'While everyone else plastered SOLD stickers over house signs, I moved overseas without a plan, job, or any responsibilities,' writes Maggie Kelly.
'While everyone else plastered SOLD stickers over house signs, I moved overseas without a plan, job, or any responsibilities,' writes Maggie Kelly.

What it’s like being the world’s oldest backpacker

Spontaneity. One minute you got it, the next minute you ain't.

After I turned 30, it began to dawn on me that I was fast losing the idiocy of my youth. No longer did I have the ability to jump on a plane at midnight in a sequined minidress to chase a band across the country, nor quit a job because of the airconditioning. Things happen. Life happens. Friends and family and landlords and utility suppliers expect you to show up, and follow the rules, and not act like a lunatic. I suppose all of this was running through my mind when I decided to sprint at full speed in the other direction.

Who doesn't love a good travel story? From Homer's Odyssey to Dante's The Divine Comedy, Kerouac's On the Road to Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love; we humans love nothing more than embarking on a great adventure and living to tell the tale. It shapes us. It is a necessary rite of passage. For me, it was somewhat more pressing: I have long been driven by the notion that the world has an important secret that will only be revealed to the penniless and the fancy-free.

This year, I became the world’s oldest backpacker. Picture: supplied
This year, I became the world’s oldest backpacker. Picture: supplied

So as my peers plastered SOLD stickers over For Sale signs and rubbed round bellies, I quit my job and invited my partner to join me in a wild-goose chase across the planet, searching for secrets. We were to move overseas without a plan, a job, or any responsibilities. We became The World's Oldest Backpackers.

The first thing I bought when I decided to take off into the wild blue yonder was not a plane ticket, or a suitcase, or travel insurance: it was ten pairs of sturdy underwear. They were huge. Elasticised. Quick to dry and built to last. The great overseas adventure might have been sexy ten years ago, but once you get past 30, it's all about the underwear. It was around this time that I began to realise that being The World's Oldest Backpacker may just be a different experience to what I had imagined.

In your early 20s, some things are yet to exist in your life. Tax, for instance. Or sore knees. Or travel insurance claims, or uni debt, or flats teeming with books that you've hitched your identity to so passionately that the idea of selling them makes you nauseous. When you decide to travel in your early 20s, you just stuff a hand-me-down backpack with some G-strings, a pair of flip-flops, and a couple of condoms and hope for the best.

Bridget Jones knew all about the practicality of big underwear.
Bridget Jones knew all about the practicality of big underwear.

It was a bit different this time around. For starters, my bag was a suitcase. A very bloody expensive suitcase that I spent months choosing, has a lifetime warranty and matches not only my carry-on luggage but also my boyfriend's suitcase, and his carry on luggage too. The only things we're missing are matching T-shirts that have 'If lost, return me to --->' written on the front.

My suitcases are designed for easy wheeling and avoiding back pain and I'm happy to report that while my back is in one piece I did get an RSA in my shoulder from wheeling the carry on bag through the airport. One door opens, etc.

Inside the bag are precisely zero G-strings or flip-flops. Instead, you will find a dazzling array of sensible footwear and the entire contents of my local pharmacy. Whether it's heartburn, nausea, sleeplessness, eczema, red eyes, headache, aching neck, aching back, aching bones, hayfever, running nose, carsickness, magnesium deficiency, or pre-exam anxiety - I have just the pill for you. It may not surprise you to know that my most frequented location while travelling is the chemist. I actually seek them out prior to landing in a new city, and feel a great sense of serenity once located.

I love my suitcase more than anything. Picture: supplied
I love my suitcase more than anything. Picture: supplied

Learning to let go of all of the things that have kept me safe as an adult - such as the chemist - has been difficult. In fact, the first few months were a spectacular disaster in that sense. In the first week of arrival, I had organised a fully furnished apartment with a year's lease. By the second week, we had moved in, spent hundreds of euros on plants, hundreds of euros at Ikea, and were in the process of planting a rooftop vegetable garden. When they talk about 'putting down roots', I took it very seriously.

In saying that, this old traveller has still managed to learn new tricks. After a wobbly start, I've embraced the backpacker joie de vivre.

Dreadlocks, instant noodles, and tie-die fisherman pants aside, I have pledged to keep myself as open to new experiences as possible. I think specifically of a night in high summer where we rode our bikes around Amsterdam's bars with a gaggle of new friends. One suggested a midnight swim in the canals. We rode wildly through the streets, following the leader to a hidden swimming spot. I remember that even through my beer haze, I looked at the oily black of the canal and thought: I just couldn't possibly. Then I stripped down to my very large, very sturdy underwear, and took a running jump at the water.

It has been a mighty challenge to accept my freedom. Every fibre of my being is screaming for safety, for a full bank account and a fixed address. Which is why I need to remind myself daily that it is OK for an adult to need the exact opposite. I am fighting to let myself enjoy this, and to soak up every glittery, fabulous, terrifying adventure there is along the way. And just … jump.

Maggie Kelly is a columnist for RendezView.com.au


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