I scrambled up the last stretch of the second highest mountain in southern India, desperate to get my breath, my legs burning. Ahead, my friend Julie and our guide were disappearing into the thick cloud. To our left, a vertiginous drop was mercifully hidden in mist.
Somewhere to our right, getting closer with every step, was the herd of wild elephants we had spotted from lower down as the cloud began to close in. The elephant track we were following was the only possible route – and there was evidence it had been recently used. We had been warned not to speak in case we alerted the animals; our only instruction if they charged was ‘Run!’
My heart was pounding in my ears. I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t hear it too. I thought about my family I had left behind in England. Would I ever see them again?
At last I reached the summit. Julie and the guide were sitting exhausted on the grass. “Where are the elephants? Is it OK?” I whispered.
“Turns out they’re wild rhododendron bushes,” she said. We started to laugh.
Empty nest? The perfect time to travel
Our Tamil Nadu adventure was the third of our visits to India. Our children have grown up and are living their own lives, an ideal moment for Julie and I to leave our husbands at home to travel on our own.
Some friends envy our journeys together, others are just plain puzzled, unable to consider travelling without their partners. We do both travel with our husbands, but we travel together as well. Just not as often.
Travelling with other people can be trying, but not in this case. We go at the same sort of pace, are intrigued by new places, like a challenge and find it easy to reach a happy compromise if we want to do different things.
Our adventures started one morning 15 years ago when I woke up to the awful realisation that the previous night, fuelled by a little too much bonhomie, I had agreed to run the next London marathon with Julie. Normally I would only run if I were about to miss the last bus.
But, over a bottle of wine, the marathon had seemed such a good idea. A shared project. Something different.
In the cold light of day, I knew there was no hope of my achieving it but equally I didn’t want to let her down. An alternative had to be found.
That alternative was a fund-raising walk along the Great Wall of China. Our children were ten and over, and happy to be left behind with their fathers, who gamely obliged. So we began to train.
How our friendship grew
When we set out for Beijing, we were two mums who knew each other quite well from the school gate. By the time we had covered 80-odd leg-testing miles of the Wall we had become firm friends. After conquering the Wall we stayed in Beijing for a week, hobbling round the sights and flying up to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors.
Getting lost in the back streets, trying to read a city map, exploring the Forbidden City, rendered speechless by the warriors: that’s when we cemented our shared loved of long-haul travel. There was something special to be had in ditching all responsibilities and taking off with a friend. We wanted to repeat the experience.
After that we occasionally took various combinations of our five sons away for short breaks in Cornwall or Norfolk. But as they got older, the most relaxing escapes of all were weekends when we set off alone with our dogs, stayed in a B&B and spent the days on long walks, exploring, gossiping and sorting out the world.
After China, we started talking about India. Enticing and mysterious, that was the place we both wanted to explore.
Our generation missed out on the gap year phenomenon. By the time our oldest sons were returning from their gap years, full of travellers’ tales, Julie and I were keen to make up lost time.
When I tentatively mentioned the possibility to my husband, he said, “Just as long as you don’t want me to go with you.” He was quite happy to be left to his own devices for a fortnight or so. So win-win.
Would three weeks in India break us?
Three years after our journey to China, with the blessing of our husbands, Julie and I left for three weeks in Rajasthan.
We had no anxieties about travelling with each other. We knew how well we got on and how relaxing travelling together could be.
Unlike a marriage, we don’t have years of joint emotional baggage to haul with us. We have nothing invested in the number of times we’ve been right or wrong in an argument.
We didn’t have any responsibilities except to ourselves and we could put to one side those we had left at home. But perhaps most important of all we had the best fun.
Travelling alone in Rajasthan, we discovered that outside the hermetically sealed ‘couple bubble’ the world was more open to us. As a couple, people tend to respect your privacy and give you a wide berth. But two women are fair game.
Students would approach us, wanting to practise their English or just to be photographed with us. We were welcomed into people’s homes and invited to share their food. We overpaid for tuk-tuks, argued our routes with taxi drivers, and our bargaining strategies improved with frequent and hilarious use. Our guides teased and flirted with us.
We caught the India bug badly in Rajasthan. Since then, we have returned twice. Once to explore Assam and Sikkim, chugging barely afloat down the mighty Brahmaputra river, experiencing Diwali, riding on elephants, trekking through the foothills of the Himalayas, staying with local families.
Most recently we visited Tamil Nadu where, other than surviving the threat of the wild rhododendrons, we smuggled gin over the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border, stayed on tea stations, visited the extraordinary decorated temples at Madurai and Tanjore among others, were blessed by temple elephants, wandered the streets of Pondicherry and more. And, of course, we shopped.
Bond between women (and no one to look after!)
The real pleasure in travelling with a close friend is that we can just be ourselves – independent and free. There are the added benefits of a fingertip of someone else’s moisturiser or a borrowed splash of someone else’s smelly to enhance the journey.
For two weeks, neither of us has to be anyone’s work colleague, wife or mother. At our age and stage – in my case having been married for more than 30 years – travelling without our husbands confirmed for us that life doesn’t begin and end within the four walls of our marriages. We can delve into new experiences alone without threatening the status quo.
Life at home goes on as normal but the friendship between Julie and me has grown stronger as a result of our adventures together.
Maybe our marriages have too. Breaking out of the normal routine is a shot in the arm but doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate being home when that is over. If anything, perhaps we appreciate it more. We are already discussing which part of India to visit in another two years.