Meet Stephen Rowe, he’s been on 17 trips with Contiki and by the end of the year he’ll reach a new personal best of 25 trips. Stephen’s passport says he’s 31, but this ‘eternal big kid’ says he doesn't feel a day over 12. The real life Aussie ‘Peter Pan’ lives by an important motto: "dream for the stars and you can achieve the impossible!" It’s this mantra that has seen Stephen achieve some truly incredible feats. Aside from travelling to just about every part of the world, Stephen has battled his road to recovery after a life-changing accident that left him paralysed.
Having ‘retired’ from his formal vocations at 26 years old, Stephen has been busy enjoying life to the max, making friends all over the world and living the dream of travelling almost full-time. Now, he’s just a guy looking for ‘Mrs Right’ and a romantic adventure to conquer even the wildest of his Contiki dreams.
From eating crickets in Thailand to being a self-confessed ‘princess’ when it comes to tour accommodation, Stephen simply can’t get enough of the Contiki way of life. We think you’d hit the tour-buddy lottery if you ended up on a trip with him; the guy who says “travelling with Contiki is like travelling with all your best friends and family in the world at once.”
I caught up with Stephen over the phone when he was in Vancouver ready to start his 18th Contiki adventure. Stephen was in Canada to attend the wedding of a friend he’d met on a Contiki tour in Peru a few years back, and thought he’d throw in a tour or two while there.
After Canada he’s looking forward to visiting Japan and Thailand for two more Contiki trips, and then this summer he’s off to Europe for back-to-back European Contiki Tours starting with the Turkey and Greek Island Odyssey, then onto the Scandinavia Russia Plus, Eastern Road, European Encounter, Iberian Peninsula and Morocco tours. He’s also hoping to squeeze in a trip to either Vietnam or Laos later in the year.
Which begs the question, where haven’t you been, Stephen?
Antarctica, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Iceland or Greenland.
Wow. I’ve only been on one Contiki tour. I don’t know if it was for me? Does it depend on what kind of people you end up on board with?
Yeah it does. That’s always the one thing you have to take into account. Sometimes there are two or three people on the tour you might not get along with. You don’t always get along with everyone, there’s always personality clashes here and there. Having said that, there's always lots of people on tour that you gel with straight away.
You seem like a pretty easy going guy though?
Yeah I get along with everyone, no matter what age.
You’re going on a ski trip next, in Canada?
Yep, the ‘Powder Rush’. Then I’ll visit another Contiki friend in Saskatoon – I met her in 2009 on the Great Britain and South Ireland Tour. We became like brother and sister straight away.
I’m actually trying to move to Canada, I have been trying for the last decade. Life keeps getting in the way. But I’m starting the process for a Canadian citizenship soon.
It sounds like you’ve got a friend in just about every port all over the world that you can crash with?
Is that one of the great things about Contiki? Meeting people from different parts of the world?
Yeah. I don’t mean to brag, but I make friends pretty easily! I just love travelling and it’s just a bonus you get to make friends from different countries every now and then.
What do you love about Canada?
I’ve got a friend in every province. I’d like to raise a family here one day. I mean I love Australia, but I prefer it here with all my friends.
You must like the outdoors too?
Yes I like beautiful scenery. I’m very artistic. I love drawing and painting. It helps with my book series I’m writing too.
Wow, you’re writing a book?
Yes, a fantasy love story! I’m a hopeless romantic and a dreamer!
When was your very first Contiki trip
2005. To Europe. It was the ‘European Panorama’ tour – the one that includes Corfu Island.
Where do you call home when you’re in Australia?
Port Stephens, NSW. It’s about an hour past Newcastle. I live right on the beach.
What do you do when you’re not travelling?
Well now, I’m retired. I retired at 26 years old. I used to be a police officer and I was in the Army Reserve too. I’ve been a Sales Rep for Cadbury, Pepsi and Schweppes. I also worked for Woolies for 13 years. I used to work seven days a week. I like to keep busy.
Wow, that’s pretty amazing (being retired at 26)?
[Laughs] It depends how you look at it, but it helps being hit by two cars.
Yes, I had heard you’d endured an accident of some kind, I’m sorry to hear about that, does it affect your day to day life much?
I’m still a bit paralysed here and there, but I get over it. I just decide not to be a whinger, and get on with life.
That’s a fantastic attitude to have. Anyway, the story isn’t about that – it’s about your desire for travel.
It would be hard to choose, but where in the world have been your favourite places to visit so far?
I’d have to base it on different things:
For historical reasons, I’d have to say Egypt and China. I’m a huge history buff.
If I was judging by the tours I’ve been on and groups I’ve travelled with, that’s a tie between Great Britain/Southern Ireland tour and the tour of China.
The people are what make a great tour on Contiki; a good group is what makes it more fun. Contiki is a great way to travel.
What was it about China that stood out to you?
Aside from the history, and the excellent group I travelled with (it was a small group which made it even better and we all ‘clicked’ straight away). Some of us from that trip are actually trying to get together to do a trip to South America sometime soon. We’ve stayed in touch; most of them are from America and a couple from Canada. I’m actually going to see two of them in Calgary on this next trip actually.
You obviously have lots of friends all over the world, but do you enjoy travelling solo?
I only ever travel by myself; I make so many friends when I’m on tour with Contiki.
So you just go with an open mind and see what happens?
Yep. I don’t even really do too much research either; I just pick a place in the world and go there. I like to be surprised each time. I mean I know how Contiki works, so no surprises there, but the destination always surprises me.
Is that what appeals to you about Contiki? Everything is taken care of; you don’t have to worry about the details?
Exactly. The only thing you have to worry about it making sure you’re on the bus on time.
You’ve been doing Contiki for a long time, (I actually think my first Contiki trip was in 2005 as well). How has the Contiki experiences changed, in your opinion, 10 years on?
They’ve actually improved in a lot of ways. I find they are getting better and better.
So getting a little more off the beaten track perhaps?
I think they’ve always done a good job of that. I mean sure, they’ll take you to the hot spots, to see the Eiffel Tower and what not. But you want to go there anyway! But they’ll also take you down the side streets to see the real country too.
Do you feel like you’re experiencing the ‘real heart’ of the cities and countries you visit?
Oh definitely. For sure. They (Contiki) show all aspects from the touristy side to off the beaten track. A good example would be in China. They could have taken us to the main tourist spot at the Great Wall, but instead they took us to a lesser known spot. We saw a different side of the Wall than most other tourists would and we took a toboggan to get to the bottom! Amazing. Hardly anyone knows you can even do that! They take you to the more special places; we even experienced some local markets in the area too.
In Vietnam (or was it Thailand – maybe both!) we did a cooking class. First you visit a local market and shop for the local ingredients then you go back and cook it up. Pretty cool.
So do you plan to do as many Contiki trips as you can until you’re 35 years old? That’s the cut off isn’t it?
The goal is to at least get to 30. But hopefully I can hit 35, before 35!
I know you’re retired, but would you ever consider working for Contiki? Maybe as a tour guide?
It’s funny. On my first trip I always said I’d do it one day, but my first goal was to become a police officer. So I went back to Australia and did that. On my first Contiki, I met a guy from America, and we both loved the trip so much, we said we wanted to one day become guides. Then, the last time I came to Canada for a trip (the Canada Rockies Tour), I was in the hotel foyer checking in and I recognised the guy in front of me, and I said something to him, and he recognised me too. We remembered each other from our very first tour together and the goal we both had, and he had actually become a Contiki tour guide! He was my tour guide for that tour.
So is it something you’d still consider (being a guide)?
Yes, definitely. But I’d actually love to get into planning the tours. To help give a better perspective from a travellers point of view. In my opinion, in everything in life, there’s always room for improvement. I’m a bit of a taskmaster that way. I really like the travel industry. Maybe I’ll even become a travel agent for Flight Centre!?
Having travelled so far and wide, perhaps that would be a great option for you! Maybe you should apply in Canada, because that’s where you want to relocate?
Yeah definitely. I’m a bit of dreamer I guess, I never like to accept reality, I like to think beyond that. That’s the sort of thinking that got me out of a wheelchair.
That’s amazing. You must be very proud of yourself.
Yeah I’m a little greedy in that respect, I still want more and to live life to its fullest. I was completely paralysed and stuck in a wheelchair for a while, but now I can walk again.
It’s really incredible, Stephen, you’re only 31 and you’ve already done so much.
I just want to experience everything in life, and hopefully one day, reach my ultimate goal: to travel to space!
Well, I think if you wrote a letter to Richard Branson, you’d be a good candidate for it!
[Laughs] “Hey Richard, I’ll do a test flight for you!”
How do you diarise all these experiences of yours? Do you have a blog or anything?
I’ve got my whole Contiki photo collection on file; it’s about a 100 GB.
What is it about Contiki that appeals to you the most? Is it the nightlife, making of friends, the style of travel or a bit of everything?
It’s about experiencing everything the country has to offer in a short amount of time and you get to experience it with great new friends from all across the world.
I have two traditions on Contiki: on Karaoke Night’s I sing Shania Twain’s 'Man I Feel Like A Woman', and I like to dress-up in a funny costume for each country we visit.
Are you a bit of a ‘foodie’ when you travel?
Yes and no. Unfortunately, the cancer I had and the subsequent chemotherapy really messed with my taste buds. Things I used to like the taste of, I don’t like any more and things I didn’t like – some of them I like now. Dining for me is a bit like going to a casino and playing Russian roulette!
I do enjoy tasting the local delicacies though; I had a camel burger at McDonalds in Egypt and alpaca and guinea pig in Peru, and snake, rat tarantula and crickets in Asia – I can recommend crickets, they taste like French fries! (Ed note: tasty crickets are found in Thailand). I’ll try anything once; I’m a sucker for punishment! [Laughs]
So you’ve experienced all aspects of the Contiki accommodations? Tenting, hostels, hotels etc... What’s your preferred style of accommodation?
I’m admittedly a bit of a princess! [Laughs] I like my luxury when I travel. So I always go for hotels when I can. You can make the title of the article ‘the princess who travels the world’ if you like.
“The Princess Peter Pan,” perhaps. I swear I’m macho at times as well.
So you haven’t been to South Africa or Antarctica?
I’m trying to encourage Contiki to do tours there, actually.
What about Iceland, have you been there?
No, not Iceland or Greenland either. I’ll get there eventually. I’m saving some peso and I’m still waiting to FALL IN LOVE – I’m a hopeless romantic, don’t hold it against me! I’m saving a few places I want to take my future wife to, and Iceland is one of those places. I think it’ll be perfect for a romantic getaway.
If Contiki can do those places before I’m 35, even better! I’m just trying to see as much as the world as I can, the Contiki way! I just love and trust the great brand that is Contiki.
All these one liners you keep pulling out, Stephen, they’re making for an excellent story!
I try not to take life too seriously anymore (not that I ever did really) but I just like to try and make fun in everything.
That’s a fantastic attitude to have.
Is there anyone else who’s done more Contiki trips than you?
As far as I know, I’m pretty much up there! I’ve heard on the grapevine someone has done 25 before, but I’ll definitely out do that by the time I’m done.
Do you think you’ll get in the ‘Contiki hall of fame’ if there is such a thing?
Ha ha. I don’t know about that, but I’d love to get a job with them one day! I mean all I really want is to keep travelling with them (even past 35). I look like I’m in my twenties, so I reckon I should be able to get away with it!
Age discrimination! [Laughs] It should be based on ‘how old you feel’!
What are your travel tips for someone going overseas for the first time? Say a young person doing Contiki for the first time?
Just use common sense, be smart about things and be aware of your surroundings. I purposely put zippers on pockets to stop pick-pockets, I mean it’s not necessary but it works for me. I always say ‘go out there and have fun’, be open minded to experiencing everything the country has to offer, don’t be afraid to get out there and enjoy life! Don’t let your inhibitions and fears hold you back from anything. I know the world’s a big scary place, but it’s also home to us all!
How to do travel? Backpack or suitcase?
Suitcase. And I still haven’t learnt not to over pack! I’ve got lots of presents in my case right now including 12 packs of Tim Tams!
What are you tips for flying long-haul?
It’s probably a bad tip, but try not to sleep for like two days before your flight! That way you’ll fall asleep before the plane even taxis the runway! And always try to push for the exit seats so you can spread out a little more. If you don’t mind getting to the airport early, you have more chance of getting those seats – or if you really want extra room, you can sometimes pay extra for those seats these days.
You’ve got to not mind roughing it a little bit here and there, it does enhance your travel experience.
I always tell people “just make as many friends as you can and talk to everyone”. You can make friends while you’re waiting for a plane, a bus, wherever. It’s about talking to locals; they’ll give you tips on the area and where to go and what to see.