Backpacking isn't just for gap year students
Backpacking isn’t the prerogative of gap year students as grandmother Carol Parkinson demonstrates when she talks to LYNETTE PINCHESS about her adventures
WITH her thirst for adventure and animated tales of roughing it abroad as a lone female traveller, it’s easy to forget Carol Parkinson is of pension age and not a teenage gap year student.
The 67-year-old grandmother’s backpacking expeditions have taken her around the world.
In the last ten years she has visited New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, India, Thailand, Vietnam, America and Costa Rica.
Instead of travelling in the lap of luxury, Carol slept mainly in hostels or on overnight trains and buses.
And she hasn’t just enjoyed the incredible sights and talking to the fascinating locals. Every day she tried a new experience – from eating a local delicacy to a tandem skydive and meditation with Buddhist monks.
Her wanderlust began after getting divorced. When her marriage of 28 years broke down, she spent two years feeling sorry for herself while friends holidayed with their partners.
Then, one day, she picked up the phone and booked a flight to New Zealand – something to do with her Sagittarian spontaneity, she laughs.
The self-employed businesswoman, who works with under-performing management teams, took five weeks’ leave. She was so busy before heading off that she did little research about the country she was about to visit.
“I was reading the Lonely Planet on the plane deciding what I would like to see. When I arrived I just booked a couple of nights to give myself time to breathe,” she says.
Rejecting the comfort of hotels, Carol, who lives in West Bridgford, stayed in hostels for £7 a night.
“There’s kitchens so you can cook up something and sit at a canteen-style table and that is where you got talking to people I met people from all over the world.
“Some of the hostels now are really smart with sitting rooms and big tellies. You only really need a bed for the night.”
Despite being surrounded by travellers young enough to be her grandchildren, Carol has never felt an age barrier.
She says: “It was all youngsters in the hostels. They’d ask me where I was going and then come along with me for the day.”
The only difference was they partied into the early hours while Carol slept.
During her stay, she visited the famous geysers and hot pools, flew in a helicopter over Mount Cooke and took trips to Milford Sound, a picturesque fjord in the South Island, and the stunning Lake Taupo.
“That was quite amazing,” she says.
At no point did she feel vulnerable as a woman on her own.
“I was walking along and one of the locals, who was cycling, said he could tell I was from the UK straight away. He asked if I was going to see the Queen, who was visiting the next day.
“I didn’t feel remotely threatened. They are so friendly and nice decent people who want to tell you about their country.”
This, she says, is one of the reasons why New Zealand is ideal for a novice backpacker.
“It’s so friendly, quite safe and they have such a pride in their country. I think it is the best place to start.”
She got around cheaply on public transport with a backpackers’ pass.
The trip was a revelation. “I came away thinking I can do it, it’s been amazing and it was so liberating.
“I met some amazing people, New Zealanders are incredibly friendly,” she says. And ten years on, Carol remains friends with some of the locals who have since stayed with her when they visited England.
Back in West Bridgford, Carol worked solidly for the next two years so she could book a four-and-a-half month round the world ticket.
After landing in Thailand’s capital Bangkok, she visited the Death Railway, built by forced labour in World War II, and floating markets before joining a party of students on a five-hour journey in the back of a truck into the Cambodian mountains – a trip on which they didn’t see another soul.
“The totally deserted resort in Bokor Mountains was built in the 1920s by the French and abandoned in the 1970s during the war and was then used as a hold out by the Khmer Rouge.”
They slept on the floor of the eerie ruins of a deserted hotel.
“There was such poverty. The next morning a family, who had seen the convoy, had set up a ramshackle stall outside with about a dozen items like an old pot bottle with some kind of liquid in it. It was sad on one hand but hilarious on the other – the enterprise of it.”
Although she wasn’t looking for romance, it was on this trip that Carol met a man, from Cheltenham, and the two are now in a relationship. However, they don’t go backpacking together.
“For him it was a one-off. He likes hotels,” says Carol.
Her adventures continued in Singapore but after two days she’d had enough.
“Cambodia and Thailand were quite spiritual. Singapore was five star hotels. I didn’t want to be in shopping malls so I flew to Vietnam,” says Carol.
Fed up of being constantly pestered by pedlars, Carol soon learned not to look them in the eye. “If you gave one indication you were interested, you’d had it,” she says.
One of her most memorable experiences was at Sapa, a gateway to a world of mysterious minority cultures and luscious landscapes.
“It’s the highest point in northern Vietnam. We went on mountain trails and slept in the hill tribes’ huts with a fire of sticks in the middle which was smoking meat.
“I have never been so cold in my life. I had on every bit of clothing I possessed and didn’t get undressed for four days. There was no toilet and we washed in cold water on the hillside. It was freezing!”
Later Carol travelled 600 miles on overnight buses down the east coast. The 12-hour journeys provided ample time for sleep. “It’s very cheap and you don’t have to pay for overnight accommodation,” she points out.
Next stop was Malaysia where she swapped the top bunk of an eight-bed room in a hostel for a twin room – but she had far from a good night’s sleep. Turning the light off, a strange noise came from underneath the empty bed.
“I sat up on my bed with my knees up with the light on all night. I could tell it was something big,” says Carol.
The next day she was told by a warden that she’d spent the night with a 2ft iguana.
The people Carol met were just as intriguing as the sights. One who caught her imagination had been a successful accountant, with a Rolls-Royce and a big house, who turned his back on wealth to lead a simpler life giving rainforest tours.
One of the biggest letdowns of her tour happened in Australia on the Indian Pacific Railway from Perth to Melbourne.
The scenery was disappointing – only one kangaroo spotted – and the backpackers’ ticket meant passengers had to sleep in their seat for three nights.
For 5ft 8in Carol, there was limited space.
“I spent two nights laying on the floor wrapped around a rubbish bin because I couldn’t sleep in my seat,” she recalls.
“If you have a cabin on your own it’s big money. Anyway I wanted to rough it.”
Something worthwhile did come of the journey though as Carol met a psychologist from Leicester and the two now meet up for walks.
As beautiful as the beaches were in Australia, Carol felt there was something missing.
“It was the difference between a holiday and an experience. Australia was sea and sand – there wasn’t the depth, history and culture of the other countries.”
From there she travelled to New Zealand, Fiji and the Cook Islands before crossing the Pacific to America. Los Angeles was her first destination, then San Francisco. Las Vegas brought her mammoth trip to an end.
Having caught the travel bug, the following year she returned to Thailand for a month and since then India and Costa Rica. The only time she has fallen ill was in India when a bad case of Delhi belly left her unable to eat for days.
There has been just one occasion in all her travels which unnerved her. When returning to her hostel in Kuala Lumpur, she was offered a lift by a man in a limo who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“There wasn’t a lot of people walking around so I turned back and saw two women that I could walk with. It was the only time I have felt a bit panicky. I did feel quite unnerved by that,” says Carol, who doesn’t harbour any regrets that her adventures didn’t start until later in life as it gave her the chance to have a family, a home and a career.
Most of the other backpackers she has met were young but there have been a number of women in their 40s.
“They had started backpacking as youngsters but couldn’t settle down or stick in a job and took flight again. They had no home, no career, never married, no children and were completely addicted to travelling.”
Top of her list of future places to visit is the Inca Trail in Peru. “I think I’ll need to do it in the next couple of years. You need to be quite fit – I wouldn’t want to do it the soft way where you’re transported,” says Carol.
She is often invited to speak at local clubs about her adventures in return for a donation to the Women of Influence Award, which she co-ordinates each year.
“My talk is called the Ramblings of an Aging Backpacker,” she says.