The art of isolation on expedition
Over 3 years, I spent the majority of my time alone, hiking my way through remote regions, where crossing paths with another person was rare.
I walked from one satellite town to the next, falling in love with navigating abandoned trails. Some of these trails felt all the more lonely for being overgrown, while others had been scarred into the earth from prolific overuse by an ancient civilisation who built them some 500 years ago.
I often wondered about the ghosts that walked those trails: who they were, why they were there, if they were peacemakers, rebels, or missionaries. I had heard plenty of stories and could see how such a complicated history had influenced the people I met.
Yet in spite of the violence in their history, the people were much like an extension of their scenery – In the deserts they were stoic, yet warm and protective, and in the mountains they were watchful, gracious and open armed.
I would pass through a town every five days or so (though in some regions it could be much longer), and almost always I was invited into a loving home to spend the evening with a family.
Because we would forge a lasting connection, leaving towns became more and more difficult. Each departure was a goodbye to those who cared enough to bring me into their homes – attempting to fill the absence of a family they knew I must be missing.
These interactions were the cornerstone of what kept me going. They would tie me to a home and a community, give me a sense of safety and a feeling of belonging which would renew my energy to continue.
But for all the love I have of being adopted into communities – I didn’t always have time to stop in town, because each country has a limit on how much time a tourist can stay, and with every day’s rest brought me closer to the risk of becoming an illegal resident…
And so, there were long periods when I didn’t stop at all. I would simply resupply and continue on without so much as having had a meaningful conversation for the sake of ensuring I didn’t overstay my visa.
From this experience, I learnt that I am completely incapable of experiencing the fullness of joy when I’m alone. I haven’t been joyless, but I have missed the intensity of shared joy along with being able to reminisce about memories I would ordinarily share with someone else for years after.
Perhaps because so many of us fear the loss of happiness as a result of being alone, some of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked since coming home are about how isolation affects me, what revelations I’ve had with so much time to myself, and, of course, I’m asked a lot about Wombat.
From loneliness to solitude
I first noticed the toll of loneliness in the depths of Argentina where the landscapes were as romantic as they were isolating.
During this time my penpal Rebecca was going through her own lonely journey battling a medical condition that chaperoned her from one futile procedure to the next.
She shared stories with me that I could see no one else could touch – Our isolation was similar, yet the reality of our struggles couldn’t have been more different. This difference allowed us to support each other in a way no one else could, and in this process my mindset shifted.
I continued through the expedition less bothered by daily obstacles, using audiobooks and podcasts to keep me company. In these days, the isolation rarely affected me. It wasn’t until much later when I had to say goodbye to long awaited visitors, or hear of loved ones back home who were ill or in need of support, that the tugs of isolation returned.
These moments were an awakening to both the impact of my absence from home, and the absence of home from my life. I could see all the significant milestones I had been missing, and would continue to miss – and had a realisation of all the achievements I would reach, without having those who mean the most to me, there to share them with me.
Yet, in these early days, I had learnt how to put aside the larger objective – as its global scale was as isolating as any mindset could be. I had trained myself to focus on the short term goals and the mechanics of the expedition. To appreciate each stretch for what it was, and find joy in small moments or observations.
“So much explains why people with a strong sense of purpose and meaning, or simply with a strong narrative […], are protected from loneliness regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves” The Joy of solitude.
Security was the practical reason why I wanted to find a dog but I think subconsciously I wanted a friend, because Wombat’s presence was instantly transformative. I stopped grappling with the enormity of my expedition, stopped forcing myself to focus on short term goals and instead, somehow became immersed within them.
Wombat also removed a degree of fatigue from practicing vigilance. We shared a readiness for problems like rogue dogs or the unwanted attention of men who lost their confidence at the sight of what they thought was a “wolf!”.
Wombat also helped me feel welcome in towns. Locals often thought his “grey hair” was a sign of old age and were bemused by his boundless energy, and how he liked to play tricks and games. To them it was novel to see him carry his own backpack. Some said I was being mean, but in an endearing way, and this would always draw friendly interactions, offers of help and occasionally homely accommodation.
Without Wombat I was more vulnerable and less open to these interactions. I had to employ strategies for outwitting interruptions and continue on only once I was confident I was safe. Without Wombat I’d lose my anchor, the companion who gave me confidence and in moments of despair, eased the feeling of isolation.
Background: I’m an Aussie attempting to become the first woman to walk the length of the Americas. It bugged me that in the 37 years since it was first achieved, about 3 people have completed it, but no women. Three years on, I have walked the length of Chile, through its desert, continuing along the Incan trails of Peru and Ecuador. When I arrived in Colombia COVID19 was declared a pandemic, and the expedition put on pause.
When I started planning the expedition, I was certain I’d find a dog. What wasn’t clear was when I’d find one because I was unsure how far through the expedition I would get.
Each year four people begin an attempt to walk the length of the Americas but rarely does someone make it past the first year. Before I committed to finding a dog, I wanted to outlast that first year and make sure I had the finesse, or whatever special something it is, that’s necessary to keep going.
When I was ready, I laboured over options between rescue and adoption and, after months of overthinking it, I found him from a litter of dogs a local farmer was rehoming.
I was especially drawn to his breed because of their distinguishable personality traits, physical stamina, and for the relationship I knew we’d foster which gave me certainty the dog I’d chosen would be mentally and physically capable for the challenges ahead… It was also nice to have a mascot from home.
I knew ahead of time the hurdles we had to overcome in training; teaching Wombat to sleep in the cart, to heel beside me when he had excessive energy, the risk of chewed equipment and controlling his bite drive that had my hand covered in scabs and bruising.
And while all of this reads as I expected when taking on a high energy puppy, the reality of stopping and slowing, and having longer, hotter days in a formidable place synonymous with fatigue and impatience, was especially unglamorous.
But of course our bond grew as he did… and so did his cunningness.
He learnt to enter market halls unnoticed by heeling beside me, then tucking under my chair to sleep. The older, more bolshy Wombat would wait for a less crowded time at the market to pull out his bowl from the side of my backpack, sneak over to the store vendors, and drop his bowl down at their feet. They would oblige him by filling his bowl with a fresh warm meal (usually, the same as mine).
At night, he worked out how to tuck into me so he would also be covered by the sleeping bag, and how to hide in its footwell in the mornings to avoid being woken by my head torch, as he is unapologetically not a morning dog.
Soon he started chasing off dogs that charged at me, and growling at people he didn’t like the look of. His focus on me and his disdain of strangers won me over. His moodiness matched mine (YouTube clip). We were a mirror – if I didn’t have the patience to deal with harassment in town, he’d growl at whoever came close. If I was desperate for a conversation, he’d prance up to a friendly face and dramatically roll over at their feet for a belly rub… or feign exhaustion by collapsing outside the window of someone’s kitchen, to be invited in for food (which worked more times than you can imagine).
And while some people are uncomfortable with our lifestyle, to me a life in the wilderness, wandering across ever changing landscapes of both beauty and isolation, was natural.
We trekked across the desert of Chile and Peru. By his first birthday we were out of the harshness of the sun and back among streams of running water surrounded by plant life. We climbed high in the Andian mountains to subzero temperatures where there are high winds, hail storms and altitude to be reckoned with – yet we were grateful for the change and Wombat was seemingly unaffected by altitude – though patient of me as I struggled.
Here my walking pace dropped to as much as 2 km an hour, and our breaks increased to 20 minute intervals. Nights became so restless from the lack of oxygen, my racing heart, and recovering body, that I barely slept at all – and there was Wombat, always at my side, watching over me.
Despite the acclimation period, crossing Peru was a joy, never too far from the next town, no town so big it felt unsafe. There was endless beauty and remarkable people.
Moving into Ecuador was drastic. We dropped out of the mountains back down to sea level emerging into searing heat we hadn’t spent enough time away from to miss.
We arrived at a remote border crossing that connects the two countries by a river bridge. The police huts didn’t have computers, so the officers took a photo of my passport and whatsapp’d it to nowhere meaningful – as I learnt when I went to leave the country, and found I wasn’t registered despite having the passport stamp.
Crossing that river border changed the climate entirely – it was suddenly misty and humid, and we were surrounded by unfamiliar plant life and the uninterrupted threat of rumbling thunder.
But Ecuador too was a treasure. We followed a remote single track across the country which extended the distance considerably, but kept us in prehistoric scenery and safely away from the highways and big cities.
Over Christmas I stopped in with friends in Quito to rest, by which time we were hearing the first whispers of a SARS virus.
I set off again before the terrestrial border between Ecuador and Colombia closed, in hopes of continuing through Colombia uninterrupted.
And then the world stopped.
By the time we reached the first town, the virus had reached Colombia, curfews had been introduced and I became worried it would take more time than my tourist’s visa to traverse the entire country.
Then the Australian Government issued a world-wide travel ban, which voided my travel insurance, and the echoes of concerns from family, friends, strangers and the media grew harder to ignore.
Yet Wombat would not be accepted by Australian customs. And the trauma of putting him through pet freight, on a logistically messy flight schedule, when flights were being canceled and only specific flights were equipped to carry pets, meant there was no reasonable option to bring him home.
The idea of leaving felt like betrayal.
The fear of the traveller’s virus meant that people were fearful of me. I was asked to leave by the municipality in one small town – and noticed the discomfort of strangers.
By the time I arrived in the first major city, the Colombian President had announced a full lockdown and domestic airport closures. I wouldn’t be able to continue and I couldn’t leave the city.
Wombat and I were accepted to stay in a family run hostel who were offering half their daily rate to accommodate stranded travellers.
One of their neighbours dobbed them in on a facebook group, saying they were harbouring sick foreigners, and so it came that they were questioned by police.
Each time I went to the shops (which I was allowed to do twice a week during allotted time-frames based on my passport number), I would be asked for ID and proof of when I arrived in Colombia to determine if I should be indoors on a 14 day quarantine. It was trying – but I understood.
Their economy began to feel the effects of the curfews, people were going hungry, unable to go to work or sell produce on the street. The Australian embassy was urging travellers to return home – but Wombat couldn’t come.
In the hopes that a repatriation flight would be organised like they had been for people in Peru, I wrote to the minister of agriculture, explaining our situation and that I had life-long proof of Wombat’s vaccines, and health certificates (which I had been doing regularly during our two years together – just in case I had problems at borders).
The reply from their office took 2 weeks (because there were many people in the same situation as me) and, just as I was about to miss an opportunity to buy the last seat on the final commercial flight out of Colombia and with no promise of repatriation in the future, they sent me a sympathetic, though standard, response: “No”.
Finding a foster carer
I wrote to a contact who lives in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, who had been writing to me for nearly 3 years since we crossed paths in Argentina, and more regularly now I had arrived in Colombia.
Throughout this time he had promised to house me and Wombat, or just Wombat if needed, for as long as we needed. Yet in this hour of need, only a few days since we last spoke, and just when I was ready to step into a privately hired car with embassy permission to travel the 15 hours to Bogotá through police blockades, he stopped responding. I needed a new plan.
Incredibly though, while stress was high, I found Santi through a follower on Instagram! Santi lives in Medellin (Colombia’s second largest city) where there is another international airport, and he seemed interested in looking after Wombat – Not only was he familiar with Wombat’s breed, he had handling experience, and had also been a kennel owner and dog trainer!
After years on the trail I’d experienced enough let downs during moments of desperation that my guard was up. I hesitantly reorganised travel permissions and an authorised private taxi needed to travel through the lockdowns. The one thing that gave me hope was that Santi’s suspicion of me was as elevated as mine was of his.
So we took the leap together.
I organised over 800 km of travel from the Amazon to the other end of the country. The trip took 18 hours of non-stop driving, and 3 near death experiences along broken, unsealed roads.
When I arrived I was fatigued and shell shocked. Santi and I had three days to suss each other out and become more comfortable about our arrangements – so I put on a brave face, determined to spend as much time with him as I could.
I was adopted into his friendship circles, and Wombat was immediately loved and adored by a gang of dogs and their owners. There have been many moments where I have been floored by the goodness of humanity – this was one. I was as content as I could be. I also felt safe and a sense of belonging among my newfound friends – which made it or the more compelling to not want to leave.
But I had booked the last seat on that last flight, and all the arrangements were in place, and, as with any urgent travel, my desperation added tariffs to the cost of leaving that at this point had bludgeoned more than a year’s budget out of my savings.
The heartbreak of leaving behind the little mirror of myself, who had been my closest companion and fiercest guardian, is something I’ll never be able to put words around. Emotions wrapped with self loathing for breaking an oath of loyalty, and relinquishing all ties of control and protection to a soul who would never do the same to me.
In the final hours, I treated Wombat like it was any other day. Same routine, same gestures, same amount of affection. I didn’t want to give him the sense that something was wrong.
As I got into the taxi to go to the airport, I was careful not to look at him or let him sense my anxieties. Instead I fixed my eyes on Santi and focused on gratitude, determined not to let slip how on the inside my world was fracturing.
But as I closed the door of the taxi, I snuck one last glance towards Wombat who was tearing off back into Santi’s yard to play with his other dogs. I felt a pained satisfaction that I had not passed on the anguish of separation anxiety.
And as the taxi drove me away, I finally had enough space to take in all that had passed, and in the hopelessness of it all, I fell apart.
Epilogue: How is Wombat going?
When I’m asked how Wombat is, or why I haven’t posted photos, this cluster of emotions is what flurries. Talking about it doesn’t help the grief or the guilt – which I’m sure you can understand.
How do you explain all of this to someone asking a passing question? That he is there, and I’m not. He’s with someone else, not with me. I can’t get the same sense of him as I can when I’m with him, or help him if he needs it. How as the months pass, I worry that our bonds will break and I was the one who relinquished them. To think of it makes me uneasy. I didn’t just leave behind a dream, the record, and my identity.
Wombat brought purpose to the expedition. We shared the sorrow, fatigue, and relentlessness, as well as the joy, accomplishment and the greater expanse of the wilderness – who without, I find myself once again, walking alone.
How are you?
I’m currently in Australia emerging after unpacking the emotional deluge of coming home. I’m working hard to ensure I can return to Colombia as soon as possible – which because of reasons relating to travel restriction, funding and avoiding the monsoon seasons, I have no idea when that’ll be.
While I’m in Australia, I am in pursuit of a new job to help replenish the savings I lost. I am in regular contact with Santi, and Wombat is still playing with those same dogs who keep him in the blissful state that I left him in.
If you’d like to support Wombat while he’s in Colombia, please consider a donation to the expedition fund. Each month I send funds to cover Wombat’s costs, and support Santi during a time of fluctuating economies and job insecurity unique from the ones we know at home.
“The great thing about solitude is that you can stop worrying about becoming a better person and chasing success […]. Solitude, the joy of being alone, stems from, as well as promotes, a state of maturity and inner richness” The Joy of Solitude.
The quotes referenced in this post come from The Joy of Solitude, which goes a long way to articulate some of my greatest lessons and experiences from the expedition.
Some themes such as choice, control and resolve aren’t included in the article – but I tied it into my publication because it has been a starting point for me to understand and speak about the past years and some of the emotions I’ve been through.
I hope it has a similar impact for some of you.
The joy of solitude: Full Article