Stories from John

world's oldest backpacker, john waite, travel stories, retired, older travelers

Stories from John


The world’s oldest backpacker

In the previous post we met John Waite – a man who has been dubbed ‘The World’s Oldest Backpacker’. After his wife passed away in 1982 he retired from his job in Melbourne and set off to travel the world. Almost 30 years later, at the age of 89, John is still staying in youth hostels while he explores the mysteries of our race. Throughout his journey he’s inspired many a young backpacker. These are some of his stories…

John Waite is sitting at a table in the kitchen of our hostel, rifling through some papers and books he carries with him around the world. He travels light and only has two changes of clothes in his backpack, but he sacrifices a bit of extra weight for these mementos of his journey. They are his version of a diary – a collection of photos, signatures and messages from people he has met over the past 30 years on the road.

John shows me a signed photo in the front of his latest notebook and tells me it’s the President of Iceland. He’s not bragging or trying to impress. Over the years he’s realised that other travellers enjoy hearing his tales as much as he likes to share them. John tends to tell stories in the same way he travels – slowly and with no fixed direction. But also with a sense of humour that mixes the dry wit of his English motherland with the sarcasm of his adopted Australia.

world's oldest backpacker, john waite, travel stories, retired, older travelers

In one of his older books, which he’s left at home in Melbourne, is a message from Mother Teresa. He met her while he was working in a hospital in India just a few days before she died.

“I didn’t know she was sick,” John says, not trying to be humourous.

The message is one of his most cherished souvenirs, along with a similar note from the Dalai Lama.

“Everyone thought I wouldn’t go up to him but I did,” he says.

“I just told him I was backpacking around the world and we had a bit of a talk about that.”

John worked with the United Nations in Sudan in the early 1990s. He didn’t intend to get involved but he met a friend in Namibia who was a doctor and he invited John to join the aid effort. John didn’t realise until the end of his contract that he was actually getting paid for all the months he had helped. He would happily have done it for free but he accepted the money because it helped prolong his travels.

world's oldest backpacker, john waite, travel stories, retired, older travelers

His brushes with charity have also taught him an important lesson about humanity.

“I tend now to look at people and judge them as I find them and as they treat me,” he says.

“With anything that goes wrong I look at myself first and think about what I have done and if I’ve done something wrong.”

That way of thinking is still something he associates with an incident in Islamabad when he was attacked by a group of boys.

“I was stoned in Islamabad but it was because I was wearing shorts,” he remembers.

“But, then again, it was partly my fault because you’re supposed to cover up. It was about six youth but I walked up to them and they ran away.”

world's oldest backpacker, john waite, travel stories, retired, older travelers

There was a much more serious attack in Mexico City that almost cost John his life. The way he puts it, he was left for dead. Intrigued when he mentions this, I ask him for more, hanging on every word as I have been for the whole time we’ve been talking.

“I had a bad feeling walking down this street and then suddenly there was this guy with a short length of pipe,” he says.

“He made a rush for me and I lashed out and caught him in the balls and he yelled and screamed and dropped the pipe.”

That wasn’t the end of the story, though, because there was another man who came at him. John hit out at him as well and once again protected himself.

“I could see another one but he wasn’t close enough to be a threat,” he continues.

“But that was the last I knew, because there was another one behind me obviously. He hit me across the head and knocked me out. I woke up about 4 in the morning in the gutter soaked in blood with my clothes ripped down the side to get at my money belt.”

John made it back to his hostel, avoiding another robbery attempt along the way, and eventually got medical and consular help to get his journey back on track.

world's oldest backpacker, john waite, travel stories, retired, older travelers

For some people, an assault on their body and their sense of security would be enough to make them rethink their path in life. Not for John. He knows what he’s doing and he knows the risks. He sees the world as inherently good and the people in it as the richest source of pleasure. He’s got no intention of slowing down.

“I’ve planned the next 50 years and then I’ll think about the next 50 after that,” he jokes.

“So if you want to dance on my grave I’ve got news for you. If I have to slow down I’ll buy a pair of rollerskates and keep going.”

He laughs softly and smiles. But he also looks me in the eyes with a gaze that shows how serious he is. Then John Waite turns the page of his book to find another story.

** For more about John Waite, you can check out – Part 1: The World’s Oldest Backpacker

  • 50+ and on the Run | Dec 6, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Love, love, love this story–tell him that if he ever gets to Texas, I want him to meet my dad–who is planning his next 50 years, and finished his first (mini) triathlon at 84! Here’s the link:

    Thanks for this story–it made my day.
    50+ and on the Run recently posted..Oh, Now I Get ItMy Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 6, 2011 at 10:02 am

      It sounds like they would be quite the pair!! I know John is in the US at the moment but he refuses to use email so I’m not sure where exactly. Just keep an eye out for an energetic 89-year-old with little white shorts! 🙂

  • The Travel Fool | Dec 6, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Sounds like a heck of a guy. Wouldn’t mind having a chat with him myself.
    The Travel Fool recently posted..Travel Bloggers and how to Spot ThemMy Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 6, 2011 at 10:40 am

      I hope you get to meet him one day. It’s a chat you won’t quickly forget!

    • Catherine | Sep 16, 2012 at 11:10 pm

      That is my pop and he is a good guy

      • Michael Turtle | Sep 20, 2012 at 2:12 am

        How fantastic to hear from one of John’s family! Please pass on my best to him. And please show him all the wonderful comments on his story so he can see how much he has inspired people!

  • Kristen | Dec 6, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Turtle, these two stories were touching. I’m so glad you’re capturing some of John’s wisdom. More, more!

    • Turtle | Dec 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm

      Oh, I can’t do any more stories about John. I’m far too tired trying to keep up with him 🙂

  • Linda | Dec 7, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Wow but these two posts are amazing. I found you through Twitter, and so glad! My dad is the same age, and, in fact, is also called John. I wish he could meet him. For his age he is actually quite fit and very much together mentally. His only problem is his attitude to life, which is, shall I say, the opposite of John’s, and I feel that he could be enjoying life so much more! John Waite is living proof! So many folk give up looking for adventure or even anything mildly energetic when they get older, and it makes me angry! Heck, I even have friends of my own age who do it. Shame about the email though – wouldn’t it be amazing if he blogged?!

    Now off to peek at the rest of your blog, having found you! Thanks for this inspiring post!
    Linda recently posted..Fine Dining in Tenerife, or Why Should the Tourists Get All the Good Stuff?My Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 7, 2011 at 7:06 am

      Thanks for the comment, Linda. I’m so glad to have you on board! I suppose the most inspirational thing about John is that he is in the minority. Most people his age tend to think they’ve done all the hard work and it’s time to relax. It’s just a pity when people do work so hard for so long and then don’t have the motivation to get the benefits from all of that.

  • Oscar | Dec 7, 2011 at 8:03 am

    He made me feel that still i have the opportunity to do all the things i want!
    By the i am from Mexico and I apologize for the incident not all Mexicans are like that!

    • Turtle | Dec 7, 2011 at 8:33 am

      I don’t think anyone would hold it against the country. From what John was saying, he certainly didn’t!

  • Cam | Dec 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Enjoyable read!

    • Turtle | Dec 8, 2011 at 3:34 am

      Thanks guys!!

  • katie | Dec 19, 2011 at 12:50 am

    what an amazing guy, thanks for sharing

    • Turtle | Dec 20, 2011 at 1:30 am

      No worries – thanks for the comment!

  • Eric Mahinay | Jan 17, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    travelling around the sphere has been a childhood dream of mine…I am jealous of this man, meaning if he can do it at his age why can’t I?
    Eric Mahinay recently posted..First New Year in PolandMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 18, 2012 at 5:25 am

      Exactly! Nothing is stopping you! Good luck! 🙂

  • flipnomad | Jan 19, 2012 at 12:52 am

    really amazing and inspiring story! speechless after reading it… hoppe you feature more interesting people that you meet on the road!

    • Turtle | Jan 19, 2012 at 11:29 am

      It would be hard to find people more inspiring than John… but fingers crossed for some more interesting features!

  • Someday I'll Be There - Mina | Jan 28, 2012 at 8:54 am

    would love to meet up with such a person! Those people always pass on the positive energy needed to keep going!
    Someday I’ll Be There – Mina recently posted..Great People of the camino – IsmaelMy Profile

    • Turtle | Feb 2, 2012 at 2:36 am

      You’re right – there was certainly plenty of positive energy coming from John!!

  • Friday Follow: Time Travel Turtle | The Travel Hack | Jan 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    […] which has had the biggest response on my blog and is also the one I’m the most proud of. It’s a two-part post about a man called John, who I met at a hostel. He’s been backpacking around the world for 30 years and is now 89 […]

  • Meet the Nomads - Michael Turtle | | Jan 30, 2012 at 12:31 am

    […] of his posts that I really like and struck me the most was his feature article about an 89 year old backpacker, John Waite whom he met in one of his trips. Michael wrote the article very well which makes it an […]

  • Tony | Jan 31, 2012 at 5:45 am

    WOW! Awesome story! He must be a good inspiration to all travelers and backpackers.

  • Matthew Hutchins | Jun 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Wow 30 years of travel, that’s amazing, I’m not sure I’d want to travel for that long

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 22, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      It’s a long time!! I’m getting tired after just one year of travel.

  • Jake | Sep 27, 2012 at 8:42 am

    I wonder how big of a barrier language is for him. It must be quite hard to communicate.

    • Michael Turtle | Oct 2, 2012 at 12:29 am

      I imagine it’s as hard as for anyone who is travelling the world. But sometimes having he right attitude and disposition can help a lot!

  • John King | Jan 7, 2013 at 12:24 am

    An amazing story! What a guy! Most of us wouldn’t handle such travel without our laptop open every day catching up with email, messaging friends on Facebook etc etc. I love that he’s in some ways on this journey ‘alone’ – just out there living it – staring death in the face and carrying on regardless.
    John King recently posted..The London RoutineMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 14, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      I don’t know how he copes without even an email address! I guess that’s how the world was when he started travelling so it’s what he knows best. Still, as you say, most of us would find it impossible!

  • Dav n Trish | Aug 22, 2013 at 5:43 am

    We’ve just sent John packing after him having spent 5 days with us – we’re exhausted. Only joking – his stay was a most refreshing and upbuilding one. It was wonderful to spend time in his company, listen to his exploits (not quite Indiana Jones, but close!) and share a glass or two of Glenfiddich (excuse the advertising!) – scotch whisky, for the uninitiated! We’ll miss him as we return to the humdrum of everyday life. We will enjoy happy memories, though, until we meet again. Hopefully we’ll see him again in February to see how he bears up under a British winter.

    • Michael Turtle | Aug 27, 2013 at 8:10 pm

      Wonderful! I’m always so excited when I hear that people have met up with John. And, of course, I get a little jealous too! 🙂
      I’m sure after five days you still feel like you haven’t heard all the stories. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to hear some more another time.
      Where was he off to next, by the way? I always hope I’ll bump into him again one day.

  • Dav n Trish | Aug 30, 2013 at 12:23 am

    We know that he was returning to Oz (but only to change his socks and put on a clean shirt!! Ha Ha!) before heading back to America to visit friends. Where in America, I do not know for sure; but he did make mention of New Orleans in his conversations with us, so you might head for there if you hope to meet up with him!! (Don’t blame me, though, if I’ve got it wrong and he’s somewheres else!)

  • Helen | Apr 16, 2014 at 5:32 am

    Hey Michael!

    Love this story. What a wonderful, inspiring man. Just goes to sow, it’s never to llate to live a life you’ve dreamed of! Thank you for sharing. Hope to see you again soon!

    Helen x
    Helen recently posted..NEVER FORGET: Visiting the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in KigaliMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Apr 23, 2014 at 11:34 pm

      It’s definitely never too late – and it’s also never too early. John is an inspiration to us all that you can live your dreams.
      Hope to see you again soon too!

  • Catherine aik | May 20, 2014 at 12:09 am

    Hi all
    Just letting you all know that he is doing well and is of again soon he is now 91
    We just love having him home and with the Family but at the same time we love to see him do what he loves to do he is the most amazing man I know and I’m lucky to have him as my pop 🙂

    • Jan Ko | Jun 4, 2014 at 12:39 am

      Hi Catherine, I met John in New Orleans in 2011 and I created the John Waite facebook page. If either John or his family have any desire to be the subject of a documentary / film, it may be possible. If you’re interested, please like the facebook page and send me a message with an email address I can contact you on privately.



  • Cam Begg | Jun 23, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    Wow. What a legend. I’m sure I met John years ago, back in ’98, at a hostel in Paris. It’s years ago now but everything rings true. I was only staying one night, and it took me a little while to work him out, but we ended up drinking a bottle of red wine and chatting for ages. He was fascinating. I thought he was a Pom to start with, but then I heard his really broad Aussie turn of phrase and we ended up having a great yarn. So great to hear that he has continued to backpack, as he said he wanted to. He obviously left a strong impression on me. It would be interesting to hear regular updates about his travels – he’s a very unique and inspirational man. Great story!

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 24, 2015 at 11:44 am

      Hey Cam. That is so awesome that you met him back in 1998 – more than 10 years before I did! I absolutely love all the messages I get from people who have met him over the years and still remember his story. I can’t believe he has inspired so many people and left such a strong impression. Well, I can believe it, of course, but you know what I mean… 🙂

    • Catherin | Jan 4, 2017 at 1:57 pm

      Happy you had the opportunity to met my grandfather

  • Lisa Huang | Sep 6, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    just stumbled on your blog through your posts on Yonderbound, love this story about John! Really enjoying your UNESCO series as well, looking forward to more travel stories 🙂

  • Jamie Graham | Oct 6, 2016 at 4:09 am

    Thanks for the inspiring story. Would love to see a part 3.

  • Summer | May 21, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    My pop

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