From The Straits Times    |

Spending a night with a stranger in the isolated wilderness could potentially be a deal breaker for solo female travellers. Not for 33-year-old August Fang, who has been on several solo tramping adventures across the stunning mountain ranges of Switzerland, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Romania. Last July, she went on a hiking expedition in Slovakia, which spans the Tatras, a series of mountains that border Slovakia and Poland.

“Eastern Europe is very underrated in my opinion. Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania offer amazing mountain views and hiking routes. The longest that I’ve hiked was the six days I spent in Montenegro and Romania. I wanted to push my limits and endurance with back-to-back climbs at places like Montenegro’s Komovi mountains.

The Heroes’ Cross on Caraiman Peak in Romania. Photo: August Fang
Tramping enthusiast August Fang trekked over 60km with a local guide in Slovakia. Photo: August Fang

“Slovakia was especially memorable for me, as I had an awesome local guide who brought me to all the hidden hideouts in the mountains for the best views. I spent three days and two nights in the mountains with him – he was not only my ‘safety guide’, but also a great storyteller. I really enjoyed his stories about the history of Slovakia,” says the regional and category demand planner with sporting goods chain, Decathlon.

She adds that spending prolonged periods of time with a stranger is not for everyone, mainly because it’s just you, your guide, and the vast expense of nature. “It’s a hit or miss when you travel with a stranger. There’s no WiFi nor data in the mountains, so you’d have to be open to sharing your ‘life story’ with someone you just met. Sure, there’s a bit of vulnerability in that, but you just have to make the best out of your time together.”

The view outside a mountain hut in Slovakia. Photo: August Fang

The joys of tramping

While Covid-19 ignited an interest in an immersion in the great outdoors, tramping – which involves long-distance and overnight treks in rough country – appeals to those who (quite literally) enjoy venturing off the beaten path. A term commonly used in New Zealand, tramping refers to multi-day hikes on trails that often have huts for travellers to rest in.

It’s not for novices, though: Trampers often traverse long stretches of rugged and sometimes hilly terrain, as well as dense forests, while braving unpredictable weather conditions. Because the trek requires one to either camp outdoors or stay overnight at a hut that may only offer very limited facilities, a tramper would also carry their own camping gear and cooking utensils. The rewards for toughing out the back country, however, are immeasurable. 

A cabin hut in the mountains of Slovakia. Photo: August Fang
A view of an alpenglow in Slovakia. Photo: August Fang

“When I caught my first alpenglow in the High Tatra Mountains (a reddish glow that appears near sunset or sunrise on mountain summits), the feeling was so surreal. It was 7 degrees outside the cabin hut, but it was worth waking up at 4.30am for the view. I also met a wild fox for the first time and it followed us back to the cabin,” she shares. 

Between the lush, summertime mountainscapes and crystalline waterways, time stood still for this solo tramper, who played Slovakian card games and chatted with fellow travellers along the way. She recommends staying at the smaller mountain huts run by families. “They are so friendly, and even though they can’t speak English, they’ll always be smiling and trying to accommodate your requests. And you can’t beat the homemade Slivovica (a fruit brandy made from plums), which they let me try.”

Crossing paths with a wild fox in Slovakia. Photo: August Fang
Together with her guide, August explored other “secret” and off-trail routes in Slovakia. Photo: August Fang

August recounts some of the toughest parts of her journey in Slovakia, including hiking across steep paths caked in snow without proper snow boots. Thankfully, her guide, a certified mountaineer, supported her with plenty of assistance – and safety equipment. 

“I was there during May and the mountain routes were still pathed with snow, which was something I did not expect. The fear was real… What if I had slipped and knocked my head against a rock? But [my guide] gave me a lot of assurance,” she says.

It also helped that she had booze to take the edge off the adrenaline, and a fellow beer enthusiast to converse with. “I loved his openness and spontaneity when it came to having beer as lunch, as I have a habit of carrying beers with me to celebrate [how far we’ve trekked] at each lunch stop or at the summit.”

Travelling solo with a stranger requires an open mind. Photo: August Fang

She has cause for celebration, of course. When asked about what draws her to tramping, August puts it plainly: “You’ll be amazed how much your body can do even when you think you can’t, and how strong your own mindset can be if you are willing to persevere.

“For my next adventure, I would love to hike in Patagonia one day with my tent and portable gas stove, to cook [my own food] and to have meals with the best views.”