"Your husband allows you to travel alone?" asked my guide, a well-educated man from Varanasi, on the way to Allahabad in 2013.
"It's never occurred to me to ask his permission," I replied, deadpan.
Fast-forward six years to a village in Nepal, India's equally conservative neighbour, where I'm not only travelling sans male chaperone but am being guided by a Nepalese woman whose own husband and children remain in Kathmandu while she gallivants about the Himalayas. How things have changed.
Of course, women have been roaming the world for aeons. One of the earliest extended first-person travel narratives, says Carl Thompson, academic and author of Travel Writing and Women's Travel Writings in North Africa and the Middle East, "is by a woman called Egeria and dates from 380AD. She seems to have been a Spanish nun, and she made a pilgrimage around key sites in the Holy Land and sent an account of them back to her community."
But until recently, financial, social and cultural constraints have prevented most women from venturing forth unaccompanied. Female empowerment, especially in the workplace, is changing all that, says Carolyn Childs, futurist and founder of travel trend website mytravelresearch.com, with more women than ever before travelling alone for both business and pleasure.
"Of course, we're seeing more solo households and the growth of trends like women buying their own diamond rings, so I think it's no surprise that they aren't waiting for a Prince Charming to share their holidays," she says.
Such emboldened choices are reflected in the statistics. Three in five general inquiries received by The Classic Safari Company, which is the parent company of tour company Secret Women's Series, are from women, says founder Julie McIntosh, while "99 per cent of our enquiries for solo travel are from females".
This trend is reflected across the industry but doesn't necessarily imply that women don't want to travel with men. While couples travel is growing too, says Childs, women tend to now favour deeper immersion, more cultural connection and more positive outcomes for the communities they visit.
"Both genders are seeking to challenge themselves via adventure travel, but for women it's often about confounding gender stereotypes and seeking empowerment rather than validation."
Operators have responded accordingly with impressive portfolios of women-focused tours and the uptake has been extraordinary. So popular were Intrepid's women's expeditions when launched last year, departures increased from four to 36 within just a few months. And it's not only travellers who are benefiting from this revolution. Operators are growing their pool of female staff, with World Expeditions' female guides on the Larapinta Trail increasing from just three in 2013 to 14 out of 24 today.
And the experiences of women from diverse communities across the world are being heard. "Our female travellers want to know the stories and hear about the struggles of women around the globe," says Jenny Gray, Intrepid's global product manager. "These expeditions allow [them] to enter private spaces and foster conversations that would be impossible in mixed gender groups."
And so the world has become a woman's oyster. It's time to pack our bags and sally forth – no permission needed.
THE DESTINATION Bulgaria and Greece
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Women's Own Adventure's Bulgaria to Greece
DURATION 15 days
THE EXPERIENCE Pair outdoor activity in Bulgaria's Balkan Ranges and northern Greece with less vigorous pursuits such as cookery, pottery-making and visits to monasteries, villages and historical sites.
DON'T MISS Mingling with local ethnic groups on the narrow gauge rail journey through Bulgaria's Rhodope Mountains to the city of Dobrinishte.
GO FOR IT Starts in Sofia, ends in Thessaloniki, departs June 12, 2019, from $3770. See womensownadventure.com.au
THE DESTINATION East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory
Photo: Lirrwi Tourism
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Lirrwi Tourism's Gay'Wu – the Dilly Bag Tour for Women
DURATION Four nights
THE EXPERIENCE Learn about Yolngu women's business while gathering pandanus leaves, weaving dilly bags and painting and dancing on traditional lands.
DON'T MISS The pre-dawn crying ceremony (Nathi) in which a Yolngu elder sheds tears for those who've died and chants thanks for all of creation.
GO FOR IT Starts and ends in Nhulunbuy (Gove), departs May to October 2019, from $2399. See lirrwitourism.com.au
THE DESTINATION Uganda and Tanzania
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Secret Women's Series' Wild at Heart
DURATION 15 days
THE EXPERIENCE Combine two iconic wildlife events – tracking gorillas in Uganda with female ranger guides and following the annual wildebeest migration in Tanzania – in a single luxury journey.
DON'T MISS Visiting a Ugandan village to see how women transform millet into porridge and bread and to hear stories about life as a Bakiga wife.
GO FOR IT Starts in Entebbe, ends in Arusha, departs August 18, 2019, from about $18,300, including one gorilla tracking permit. See classicsafaricompany.com.au
THE DESTINATION Kenya
East Africa's first female overland truck driver, Becky Kieha. Photo: Supplied
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Intrepid Travel's Women's Expedition, Kenya
DURATION 11 days
THE EXPERIENCE Journey with East Africa's first female overland truck driver Becky Kieha to lesser-known parks such as Samburu and Mt Kenya where female game rangers are evening up the gender balance in this male-dominated industry.
DON'T MISS Meet residents of a women's-only settlement offering sanctuary to survivors of female genital mutilation, sexual assault and forced marriages.
GO FOR IT Starts and ends in Nairobi, departs October 12, 2019, from $3725. See intrepidtravel.com/au
THE DESTINATION Red Centre, Australia
Photo: Caroline Crick
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP World Expeditions' Larapinta Goddess Walk
DURATION Three days
THE EXPERIENCE Morning yoga and meditation sessions are paired with invigorating walks led by female guides along trails that wind through alluvial flats lush with bloodwoods and ironwoods.
DON'T MISS Sleeping in award-winning eco-tents that incorporate hot showers, delicious meals and off-ground beds.
GO FOR IT Starts and ends in Alice Springs, departures from late April to September 2019, from $1495. See worldexpeditions.com
THE DESTINATION Croatia and Slovenia
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Adventurous Women's Jewels of the Adriatic
DURATION 16 days
THE EXPERIENCE Enjoy the region's rich history and natural beauty and feast on gourmet food and wine at Lake Bled, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Plitvice Lakes and along the Dalmatian Coast.
DON'T MISS Transforming ingredients from a farmers' market into a traditional Istrian marenda (brunch) at a family farm on the tip of the Istrian Peninsula.
GO FOR IT Starts in Ljubljana, ends in Dubrovnik, departs September 19, 2019, from $5795. See adventurouswomen.com.au
THE DESTINATION Portugal and Spain
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Camino Ways' Portuguese Coastal Camino
DURATION Seven nights
THE EXPERIENCE Lifelong friendships are often forged along this final 100 kilometres of the Portuguese Coastal Camino route, which passes through historic settlements famous for hot springs, seafood and wine. Self-guided tours are also available.
DON'T MISS Mingling with pilgrims in the market town of Redondela where the Portuguese Coastal Camino merges with the classic Camino Portuguese.
GO FOR IT Starts in Baiona, ends in Santiago de Compostela, departs June 1 and September 14, 2019 (solo travel departure on 7 September 2019) from about $1300. See caminoways.com
THE DESTINATION New York CIty
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Travelling Divas' New York, New Year's Eve!
DURATION Seven days
THE EXPERIENCE Ice-skate in Central Park, shop the post-Christmas sales and dolly up for NYE at a fabulous salon before watching the Times Square ball-drop and welcoming in 2020 from a (warm) rooftop vantage point.
DON'T MISS Exploring the Fashion District in which your five-star digs, one-time hat factory Refinery Hotel, is located.
GO FOR IT Starts and ends in New York City, departs December 27, 2019, from $US4995. See travellingdivas.com
THE DESTINATION Greece
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Wild Women on Top's Mt Olympus and Crete
DURATION 13 days
THE EXPERIENCE Fortified with hearty Greek cuisine, hike through Samaria Gorge (Europe's longest), ascend several peaks, navigate coastal trails and – for downtime – wander the region's narrow village streets.
DON'T MISS Summiting Greece's highest mountain, Mount Olympus, then celebrating with a swim in the Mediterranean Sea.
GO FOR IT Starts in Athens, ends in Chania, departs September 13, 2019, from $4290. See wildwomenontop.com
THE DESTINATION Norfolk Island
THE WOMEN-ONLY TRIP Sisterhood Women's Travel's Norfolk Island Discovery
DURATION Eight days
THE EXPERIENCE Perfect for those wishing to test the women-only tour waters, this journey includes a pre-trip meet-and-greet with the host and encompasses cultural and historical activities, moderate walking and a variety of food experiences.
DON'T MISS Tour the house of acclaimed Australian author Colleen McCullough, who lived on Norfolk Island for almost 36 years before her death in 2015.
GO FOR IT Starts in Melbourne or Sydney, departs November 15, 2019, from $3899. See sisterhoodwomenstravel.com.au
SOLO WOMEN TRAVELLERS GIVE THEIR TIPS
SALMA RAZZAQ, 46, MARKETING MANAGER, SYDNEY
What's the best part of travelling solo?
I love the thrill of adventure that you get when travelling alone. That sense of exhilaration and freedom of doing whatever you want, and meeting new and interesting people. Otherwise, one's own company becomes one's fate!
What was one of your most memorable experiences?
On a road trip with three other girls along the Gibb River Road in Western Australia's Kimberley, I was mistaken for an Indigenous person on account of my brown skin. There were looks of surprise from the locals when they heard my British accent! It was very funny, and a great ice-breaker.
What has been your favourite place to visit as a woman?
Surprisingly, I really enjoyed travelling alone in Morocco. People warned me to be careful in the souks but I found the experience – stopping by and drinking tea with tradesmen – the opposite. It was so pleasant and non-threatening.
ROBYN WOOTON, 69, RETIRED BIOCHEMIST, MELBOURNE
Why do you travel solo?
Initially, my solo travel was work-related and this gave me the confidence to also travel solo for pleasure. Unfortunately, my husband doesn't travel overseas so I've travelled with female friends, my cousin, once with my mother or on my own.
What has been your favourite place to visit as a woman?
Antarctica has held my heart since seeing the photos of a friend who travelled there more than 25 years ago. I've recently been on my third Antarctic voyage with Aurora Expeditions. The majesty of the icebergs and ice floes, the variety and quantity of wildlife plus the history draws me back.
Are there any destinations you'd avoid?
I check the government's Smart Traveller website and register for countries where I plan to travel. Generally I adhere to warnings and don't travel to countries in conflict or advised as unsafe. Why put yourself at risk when there are so many amazing places in the world to see?
MINDY LEOW, 39, SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT ADVISER, MELBOURNE
Why did you decide to take a women-only trip?
I chose Intrepid Travel's women-only tour in Jordan because I wanted to have a special bonding experience with my mum for her 70th birthday.
What did you love about it?
Our women-only tour group meant our itinerary was customised so we could meet local women who are less accessible to regular tourists. We also had a strong, independent woman tour guide and were able to have open discussions about a Jordanian woman's life.
What has been your favourite place to visit as a woman?
Iceland, because it felt safe even in very remote places.
Where are you heading next?
I'm likely going to Nepal next year with a group of women to build a house with Habitat for Humanity.
LOWRI WILLIAMS, 26, DISABILITY PROGRAM MANAGER, CAPE TOWN
How has solo travel changed you?
The first time I travelled alone to study in Lisbon for six months, I sat on the plane and cried myself to sleep. Now, almost five years later, I've moved to Cape Town [from Sydney] for two years to work for an NGO. I never would have had the courage to undertake this big life change if I hadn't first undertaken solo travel. It has proven to me that I'm resilient and capable of great things.
What advice do you have for solo travellers?
I encourage every traveller to download offline maps app maps.me. It has hotels, hostels, restaurants, ATMs and you can search offline. Travelling is unpredictable and challenges arise. An experience I had in Budapest [arriving late with no accommodation] has meant that every time I enter a new country I'm prepared.
What has been your favourite place to travel to as a woman?
South Africa. The culture is deep and diverse, and there's a sense of hope that enables creative entrepreneurship and innovation. As a solo woman, I'm aware of the safety risks and do everything in my power to mitigate these. However, these risks are outweighed by the numerous opportunities and activities in South Africa.
Where are you heading next?
[Right now] I'm undertaking a solo road trip through South Africa's beautiful Garden Route. I've stopped in Hermanus, the best spot for whale watching in the world, and have thoroughly enjoyed being able to do a road trip on my own. Later in the year I plan a trek to see gorillas in either Rwanda or Uganda.
SUE FINN, MEDIA ADVISER, SYDNEY
Tell us about one of your most memorable experiences.
Last year, my sister and I celebrated her 50th birthday walking a 120-kilometre section of the Camino in Spain on a six-day, self-guided UTracks tour. We saw this trip as a great opportunity to escape the busyness and responsibilities of everyday life, to enjoy the freedom that independent travel brings and to simply enjoy each other's company.
What has been one of your scariest moments on the road?
Due to unavoidable circumstances, a friend and I embarked at sundown on a 240-kilometre drive from Kununurra to Warmun in Western Australia's remote Kimberley region. After half-an-hour it was pitch black, we had no mobile phone coverage and the only other traffic was the occasional road train overtaking us at breakneck speed. I was petrified of hitting a kangaroo or cattle and other wild animals wandering the highway. At one section, where a new bridge was being constructed, we detoured through a dry riverbed and back up onto the highway again. We arrived at our destination unscathed but exhausted [and] for the next week enjoyed adulation from the locals who referred to us as "those girls who drove from Kununurra in the dark".
Where are you heading next?
Next year I plan to walk either a section of the Via Francigena or Ireland's Ring of Kerry with a close friend, my fellow traveller on that "memorable" Kimberley road trip. When she turned 60 she walked the entire 800 kilometres of the Camino Frances, by herself. She's a fabulous travelling companion and makes me laugh. We've enjoyed some crazy adventures together.
FIVE TRENDS IN WOMEN-ONLY TRAVEL
WOMEN-ONLY HOTEL FLOORS
Rooms or entire floors reserved for women in countries such as the US and India provide an elevated sense of security along with female-friendly touches such as hair straighteners, make-up fridges and powerful hair dryers. (NB: women-only floors have been declared discriminatory in Denmark.)
This Australian ride-share service available in most major cities and some regional centres aims to get women and children to their destination safely. Its female drivers retain 85 per cent of their fares. See shebah.com.au
India is famous for its women-only train carriages. These spaces not only enhance your sense of security, but also provide an opportunity to meet and mingle with local women using the same service.
Womenstaxi.org is a global directory of companies in countries such as Britain, Lebanon, Mexico, South Africa and Iran which offer taxi services provided exclusively by female drivers for female patrons. See womenstaxi.org
Apps have revolutionised travelling for women. Favourites include Tourlina (tourlina.com), which matches women travelling to the same destination; GeoSure (geosureglobal.com), which helps women and LGBTQI people safely navigate unfamiliar neighbourhoods; Flush Toilet Finder, which pinpoints public restrooms (jrustonapps.com/apps/flush-toilet-finder); and Lady Pill Reminder (baviux.com/app/lady-pill-reminder), a handy assistant in synchronising the contraceptive pill with changing time zones.
FIVE GREAT FEMALE TRAVELLERS
The American journalist is best known for her 72-day round-the-world journey in 1889 – by steamship and railroad – in which she broke the record set by Jules Verne's fictional character Phileas Fogg in his book Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly (real name Elizabeth Cochran) was also a pioneering foreign correspondent and investigative journalist, reporting in particular on the lives of marginalised women.
A thirst for adventure led primatologist Jane Goodall from England into the wilds of Africa in the late 1950s, where she spent decades researching chimpanzees. Today, the 85-year-old travels for about 300 days a year lecturing those who will listen on the harm human development has wrought on the planet. Goodall uses the inevitable airport encounters for good: she'll only pose for selfies with fans if they promise to consider joining her NGO, Roots and Shoots. See rootsandshoots.org
In Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, the Irish travel writer tells of scaring off thieves in Iran with the pistol she'd taken along on her solo bike ride from Ireland across Europe, the Balkans, Persia and the Indian subcontinent. She later hit the road with her young daughter and travelled overland with pack mules in Ethiopia.
The Queenslander's nine-month journey across Australia's deserted centre – in the company of just four camels and a dog – was later recounted in her book Tracks and a 2013 film of the same title. Davidson has spent the intervening years studying nomadic peoples in India, Tibet and Australia.
Born to Ugandan parents in Detroit, Nabongo is well on her way to becoming the first black woman to visit every country in the world. The travel writer, podcaster and founder of travel company Jet Black (which encourages travel to countries in the African Diaspora) shares her wanderings – 165 nations and counting – on her Instagram account and blog, The Catch Me If You Can. See instagram.com/thecatchmeifyoucan; thecatchmeifyoucan.com; globaljetblack.com