Backpacking through Bolivia, starring in a Hollywood movie, and enrolling as a mature student... Three go-getters explain why they live life to the fullest
Backpacker, Avril McAllister
“A grey-haired lady with a backpack is not as unusual as many may think. My younger self is still inside and the curiosity and trust in people has not dimmed in any way,” says Avril McAllister (56).
Seeing a double halo round the sun on a Bolivian island, coming across a pygmy elephant in the wilds of Borneo, and swimming with a whale and its calf in Argentina are just some of the unforgettable moments that Avril has experienced on her travels.
Avril, who is in her 60s, recalls a moment that inspired her to follow her dreams.
“I was working with the Housing Executive and had been for nearly 30 years at the time,” she says.
“I was at a show with some great rock music and I suddenly was taken back to my 20s when I was travelling without a care and had so many places that I wanted to discover.
“I felt strongly that I wanted to pick up my backpack again and head off before it was too late. I asked my employers if I could take a year off.
“I got a positive reply, so I took my leave. My friends were supportive. My son realised I would have no money for a year and would be spending his inheritance.
“The initial shock soon turned to excitement and he actually messaged me when I was away to say that if I went to a nice beach, he would join me.”
The Derry woman embarked on a four-month tour of Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, where she was joined by a friend for three weeks.
She also visited Bali and Borneo. Her son travelled with her for a while, and they took in the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Flores, before returning home via Kuala Lumpur.
Fuelled by a sense of fun, adventure and growing self-confidence, Avril “felt ready to tackle anything” and booked a flight to Rio de Janeiro and out of Buenos Aires four months later.
“I travelled through to Bolivia and spent a week with a family in Cochabamba to improve my Spanish,” she says.
“I spent about a month in Bolivia and booked a tour through some hard-to-travel areas to Santiago.
“A friend joined me in Santiago and we travelled by bus to Buenos Aires.
“Then, on my own again, I made my way across to the Chilean fjords and took a freighter down to Patagonia where I did the W trek through Torres del Paine National Park.
“I did this by myself — there was no end to my confidence by then.
“I had heard that southern right whales were breeding in Peninsula Valdes and I had thought about taking a tango course in Buenos Aires.
“I tossed a coin and the whales won, so I flew up to Puerto Madryn and spent a few special days in Punta Piramides before flying home.”
Back in Derry, Avril realised she didn’t want to continue with her job.
She says: “I calculated that I could afford to leave with a reduced pension and I knew I could manage.
“Luckily, I got early retirement. I had contacted Ramblers Walking Holidays and Adagio Holidays and became one of their walk leaders. It’s a non-paid job but it has given me several years of working holidays throughout Europe and worldwide.
“I have met some great people, have kept my brain functioning, and filled any gap left by a full-time job.”
Commenting on what ‘never too late’ means to her, Avril says: “I feel that if we put our minds to doing anything, we usually can do it.
“If we hide behind thinking, I’m too old, I’m too shy, I’m too nervous, I can’t, I wouldn’t, I shouldn’t… life will pass us by.”
Mature student, Anne Loveday
For 74-year-old Anne Loveday, being the oldest in her class is something that she takes in her stride.
A few years ago, Anne completed a higher national diploma (HND) in fashion and textiles at the North West Regional College in Derry.
She has also taken classes in Russian, Spanish, pottery, tai chi and is currently doing a painting course.
“The HND experience was a bit of a crash course in technology. When I started studying again, I didn’t even have a mobile that took photos,” Anne says.
“Being the oldest in my class was a bit weird, but after a while it just seemed quite normal.
“The highlights of returning to study at an older age were simply learning new things and having new experiences, being able to access the libraries, making new friends, having a bit of a routine and being part of a busy and friendly environment. The end-of-year exhibitions were very exciting as well.”
Anne, who lived in England most of her life and moved to Donegal several years ago, set up a book group when she came over and also runs an art group.
She adds: “I decided to carry on studying after I moved to Ireland as I had enjoyed taking art courses in Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton and was very much encouraged to carry on by my daughter and son.
“I think people see me as someone who was always studying something.
“At the moment, I am doing a painting class in Derry and will carry on with that after the class ends.
“I have also been making greetings cards, which I would like to sell as we come up to Christmas.”
To people who are hesitant about going back to education as a mature student, Anne shares this advice: “If anyone is thinking of returning to study but is nervous, I think I would suggest that they work out what they are interested in and try to find a course where they could learn more about it.
“Any college or institution they join will give them every support and encouragement and try to make sure they make the most of their time.
“It’s never too late. To me, every day is absolutely precious and there are so many rewarding experiences that we can enjoy, no matter what our background or age.”
Actor and CrossFit champion, Ivor Neill
This year, Coleraine man Ivor Neill came first in the CrossFit Open men’s 65+ category, with a worldwide ranking of 156.
Not only that, but this year he also featured as a Viking ship skipper in historical action thriller The Northman, starring Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård.
“A sailing friend of mine who works in the film industry needed a qualified yacht master with traditional boat experience,” Ivor (65) explains.
“I am a commercial yacht master and have been the skipper of the largest Irish curragh — the Colmcille. We have sailed and rowed this vessel across the English Channel, across the Bay of Biscay to Vigo in Spain, circumnavigated Ireland, and been up to Iona in Scotland numerous times.
“This background opened the door for me to skipper one of the Viking ships in The Northman.
“Being involved in the film industry was very interesting, even if it is all make believe and fantasy.
“Having Alexander Skarsgård on the ship was an education. He is a really nice person who seemed to suffer the over attention of his entourage as they fussed around him between takes.
“I remember being anchored off Tyrella Beach in Co Down in the ship surrounded by Vikings as the evening sun cast its light on the magnificent mountains of Mourne.
“That was priceless.”
In addition to his skippering skills, Ivor is a keen CrossFit enthusiast.
Despite only taking the sport up in recent years, he has enjoyed considerable success.
He says: “I have always been involved in various sports, mostly water sports such as sailing, kayaking, motorboating and swimming.
“Fitness is key to participation, therefore training in a gym goes along with this, especially during the winter months.
“I got into CrossFit training through a very good friend who set up the first CrossFit gym here about 10 years ago in the Coleraine area.
“Every year, CrossFit runs an open competition.
“There are literally thousands of people of all ages and abilities who participate.
“My first success was in the 60+ category when I achieved the title of the fittest 60-year-old in Ireland. CrossFit acknowledged this by inviting me to receive my award at a black-tie dinner in Dublin.
“Early this year, I entered the CrossFit Open in the 65+ category. And as a result of this, I was the fittest 65-year-old in Ireland and got through to the quarter finals.”
Ivor works as a further education lecturer at the North West Regional College’s Limavady campus.
He is based in the department of sport and health science to coordinate the level 3 national extended diploma in uniformed protective services.
He has also been shortlisted for Further Education Lecturer of the Year in the UK-wide Pearson Awards.
“My curriculum manager and teaching colleagues nominated me for the award,” he explains.
“Initially I was selected to be in the top six in the UK and then progressed into the top three for a silver award.
“This was a real surprise and an honour to be thought of so highly by other professionals.”
The silver award winners were invited to afternoon tea in London at the end of June. The gold award will be announced in November at a gala dinner, also in London.
Commenting on what ‘never too late’ means to him, Ivor says:
“It’s never too late while you still have breath. Don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring; get out and do what you need to do now.
“Life is a precious gift, health is wealth. Older people are still relevant and have so much to offer the next generation. Be as fit as you can and do not make excuses.”
Now that school is finished for summer, Ivor is busy with numerous projects.
“I’m looking forward to seeing more of our five grandchildren this summer, sailing the west coast of Scotland with my lovely wife Jane, and continuing our building project which is converting a Second World War bunker into an Airbnb,” he says.
“Lastly, the boys are chatting about another motorbike trip. We did the Tartan Titan 500 in Scotland last year.”