To travel off the beaten track. (But really though.)

The idea of ‘traveling off the beaten track’ and ‘getting out of the guidebooks’ is constantly packaged and sold to tourists who then remain precisely on the beaten track. 

I saw this type of slogan painted proudly on the side of countless tour busses that would turn up at a site of interest, an officious rep holding a clipboard and tapping his watch as he herded human cattle in and out of the shiny vehicle. Just enough time to jostle up close to a pretty bit of landscape and snap a promising new profile picture before hurrying back to the shelter of the tour bus.

Heaven forbid they leave their camera in their fanny packs and enjoy the simple pleasure of being somewhere beautiful.  

I was hitchhiking up to the North Coast of Scotland, and passed by chance an ancient geological site, Smoo Cave. It was a vast chamber, naturally created over millions of years of flowing water, with the dimensions and atmosphere of a cathedral. Here the Vikings had built ships, and the highlanders had hidden murdered bodies.

Undeterred by the tourist bus in the tiny carpark, I hid my backpack in some bushes and started down to the beach. I heard an American woman hyperventilating on the 10-minute climb back up the footpath.

‘I wouldn’t bother if I were you,’ she warned through gasping breaths. ‘It’s really nothing special.’ 

It’s not really important that she was American, but she certainly fell into a bracket of tourists that I saw a lot of in Scotland. Many American or Canadian people had decided to visit the highlands because of their ancestral links, joining highly organised tour groups that claimed not to be highly organised tour groups.  

Photo by Florian Roquais

A very friendly such couple asked me which hotel I was staying in in Oban.

‘I’m going to hike up the hill side out of town and pitch my tent,’ 

‘WHAT?!’ The woman screamed aghast, ‘camping, in this weather?!

There was a light drizzle and it was quite cold, perfect to keep the midgies at bay. I smiled and reassured her I was carrying a gas stove to make coffee. I explained I’d been wild-camping in the Islands for a few months and couldn’t remember the last time I had a shower. Her husband literally took off his hat.

Walking along the beach that evening with my pack, a group of 20 or so Americans started waving their arms and shouting from the road. I thought they were lost, or wanted me to take a picture.

‘Are you the girl that’s camping?!’ They shouted down. The word had obviously got out.

Yes! I shouted back cheerfully. ‘I have to poo in a hole in the ground!’

They looked morbidly impressed, like how you might watch a wildcat disembowel a surprisingly big bit of prey. As I walked into the distance they watched me quietly, until they met another American in the street and started to pass on the legend of the girl that wasn’t sleeping in a hotel.

The way that I was travelling, hiding my yellow tent in a moss-covered forest or in a pocket of trees behind the train tracks, was incomprehensible to them. The idea of boiling seaweed for supper or bathing in shallow puddles of clear water in an abandoned quarry – simply horrifying!

They saw themselves as being in society, paying big money to travel with a slogan using use buzz words like freedom, whilst staring in distain or amazement as I hitched lifts on the roadside.

They couldn’t understand the empowerment and liberty of living like humans were supposed to live. Foraging mushrooms and sorrel, cooking them underneath a rainy sky.

From the heated bus with cream leather seats they gawped at my tattered boots and the chipped metal mug hanging from my pack with a faded karabiner clip. They paced in great numbers around little lakes and villages, armed with oversized umbrellas and clean branded trainers. Then, they hopped back onto the ‘off the beaten track’ tour bus to get dropped at the next destination, take more selfies and pay another 30p to use the toilet. 

Photo by Florian Roquais

Clearly, there was an eagerness to travel, and an eagerness to do it in a way that was different. No-one wanted to be just another insensitive tourist on a bus tour, and yet seeing someone genuinely striking out on their own path was threatening and repulsive to them. When I was boiling water on a little gas stove in the park, a woman literally walked into a brick wall whilst she was staring at me.

There is nothing wrong with hiring a guide to show you the way around a new environment. If you can afford it and want to do so, then by all means have at it. But I couldn’t help but notice that ‘travelling off the beaten track’ was a slogan used to sell holidays to people that could think of nothing worse than actually doing that.

Humans are funny, aren’t we?

I hope you enjoyed this article!

I wrote this when I first set out on my journey. It’s so interesting to look back and see how I saw the world back then. I’ve released a lot of anger since writing this, but I want to keep it on the blog to show how far this road has taken me!

Here are three books that really helped to change my world view and relate to people more kindly:

Related blog posts:

Thanks to my lovely husband Florian for all the photos.

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