Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Generous Indonesia

Sybil Pretious concludes her adventures this round with a fabulous trip to a country with islands and ancient volcanoes

Volcanic Lake Toba. Photo Courtesy: Sybil Pretious
A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. The way to do, is to BE.
~Lao Tzu

In 2011 (aged 69), I decided to challenge myself and travel alone to Indonesia. I also looked at alternative accommodation to backpacking so I joined Couch surfers. CouchSurfing is an organisation that connects people who wish to find accommodation in other countries while offering to host travellers in their own country. You offer just a couch where you live and can ‘surf’ to find a ‘couch’ with a resident of the country you want to visit. You do not pay for the ‘couch’ and you must supply your own meals and transport. The big advantage of this accommodation apart from no cost is that you get information from a person who is local and loves where they live plus it’s a base to travel from.

Indonesia is a country that spans the equator and consists of at least 17,000 islands. I would only touch on this extended land by visiting Java and Sumatra and yes, I was interested in the people, volcanoes, dance, puppets and woven fabric that I had heard so much about. My Couchsurfing host was Arianne who had written a couple of travel books about Indonesia – perfect.

I flew into Jakarta in the evening and wondered about how I would get to Arianne’s as I didn’t have her address. As so often happens when I leave events to unfold without trying too hard, they do so in a much better way than if I had been more diligent.  Without informing me my lovely hostess had sent a chauffeur driven car with refreshments. Her welcome and the help and caring throughout my stay were definitely not included in the description of CouchSurfing hosts.

Her home had wide open spaces with pillars and floors of red concrete so that air flow was optimal in this hot, steamy climate. My ‘couch’ turned out to be an ornate four-poster bed in a bedroom with my own ‘en suite’. The toilet was typically Asian with a bucket of water for flushing. The ‘bathroom’ held a large concrete cube open on top and filled with cold water. A very large scoop was provided. To ‘bath’ I stood naked on the concrete floor, soaped myself and scooped out the water, throwing it in the general direction of my body. It was a bit hit and miss but I did feel cool and refreshed for a short while. There was no hot water. It just wasn’t needed. Every morning, I was woken with the long loud call to prayer.

I mentioned to Arianne as we chatted that I wanted to make a trip to Sumatra and was busy looking for flights and that I wanted to stay on the island of Samosir in the centre of the volcanic lake Toba. The island and lake are the result of a super volcano eruption 75,000 years ago.

“Let me book the flights for you. I do this often and will get the best prices and I can also arrange for someone to meet you.”

I couldn’t refuse her kind offer so it seemed once more that I had a guardian angel at my side. She efficiently took over and booked flights, arranged for people to meet me and take me wherever I needed to go. I would explore Jakarta and possibly go to Bali when I returned.

On arrival in Medan, I was met by Argys, a young Indonesian man who had brought his friends along. They were so attentive and concerned that I wouldn’t like the accommodation they had arranged for that night in Parapat before we took the ferry from a small village called Tuk Tuk across to Samosir Island where we stayed at Samosir Cottages.

It was hard to believe that an angry volcano had created this stunningly tranquil Lake. I got up early for the sunrise, a perfect place to meditate and feel grateful. I was ready for the day ahead.

I wanted to see more of the island and was offered a motor bike tour by a local entrepreneur, Banyu. I didn’t give it a second thought, but Argys wasn’t too sure about this and gave Banyu a lecture before we set off. I promised him half the fee at the beginning of our ride and the other half when we returned and after a wonderful trip. He finally got more than he had asked for. It was a good feeling to be supporting local people rather than large touring companies. I have found that trust and acceptance is a must if you are to experience life through the local people’s eyes. Lack of knowledge of the local language is not necessarily a disadvantage.  

Travelling by motorbike gives an uninterrupted view of the lush vegetation and local scenery. My guide stopped at regular intervals delighting in showing off the wonderful textiles and weaving that local people were demonstrating. I couldn’t resist buying some of the colourful pieces after a demonstration by the weaver who looked delighted at the sale.

A museum displayed wonderful crafting on a ship, using minimum tools while creating intricate, colourful decoration. We laughed at black pigs foraging and then went to talk to a man who was looking after a ‘castle’. He was happy to demonstrate just how a prisoner would be beheaded. Many hand signals flew between us until he figured I had not understood and finally looking resigned, laid himself down on a specially shaped stone, leaning the massive sword towards his head and laughing when I got agitated.

Banyu was ever attentive but refused to share the fruit and water I had taken with me. He had not eaten during the tour. At the end I thanked him profusely. I slept well that night dreaming of battling to get through a gate. I woke feeling vaguely disturbed.

The following day was the one I enjoyed the most.

“We want to take you to the Sipiso Piso Waterfall.”

“That sounds wonderful. I could do with some cool water in this heat.”

Argys looked a little worried.

“It’s really high up. It is a waterfall that comes from very high in the side of the lake. We have to go over rivers and rocks and climb through a very muddy forest to get there.”

“I will be okay. I haven’t had the chance to climb any mountains here so this will be good.”

I later found out that the waterfall fell from a height of 120metres above the lake gushing from a cave in the Lake Toba caldera.

I packed the usual things in my small backpack – water, fruit, biscuits, a first aid pack and an extra blouse as I knew how hot and sweaty I got when climbing. I wore open sandals and the loose top and light slacks I had worn on Kilimanjaro. I was glad I didn’t have to cover my head as the two girls in our little party did. It looked very uncomfortable in that humid heat, but they assured me it wasn’t. The guy’s clothes looked cooler.

The way up was through a forest of giant trees with lush foliage, taking us over a river, rocks and through thick, slippery mud. Bright orchids flowers graced some trees, and a musty smell pervaded the air. Leaning against one of the trees when we stopped for a short while, I felt very small, so tiny. I closed my eyes and gave thanks for the beauty and gifts that trees give us. My back against the thick trunk felt supported and strong, so I harnessed the strength to continue. The going was steep, and I found myself slipping and slowing down. Argys had offered to take my camera so that I would have many pictures without having to stop so often. He literally leapt around snapping photos from every angle — yet another thoughtful gesture.

Finally, we could hear voices amid the sound of rushing water.  As we broke through the trees I was awestruck. A bright slither of water plunged in a narrow silver-white ribbon down the steep, rocky side of the caldera splashing into a shallow rocky pool below. The pool was filled with people, laughing and joyful as they cooled themselves in this beauty.


I was soon soaked and feeling thoroughly refreshed. Several local people came to ask Argys and the girls what I was doing there. I told them that I was living my life to the full and loving Indonesia and its peoples.

In the morning I downloaded all my photos onto my outside hard drive (no tiny memory sticks then) and promptly left it in the hotel computer. It was only at the airport that I remembered. I was devastated – my life was on that piece of equipment. True to form, Argys said he would go back for it and send it to Arianne’s. I was overcome with his selflessness.

I arrived back in Jakarta mid-morning and Arianne, knowing I would need it, after my exertions at the waterfall with the young people on Sumatra, had thoughtfully arranged a day of luxury and beauty. I could not have afforded that if I had been staying in paid accommodation. I languished with a scrub, massage and green tea soak, feeling thoroughly refreshed and pampered.

Arianne had arranged for a guide in Bali, and I was shepherded by Dewa. I explained my interest was not the beaches, but the culture and he obliged.

I was entranced with the story telling by dance and puppetry. I have used puppets so often in my teaching especially with young, shy children and children learning a new language. They might not want to respond to me, but they will willingly interact with the puppets. In that way, I gleaned many insights into feelings and thinking. I was determined to buy a Wayang Golek rod puppet. They were so beautifully made with spectacular clothing. At that time I had not known the story behind these puppets. They are always sold in pairs. I fell in love with a pair but felt I couldn’t afford two. The vendor did not want to sell one.

Dewar interpreted for me.

“They belong together. They cannot be parted.”

 But I stupidly insisted and eventually I bought a female one. A strange thing happened when I was at the airport. I accidently left the puppet and a painting on the seat as I rushed to catch the plane. Sitting on the plane I felt sad and knew that the puppet had not wanted to leave her partner and I had not listened to local lore and story telling. I hope she found him again and I hope that I will listen to those that know the ancient stories of their culture, more closely in future.           

My encounter with Barong and The Kris Dance was enthralling. The dancers in vibrant costumes seemed in a trance as the story unfolded and the dance became more hypnotic. I was drawn in as the Kris, a formidable sword was wielded. Precision and drama could not have been more pronounced.

Dewar couldn’t resist taking me to view some paintings and batik. I fell in love with a batik featuring fish swimming. It was extraordinarily intricate.

After a long day and feeling completely saturated with culture Dewar asked if I would like to meet his family the next day. I told him it would be my privilege and his face burst into a big grin.

His mother and three of his brother’s wives met me. How privileged I felt. They had been at their sewing machines making traditional ceremonial garments, an industry that his mother had started in 1976. There were four houses round a central place for worship and a small temple. Dewar’s parents lived with him and his wife as he is the eldest. There were 20 people living in this family complex. That family is so important was so evident here.


Having flown back to Jakarta Arianne arranged for me to stay with a writer friend of hers who also lives in a traditional home. Tita, like Arianne was a very busy lady. At forty two, she had written four books and ran an advertising agency and had a one year old daughter. The surroundings were tranquil, only the faint sound of insects floating on a zephyr breeze.

That afternoon I went out on my own to explore. The bus stops are lovely – there are at least two people manning each one to help with selling tickets and advice. On the bus the conductor helps passengers off at the correct stop ticking them off his list as they alight!

 Just wandering down the streets was special. I got to eat street food – Nasi Goreng which was quite delicious – rice, meat, and curry flavours. A group of young students asked if they could interview me, and I obliged. Tita knew of my interest in puppets and arranged for me to buy a pair of the Wayang Golek. This time I knew I had to buy the pair and very beautiful they were. They didn’t fit in my backpack, so I carried them under my arm all the way on the plane back to Suzhou.

Finally, back with Arianne and getting ready to leave she said she had arranged for me to wait in the Emerald Sky Lounge at the airport. I felt very self-conscious sitting on luxury chairs and able to select from a variety of delicious food and drink all for free.

My solo journey turned out to be a travel experience of trust and delight in Indonesia. I felt blessed to have encountered many Indonesian people and places at a local level. Most importantly I had been able to support ground level community in my travel experiences instead of relying on tourist companies.

Travel is not about the sights you see but the people you meet.


Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.



Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Frenetic Philippines

Narrative & Photographs by Sybil Pretious

“The beauty of the world is the diversity of its peoples.”

During the Chinese New Year holiday in 2010 (I turned 68 that year), I resolved to visit the Philippines. It was a last-minute thought, so preparations were minimal. Barry, in Australia, like me, made an instant decision and would land in Manila the day after I did, both of us just toting our backpacks as luggage.

The Philippines is made up of 7,640 islands and is situated in South-East Asia. The local language is Tagalog. Its position in the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ makes it susceptible to earthquakes and typhoons and volcanic activity. I was interested in visiting the Taal Volcano which erupted in January 2020 and had had some of the country’s deadliest eruptions. Mount Pinatubo which last erupted in 1991 (the biggest eruption of the century).  The islands are known for their stunning beaches and azure waters, but I was focused on the mountains.

Nine days was hardly time to take in this astounding country, so we limited our wanderings to Luzon. Even that was ridiculous, and it was one of the lessons I learnt on that trip – less travel and more getting to know local people should be my mantra.

There was another fascinating fact – the presence of the fire mummies,  2000-year-old bodies preserved in pinewood coffins, in the Kabayan area. This proved to be an inward as well as an outward journey of significance in my life.

Travelling in the Philippines offers a colourful variety of vehicles and we had great fun contorting ourselves into side cars, covered motorcycles, three wheeled vehicles, buses and the very distinctive Jeepney.

I arrived the day before Barry, so I travelled into Manila to see the old Spanish walled city — The Intramuros. I caught a ‘tricycle’ which is a motorbike with covered sidecar. It was rather hair-raising, squealing round corners and going over bumps. Chatting to the driver when we stopped, I discovered that he had had to work for many years to obtain enough money for a license, but he was very proud of his vehicle. Subsequently friends of mine had sponsored one of these drivers which I thought was a wonderful thing to do. I then caught a vehicle that I have never seen in any other country – a colourful jeepney. A big jeep-like engine in front and then the covered back has seats on either side and held about 20 people. This is the main form of transport and there are regular ‘jeepney jams’.

 We took normal buses to get to Capas and Pinatubo Spa Town and up to the Volcano next day. At the Spa town I couldn’t resist a volcanic mud bath hoping that it might help my awful itchy skin. It wasn’t quite what I expected – I had to change into baggy shorts and top provided and then two young girls slimed the mud over me till I looked like someone from the coon carnival. I then sat around uncomfortably, in full view of everyone, till it dried and then showered it off. My skin was still awful but luckily my face was a whole lot better. Maybe I needed a few more treatments.

 A rather an extreme way to treat itchy skin

The trip in a jeep through rivers, volcanic ash, sand, mud took us to the Pinatabo volcano.  The eerie, moonlike mud scenery showed devastated river courses and vegetation. A ferried boat trip across the turquoise blue lake to the volcanic island with some small ‘craters’ still bubbling beside the lake. It felt unreal, not of this world.

Our guest house was a double story wooden structure that felt unstable, but the people were charming. Off again in the morning on a bus driven by a manic driver through a very scary mountain ‘highway’ veering dangerously close to the crumbling edges on a single lane with very sparse passing places where we had to back up for other vehicles.


We stopped for food and a toilet break. I approached the toilet building and looked inside. It was enough to make me gag. There was a long ditch down the middle of the room. Somehow you got your feet on either side and did what you had to do. Not only that but it was used by men and women at the same time! No time for niceties on this journey.

Always along the way were smiling children happy in their circumstances. I was thinking the many privileged children I had taught, who hardly ever seemed happy with what they had. They would benefit from living in areas like these just for a few months.

Kabayan was the one place I really wanted to be during this adventure. The Timbac caves hold the ‘fire mummies’. We set out with three French people, to climb up to the caves, a climb we were told would take four hours. It took me six hours. At the start Barry and I did not have much water and asked the guide if we could get some. He indicated a village on the way, but there was no bottled water, only cold drinks, which we discovered were not hydrating.

I climbed wearily up grassy hills, pulling on my trusty stick, feeling that this was the last thing I wanted to do. I just unable summon any energy. We arrived at a ‘farmhouse’ where there was an open tank and running water from a spring and also a pile of carrots.

I tipped my head back and drank and drank, then filled my bottles and ate a couple of carrots. I can’t describe what that water did but it was as though every cell in my body had woken up after a long painful sleep. I was anew woman and resumed the walk. Barry said he would see us on the way down — I thought he was joking.

I set off, energy high and kept a steady pace enjoying the scenery as I got higher. I was walking on my own because the French couple had gone on ahead and the other one had cramp and was trailing behind. Eventually the guide caught up to me and said that he had been all the way back for Barry, who said again that he was not coming and then the guide went on ahead to check the French couple were on the right track before returning to me. He had done a lot of extra mileage for his clients. Another lesson in service from these lovely people.

I caught up with the others before making the final steep climb to the caves. I was so glad that I had made it.

The guide took me on my own to the caves.

There, in small rocky caves, scattered around, some agape, some closed were the tiniest coffins. Surely these were for children? But no they were adults who had been placed in that sitting position. I had read about this mummification process which is no longer used in the Philippines.

Wikipedia has it that the unique mummification process was said to actually begin before death, with an individual participating in the initial steps. As death approached, the individual would drink a beverage with a very high concentration of salt. Drinking saltwater is known to dehydrate the body, so this initial step was used to start the drying process prior to death. After the individual passed away, the rest of the mummification process would take place. It is estimated that this process took anywhere from several weeks, to several months to complete.

The body was thoroughly washed, and then placed above a heat source in a seated position.  The body was not exposed to actual fire or flames but remained suspended above the smouldering kindling. Rather than burning the body, the heat and smoke would slowly and completely dehydrate the entire body. The internal drying process was ritually furthered along by blowing tobacco smoke into the deceased’s mouth. This was thought to help remove the fluids from internal organs.

Many of the caves had been looted but the one I visited had a rusty iron grid in front of the opening with an ancient padlock attached. The guide produced a key and opened the gate for me.

I sat down to look inside.  A feeling of sadness pervaded my senses. I went in to take a closer look and to say a prayer of thanksgiving for allowing me this privilege.  When I came out, I turned and kneeling with hands together I said, “I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”

The guide simply said, “Thank you. You understand. Not many people do.”

 The Visitors’ Book

We made our way back to the Guide’s Hut to wait for the Jeepney that was to collect us. I wrote in the visitors’ book while I waited:

“A wonderful, tiring walk with amazing scenery, friendly people and a very energetic, caring guide. Maybe tell the climbers to take more water. AND THEN The Mummies – what a privilege to see them. Please guard them with more security.”

The jeepney never came and as the light was fading my guide said we should make our way down. He knew a shorter way.

The road and path were not easy because of loose stones and I fell twice slightly pulling a muscle on my left side and knocking my head and bum. Good thing both are soft. We took three hours going down and the last hour was particularly difficult because it was dark and we had to use a torch. I stumbled several times wanting to give up and just sit on the road till morning. My guide steadied me and encouraged me.

Finally, back at the lodgings, I stumbled in ready to collapse onto my top bunk. Barry, looking fresh as a daisy made some stupid remark about my appearance that had the others laughing at me. I said nothing and went to our room but wondered why I had this effect on men when I had achieved something that they hadn’t.

The following day we left on another tortuous mountain road journey to Abangeg to climb Mt Pulag. We met up with six young Belgian doctors who were doing their internship in a hospital in Banguio. They walked right from the base of the mountain whereas us oldies took a jeepney to the Rangers Station and stayed the night there before attempting the summit climb of three hours. I did not find it easy — too much climbing in too short a time. We had to leave our guide half-way because she had tummy trouble. Barry seemed confident that he knew the way. The top of the mountain is not marked but we presumed we had made it as there were no higher peaks around. It was just covered in plain old grass!

We were lucky to get a lift back with the doctors in a 4×4 driven by Father Eugene who had been in the Philippines for 42 yrs. Lucky did I say? He drove like a Formula 1 driver over precarious mountain roads and sometimes I just closed my eyes and prayed — seemed appropriate seeing he was a priest!

 After a very long day traveling in many vehicles, we got back to our hostel, The Green Mango Inn, and on the following day took a trip to Taal Volcanic Lake and the smallest active volcano in the world. Yes, no rest days in between! We travelled from the town by tricycle. A boat that looked like a gondola with bamboo stays on either side took us across the water to travel to the Taal Volcanic Lake.

We were to ride on mules for the final part of the journey. I am not a rider having come off rather badly a couple of times but their minder assured us they were docile. Looking like bandits we had to wear masks because the fine black volcanic dust was not good to breathe in.

To my shame I never thought about the mules right then. They did not have masks on and would have been breathing in that fine dust every time they valiantly took tourists to see the lake.  Another lesson in being less self-centered.

The lake was calm, but I was not calm.  There seemed to be a ‘presence’ and I was not comfortable especially as there was still the ride back on the poor mules. Maybe I was just over-tired. I slept fitfully that night and went over all that I had experienced while in the Philippines. It was a jumble of thoughts and I realized for the first time during my backpacking adventures, I had done too much sightseeing and found out too little about the important parts of travel — the people and their lives.

I arrived back in Suzhou feeling very tired and older than my years but perhaps a little wiser about what travel should really be about.

“More is less.”


Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.



Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Visit to Rural Baoying

In 2007, Sybil Pretious travelled to spend a night with a local family in rural China and lived in a ‘hundred-year-old home’. She writes of her experiences with photographs and aplomb.

Grand Canal, China. Courtesy: Creative Commons

“Respect is a two-way street. If you want to get it, you have to give it.”

R G Risch

Sometimes I wonder why people travel. I especially wonder when someone travelling in a foreign land asks me the way to the nearest MacDonalds. Of course, that can be seen as being judgemental, but I don’t think of myself as over critical, because I travel to experience different cultures as they are and not as I am. When anyone asks me, which is the best country in the world my reply is simple,

The best country in the world is wherever I am.”

Travelling alone means that I have to communicate with people. And in general, responses are kind, positive and helpful. This is just one experience I have had while living six years in China but there are many more and equally as interesting.

As I travelled home to Suzhou from Shanghai on the train, a young Chinese lady sitting next to me was laden with packages. I smiled and asked her what she had bought. She smiled and proceeded to hold up many items for my inspection telling me the miniscule prices she had paid for them and where she had bought them and then offering to take me there. The two-hour train trip passed very pleasantly.

Back in my apartment I had a phone call from Jessica, my friend from the train asking if there was anything she could do for me. As I had been unable to get plain yoghurt, I asked her if she knew where I could get some. Next morning, on my doorstep were six small yoghurts.

I found throughout my six years in China that I had nothing but kindness and people going out of their way to help, either with an explanation or an address written in Chinese to show to the taxi driver or an offer to accompany me and be my interpreter.

The friendship with Jessica progressed. She introduced me to her fiancé, Jack. Their families were good friends and the marriage seemed almost expected. Jessica was not keen but was fulfilling her family’s wishes.

After many outings with the two of them, Jessica asked me if I would like to accompany her and Jack on a weekend trip to visit her parents and grandfather in Baoying.

Before giving my answer, I enquired of the Chinese teachers at school where Baoying was and what I should expect. Baoying is a county under the administration of Yangzhou, within Jiangsu Province about 170 miles north of Suzhou where I lived. They painted a very rural picture, and I was intrigued. When would a foreigner like me ever get this chance to experience China with a family in their rural home setting? I accepted.

We travelled on a very overcrowded bus from Suzhou, me squashed in and clutching the presents I had bought for the family, mainly luxury food and special tea, on my lap, together with my backpack. It was not a comfortable position for a four-hour journey.

The bus stopped twice for toilet breaks. The toilets were the usual Asian ones, where my poor knees suffered as I bent them delicately while desperately looking round for something to hold onto so that I didn’t collapse into the deposits beneath. This is when I wish I was a man. Jessica stood guard outside to make sure I came out unharmed.

The roads, all beautifully tarred and lined with lovely trees were not what I had expected out in the country. When we finally arrived at the bus station in Yangzhou, we were met by Jessica’s father who had borrowed the second uncle’s car. Her second uncle owned a construction firm and he appeared to have Government contracts for the construction of offices — hence the smart car. Jessica’s father was slim, with startlingly fine features and a ‘naughty boy’ look about him. Her mother was more solidly built with a kindly, patient demeanour and slightly protruding front teeth.

I was thoroughly welcomed by the two of them with the double hand clasp. We proceeded to an unpretentious restaurant, up the stairs and into a room where a round table with the usual round swivel in the centre, was set. I was welcomed into the seat of honour. That means you get to sit in the chair that directly faces the door – possibly to detect if unwanted guests might enter.  And of course, I was introduced to the one rule of dining that embarrassed me – I, as the honoured guest, had to take the first taste of special dishes before anyone else.

As is usual with Chinese meals, dishes were brought out in endless succession – vegetables, salads and meat. Chicken soup in an enormous pot had every part of the chicken in it, including heads and feet. I tasted everything and really enjoyed it all, especially some of the fish dishes. I was complimented on my adeptness with chopsticks and was happy to use my fingers as well. Lots of lovely slurping sounds signalled appreciation of the meal. Bones, skins and other inedible bits were just put in a pile on the table next to you, to be cleared away later.

There was one whole fish, and I was told the eyes were the best part and naturally as the honoured guest I got to eat them. I tried to look delighted. I ate them when they were offered – well I think I swallowed them whole and tried not to think of what I was consuming! I said they were very tasty, and they might well have been.

Second and third uncles and aunts were there to greet me. Grandfather was there as well. He was a very distinguished looking old man who reminded me of Paul Newman, one of my favourite actors, though I never thought that Paul looked Asian.

Throughout the meal everyone toasted everyone else with much back slapping and laughter, shouting, “Ganbei”, especially every time grandfather drank or smoked.

As a mark of respect, you had to imitate what grandfather did. The men drank wine and beer while the women only drank orange squash. I got to drink a small glass of beer. It pays to be the honoured guest.

Jessica was really mad with Jack who seemed to be involved in more toasts than anyone else. She said he was saying all the wrong things.

 Everyone smoked endlessly but I tried not to cover my face. Smoking in China was very popular at that time and was only banned in stages. In 2009, it was announced that there would be no smoking in all health care facilities by 2011. At that time, there were 350 million smokers in China.

Throughout the time since we had left Suzhou, I had not seen another European, nor had I heard any English apart from what was spoken to me by Jessica and Jack. Many people stared and of course the kids were really curious about me, hiding behind their mothers and peeping out. I just made funny faces and hid my face behind my hand which made them laugh. My Chinese friends could not understand how I got around China without speaking Mandarin! My communication, however, is not always with words. The body and especially the hands perform wonders of enlightenment in many different languages.

Time to get into the car again — four of us squashed in the back to go to view the new Government buildings built by uncle’s construction firm — very big, modern and impressive they were too.

I noticed that the family had been chatting and gesturing animatedly amongst themselves and looking at me whilst doing so. Eventually, Jessica asked me if I would like to stay in a hotel or stay in their home. No contest. I asked to stay with them. I was here for new experiences.

At last, we were on the road where the countryside borders on the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal from the road

 This canal runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, a distance of 1776km and the oldest part of it was started in fifth century BC. It has twenty-four locks and sixty bridges.

“Don’t these people build anything small?” I wondered to myself.

On the canal, great barges plied back and forth carrying sand, pebbles and rocks used in construction. Beside the canal were great heaps of rock and stone.

Then came the best part of the adventure, the China that my family had thought I had come to. We turned onto a narrow concrete road (one car width and not another car in sight) with narrow water filled furrows alongside and fields of ripened wheat yellow waving beyond them.

This was the season of wheat. After it is harvested, they would plant rice which would be reaped in October — fertile land indeed. Jack informed me that the Government instructed the farmers what they should plant each season.

We turned down an even narrower road made of red bricks and later just sand. Melons growing in greenhouses covered in plastic on one side and further along the road a put-putting pump engine, which was moving water from one canal to another, blocked our way. Jessica’s father eventually called the owner and together they moved it and we squeezed past, a hair’s breadth from falling into the furrow below.

Finally, we arrived at Jessica’s parent’s house in the country.

I was told it was over 100 years old. It was quite basic, with rough pealing, painted walls and an entrance arch with old roses on either side. This led into an open courtyard with a clean concrete floor. Up some steps and inside were three identical rooms connected by a passageway in the front. Plain concrete floors and odd furniture as well as suitcases and cases of drinks and duvets all piled on the sides against the walls. Jessica said that her parents did not often use the house. They usually stayed with grandfather and his new wife just down the road.

I really needed to stretch my legs while Jack and Jessica had a sleep. They were both very tired as they worked long hours. I was happy to go alone and set forth with a fresh breeze brushing my cheeks and unpolluted air drawn into my lungs. The narrow walkways, with ducks and geese paddling furiously in shallow furrows were a lovely respite from the tarred roads and manicured gardens of Suzhou. This all took me way back to early childhood memories of farms in Rhodesia.

 I soon had that feeling of being followed, and realised Jack was wearily walking some way behind me. I felt guilty, having deprived him of his sleep but I appreciated his caring. So often I had occasion to feel this towards my Chinese friends. I apologized and walked back with him.

There was no bathroom in the house and in the evening, I was taken next door to another aunt whose home had a shower.

Hmmmm, yes, a shower? It was like an attic room on the ground floor with a really low ceiling and a bath/shower that I couldn’t possibly get into without bumping my head! So I just used the loose shower head to vaguely water myself, bending double to soap and wash the nether parts. I then dried with a tiny towel I had remembered to bring with me. Finally I tried getting into my pyjamas which was even worse as I couldn’t stand up. In the middle of it all, with the bottom half of my pyjamas round my ankles, Jessica popped her head in to see how was doing – me in the dripping half nude and trying to point my foot in the right direction to get it into the leg part.

 “Um, okay,” I mumbled, trying to place the small towel strategically over the parts that hadn’t got into the pyjamas yet.

Finally, I stepped out and feeling somewhat strange I put a jacket over the pyjamas as I still had to walk out into the road to get back to the house! The fact that, in China, many people walk round in their pyjamas even in Shanghai streets escaped me at that moment.   One of the aunts walking with us stroked my tanned, freckled arm and asked Jessica what was wrong with my skin.

In the evening, we sat in one of the rooms which doubles as a bedroom/lounge watching TV all in Chinese and everyone chatting in Chinese. It was interesting to observe the interactions.

A light supper of rice porridge and beans was served which was very pleasant. Jessica asked me if I minded sharing a double bed with her. No problem. Before bed I had to go to the toilet. She apologized and brought out a cute china potty with a lid.  I did my bit in that and she carted it away for me – shades of my early childhood in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) again! The bed was a typical hard Chinese one with one thick quilt each. I snuggled in and I was surprised at how well I slept – not even the slightest backache.

However, before we nodded off, I became Jessica’s confidante as she told me of her love problems and asked my advice. I was mostly at a loss to advise her as I was not really well versed in Chinese customs, but she seemed happy to listen to what I had to say. Maybe my voice was consoling, and she didn’t really have anyone else to tell. I was woken at 5am, not to the song of birds or a cock’s crow but to a loud caterwauling which apparently signalled all the workers to begin their day!

Later I rose and went to wash my teeth in the kitchen sink and then off to the toilet.  Oh dear! Outside in the courtyard an opening into a room with no door and  a rectangular sloping away pit of which  the bottom slush was visible. I got in and out of there really quickly.

Breakfast was simple and included fascinating rice wrapped in cane leaves to look like an ice cream – delicious.

Lunch is always the main meal and that morning Jessica’s mother had got up at five to go to the market to purchase a duck, fresh fish, prawns and vegetables. There were strange looking creatures that looked like great big cockroaches. They were alive and kicking. The fish were swimming around in a bowl.  All the vegetables – eggplant, Chinese cabbage, other greens and beans were being meticulously prepared on the pristine concrete floor of the courtyard. Five relatives/friends had come to help. One lady was cutting off the legs of the still kicking ‘cockroaches, a goose was also being prepared – I didn’t view the slaughter or de-feathering of that. The ingredients for the meal were definitely as fresh as you could get.

During the morning I was taken to pick my own watermelons, round and green striped, but when broken open were yellow, not pink. Sweet and juicy, six of them were boxed on the spot for me to take home as a present.

During lunch time I was surrounded by ten men (Jessica’s father had invited all his work mates) and Jessica sat beside me. Her mother and the other ladies, who had toiled all morning, did not take part in eating the meal. We drank and ate and went through numerous toasts. I was allowed some rice wine, and everyone wanted to toast me with, “Ganbei” and bottoms up! It seems that I was accepted as ‘one of the boys’ for the moment.

Finally after relaxing, we were driven in yet another car belonging to Jessica’s uncle and we made our way back to catch the bus and to take the four hour return journey to Suzhou.

My chance to repay Jessica’s kindness came a couple of weeks later. I was going to be away for a weekend, and she asked me if it would be possible for a couple of her relatives to stay in my apartment for that weekend. She had many visitors arriving to plan her wedding and not enough accommodation. Of course, I was delighted to oblige. Some of my colleagues were sceptical about the idea. I ignored them.

I felt blessed to be accepted as part of the family and I knew that being on my own was a distinct advantage. If I had been on that train initially with many friends, I would not have started the conversation with Jessica or uniquely experienced rural Baoying.


Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.



Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Inspiriting Siberia

Sybil Pretious takes us with her to Lake Baikal in Siberia

“Aerodynamically a bee should not be able to fly but the bee does not know this and it flies.”

There are, of course, down sides to being a backpacking granny. The most important one was that I missed out on getting to know my young grandchildren. But the truth of the matter was that my girls eventually lived in three different countries far apart so the result would have been the same. Fortunately, there were old fashioned phone calls, emails and Skype so I was not totally isolated when I left for my teaching post in Suzhou, China in 2006 and I tried to include them in my trips each year. But there was too little physical contact, and nothing can replace that as we have discovered during the pandemic. I hope I have given them courage to be fearless explorers and to fly when they didn’t know that they could.

So, the second half of my Russian adventure in 2007 emerged as I left the wondrously beautiful St Petersburg, one of my favourite cities. The Heritage will always remain, for me, the most brilliant art gallery I have ever been to, both the building and the art therein.

I was to travel via Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia.

At a small Moscow airport, I had very little time to change flights and hit the ground running from the plane. I whipped off my backpack and threw it onto the conveyer belt and stood, ready to sprint out the door to the waiting plane.

A heavy-set Russian woman stood with hands on her hips.

“You hef knife in bag!”

“No, I don’t carry knives!”

With that she proceeded to empty my carefully arranged backpack.

No knife.

I grabbed everything, stuffed it back into the bag and was about to grab it and sprint after the disappearing queue for the plane when she put a restraining hand on mine and proceeded to put the backpack through the scanner once more. Meanwhile my nails were being chewed to shreds.

The bag came through and she pounced, thrusting her hand right down the front pocket that went under the base.

Triumphantly she brandished a small metal knife, fork and spoon set that my daughter had put in the backpack without informing me when she had given it to me as a present.

It is interesting to note that the backpack had travelled out of China, where I was living at the time, into and out of Canada; into and out of the UK; into and out of Germany without anyone stopping me. I was both impressed and irritated with Russian thoroughness.

As I would be in Irkutsk for a few days before boarding the Siberian Express bound for Vladivostok, I had booked a tour of The Taisy Open-Air Museum of Architecture and Ethnology and then on to Lake Baikal before catching the train.

 The best laid plans of mice and women…

Passing through my mind at that time was the fleeting thought that it would be good to have a companion to travel with and to discuss and share experiences after the trip. It was not a serious plan though.

The tour of the museum was a wonderful introduction to life in this generally frozen land – I went in August, their summertime.

Then on to Lake Baikal. This ethereal lake is the biggest in the world, holding 22% of the world’s fresh water and more water than all the great lakes together. It is a mile deep and has 330 rivers running into it and only one exiting it, the Angarra. The nerpa is the only fresh-water seal in existence. It is the oldest, deepest and clearest lake in the world, and it held me in its thrall instantly. The water is so clear that it is easy to see down to a depth of 39m on a clear day.

Nerpas on Lake Baikal. Courtesy: Creative Commons

 All fascinating facts but actually being at the lake is an uplifting experience. I was entranced and wished I could have stayed longer.

On a high, I arrived back in Irkutsk. People in Irkutsk are keen to tell you about their links with the rebel Decembrists and the history is recorded in The Historical and Memorial Museum. It is a wonderful human story of rebellion, strength of character and endurance in an inhospitable land and climate after they were banished to Siberia.

I did some shopping for the train journey. Standing in the supermarket a woman next to me held up a soup packet and flapped her arms like a chicken pointing to the packet. I laughed and told her I spoke English. She was using similar tactics to me to understand.

The Travel Agent delivered my ticket for the Siberian Express leaving the next day. I glanced at the departure time and knew I would have plenty of time to get to the station.

I therefore arrived at the station next day and couldn’t understand why everybody just shook their heads when I showed them the ticket to get directions to the train platform. Eventually I was shown up a very steep flight of stairs and went, sweating and dragging my suitcase with me.

I was hot and tearful as I showed the clerk my ticket. She stabbed the ticket with her finger and said,

 “Moscow time!”

Oh, no! I had forgotten that in Russia local trains run on local time, but long-distance trains run on Moscow time. I had missed the train!

She said I could book another train which I did and returned to my lodgings. I showed the ticket to the receptionist and she smiled and happened to say,

“Ah, you reach Vladivostoc on 25th August. Good.”

“What? My visa would have run out by then.”

There was nothing for it but to return to the station, up those stairs and cancel the trip. This I did and received a voucher to cash downstairs.

Downstairs was just the vast waiting room, no sign of an office to cash the voucher.

Enough! I just stood in the middle of the that terminal, tears flowing down my face and shouted,

“Does anyone here speak English?”

A young lady came to my rescue and I was directed outside the building to another building to reclaim the money.

This was obviously a conspiracy by the universe to keep me where I was, and I was not amused.

I booked into a room on Lake Baikal for the next three days. I had wished to return to the lake on my first visit so here I was, though I was unappreciative of the events that had brought me here.

Enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of the Lake I regained my elated feeling as I strolled  along the banks,  dipping my toes into the pristine water. I stopped to take a photo of an outlook building on the flower- strewn shore.


A distinctly Australian voice came from behind me.

“G’day, that looks loke a great photo.”

We chatted for a minute or so and then went on our opposite ways.

I wandered to Listvankia, a charming village on the shores of the Lake. I spent a lovely two hours in shops, admiring the quaint architecture, dressing up in the national costumes and buying my lunch of freshly caught fish which I ate as I sat on the shore.


In Russian costume

 I wandered back, feeling relaxed and finally accepting the fact that I had missed the train. At the exact same spot where I had seen him before was the Australian man, strolling down the path, returning from his walk. The synchronicity was obvious and before long we had exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch.

The day before leaving I enjoyed a boat trip on the lake. The weather was overcast and rainy, so I was unable to take the glass-bottomed boat to admire life below the water, but it was special anyway.


On Lake Baikal

The travel agent who issued my Siberian Express train ticket took no chances and was at the airport to make sure I left.

I flew into a small airport in Beijing (we could not use the main one because the Olympic Games were in progress), late at night and was due to leave at 5am next morning. My plan was just to sleep on one of the benches in the airport. It would have only been a few hours before my plane left for Shanghai at 5 in the morning.

Airport staff, seeing me through customs asked which hotel I was booked into.

I told them my plan.

Only one hostess spoke English. “You can’t sleep here. The airport is locked for the night because of the Games. We will find you a hotel.”

“But I don’t have money for a hotel.”

On hearing that she chatted away to her colleagues animatedly for several minutes.

I waited.

They looked at me despairingly.

Finally, resigned, she said, “You can come with us to our staff hotel.”

 I thought that she should have top marks for innovation. And thanked her profusely. I was transported with them in their Airport mini-van and directed in the lobby to a leather couch. Toilets were nearby.

I settled for the night and was almost asleep when I felt a presence looming over me.

It seemed that the guard had not been informed of my stay. He chatted away in Chinese, waving his arms towards the door and getting really bothered. I looked blank and held up my hands in despair. Eventually he gave up and said the words that all Chinese people had been taught before the Beijing games, “Welcome to China.”

And I went back to sleep. I was woken at 5am to be transported with the crew back to the airport to catch my plane. What wonderful, caring service I had had from everyone.

If you are wondering what happened about the Aussie and myself, well we corresponded for about 8 months before I invited him to come to China and to accompany me on a trip to Vietnam. Having done that, I panicked. What if he smoked? I couldn’t travel with anyone who smoked.

I emailed him.

“If you smoke, then the invitation is rescinded.”

He neither smoked nor drank.

It is interesting that I had had the thought passing through my mind about a travelling companion a well as a desire to return to Lake Baikal. Both had come to pass but not in quite the way I had expected.

Now when things don’t work out as I planned, or times seem difficult, I tend to shrug and think that there are plans afoot that I am not privy to but which I will understand on hind-sight. Easier said than done, though!


Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.



Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Where it All Began

Sybil Pretious recounts her first adventure, an ascent on Mt Kilimanjaro

“The birds have vanished into the sky        
And now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains.”
Li Po

My backpacking adventures started late in life though I have always loved camping and the outdoors – a legacy from my parents. My passage to starting these adventures reminds   me that when an opportunity presents itself, take it. It might be right, it might be wrong. All paths can be changed, and nothing is set in stone. But if you don’t follow an opportunity you will never know and you will never grow.

My light bulb moment happened. In 2003, looking through the ‘Situations Vacant’ column in a local newspaper while living in Durban, South Africa. My eye rested on an advertisement for a post at an International School in Maputo, Mozambique. Without a second thought I applied immediately. I didn’t tell my husband (who turned out to be against the move until the salary was revealed), until I was interviewed by the head of the school and offered the post.

My time in Mozambique demonstrated the answer to something I had doubted for a very long time (35yrs to be exact). I discovered that I was able to function perfectly well on my own –manage my finances and my daily life in a foreign country where I did not speak the language. I had long been considering divorce but could never quite plucked up the courage to ask my husband. I know, it sounds ridiculous and pathetic, but I am sure there are some who will resonate with this.

2005 was a watershed year for me. I climbed both a personal and physical mountain and my life changed unrecognisably. My divorce went through in July of that year as my husband realised my need to be on my own. We had been married 38 years.

 In August, I prepared to climb Kilimanjaro.

This was my first real backpacking adventure. I was 63 and I had three beautiful daughters and three grandchildren. They were the bonus of my long marriage. 

   Mt Kilimanjaro –  Five Vegetation areas

Mt Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania. It is a dormant volcano and is the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 5,895 metres and covers five distinct vegetation areas – the base in villages and agriculture; rain forest; moorland; Alpine desert and the frozen summit. Not many people believed the reports of the missionary, Johannes Rebmann, in 1848 of a snow-capped mountain so close to the equator.  Sadly, the ice cap is rapidly diminishing as climate changes.

I was to climb with a party of five covering a wide age range. A friend, Bruce, who wanted to celebrate his 60th birthday climbing the mountain and a family of three from Tasmania — Tim, Wilma and their 10-year-old daughter Anneke.

We chose to go the ‘Coca Cola’ route because being rank amateurs, it was the easiest but not that easy as we soon discovered. Our plans included not only our magical journey to climb Kilimanjaro but also to take a safari to Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. This writing however covers only the Kilimanjaro experience.

In preparation I walked every morning as normal, took up tai chi and in the last couple of months joined a gym to strengthen the right muscles. I think the tai chi was the best preparation both physically and mentally.

The advertising blurb about Kilimanjaro said that you need be only moderately fit, but I think it takes more than moderate fitness to be conquer a mountain peak. Fitness plus strength of mind and spirit are factors while summiting. Even then you might be foiled by altitude sickness.

We prepared mentally by visualizing ourselves triumphant on the top and we had screen savers created by Bruce showing the mountain and us superimposed at the top. I asked the students in my grade 1 class to draw pictures. One showed Bruce at the top and me below with my hand out saying, “Help me!”

 “We’ll see…,” I thought.

And made a mental note that I should take no notice of what others thought of my capabilities. Motivation should be internal.

I purchased clothes, and equipment we needed to take. The boots were the most important item. They had to be half a size bigger than your normal size so that on the descent, laced really tight, your toes would not be bruised knocking against the inside end of the boot. I was intrigued with the special underwear and tops which would apparently ‘wick-a-way’ all the sweat and smells of a heavy day of trekking and also keep the skin dry. Even the trousers were of a material that was light and quick drying.

 We were expressly told not to take cotton clothing and denims both of which retain moisture and you don’t want to be wearing cold wet clothing in the freezing weather higher up in the mountain.  The really heavy gear for the final ascent we could hire at the Springfield Hotel in Moshe.

I was the first to arrive at the Springfield Hotel, the launch point for all climbers. The next morning, I walked into Moshe along a dusty road. I didn’t take note of how I got there and after an interesting morning I started to make my way back. I was lost and turned down a street only to end up in a village. A pleasant young man said he would call the Headman who spoke very good English. I tried to appear confident and told him where I was going.

“Ah, I will send my son to show you a short cut.”

I couldn’t believe what I said next,

 “No, he will hit me over the head and steal my clothes.”

The wise Headman just laughed.

“You will be alright.”

Feeling embarrassed at my outburst I then enjoyed a pathway far more interesting than the road I would have taken. It was a lesson in trust that took me on wonderful journeys with local people in many countries. We passed through villages, huts, women washing and singing, men carving and talking, children waving and shouting, “Jumbo” and “Ha-llo” to show they had learnt one English word.

On reaching a place where he could direct me to the hotel, I said a big thank you and gave him some dollars which delighted him. Once again, I was treated to the goodness of human kindness and realised that I needed to trust.

The remainder of our party arrived the next day.

Having acquired our outer coats with fur lining, pants and two sticks we were ready. Bruce and I were called Mama and Papa throughout our climb!  I was shocked to find that the local people at the hotel worked 10 days in a row with one day off in between and their hours seemed to be from morning to night.

On the 16th  of August, we arrived at the Marangu Gate to register and meet our two guides, Raymond and Kilian,  fit young Tanzanian men who did the climb regularly to fund their children’s education. They could only do this for a few years as the toll on the body is punishing.

We set off on a wet drizzly day in our smart boots, wick-a-way underwear, warm jackets, slacks and raincoats through the steep, slippery, misty rain forest.

 Everyone who climbs Kilimanjaro is encouraged to heed the words, “Poley, Poley” meaning “Slowly, Slowly” and we did because that was all we could manage. The beauty of the forest passed in a fuzzy, drizzly gently blurred outline of moss, trees, creepers and drops of rain, unappreciated as it should have been in normal times. I found myself helping Bruce when he slipped and fell. It was an instant reaction to help. He was annoyed. Finally, we arrived at Mandara Hut, where we stayed in A-frame huts.

 My appetite surprised me. I devoured a gigantic amount of hot stew, vegetables, rice and mealie meal (cooked ground maize) plus pudding, obviously needing to replace the energy expended during the six-hour hike. And slept soundly.

Next day after an enormous breakfast including my favourite mealie meal porridge with butter and honey, another six-hour climb to Horombo Hut at 3720m.

The six hours seemed never-ending, the height increasing as we walked up,  down and up again, over rocky terrain, loose rubble,  smooth terrain; every muscle crying out but I discovered that I could prime my mind to assist my body.

The flora changed into heath and moorland and we sited the strange-looking giant Lobelia and Groundsel trees and surprisingly, Protea. Then on the penultimate day,  the Alpine desert — bleak, white dust, draining.

We saw people collapsed with altitude sickness being carried on stretchers down the mountain and passed various groups and exchanged greetings — a Japanese group and a Diabetic group. Their camera man interviewed us because of the diversity in our ages asking how we would feel after the climb. I waffled on but Bruce put it succinctly,

“Tired!” he said.

Throughout the climb if I felt my energy lagging, I would match my breathing to my footsteps, muttering rhythmically,

“One-step-closer, one-step-closer.” That was my mantra, concentrating my mind in meditation. It helped, as did Tim forging ahead and holding out jelly-babies as incentive. Anneke skipped and sang the first couple of days, but this changed as the air got thinner.

The third day, we climbed up to Zebra rocks and back down again as an acclimatization exercise. I had taken Diamox for altitude sickness and I was fortunate not to suffer. On our last day Anneke developed a headache and vomiting which was a sign of the sickness. The only cure was to go down to lower heights.

At Kibo Hut, at the base of the final ascent, Bruce had decided to go no further, Anneke was not well enough, and Wilma stayed with her. Only Tim and I would attempt this.

I gave myself Reiki that night to calm me and aid my sleep. We would be leaving at midnight.

I woke up to Bruce saying,

“You don’t have to go, you know.”

I was so irritated and angry. I was prepared. I was keyed up and ready. I shouted at him,

“Why are you doing this?” And ran out into the night in my night wear.

The freezing night was black pitch, the full moon a silent shimmer and stars mind-silencing bright. I stilled my turbulent thoughts, gazed at this heavenly sight and closed my eyes, sensed the calm and breathed the re-vitalising air.

I realised then that there will always be people who try to dissuade you about a path you wish to take but you will know in your heart what you need to do.

Calmed, I returned and dressed for this final push. We did not need our lamps in the brightness of the moon.

The way up was steep, convoluted with grey loose scree underfoot. It was difficult. So often I wanted to give up. I hardly talked. Tim and Kilian went ahead. Raymond stayed with me. Six hours later I sat at Hans Meyer Cave, ate some biscuits and watched the sun rise over Mt Meru. I needed its energy.

“The mountains are calling. I must go.” John Muir.

The next hour was a blur. Tim had already summited and was on the way down. He waved as he passed us, and Kilian stayed with Raymond to go up with me. It was a great effort to draw air into my lungs and my mantra got slower and slower to match my steps. But the mountains of my mind and spirit kept me going.

I remember asking if there was a mug of hot chocolate for me when I reached Gillman’s Peak (which used to be the summit until it was usurped by Uhuru Peak). Raymond laughed as I clambered wearily over the last enormous rock to reach 5681 metres.

It had taken me longer than normal to reach that point and I had a decision to make. I could have been selfish and continued to Uhuru Peak, but I knew if I did that it would take too long. Our party would have to stay another night at Kibo Hut, and this was not in our plans.

Wearily I told Raymond that we needed to descend.

This was the scariest part, as to save time we descended in a straight line down, Raymond and Kilian on either side of me.

I collapsed onto a bunk and tried to sleep for three hours.

Feeling hardly resuscitated I joined the others for the descent which would take two days as opposed to the four days taken to climb up Kilimanjaro. I needed to rest quite often but didn’t want to hold the others up. It was a case of pushing myself to the limits.

Tim, Wilma, Raymond — our guide, Anneke, Bruce and me. Tim and I proudly with our certificates. I had not brought my South African flag

From that moment on I was hooked on both backpacking and mountain climbing.

This climb had taught me that I had reserves of determination and strength that I had doubted before. It also taught me that selfish ambitions sometimes have to be relinquished for the good of the group. And that there are wonderfully helpful people wherever you go.

Many physical feats and forward movements in life are possible when influenced by the mountains of the mind and spirit.


Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.



Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Homestay in St Petersburg

Sybil Pretious travels take her not just to Russia but to the story of a survivor from a major historic event

“Be present in all things and thankful for all things.” Maya Angelou

Sometimes I have turned off the radio during lockdown — too many people complaining, not enough dwelling on their blessings. I preferred to take my attitude from my tenacious, pioneering parents, survivors from holocausts, long sieges and other disasters much worse than this one. It reminded me of one of the people I met on my travels.

In 2007, I travelled to Russia — a wonderful place for adventure — and plumped for a homestay in St Petersburg. This is not a travelogue, just a snippet of admiration for survivors.

On the flight, I sat next to a trainee travel agent.

“You are travelling to Russia on your own?” she queried.

I confirmed the fact.

“Do you speak Russian?”

I didn’t.

“Do you have family or friends here?”

I didn’t.

She had asked me how old I was and on gaining that information she just shook her head. This was not the kind of older traveller she was expecting to deal with in future.

In a rather decrepit taxi, I arrived at the homestay. You stayed with a family who provided a room, two meals and local knowledge.  The apartment was situated in an enormous unpainted concrete building with a forbidding exterior. The taxi driver hollered, his face pointing to the upper stories. A face barely reaching the top of the balcony peered over and called back in Russian.

 We waited.

A diminutive woman who looked childlike in stature came out of the heavy entrance door. We traded greetings. She spoke English.

 I followed upwards and finally she produced an enormous bunch with giant keys. She unlocked the door. We went up some steps. The same procedure again twice more. I began to wonder if this was a castle in the air. After unlocking the final door, we were in the flat and the doors firmly locked behind us. I had to follow this procedure every time I went out. I settled in a large bedroom.  She later called me for tea and special Russian cake.  

With initial polite enquiries over, she began her story.

“When I was only two, my family was in the Siege of Leningrad.”I was very quiet. My attention was total. I knew that the siege in 1941 had lasted for almost three years — 872 days to be exact. Almost two million people lost their lives. I couldn’t imagine the hardships they would have gone through.

“Very soon our water was rationed, the thirst was awful. We had just this much bread (she put the tips of her thumb and forefinger touching in a circle) for one day. It was the coldest winter. We threw everything we had into the fires to keep warm – clothes, furniture, instruments, ornaments. Our family had only one iron bed left. Every family was the same and we had to support each other. It was so hard.”

I was silent. Now I could understand why she was so small. Her growth had been stunted by lack of nourishment in her early years, but her spirit was indomitable. A lesson indeed.

She went on,

“But now our Government try to give survivors from the siege compensation in money and also a trip to anywhere in Europe every year.”

I didn’t like to say that I thought nothing could compensate for what she had been through, but she was grateful and loved visiting Italy.

I learnt so much more about Perestroika which she did not approve of but that is not pertinent to this story. It was just to remind myself to count my blessings daily.

Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.