Lancashire gran who took a gap year aged 61

Catherine Galaska, of Scorton, meets a giant tortoise in the Galapagos IslandsCatherine Galaska, of Scorton, meets a giant tortoise in the Galapagos Islands
Catherine Galaska, of Scorton, meets a giant tortoise in the Galapagos Islands
Many young people dream of taking a year off and travelling the world alone but after working for 40 years. Catherine Galaska waited until her retirement before taking up the challenge of a lifetime

In January 2018 I entered a competition to win an opportunity to travel on a senior gap year. I was absolutely amazed when I found out in March that I had won. The prize was £10,000 plus a camera. The only requirements were to travel for at least six months, visit a minimum of eight destinations, write a blog each month and set off by early June 2018. Other than that I had complete freedom to plan the trip.

I was both nervous and excited at the prospect of travelling round the world on my own. A gap year might seem like an exciting adventure to a young student but was a bit daunting to a soon-to-be grandmother in her 60s. However, I was determined to make the absolute best of the opportunity and visited 15 countries in nine months starting in Vancouver, Canada.

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I vowed to try things I hadn’t done before and in my first week I hiked up Grouse Mountain and saw a grizzly bear, went kayaking and ate oysters - a bargain at a ‘buck a shuck’. In early July I went to the Calgary Stampede - a huge rodeo event when the whole city is gripped by cowboy fever. I donned jeans, checked shirt and cowboy hat and joined in the festivities.

Catherine Galaska at the Grand CanyonCatherine Galaska at the Grand Canyon
Catherine Galaska at the Grand Canyon

My first stop in the USA was Alaska. I travelled there from Washington State on the Alaska Marine Ferry for a more authentic ‘gap year’ experience than a cruise. The young travellers on board pitched tents on the deck but I cheated and booked a cabin. I made some great friends on the ferry and went to stay with them in Arizona for a few days later in the trip. Alaska was stunning and my first view of Mount Denali took my breath away. I camped in a tent for a few days and treated myself to a flight around Mount Denali and a tour of the National Park for my birthday. That was an amazing experience.

After touring Washington State and Oregon for a month, hiking at Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, going to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and exploring the beautiful Oregon coast I went to San Francisco where I joined a Green Tortoise Bus Tour of National Parks and Canyons.

There were 15 nations represented on the bus and the average age of the group was about 28 years so I was definitely the senior participant. We slept on the bus, in tents or under the stars watching meteor showers, cooked and ate by the side of the bus and visited the Ruby Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Bryce and other Canyons and Parks, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

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One of the highlights of the trip was white water rafting on the Snake River. I had one mishap on the trip. I fell during a hike and hit my head on a rock. I was transported by ferry and ambulance to hospital in Jackson, Wyoming and had 16 stitches. Overall the tour was brilliant and I got to see much more in two weeks than I would have done travelling alone.

I visited my new friends in Arizona for a few days before flying to Bogota, Colombia, to start a tour of South America. Some friends thought I was mad to even contemplate travelling alone in South America but I had an amazing time.

Colombia is such an interesting country and I visited cities, towns and the coast and felt welcome everywhere. After seeing the major sights in Bogota and Cartagena I travelled to Palomino on the Caribbean coast and spent a week resting in a beachside hostel. It was idyllic and just what I needed after racing around Canada and the USA for 10 weeks.

With renewed energy I flew to Quito, Ecuador, for a few days and booked a last minute cruise around the Galapagos islands. That was incredible and definitely one of the highlights of my whole trip. I went snorkelling every day (another new experience) and saw so many fascinating species of sea and land animals during the tour of the islands. Peru was my next destination in South America and my starting point was Lima. I didn’t get to Machu Picchu unfortunately but met the inhabitants of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca and stayed with a family in a remote village to see how they lived.

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It is humbling to see how people make a life for themselves in difficult natural surroundings at high altitude where the only crop they can grow is potatoes. I tried numerous varieties while I was there. The other two countries I visited in South America were Brazil and Argentina. I spent a few days in Rio do Janeiro and Buenos Aires, both vibrant and fascinating cities. The main reason I visited both countries though was to see the Iguassu Falls.

I had seen photographs of the falls but had no perception of the scale. They are immense and an absolutely tremendous sight. I saw the Brazil side first and that is the best panoramic view. On the Argentina side there is more to explore on foot to get different views I was so glad I went to see them and they are another highlight of my travels.

Thank goodness I ignored the sceptics and visited South America. I would love to go back again as Machu Picchu still awaits.