Into the Wild
We’re in the Baja sun, bright enough that it feels as though it might burn our shadows into the earth. And we’re working. Strung out fire-line style, reaching from the shore to a few feet into the sea, we’re off-loading equipment from a boat onto a deserted beach.
We’re 14 women, strangers until 48 hours ago, helping one another set up camp on this windswept, shell-strewn spit of sand in the Sea of Cortez. We’re 14 women, without a man in sight, set loose in the wild with only each other to rely on. We’re utterly free. We’re beautiful in that freedom.
I’ve embarked on a nine-day journey with the Canadian-based Wild Women Expeditions to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. I’m anticipating a variety of adventures, with the majority of time spent camping, snorkelling and kayaking Espiritu Santo Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its untamed splendour and magnificent biodiversity. Like all WWE trips, it is women only, a kind of travel I’ve never before undertaken, which is surprising given how much I travel and the massive growth in the women-only travel industry.
According to a 2013 American Express survey, 56 percent of women travellers now take women-only trips. And we’re not just talking about “girl getaways” or bachelorette parties in Las Vegas. According to a feature in Adventure Travel News, 75 percent of people who book adventure travel are women.
“Women are more adventuresome today, more likely to take risks,” said Dave Wiggins on the site Travel Tribe. A former executive with American Wilderness Experience and Trusted Adventures, Wiggins suggests that women are “looking for more healthy lifestyles. They’re interested in the experience, the scenery, in learning about the outdoors.”
But despite my research, I still have no idea what to expect. How, I wonder, will the lack of men inflect the experience?
Santa Rita Hot Spring, Baja Mainland
They really do say “Eh.” That’s what I’m thinking as I stare down at the makings of a tent, listening to the quiet chatter of the women around me. They’re nearly all Canadian, and outdoorswomen too, setting up their shelters with the ease born of deep familiarity. It’s getting on toward night and we’re anxious to head down to the natural hot spring that flows, clear and soothing, from the rocks above.
Pati, our guide with WWE’s local partner, Baja Outdoor Activities, comes over to guide me through tent building. She’s tiny, deeply tanned and lovely, with a gravitas that doesn’t preclude smiling – even when I immediately snap one of my poles in half. This, I’d been embarrassed to admit earlier to the group, is only the second time I’ve camped. I imagine that Pati is gifted with enormous patience.
Finally finished, I help Tracy, the only other American on the trip, wrestle her tent into submission. Like me, she’s traveling solo and in her mid-40s. She’s calm and kind and I like her immensely. After, we follow the group to the hot spring. It’s the sort of dark you only get far from the city, and in the water we turn out our headlamps, reclining in blind contentment. Several of the other women are nude – is it the older ones? I wonder, peering into blackness. I can barely see my hand in front of my face.
As my eyes adjust I see, yes, it’s Elspeth the doctor and Margaret the retired teacher. Perhaps age has wrought a truce between them and their bodies, brought them to a place of acceptance that so many women seem to lack. I feel a flash of irritation at the momentary shyness that stopped me from shedding my suit.
Young and old, clothed and not, strangers still, we lie together in the water, gazing up at the star-soaked sky as Pati calls out the names of constellations spinning overhead.
The next morning, when I break down my tent with uncustomary dexterity, Margaret notices. “That was fast,” she exclaims.
“I thought you’d never been camping,” Elspeth says with a grin.
Espiritu Santo Island, Offshore Seal Rookery and Ensenada Grande Bay
I’m sitting on the edge of a boat, feet dangling over the water. In front of me is a pile of rocks drenched in barking, growling, yipping, yapping sea lions. I am about to swim with them. Yesterday we’d snorkelled alongside a whale shark but the sea, choppy and cold, had panicked me. Next to me is Lilli, a 17-year-old travelling with her mom, Melody. They live on a farm in Saskatchewan and are capable, no-nonsense women. Lilli has a ferocious fearlessness I envy and adore, and I’m glad I’m going in the water with her.
“Are you ready?” she asks me. “On the count of three,” I answer.
I know at once I’m fine. The sea is calm and clear. Impatient to be closer to the animals, I swim to the most crowded section of the rookery. I’m alone here, bobbing in the water when I feel a tug on my life vest. I look down. Peering back up at me is a sleek, whiskered face. It’s a sea lion pup. Two others are circling me, but this one, playful and inquisitive, sticks closest, swimming under my arms and through my legs, trying to stuff his head under my life vest. Since earliest childhood, I’ve loved animals like little else, and to be so near this creature, feral and innocent, touches me profoundly. When he finally swims away, I have tears of gratitude.
That night we camp on Espiritu. Under a lavender sky, with Venus low in the west, we trade stories. We have two cancer survivors. Two of us are married. Tammy, a nurse prone to giggles, is here with Judith, who played hockey back in the day and is so strong and steady, I’d trust her to break me out of a Mexican jail. Tammy lost her wife a year ago to cancer. I feel a kinship with her as I speak of my brother’s death last May. Elspeth and Margaret intrigue me most. Decades ago they joined together as acquaintances to share households and child-rearing after their divorces.
These are women, I think, who could rule the world.
Espiritu Santo Island, Ensenada Grande Bay
The plan is to paddle to another beach on the bay for lunch this afternoon, and so after breakfast, Pati tells us with gentle insistence that we must practice wet exits. We will tip over our kayaks, escaping from them upside down. Tammy is worried; I’m flat-out scared. I nearly drowned a few years back rafting a Class V rapid, I tell the group.
“What in the hell are you doing here?” Tammy asks me, laughing.
“I don’t want to give into fear.”
Melody shakes her head. “You’re brave, I’ll give you that,” she says.
“No, just stubborn.”
We head out into the emerald water, glittering like a gem in the sun. Pati demonstrates how we should release the kayak’s skirt that seals in our lower bodies after we’ve gone under. Then it’s just a matter of kicking out and up. I’m not comforted but volunteer to immediately take my turn. I just want to get it over with.
The other women call out reassurances, telling me I’ll be fine, that I’ve got this. Buoyed by their encouragement, I tip my body sideways, turning over the kayak. I’m out before I can process what’s happened, surfacing to applause. Relieved it’s over, grateful for the support from my new friends, I stay in the water, cheering on Tammy and the others.
After our paddle we make lunch, everyone chipping in, as we have every meal, to chop, cook and clean. Later, there’s time to explore. Wading into the ocean, I spy Lilli teaching Tracy to skip rocks. I snorkel far out, nearly out of the cove, entranced by the hypnotic scene below. Massive purple starfish and spiky sea urchins, silly pufferfish and sinuous eels, dazzling angelfish and damselfish too – they drift beneath me, alien and magical as far away stars.
Espiritu Santo Island, Candelero Bay
Margaret is annoyed. Yesterday we’d kayaked three hours to this new beach, where we set up camp. It’s as lovely as the other, ringed by rocky, rust-hued cliffs, the austere desert landscape stunning against the endless blue sky and gentle green waves. But it’s much larger, and there’s another camp situated behind a rocky ridge dividing the beach. Margaret was walking around in her panties when she spied a man from that camp standing atop the ridge. We’ve all become a bit proprietary about this wild, lonely place, and the sight of another human – especially a man – is jarring.
Melanie, shrugging, says, “He probably thought your panties were your swimsuit. I’ve been wearing my underwear as bikini bottoms for the past two days.”
It’s our last evening on Espiritu. We spent the afternoon divided up. I snorkelled with Tracy; Margaret and Elspeth kayaked to another beach, and Pati taught the intrepid Lilli how to do an Eskimo roll – spinning from upright to capsized and back again in one move. Over dinner Melody tells me, “Everyone is so supportive of each other. When Lilli was learning to do the Eskimo roll, she had six women around her, cheering her on. It’s great.”
We’re all ready for showers and actual toilets, not the little camp one, nicknamed “Paco,” we’ve used since arriving on the island. We’ll be heading tomorrow to the gray whale calving grounds on the peninsula’s Pacific coast, but the night still feels melancholy, like a leave-taking. Before we say goodnight I ask Elspeth if she feels the way Melody does about the trip. Like I feel about it.
“Taking men out of the equation eliminates the machismo, the competition,” she replies. “Women are much less afraid to bear hang-ups and issues. There’s no performance appraisal … just support, comfort and trust. It’s been a terrific experience.”
All photos: Julie-Anne Davies Photography