This summer, Maura Ward celebrated her 70th birthday by climbing Mount Fuji – Japan’s tallest and most iconic mountain, standing at 3776 metres tall – to raise money for charity. Her desire to explore the world intensified after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013, and to date she has travelled to over 60 countries, blogging about her experiences as she goes. Maura believes that “life begins whenever you want it to” and for her, it began when she realised that the world was waiting…
“I feel that tomorrow is too far away and that if you have things you want to do, the time is now.”
Before retiring as an Education Welfare Officer two years ago, Maura – who lives in Northern Ireland – travelled whenever she could but often found that “life got in the way.” But now she is able to fully focus on achieving her travel goals and is adamant that nothing will stop her – especially her health.
She says, “I am affected by Parkinson’s, but it’s manageable and I feel very strongly that you have to fight these things and not take them lying down. I’d always wanted to travel when I retired and I was damned if Parkinson’s was going to get in my way.
“Travelling has given me a complete new lease of life. It’s given me something to aim for – to get as much done and under my belt as I can. I feel that tomorrow is too far away and that if you have things you want to do, the time is now.”
Maura has visited more than 30 countries, including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bolivia, since her Parkinson’s diagnosis. She usually travels alone or with her son Johnny – an experienced travel blogger. However, to celebrate her 70th birthday this summer, Maura climbed Mount Fuji alongside a team made up of Johnny, a few friends and several others who had found out about the climb via social media and wanted to show their support.
“My son did ask me at one stage whether I wanted to go back down because I was struggling, but I’m so stubborn that nothing was going to stop me from getting up that mountain”
The grandmother-of-two admits that reaching the peak of Mount Fuji was far from easy, but in doing so she raised £14,000 for The Cure Parkinson’s Trust and says that she couldn’t be prouder of what she’s achieved:
“Physically I found the whole experience really tough even though I’d been training for it. We have small mountains in Northern Ireland, so I’d tried to prepare myself as much as possible by climbing up and down those. But less than a month before the trek I developed bursitis in both my shoulders and was given steroid injections. Then I got a humdinger of a chest infection. It was awful and I certainly wasn’t at my best for the climb. My son did ask me at one stage whether I wanted to go back down because I was struggling, but I’m so stubborn that nothing was going to stop me from getting up that mountain.
“When I got to the top, I was really affected by the altitude and I still have a really poor recollection of being there. It wasn’t easy, or glamorous, but I’m just so proud that I did it – I still struggle with believing that I actually got there. I also couldn’t have picked a nicer crowd to go with. They were amazing – they had me in tears about 150 times with how supportive and generous they were!”
On North Korea: “It was like being on a film set”
Maura’s Mount Fuji climb was part of a six week trip around Asia, which also included stops in Thailand, the Philippines, China, North Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. And although Mount Fuji was her ultimate highlight, she was enthralled by North Korea where she stayed for four days.
Reflecting on her experience, she says, “North Korea was awesome. But I only went there for four days because I didn’t think I could hack it much longer than that. It was like a parallel universe. It felt like I was on a film set; like nothing was real – that sort of feeling.”
Language is no barrier to friendship
Although Maura often travels alone, she has been shown no shortage of kindness by strangers who cross her path and has been able to make bonds with people all over the world – even when they don’t speak the same language. She recalls an experience in South America last year when travelling on a long haul bus from the border of Bolivia to Santiago in Chile:
“I don’t speak a word of Spanish and I was sitting beside a lady from Bolivia who only new Spanish and didn’t speak a word of English. She was very pleasant and we nodded and smiled at each other. Opposite us was a younger man; probably in his late 30s, early 40s. He was from Brazil and only spoke Portugese and not a word of Spanish or English. Despite the language barrier, the three of us stuck together throughout the 36 hour journey. We had all our meals together and all our coffee together. We were best buddies and it was all hugs when we left! We communicated wonderfully. When you get older, you almost go back to childhood when it comes to communication – there’s no embarrassment, you just want to make yourself understood and you get on with it.”
“When you’re met with that kind of care, love and attention, why would you not travel?”
Maura also remembers how taken aback she was by the way she was treated in South Korea and Vietnam and says that when it comes to her Parkinson’s, people are usually very willing to lend a hand if she is ever needs it.
She continues, “I try not to wear my Parkinson’s like a badge and I don’t admit to it very often. But sometimes I have to if it catches up with me and I need my stick or something like that, but even then it’s with extreme reluctance. However, I find if I do need a hand, people are so fantastic. In North Korea, no one would let me carry a case or walk on my own. There was a South Korean man in our group and he told me that Koreans generally, North and South of the border revere older people and look after them really, really well.
“Then in Vietnam, the manager of the first hotel I stayed in was very concerned that I wasn’t travelling with family and that I was travelling on my own. I think he sent me text messages about twenty times to make sure that I’d gotten where I was going. When you meet that kind or care, love and attention, why wouldn’t you travel?”
Travelling on a budget
Many people associate travel with luxury, but Maura has adopted a “no frills” approach to her travelling in an attempt to save money:
“It’s possible to travel reasonably cheaply if you don’t mind roughing it. I look for deals everywhere and stay in cheap hostels or hotels. When I went to Xi’an (China), I travelled there and back on the night train; so my accommodation and travel were all rolled into one. And I really don’t mind sharing a carriage with five or six other people.
“A few years ago I had a stop over in Ecuador of 13 hours and another one in the US of 15 hours which meant I had some time to kill. If you’re willing to make the most of stop overs and take detours to get to places then it can work out cheaper. For me personally, it doesn’t matter if it takes me three days to get somewhere.”
“I love going to all the places that other people don’t really travel to - I find it fascinating!”
In the coming years, Maura is hoping to continue travelling, by exploring all the countries she is hasn’t yet been to – and would also like to find a way to use her TEFL qualification along the way.
She says, “In a couple of months I’m going to Damascus in Syria. I’m also hoping to go to Yemen at some point. I love going to all the places that other people don’t really travel to – I find it fascinating!”
Laughing, she continues, “I don’t have a death wish but I’ve done an awful lot, and if my life were to end there, then so be it. I’m careful, I look after myself and to be honest I have felt safer in some of the so-called ‘dangerous’ countries than I do in parts of London.”
Maura also explains that although she has become quite accustomed to travelling and is away for several weeks at a time – the support of her family has gone a long way in helping her to live out her travel dreams:
“I feel that the life I’m leading now is quite self-centred, but not once have my wonderful children castigated me for that. In fact, the opposite is true, their ongoing support and encouragement is priceless, and it’s unlikely I would have been able to have done and seen so much without it.”
“I also go back into one of the local schools I used to work in and talk to the kids about travelling because it’s something that just isn’t considered here, so I’m hoping to inspire people”
She says, “In Northern Ireland, you don’t tend to go away from home unless you have to; people tend to adopt the “home is all” mentality, but I’ve always felt that there’s a big bad world out there and it’s there for exploring! So I do it, and I’ve encouraged my kids to do it, and they both have. I also go back into one of the local schools I used to work in and talk to the kids about travelling because it’s something that just isn’t considered, so I’m hoping to inspire people to get out there.”
“Nobody is too old for anything. There are ways around everything”
Whilst Maura is keen to inspire people in her local community, she is also hoping to remind people everywhere that it is never too late to see the world. Her blog Geriatric Traveller documents her adventures and offers advice to people who might be interested in travelling themselves.
Maura says, “I want anyone else thinking about travelling or challenging themselves in other ways as they get older to know that they can do it. There really is nothing that you can’t reach for. And so what if you have setbacks? Everyone experiences setbacks throughout life, but every setback is a learning experience. Nobody is too old for anything – that’s my opinion. There are ways around everything.”
Can you relate to Maura’s story? Do you have your own personal story to share? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected].