Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Sometimes, it’s too easy to focus on what we can photograph (and Instagram) on our travels—at the expense of our other senses. That’s what Kerry Walker discovered on a rare camera-free trip.
I was sitting on an old wooden bench, propped up against a sagging stone croft, when it happened: The moment, that is, when I stopped seeing and started, well, sensing. It sounds obvious, but that particular moment of realization—call it an epiphany, call it an awakening, call it whatever you like—stands out in more than a decade of round-the-world travel.
Here I was, all alone on a remote, wind-battered, wee speck of a Hebridean island off Scotland’s northwest coast in the October gloom. A place where most days I saw nobody. A place ruled by the changing tides and the BBC shipping forecast. A place where the gray could dampen your soul and a sudden shaft of brilliant light could make you feel like you were seeing the world for the first time. A place seemingly immune to time and trends. A place where I had no wi-fi or watch, no mobile signal or proper map. No plans. Nothing specific to get up for in the morning, yet everything to discover.
And it was here, without the rush to tick off this or that or the pressure of having to ‘see it all’, that I learned what some might call ‘mindfulness’, or fully engaging the senses and being present.
I mention this moment because it was a turning point. Until then, I’d been secretly cursing the fact I had left my camera at home. Such light! But on this particular morning, I was sitting outside the croft, eyes closed, when I heard a gentle whoosh sound. Without looking, I knew it was a seal coming up for air. There it was again. I had been so still that it had failed to notice my presence—or maybe it was indifferent to it.
There are repercussions when we start thinking of the world as a series of photo ops and Instagram spots; when we start imposing our own vision on places without giving them a chance to reveal themselves.
As the weeks passed, I realized that no camera meant I had been forced to appreciate the island on a deeper level. So when I remember it now, I think not only of its visual beauty, but also of the smell of peat smoke in the chill, foggy air. Or of the rough-edged, slippery rocks and seaweed underfoot in the heart-stoppingly cold sea. Of the machair grass brushing against me as I walked across dunes in the dying light, the steady drumming against the croft when the rain set in, and the chink of cockle shells as I raked the sands at low tide. These memories are sharper than any photos I could have ever taken—and more enduring.
My time on the island got me thinking that perhaps I had been grasping too hard for the visual, thinking too much with my eyes, obsessing with light and angle. There are repercussions when we start thinking of the world as a series of photo ops and Instagram spots; when we start imposing our own vision on places without giving them a chance to reveal themselves.
Sometimes, in the pursuit of bucket-list-type travel and our desire to see so much in a short space of time, we risk letting the true spirit of a place pass us by. And while photography is a wonderful, often intimate, means of discovering the world, it’s important to know when to leave the camera behind.
Taste, hearing, touch, smell—they are all just as important as sight when it comes to a nuanced appreciation of place, whether at home or on our travels. Try this simple test, for instance: Choose three places in the world (don’t overthink, just the first three that pop to mind). Now imagine those places in terms of how they taste, sound, feel and smell. Bangkok, say, might taste of coconuts and sticky noodles, sound like spluttering tuk-tuks, feel like steamy air, polished teak and cold temple floors, smell like petrol and fried spices.
I’m also a firm believer that travel begins locally. There are so many ways you can take a traveler’s approach to your surroundings without venturing far.
It’s easy to apply this more ‘senses switched-on’ approach to travel; to do so can only enrich what you get out of a place. This could mean walking barefoot in the Sahara or feeling the texture of handwoven rugs in a Moroccan souk. It could mean listening to each raspy tone of the muezzin’s call to prayer or memorizing the aroma of fermenting whisky in a Scottish distillery. It could mean subjecting yourself to extreme heat or bitter cold; immersing yourself momentarily in darkness instead of light.
So obsessed are we with the light that we often forget that darkness gives places an entirely different dimension. Any traveler who has misjudged time on a hike and had to negotiate a mountain slope or forest at nightfall knows this. Any traveler who’s pitched a tent by a rushing river or set up a hammock between two branches in the jungle knows this. The night makes us aware of the elements, of the wilderness that surrounds us. Suddenly, we perceive layers that we’d never notice by day—the rustling in the undergrowth, the crackling in the trees, the warbling in the canopy. Though at times deeply unnerving, there is nothing like it for it setting the senses on high alert.
Spending time in the wild, be it on a multi-day hike in the mountains, wild camping in the back of beyond or a walk into the woods by moonlight, does something to our powers of perception. I once spent a few days on the Russian-Finnish border observing brown bears. Seeing the bears was special, but as twilight approached and I settled down to sleep for an hour or two in my flimsy shack of a solo hide, I heard a bear snuffling and scratching around outside—close enough for me to hear its panting, ragged breath. Pure terror and exhilaration flooded my body. Not being able to see the bear weirdly made it 10 times more real.
I’m also a firm believer that travel begins locally. There are so many ways you can take a traveler’s approach to your surroundings without venturing far. Leave all tech at home, pin down a nearby place for a wild swim or a random hike, go foraging. Or find a market that sells unheard-of ingredients and take some home to make a new palate-awakening dish. Try to identify the birds in your garden by song alone and walk barefoot along a pebble beach. In other words, stop seeing, start sensing.
Right now, at home in Wales, if I open my window at night, all I can hear is the baritone bleating of sheep echoing through the valley. The air smells of freshly mown hay. I don’t need to see these things. Thanks to my senses, I know they are there.
Kerry Walker is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, prolific Lonely Planet guidebook author, and the Telegraph’s expert for Wales where she's based. An adventure addict, she loves mountains, cold places and wilderness.