By Dominique Callimanopulos, Founder of Elevate Destinations
When I was 20 I vowed that I would never again travel in Africa alone. Jostling overland in the back of a mini-bus, squeezed between two pungent Malian men, each of who vied for a side of me during a nighttime drive to my next destination (who could afford domestic flights and were there even any back then?), I decided that at best traveling alone was at best, highly irritating and at worst, downright dangerous.
As an adventurous young anthropology major from a leading East Coast university, I deposited the small grant afforded by my department with enthusiasm and quickly made plans to head for Africa for my research. Having decided early on that I never wanted a job that required I wear pantyhose, women who wore khaki to work (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey) presented an appealing alternative. Africa represented the choice continent of mystery -- vast enough to reveal and conceal significant secrets.
My journey began as soon as school let out. I planned to travel for six months through the summer and fall semester. My journey would take me to West Africa and to islands off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean.
Early in my journey it became clear that while my academic orientation had endowed me with a vocabulary of kinship, taxonomies and participant observation with which to forge a focus, my most time consuming avocation became the fending off of unwanted approaches by every African man in my path. I was not beautiful. I was merely young. And white.
It took three months before I decided that the most strategic ploy was to adopt a "boyfriend." This was the only way to send a preemptive rejection to anyone who might be thinking of a proposition or a marriage proposal (believe you me, in those days a proposal by an African counterpart on first meeting was not a scarcity). You get the picture. I graduated with a BA in Anthropology and a PhD in Management of Foreign Advances.
Fast forward 30+ years. I have just completed two months of safari travel in Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. What I am about to say will be familiar to "women of a certain age" everywhere: yes -- you guessed it. Not a single advance, proposal, lewd -- or romantic -- overture. In my 40s I remember older women saying: "Just you wait. You turn invisible at my age."
When it comes to travel, your cloak of invisibility has advantages:
1. You can do what you want. Nobody cares. Really. You could wear a rhino horn all day, and no one would give a damn. Men are just interested in hot women (read young), and the women they are with only care about you if a) you are a threat or b) you are cool. No one over 50 is really cool, even though your daughter's friends may kindly say they think you are.
2. You can say whatever you want. A natural follow up to #1, this is because lacking any vested interest in you, everyone has adopted a default interest of Being Polite to you, regardless of what comes out of your mouth. They don't really care and will forget about you quickly after they leave camp or once you are seated besides the next polite stranger, whichever comes first. The advantage of this to you is that you can ask a lot of questions -- be they heady or nosy -- without people a) taking offense or b) taking you seriously. Enjoy this neutral airspace provided you for vaunting all your controversial opinions, and ask all those questions you were way too self-conscious to ask in your twenties.
3. Eavesdropping. Rather than having to converse with friends or family whose issues you have already long labored over at home, you can tune in to others' conversations as you might a flowing symphony of songbirds. Listen to your French cohorts colonize the wildlife around you with pronouns; try to distinguish a South African from a Zimbabwe accent; drop in on stray arguments between marrieds, and be thankful their troubles are not your own.
4. You will meet the most interesting people at each camp. For let us face it, these are not the honeymooners, folks. These are the senior guides and other unaccompanied individuals like lone National Geographic photographers whom your camp hosts will intuitively sit you besides at communal meals. You have graduated from traveling in the protected bubble of a couple or family unit to being one of the oddballs or misfits, who like the old bachelor herds of buffalo you have observed around almost every camp, stick together. In a grouchy but interesting kind of way.
5. No one will get on your nerves. In addition to the pitfalls of traveling solo as a "young lovely" as my friend Jill likes to call women in their twenties, you may in the past have experienced the challenges of traveling as a Married Woman or a Mom. Neither ever provided you with what you most craved in those years -- time and space away from your constant companion(s). Welcome to solo travel in your 50s, where you can experience this in spades.
6. The Fantasy Suite. About a third to midway through your trip, you may experience a yearning for the "Fantasy Suite." This reference is taken from the obsessive ABC series "The Bachelor" which has grown an audience in the millions by replaying its winning formula twice a year. A dishy guide... a young host you mistake for a soulmate... at some point in your trip you will develop a minor crush on someone, and this is a chance to fantasize about them in the privacy of your suite. Please don't risk exposing yourself by foolishly making any real life advances or you will become the subject of another Huffington Post.
Needless to say the above advantages all underscore one thing: Freedom. The freedom you have yearned for -- from a spouse, a family, from a job, from social strictures -- is now yours to experience. And what better place than on an African safari, where you are assured of a room with a fantastic view, amazing food and fine wine, and a staff whose livelihood depends on making you the center of their attention?
You've heard the call of the wild, now answer it.
Dominique Callimanopulos is the Founder of Elevate Destinations, a travel company that organizes eco-luxury safaris for solo travelers and others.