Stories from John

John Waite is the world’s oldest backpacker, still staying at hostels at the age of 89 as he travels the globe. Here are some of his tales from his journey.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


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 travel blog

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 travel blog

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 travel blog

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 travel blog

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

52 thoughts on “Stories from John”

    • 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! 🙂

  1. 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!

    • 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

    • 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!

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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!)

  6. 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

  7. 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 🙂

    • 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.



  8. 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!

    • 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… 🙂

  9. 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 🙂

  10. Hi John, I thought I wasthe oldest at 80! Am writing from the Lub-d Hostel in Bangkok. This is my 3rd round the world and am 2.3 years out with at least 2 years to go. … heading slowly east, hosteling in dorms all the way. I’m from Florida but haven’t been in the States since 2015. May our paths cross somewhere along the way!

  11. We’re pretty similar. I’m 80 and on my 3rd, solo rtw. Staying in hostel dorms & using my US social security. In Philippines now with 1/4 of the world left to cover on this go-round. Might expat then; might go round again.

    • Linda, I am always amazed at women traveling alone and want to do this sooner than later but I always seem to play it safe with tours. How do you manage from place to place.? Especially as a woman. I’m 65 and have been traveling my whole life but I really enjoy real adventure to exotic places. Would love to pick your brain and talk. All the best , safe travels. Ellen Weiss
      [email protected]

  12. Very inspiring. I’m 65 and all I want to do is travel the world. It always amazes me that some people have no desire to travel. Love your stories. What group tours for older travelers can you recommen?

  13. What a guy. I am a traveller myself, but Im just 21. This guy.. oh man. Gets robbed (and also left to die!), got stoned… Still goes on. Hes older than anyone, and doesnt care.

    Id gladly buy him a pair of rollerskates and a walker (with handbrakes) when his knees cant hold him anymore on the blades.

    Met mother teresa, met the dalai lama..

    This guy is a one of a kind. He is who I want to be when I am old.

  14. I glad my grandfather has inspired so many of you.
    Unfortunately yesterday morning the world became a little more colder as he passed away. But I hope his journey of life still shows people that nothing is impossible if you really what to xx

  15. I met John in Nairobi, Kenya back in 2007. Being a fellow Yorkshireman, we had a great laugh and chat, venturing into one of the roughest pubs I have ever been in – John was totally unfazed and laughed at my trepidation.

    A fascinating and good bloke!


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