, an experienced
driver/captain knowledgeable about the terrain in question
(i.e. shifting sands, oases, currents, wild animals), and
enough food, liquids, and gasoline, are then absolutely
essential. And when hotels or home stays are non-existent
and camping in the wild is the only option for the night,
safety in numbers might sometimes be the wisest choice.
So for all these reasons, I may decide
to join a small adventure group occasionally. But I have
to admit that for me — a sociable introvert rather than
a hard-core extravert — it does remain a trade-off when
it comes to road trips.
I appreciate the relative peace of mind
and low stress that a guided group can provide, the fact
that lodgings and transportation are already handled, the
often excellent know-how of the organizers, guides, and
drivers, the meals prepared in the outback by a local cook,
the well-stocked first aid kit, and the company of sometimes
highly interesting fellow-travelers — many of whom
have often seen a much of the world and can provide great
tips for a next journey.
Meals prepared in the outback by a local cook.
But I also long for my independence
and space after a couple of days, and I feel sometimes belittled
by a tour leader who treats us as if we are on our first
outing abroad. I also regret having to let potential opportunities
pass by because the show must go on. And yes, at times,
I do get annoyed by the occasional buffoon or fusspot.
When Group Travel Can Be a Lot of
When a travel destination is all about
activities and sports, however, I have no qualms signing
up for small group tours. It is not only safer, but experiencing
the trials and tribulations of a particular activity with
like-minded people, and reaping the benefits together afterward
can be very exhilarating.
On a recent cycling tour over the back
roads of South Africa’s Cape, we ended up in wine tasting
facilities or even estates at the end of each day, and immediately
forgot any sign of exhaustion or saddle pain. And eating,
drinking, and exchanging travel stories while huddled around
a cabin wood stove, never felt so enjoyable as on the nights
of a challenging hiking trip deep into the Patagonian wild.
Wine tasting at an estate in
South Africa after a day of cycling is very enjoyable.
While sailing along remote islands of
the Indonesian Archipelago, we would snorkel the most spectacular
reefs and marvel afterward about that magnificent "underworld" that
we had experienced together.
During that same trip, we received incredible
welcomes by hundreds of locals from bush villages in West
Papua, decked out in the most colorful costumes and adornments,
and literally popping out of the woodworks to sing and dance
for our group: events I would never have experienced on
such a grand scale had I traveled alone or with a guide.
Man in a village
in West Papua, New Guinea.
In the end, it all comes down to carefully
balancing the pros and cons of each mode of travel, determining
what the main focus of the trip will be, and knowing what
travel style best suits one’s personality. If you are
aware of the range of alternatives, adventure travel can
lead to the most memorable trips of a lifetime, whether
you go it solo or join a small group.
Ouwerkerk is originally from Amsterdam,
The Netherlands, and currently lives in Montreal,
Canada. Previously a columnist for The Sherbrooke
Record, she is presently a freelance writer and
photographer for various travel magazines.
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