Real Life

Why this 73-year-old is backpacking her way around the world

Ann Lawler has backpacked her way around 80 countries - and counting.

Ann Lawler was like any Kiwi approaching their big OE – excited, nervous and unsure what awaited her in Australia. She’d packed her bag, and with it, her troubles.

The 1970s were “challenging” times, and the then 35-year-old’s journey wasn’t a typical first-time overseas experience, out to explore the country and learn about the culture – it was to get an abortion.

But while the experience was one of her more unexpected, so profound was the impact of that first journey overseas that she has spent much of her life backpacking around the world.

In 1978, Ann was one of many Kiwi women who travelled to Sydney to get an abortion with the Sisters Overseas Service (SOS), begun by Sarah Calvert and Marilyn Waring as a feminist response to the dearth of abortion services in New Zealand.

She already had two children and this was her second abortion.

The first was what she describes as an “at-home DIY with size 10 needles I’d used for knitting baby clothes”.

“I remember the horror of it all,” she tells, “and realising that I would have stopped at absolutely nothing – that I’d risked my life.”

But putting her life on the line was, she says, her only choice. Abortion was a crime and women had little choice but to take matters into their own hands. There was nothing set up in New Zealand to ensure safe abortions.

Ann with two Tibetan women she met in 1992.

“I felt angry at a health system that denied medical care when I needed it. That the pregnancy was due to failed contraception was irrelevant. The reality was that a pregnant woman had to either give birth or take the law into her own hands.”

However, going to Sydney with other SOS women had an unintended benefit. It opened Ann’s eyes to a whole new world beyond New Zealand – and that experience has shaped her adventures around the world since.

“I had to stay overnight, so after an evening at the Sydney Opera House, I walked through Kings Cross, where a man offered to show me Sydney. He closed his Lebanese food stall, drove us around in the bright lights, then delivered me safely to the motel SOS had booked. I was very naive and very lucky.

“All my travels have been like that – perhaps a little foolish, but I’ve never had bad experiences with ordinary people.”

Following her Australian trip, Ann’s next adventure came just shy of her forties, spending a month in Southeast Asia.

In Kyoto, Japan, 1987.

“I went to Singapore, with a hotel booked for the first night. In the morning, I pulled back the curtains and there were houses forever,” she says of her first memory. “If you’d only lived in New Zealand, it was quite a surprise, especially as back then we didn’t have many high rises!”

Since then, Ann (now 73) has backpacked through Europe, the Middle East, Asia and more recently Africa – at last count travelling to nearly 80 countries since Australia.

So why backpacking? Why not choose the comfort many others her age enjoy?

“Time and money – I’ve got lots of time but not so much money,” she says with a laugh. “I could stay in a hotel and not travel for as long, but I am independent – and old – so for me, backpacking is easy.”

Ann says she doesn’t plan much, and learns only the essentials about the country she’s going to such as visas and vaccinations.

She always registers her travel with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and carries details of the local New Zealand representation, adding “the internet, Skype and smartphones make it so easy now”.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Ann standing outside the Summer Palace in Beijing, China, back in 1988.

“My first trip to Asia, I didn’t know a single thing. I had a ticket to go and one to come back, and traveller’s cheques – I didn’t even know guide books existed. I just found my way by asking others.”

Last year’s trip, backpacking around Africa, was to see wild animals in their natural habitat and while she was travelling through what some might think of as a rather dangerous continent, Ann has nothing but good memories.

“I never felt frightened. I started in Johannesburg, took a train to Cape Town, spent a week, then an overnight bus to Windhoek, Namibia. When I got to the backpackers, I had barely put my pack down, when someone offered me a ride to the sand dunes at Swakopmund – so I ended up going with them and it was wonderful.”

Never one to shy away from a new experience, Ann hopped on the back of a yak during a trip to Tibet in 1992.

Because she travels alone, it’s easy for Ann to meet people. She prefers to travel on local transport to get a brief insight into how the locals live.

“And backpackers tell each other what to see, where to go, to stay, and importantly, what and where to avoid,” she adds.

She never feels alone when she travels, even though she is on her own, saying, “There is nothing brave about my travel – it’s pure indulgence!”

“I’m just doing what I want to do. Anyone can if they have good health. If you can travel – do it.”

Words: Laura Weaser

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