I often wonder, I keep talking abt solo travel as being really awesome. And people around me get impressed, think it is so cool and all that. But what happens when a situation develops that is NOT awesome? Am I only rhapsodizing on the basis of all my positive experiences so far? In which case it really takes only one negative experience to over-rule the positives, isn’t it? Or not? Here is one of my most serious – shit hit fan – solo travel experience. And what I think about solo travel afterwards.
It happened in Spain.
Earlier today I got lost in the mountains and not proverbially….. I wrote late into the night. Once I was back in my hotel…. I couldn’t sleep. And blogging has always been therapeutic for me. So this particular blog post has been in writing since that night itself but of course, I have had to shape it up to make it read more coherent.
I was staying in the town Zuheros in Andalucia, Spain. It was the night halt of my second day of cycling the Via Verde de la Subbetica. I had only one day to cycle further but I found information on some cool-sounding, short walks in the hotel reception and so instead of cycling, I decided to hike in the Subbetica natural park instead.
I started out from my hotel at 12 pm for a short 9 km “Beginners” walk from my hotel into the Subbetica natural park. The hotel info suggested it would be about 2 hours and 45 minutes. I anticipated maybe a couple of hours more in case I am slow and so I should be done by 5 PM maximum. After which I was thinking of a relaxed time at the hotel, maybe sit somewhere with a view and read a book. 🙂
But at 5 PM I found myself in a fairly serious situation.
There was no network and so while I could see my GPS location, I couldn’t see the entire “map”. And also I didn’t know which direction to move in. Possibly cause I don’t have a magnetometer in my phone. (have to upgrade it first thing once I get to Mumbai).
Maybe one must learn using a compass and GPS really well for hiking properly. I am not sure, I have only limited hiking experience. All my extensive experience with GPS has been while cycle touring, and it is always on roads that Google maps can detect. So direction-plotting is straightforward in it.
Currently, I was on a goat trail – which G maps did not detect at all.
I had saved a location point on my map before setting out on this hike – the Cortijo Moreno ruins. So even without internet, I knew where I had to reach to re-orient myself.
The Cortijo Moreno ruins – hiking till this point had been easy and very enjoyable. There was a proper rutted path that I followed… and it brought me into the natural park and right by these ruins. There wasn’t much confusion about the trail until this point.
The difficulty started after this point. Because the trail instruction was to get onto smaller goat trails to head back…. the return route was via a smaller riverside trail. And so it was in view of finding this return trail that I left the rutted road at Cortijo Moreno and headed onto the goat trails by a dry river bed. (The maps and trail instructions kept showing a ‘river’ but in this season, there was no river. Only a dry river bed. This was also one more point of difficulty because identifying a dry river bed is not always easy).
But eventually (after I spent a lot of time walking about trying to figure where I needed to go) , I had found this small riverside trail and had reached a point marked ‘bridge’ (you can see it to the left most bottom corner of the blue trail in the image above). So I felt happy that I had managed this much and it would now be quicker to just move ahead on the trail rather than go all the way back.
But it was 5 PM (about a half hour before sunset) and it was now urgent to start heading back. So I started heading in …. I had no idea where to go. I was on route… but I couldn’t find the way ahead. I kept trying to piece out the route ahead based on the notes and map I had… but it wasn’t happening at all.
The descriptions were quite old school – they were subjective descriptions of how to go on and not like a GPS route which is precise. For example, turn LH from the solitary oak tree (apart from the subjectivity, I also don’t recognize an Oak tree. We don’t have them in India).
I spent some more precious time hunting for the route onward.
But eventually unable to find any inkling of it….. I started back-tracking my route to the point where I was on the proper rutted road – the Cortijo Moreno ruins.
And I was very close to it as per GPS …. maybe just 10 minutes away.
But the undulating surface just didn’t give me any clue. I couldn’t see them. So it was possible that there was some hilly mound between me and the ruins. But without actual directions from a compass or GPS… which way to go? Also, I hadn’t realised it but all my roaming around and hunting out the small riverside trail had disoriented me to some extent. So while earlier when I left the ruins I was quite sure of my direction sense, while returning I wasn’t very clear.
I also saw that I seemed to be circling my destination on GPS. So I tried climbing up a mound and it worked… I was now closer on GPS.
And I kept getting closer but couldn’t lay my eyes on the ruins which were right by the marked path.
Then it was pitch dark.
And it started drizzling.
It was 7 pm, I had been scrambling around for about two hours looking for the ruins and the road. I had not found it.
The forecast was for rains through the night. Temperatures would reach 0 degrees and below. And now without any daylight, I couldn’t keep scrambling around this surface or I may end up breaking a leg. (The phone battery was low, I didn’t know how long I could rely on its flashlight).
I had now resigned to the possibility of having to spend the night here in the wild. It would be foolhardy to go on searching – and how could I when my phone battery was dying? The chances of finding the road or ruins in the dark were so much lower! In fact, I would say negligible.
So I found a spot under a tree with stones and rocks surrounding it… hopefully, it would provide some shelter from the rains and winds.
This predicament by itself doesn’t become life-threatening. What made it so serious a matter was the weather forecast of rains through the night! Surviving sub-zero temperature while being wet, out in the open, with only a sparse tree for shelter was very hard to envision.
All of a sudden there was network!! Could it be the rain clouds that were somehow improving the network? Or the proximity to the road?
Whatever the reason, there wasn’t a moment to lose. I quickly called my hotel and informed them that I am still here, LOST near the CORTIJO MORENO ruins but I can’t see or find them. Samuel the receptionist who took my call, confirmed my location….. and then the call cut off midway but I think the most important information had been conveyed!
I felt better. There was now some hope of help.
The network was intermittent. So I quickly messaged two people from India. I asked them to follow up with the hotel… And in the worst case they could also tell my parents etc..
One of the people responded and so I relaxed a bit. India and Spain are in fairly different time zones. So there was a possibility that my Indian contacts would be sleeping or not see the message at all. So when the people responded I was quite thankful.
But I couldn’t just assume they will find me. I also needed to prepare in case they couldn’t find me or would take too much time or whatever else. It was also possible that I was in such a weird place that their search may take many hours. Or since Zuheros was such a small town, maybe no one comes out to get me!
A little later I also got the idea to screenshot my GPS location and send it via whatsapp. This way it could be sent out to the search team and so they could head this way precisely. I think this was a really good idea.
My phone was at 10% battery. So I kept putting it on flight mode and checking back again. I also closed all apps except WhatsApp and GPS.
It was now constantly drizzling. I had 4 layers on me… I was hiking in 10 C after all. So I wasn’t bothered with cold up till now. I also found a backup raincoat in my bag.
It was now over an hour since I called the hotel (seemed longer). No new whatsapp messages. (And no rescue party). In a bit of urgency, I checked GPS and did one more dash of “trying to find the ruins” with the mobile flashlight. But again I seemed only to be a bit closer. And then I quickly found another tree and rocky outcrop to shelter under. These random dashes to find the ruins didn’t seem very sensible because there is a chance that I would run off in the wrong direction and find myself further away. If I would have known the precise direction to go in – I would have kept walking that way… But I didn’t. I didn’t know how to get directions (when there are no ‘roads’) on GPS or maybe the lack of a magnetometer in the phone made it impossible. I don’t know.
I had 4% phone battery now.
I wondered whether to record a message for my parents. But decided not to at this time.
I put on my raincoat because my pants felt a bit damp. It was constantly drizzling and beginning to get cold.
At this point, I want to tell you about another reality at the same time,
I wasn’t scared. I mean I am not scared of darkness or silence or nature or the natural forest noises.
And I had what I most valued – Awareness. So I focused on my breath. The problem is not death. That will anyway come… I must ensure that I go with most awareness. And I have a Guru. So that part was so smooth and so without a problem … tears of gratitude and love for my Guru welled up. Even while facing death I found myself clear of how to be within and what to do….
And so in such a situation .. I had some tears of gratitude in my eyes. 😭🙏
But at the same time, I was doing my best to get back…. and probably this deeper calm and clarity helped me utilize my meager resources very efficiently.
After I managed to put on my raincoat (with all the other 4 layers I already had on)… it was about 8:20 PM and I saw a bright light shaft.
There was a vehicle moving with bright headlights directly ahead of me. It seemed totally surreal.
And it was directly ahead of me!! The stupid road and ruins were directly ahead!! Maybe only a 3-minute walk away!! But by the time I had reached this spot, it was already dark… So I couldn’t see them.
The police car had come and they were flashing lights and stuff. They had such a powerful torch with them!
I still had 4% battery in my phone so I started it, so they saw me too…. It was pitch dark after all 😃😍 And I picked my stuff and scrambled down the rocky crag.
So happy to see them.. and there was also the hotel receptionist Samuel who I had spoken to earlier on with a blanket and bottle of water. They ensured if I needed anything – food, water, blanket etc.. etc.. He also put a blanket around me though I wasn’t particularly cold.
Though maybe I was.
Actually, my brain was in bit of a shock. Because slowly through the ordeal I realized that all my plans are for naught. I wasn’t getting a relaxed evening to read in the hotel. I didn’t know how the next day would be … whether I would be alive. Whether I would make it back to India. And of course, how hard it would be on my parents.
But partly also because I have done many madcap things and it doesn’t go so out of hand. I mean usually GPS even without network or some sign or some landmark comes through. I usually manage to make it through such situations without having to bring in the Police or external rescue forces. And these earlier wild experiences of solo cycling and also some solo hiking is probably why I had reached so near to the road. And also why in the short bursts of network I made very efficient use of them 🙂 and why I had 4 layers plus a backup raincoat lying around with me. Because in general, I am very particular. I understand that I am doing these things Solo – and so I am careful. But this time things went a bit out of hand. There are many reasons that contributed to this. I have been thinking a lot about this… the problems that led to this and the solutions… and I will list these out, but it will be another blog post.
All in all, I would say this blog post I wrote earlier is bang on: “what if something goes wrong while solo“. And so my thoughts and feelings about Solo travel haven’t changed. It is also not something that I do for flippant reasons. It has always been propelled from a deeper inner situation within me. And so it pans out. The pros and cons of solo travel bear me in good stead.
Another chance at life. Let’s play!