Our great big grey gap year

Alan and Bev Maloney aren't exactly typical backbackers. But they wouldn't have missed out on their globe-trotting adventure for the world, they tell Kate Burt

A little over a year ago, the Maloneys were watching the sun set and the humpback whales breaching in the clear, warm waters of of the bay below, in Western Australia's Cape Range National Park.

They liked the area – lots of young fellow backpackers to hang out with; further up the state in Kununurra they'd wound up in a caravan park full of retired people, which was pretty dull. But here, from their hilltop picnic point, glasses of wine in hand, the couple could reflect on some of the highlights from the adventures they'd been blogging about for the previous few months on their travels. Such as: paragliding in Nepal; witnessing riots in Kathmandu; watching orangutans and volcano climbing in Sumatra; an earthquake; long treks; slow boats; fast boats; crashing a motorcycle; being knocked over by a motorcycle; 15ft waves at sea in Java; diving with sharks; swimming with manta rays; sleeping under the stars in the outback – and flying in an old DC3 into Darwin Airport. All pretty typical – if rather daring – backpacker tales.

And yet not, perhaps, such typical backpackers: the Maloneys are 68-year-old Alan and his 50-year-old wife of nearly 24 years, Bev – and they were on what has recently come to be known as a "grey gap year" (though they prefer their own nickname for the trip: "OAP and HRT on tour").

Research by P&O Cruises revealed, last year, that there had been a 300 per cent increase in the over-50s age group taking a year out to travel the world in the previous five years – with envy at the lifestyles of younger people said to be partly the inspiration.

Not something the Maloneys suffered from. "I'm only glad we ran out of time before getting to New Zealand," says Bev, now back home in Buckinghamshire. "Alan had decided we were going bungee jumping."

An extended globe trot – months away from the comfort of familiar routines, family and more intensive time spent together than, probably, ever before, as well as daily unexpected challenges – it could go so many ways for a long-married couple. Many of the younger people the Maloneys met – in bars, backpacker hotels, half-way up a volcano – said, "You wouldn't catch my parents doing anything like this." Perhaps with good reason.

The idea of travelling together had always appealed – particularly Alan, a former army officer who was poised to step down from his second career of co-running a golf club. But in 2009, as his retirement loomed, Bev had recently started a new job that she loved, as a researcher and market analyst, "so a trip like this was something we'd had to put off because I'm not near retirement yet".

But then Bev noticed a mole on her husband's neck that didn't look quite right. The doctor referred him to a dermatologist and, says Bev, "when he came home he got out of the car and just said, 'it's got to come out'. It was cancerous. Two operations later, to the couple's relief, Alan was declared to be in in the clear. But, by then, everything had changed. "Alan said, 'now I've had this scare I need to get on and travel – and I need you to come with me'."

It caused Bev, she says, "Some angst. I'd only been working at the new job for five months and loved everything about it. Then I had to tell them: 'Sorry, but I need to go away for a year.' I didn't know what they'd say – but I couldn't think about that: I realised that Alan comes first." Fortunately, her employers were very understanding, keeping the job open for her return.

And so the planning began... though Alan was less keen on that side of things – particularly the precise details of their itinerary. "I'm a list maker and a bit of a control freak," says Bev, "and I had to keep being firm and saying, 'no, Alan – this has got to be planned' – including insurance, the potential lack of which, with such a long trip and Alan being a pensioner recovering from cancer, threatened to put the kibosh on the whole thing until Bev finally found one company, All Clear Insurance (www.all clearinsurance.com) willing to take on the risk.

As for the trip itself, they knew they wanted to start in India, as Alan had always been fascinated by the place from a love for Rudyard Kipling books – so they scheduled in Varanasi and Agra – then "just built on that," says Bev. "Once we were away I fell into the not-planning bit very readily. Every evening we'd sit with a glass of wine discussing where we might go, not mapping out too much because we wanted that freedom. Alan became the chief organiser, reading up in the guidebooks about where to go and what to do – then he'd brief me. It was lovely not having to worry about it, actually."

And they went for the full traveller experience: through India, Nepal and South-east Asia, they were firmly on the backpacker trail staying mostly in "the cheapest accommodation possible" – alongside twentysomething gap year-ers, whose company they found "refreshing".

One of the most memorable moments was paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal. "Alan and I are quite competitive," Bev says, giggling. They did tandem jumps and Bev and her young, female Brazilian pilot did well out of being lighter than Alan, who was paired with a sturdy Moldavian farmer. "I could see them disappearing down the ridge," she says, still gleeful at the memory. "They landed way before us – and we went and did a spiral over the lake below which was brilliant. I think Alan was a bit jealous – but he'd never show it."

They also had an "awesome" Christmas spent on a slow boat on the Mekong, en route to Laos, where the best bits included wry smiles at Felipo the middle-aged Sicilian out the back smoking "funny smelling cigarettes" with a bunch of 21-year-olds and an unexpected stop to pick up a local man – who needed everyone's help to haul his large cargo of agricultural machinery on board. They were constantly delighted to be in the company of young people – yet amazed at their capacity for sleep. "It was funny: everywhere you went – the boat, on the buses, trains – they'd be there, eyes closed, iPods on. We'd think: 'where are all these supposed party people?'"

Meanwhile, the Maloneys' respective families – Alan's grown-up children and grandchildren – and Bev's siblings and extended family – were at home wearing jumpers and eating turkey. What did they make of Bev and Alan's adventures? "They were a bit shocked when we announced we were going away for a whole year – simply because we'd never talked about it before." But because Alan had been in the army, trained to be a diving instructor and had always been pretty adventurous, no one was apparently too surprised at what they were getting up to. Well, apart from the six-day trek they did in the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal: Alan had a replacement knee a couple of years ago.

"My respect and admiration for Alan has really grown," says Bev. "Walking still isn't easy for him, and to watch him push himself, pull his shoulders up straight – and then to compare him with other people of a similar age we see around us... well, there is no comparison, really. I'm just very grateful I've got Alan and not some old fogey."

And what does she think changed for Alan in terms of his feelings about her? "He learnt not to ask me where the sunscreen is when it's 40 degrees outside and I'm having a hot flush."

They moved back into their home before Christmas and are "loving" it and looking forward to planting next season's vegetables. However, the impact of the trip continues.

In terms of routine, while Bev has slotted back into her "work/gym/socialise/sleep" pattern, Alan, having retired just before they set off, is seeing a big difference. "He has taken up a fitness routine, something he has not had since leaving the army 18 years ago, and is planning to take part in a half marathon with his brother and another knee-replacee."

They are enjoying what the trip has done to their outlooks on life. "I wouldn't say we have more fun, but we have different fun – the great thing is our dreams and ambitions are quite unfettered now. Nothing is totally off the agenda." So the wanderlust hasn't gone away? "No, we're talking about another trip "though perhaps not for so long this time..."

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