ADVENTURER: Chris Herrmann at Machu Pichu, Peru, during his senior gap year trek.
ADVENTURER: Chris Herrmann at Machu Pichu, Peru, during his senior gap year trek. Contributed

It's not just the young ones who can take a gap year

OKAY, so I was wrong about those young people who are always taking off on a gap year when they should be more responsible and get a job like the rest of us.

It turns out they're right.

It became evident when I found my life had suddenly been turned upside down.

We were living the family dream. Our children were now establishing their own families. Grandkids were arriving one after another. Our children had been spread around the world and the country.

By a set of coincidences, we were all living within a short drive of each other in the same city.

We'd regularly catch up. We could celebrate birthdays together. Babysit the grandchildren as the family nest grew.

Chris Herrmann on a day trek in Panama.
Chris Herrmann on a day trek in Panama. Contributed

My wife and I had moved from Adelaide. As empty nesters, we felt like a seachange.

We dreamt up this idea of a caravan alternative - an alternative to the four-wheel drive and caravan.

The first stage of our caravan alternative plan was underway. A short-term rental in Perth would be our home for the next several months.

We'd spend some time with family and use that as a base for exploring the local highlights. Then repeat the same for the next three or so months at another destination.

As a couple we enjoyed working together on our new exciting adventure. However, like all well intended plans, they often change.

A few months in Perth, turned into five years. We had come from a large family home in Adelaide. By contrast, our home was an apartment.

Working from home, a morning and afternoon tea on the balcony became a ritual. We used to joke with each other how we'd imagine people walking past would say to themselves, "Oh there's those two ol' farts on the balcony again".

Chris Herrmann uses the local transport in Guatemala.
Chris Herrmann uses the local transport in Guatemala. Contributed

We loved this home. Grandchildren running up to the door to be greeted with a special nanna and poppa hug.

But we weren't expecting what was about to happen. Life was about to bring our special family chapter to an abrupt end.

Many people had no idea my wife had lived with cancer for 12 years. Her focus was on living life to its fullness, not dwelling on it.

She was full of energy. In fact, she had been selected for the state dragon boat racing team - not exactly a leisure sport.

We shared a common outlook of looking to the future. Not what if.

But life now had other plans. In less than a week, after 40 years of the best part of our lives we'd shared together, it suddenly came to an end.

We were still young. Just over 60.

Losing my life partner, my soul mate, had a huge impact.

For one, it sharpened the awareness that you never know what card life will deal you.

But it was what she kept saying in her final hours that still ring in my head to this day - "I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe this is happening".

The reality struck home. This doesn't just happen to other people. You can't take life for granted.

Life is a gift. A gift that can be snatched away just as quickly.

GAP YEAR: Chris Herrmann prepares to hit the slopes in New York State during his year-long adventure.
GAP YEAR: Chris Herrmann prepares to hit the slopes in New York State during his year-long adventure. Contributed

Just over 12 months later I decided I wasn't hanging around waiting for my card. The rest of life could go on hold. At least for a gap year.

I may not be 18 any more, I reasoned. But why not take a gap year? In my case, a senior gap year.

But there was one person who was holding me back. Constantly trying to stop me from going.

That person was me.

I must have came up with a hundred reasons why I couldn't take this gap year.

The Mr Logic "I'm here to protect and keep you safe" voice inside the head was flat out feeding me with sensible reasons not to do something that was outside the normal comfort zone.

What? For 12 months? Travelling solo?

Nah, you're too old. What if you got ill? Had a heart attack? No one would have a clue where you were.

But why? You've got a comfortable life here in Australia.

Chris Herrmann on a day trek in Columbia.
Chris Herrmann on a day trek in Columbia. Contributed

And then those middle-of-the-night ones when Mr Logic "I'm here to protect you" wakes you up.

What if someone kidnaps you? It happens, you know.

But something was different this time. For the first time in my life, the gut feeling kept coming through loud and clear.

Whenever Mr Logic "I need to protect you" came up with yet another reason, my gut feeling would say "Just shut up. Get over it. You're going".

And that's what I did.

By then most of the furniture was sold and the rest was in storage. I was about to shut the door for the last time.

I looked across the now empty room. The walls bare of the family photos that once warmed our home with their smiles. The paintings that each told a story, now gone.

The pre-dawn light was just starting to make its way across the river. A silhouette of the city spread across the balcony windows.

I reflected on the many memorable times we had all shared together. The sadness. The tears. But as much, the many times of joy and laughter we shared together.

The songs we sang, the stories and all the many good times that so generously filled those walls.

If we knew what life was going to serve us, we couldn't have planned this final chapter any better. Those last five years of special family times will remain as one of my most treasured chapters.

I closed the door. Life is a journey, I reflected, not a destination.

This trip was about doing something completely different. Breaking away from normal daily routines.

As such, no planning. No goals, no deadlines. Just work out each day of the next 12 months as it came.

All that was booked was one around-the-world ticket - one stop in Spain, one in Central America and one in south-east Asia.

Apart from a couple of short side trips, that was the total extent of planning. Three stop-offs, four months apart.

I wanted to step outside the comfort zone. If it felt uncomfortable, I wanted to push myself to do it.

Not to take risks but just to challenge those little things. The routines, the moulds we create around ourselves over many years.

So that's what I did my first time travelling solo. My first time backpacking, certainly for any length of time.

First time surfing, white water rafting, spear fishing, crawling up into the top bunk in a hostel mixed dormitory full of backpackers younger than my kids.

Learning a new language, salsa classes, trekking up volcanoes, experiencing the effects of high altitude, swimming with giant turtles.

The sinking feeling of suddenly finding myself penniless in the middle of a foreign country.

I slept in every conceivable form of bed - hostels, guest houses, dormitories, hotels, bamboo huts, homestays, on the floor, in a tent in the middle of a jungle, a hammock, a Buddhist monastery, in a swag, overnighted on buses.

I stayed anywhere from one night to a couple weeks. If I didn't like a place I moved on. If I liked it, I stayed.

I travelled by just about every form of transport imaginable. From plush buses, to being crammed into chicken buses with bums and armpits jammed in your face.

Hanging on for dear life on the back of a pick-up taxi truck while staring down the edge of a mountain road.

My senior gap year was one hell of a journey.

I experienced the fact life doesn't stop. Open the door and there's another chapter waiting to be lived.

But there was just one more part of the journey still waiting.

It's funny how things happen. I was standing on the balcony of what was home since arriving in Buderim soon after my return to write the My Senior Gap Year book.

I had just finished the final draft. It was never my intent to write a book but as I stood there, I suddenly recalled how many years ago I actually had a vision to write a book.

The little romantic cottage may have been missing, but I was amazed how that forgotten vision had suddenly become reality.

But the Sunshine Coast had one other surprise.

I had met so many wonderful and inspiring people along my journey but here was something different. At a whole new level. The incredible social network.

You may be solo, but here, you certainly never need to be alone.

Chris Herrmann is the author of My Senior Gap Year, which chronicles many amusing stories and experiences of his senior gap year journey backpacking around the world. Visit www.myseniorgapyear.com


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