Real life: Mature gappers

Backpackers move over: taking time to experience the world isn't just for the young. There is now a wealth of possibilities catering to mature travellers

By Laura Latham
Published 1 Nov 2012, 12:56 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:39 BST

Mature, or 'grey', gap travellers with no ties, a high level of disposable cash and a desire to experience the world are the latest demographic to quit their jobs and take a gap year.

Gap travel specialists, Projects Abroad, reports that 19% of its customers are now aged over 25, while last year Saga Holidays, which caters to the over-50s market, said sales of more adventurous, long-haul trips were up by more than 300%.

"These travellers are taking a break later in life because they have the desire to do something more meaningful," says Sam Cox, managing director of i-to-i. "They now have the disposable income and time available to explore the world and do something extraordinary."

The company has seen a 2% year-on-year increase in bookings from people 40 and above. So what are the benefits of taking time out later in life and how do you do it? Three mature travellers share their experiences:

Rich Cole, 46, Leeds

Redundancy from his job as a product manager in the telecoms industry gave Rich the chance to take time out to pursue his love of diving. In May 2011, he travelled to the Seychelles to work on a five-week conservation project with Global Vision International (GVI).

I'd worked in telecoms for 26 years and had a good, well-paid, secure job but I was always in the car, working long hours and wondering whether there was anything else out there. Then my firm reorganised and I happily took redundancy.

My wife, Rebecca, had changed career a few years earlier and taken some time out to volunteer in Africa. I wanted to do something similar but was looking for a unique experience to mark the end of one phase of my life before moving onto the next. I didn't want to sit on a beach, drinking cocktails, but do something more fulfilling.

I'm a keen diver and already qualified to advanced and rescue levels, so I booked a place on a diving conservation holiday to the Seychelles, which I knew had amazing marine life.

The trip was through GVI, which offers hands-on experiences for travellers of all ages, and the cost was around £2,000 for full board and training. I was posted to a place called Baie Turnay, a marine national park on the main Seychelles island of Mahé, well off the main tourist track.

The accommodation was quite basic, a converted military training camp. But it was more than acceptable, with dormitory-style rooms and a communal kitchen and dining room. Everyone was expected to pitch in with cooking, cleaning and helping out. The location was spectacular, near a beautiful white beach with a backdrop of mountains. My trip involved helping to survey the underwater environment. My particular task was to identify and monitor the corals, while others in the group were doing the same with the marine life. This meant learning about all the corals I was likely to see, including their Latin names and how to identify them by sight.

Once we passed the exam, we would dive every day, mapping and recording our findings in 20 sites around the region. We would often spend a lot of time in one location, rather than just passing by a site, so developed a better understanding of the local marine life in each location, which was quite special.

The region is thriving with tropical fish, different types of rays, along with octopus, dolphins, turtles and reef sharks. I'd like to have seen the whale sharks or manta rays but we were out of season. The real eye-opener though was the diversity of coral: I had no idea how many types there were.

In our free time, most of us would take off, either in a group or on our own, to do local recreational dives or see some of the area. I visited places on Mahé as well as other islands, like Praslin and Bird Island. I'd often use public transport and meet a lot of the local people this way or through diving, so it gave me a real insight into the culture. I really feel I got under the skin of the country and it was great our group consisted of mixed ages. Socialising with younger group members was great and, balanced out by the more mature of the group, provided equally valuable insights.

It also felt good to know I was contributing to something and getting back to basics in a beautiful environment. At the end of each day, I was exhausted but felt exhilarated.

I'd definitely do this kind of activity holiday again. I now realise for me what matters in life is the experiences you gather and the knowledge you gain while travelling. And I certainly know a great deal about coral now, too.

The details: GVI offers volunteering trips worldwide, from one week to six months. Prices start at £595 a week, including board, accommodation and training. T: 01727 250250. 

Penny Costley-White, 58, Oxford

After retiring from a career in academic publishing, Penny volunteered to work for a community project to educate disadvantaged young adults in South Africa. Her six-month visit from January to July this year has turned into a full-time job.

At the age of 20, I was exiled to the UK from my native South Africa because I was politically active against apartheid. Even though I had no choice about leaving, I'd always felt guilty about abandoning my country in such troubled times.

I first read about the Eden project five years ago in the press. A local farmer had started a business college for disadvantaged young adults in the village of Karatara, deep in the bush near the coastal town of Knysna, around six hours east of Cape Town. Many pupils were leaving school with no real qualifications and he saw that this was holding them back. It was such an amazing thing to do that I couldn't get it out of my mind.

I followed the story for several years via their website. During that time the college was taken over by TSIBA, a Cape Town-based educational institute, but was still in need of expertise and financial aid. It was also around this time my mother died and I felt it was the right time to take a new direction, so I wrote to the school and asked if I could volunteer. They welcomed my interest and agreed I could go there for six months.

Initially, I helped to set up aspects of the college, such as a shop and cafe, where the students were taught retail and catering, and was put in charge of creating an academic library, essential to the learning programme. I began teaching students literacy, numeracy, English and basic IT because they often had none of these crucial basic skills.

It's often very challenging because many of the students live in almost unimaginable deprivation. Families may be starving or have backgrounds of abuse, so there's often a lack of social skills, or severe emotional hurdles to their learning. But it's hugely rewarding to see pupils making progress with their studies and leave after two years with a certificate in business.

It can be very humbling to see how people from challenging backgrounds cope with life and how willing they are to work hard. But, no matter how committed you are, when you're volunteering in such a needy environment, it can also be very exhausting. It's the one reason I chose to live in an absolutely beautiful location, on an island in the Knysna estuary, where I have my own space at the end of the day.

I never get tired of cycling around the island, walking its beaches or kayaking in the lagoon. I've also seen a lot of wildlife — several baby cape hooded owls even took up residence in my garden.

When my six-month stint ended in July this year, I was already planning to volunteer again. But I was offered a full-time job helping to develop the college's academic programme and manage other volunteers. It's wonderful to think I'm starting a second career at 58.

Volunteering in another country strips you back to your core. I think older people have a lot to offer but there are times when we still have a lot to learn, and leaving home to volunteer overseas can certainly teach you about yourself.

The details: The TSIBA programme accepts donations and applications to volunteer. Volunteers are required to fund their own travel and living arrangements. 

Jonathan Keevins, 34, Edinburgh

In June 2010, after eight years in the food production industry, Jonathan took a career break to join a 13-week placement to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, followed by 13 weeks in Borneo, both with Raleigh International. Between placements, he spent five months travelling independently.

Since my early 20s, I'd always wanted to travel but had found myself working for the same food production company. It was a good job yet I still felt restless. I asked for a six-month unpaid sabbatical, with a view to returning to the job fresh. They refused and so I resigned.

About the same time I met someone who told me about the work of Raleigh International, an organisation that helps young people take challenging trips to less developed regions of the world. Raleigh also places older, more experienced people in support roles. I applied and they offered me the position of logistics officer, a role overseeing the practical day-to-day running of the operation, also helping to lead long treks, which are a staple of Raleigh's experiences.

It seemed a good way to visit other countries: there was a support structure, so it wasn't as scary as turning up somewhere alone but it was still a way of pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I opted to do a 13-week dual-site trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua partly to immerse myself in the culture of a Spanish-speaking country and learn the language.

The trip cost around £1,900 plus flights and kit. There was an assessment weekend to meet other group members, making sure I knew how to deal with problems and that I had the required skills.

On site, the group was split into different tasks: some were there to do community work, which included building a primary school and putting in a water system, while others were involved in environmental research in the national park. On every trip, the whole group also has to do a three-week hike through difficult terrain, camping out every night.

Although I worked long hours, it was a lot more social than backpacking alone or even with a friend. And there's a level of responsibility. On one of the treks, for example, someone fell ill in a remote spot and we had to be able to get the person to the hospital on horseback. You really have to learn to keep calm under pressure.

My third placement in Borneo was surveying wildlife, followed by a 15-day jungle trek. What I loved about those times was being totally cut off from civilisation, and seeing what the jungle was really like. The experience takes you away from what you're used to and allows you to meet local people, see villages and have encounters normal tourists don't get. At the end of each placement, I also travelled on my own for a few weeks.

Since I returned to the UK, I see things differently — as many travellers do once home. I find myself wondering why people spend so much of their lives rushing around and why we place so much emphasis on possessions when so many are without basics?

I'm not sure what I want to do next. I'm keen to see Africa so would definitely consider the possibility of doing another placement there in the future.
This is an ideal trip for anyone who's been in a job for a while and is looking for a fresh perspective.

The details: Raleigh International offers placements from eight to 13 weeks to over 25s from £1,350, flights extra. T: 020 7183 1270. 

How to do it
Companies offering travel or volunteer experiences tailored for older travellers include: Inspired Breaks, i-to-i Volunteering, Projects Abroad, Saga Holidays and Bridge the World.

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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