From Ancient Explorers to Hippies & the Full Moon Party: A Short History of Backpacking!

Updated November 18th, 2017.

I’ve often noticed the confused looks on the faces of locals as they watch a herd of backpackers walk past. ‘Why don’t you just sit down and take your bag off? Have you not got a home to go to? Are you crazy walking around in the heat with a 60 kilo rucksack?’ I can almost hear them thinking… and they may have a point! Yet, something makes us do it. Something inside our foolish souls gives us the urge to wander far from the safety of our homes. So how did it all begin? And how has the concept of the ‘backpacker’ changed over the years?

Evolution Cartoon
Evolution of the Backpacker: From nomadic tribes to pleasure seeking flashpackers!

Nomadic Tribes

Rootless roving is nothing new. Throughout history, tales of human nature’s tendency to travel are abundant. One of the first species of man, the ancient ‘hunter-gatherers’ are a people who moved with the seasons, setting up camp wherever they went, following animals and foraging wild fruits on their way. Aborigine Australians, South African Bushmen, Pygmy Tribes of the Congo and the Native Americans are all examples of the nomadic migrant. Unlike today’s backpackers, these ancient drifters travelled out of a necessity to survive rather than for enjoyment and exploration for the sake of it. Bruce Chatwin’s famous book ‘Songlines’ is an incredible study about nomadic travel of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Early Explorers

When talking about travelling in its rawest form, the ‘explorer’ is the one that really captures the imagination. For centuries, certain unique individuals took it upon themselves to explore the world around them and venture into the unknown. Going in search of foreign lands when you didn’t even know if you would drop off the end of the world, be eaten by dragons or catch a deadly disease is a far cry from the type of travelling that most of us participate in today! Without guide book or Facebook these courageous voyagers braved high seas, malaria infested jungle and dusty deserts, going into lands where no man had ever set foot.

From Christopher Columbus’s fist voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 to David Livingstone’s exploration of interior Africa in 1841, these men paved the path for generations of travellers to follow in their footsteps. With most of the world largely explored today, we rarely think of these early buccaneers when travelling now, but someone had to be the first.

Ancient Jungle Explorers
Ancient Jungle Explorers!?

Italian Pioneer, Giovanni Careri: The very first backpacker?

If we’re trying to accredit one person with starting the fad, Italian explorer, Giovanni Careri often takes the glory. Some say he was the first traveller on record to travel just for the sake of it. The book, ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ is thought to be based on his travels and adventures in the late 17th Century. A pioneering globe trekker, Giovanni left of his homeland behind to spend 80 days circumnavigating the globe for no other reason than to have fun! He was the first European to do a solo tour of the globe using nothing but public transport. Rumour has it he funded his escapade through smuggling valuables from country to country, selling things as he went, whilst portraying himself as a ‘healer’ and charging people for his services! Like today’s backpackers he relished in chatting to locals, exploring exotic destinations and talking for hours on end about his adventures to anybody, be it peasant or aristocrat, who would listen to him. Unlike today’s backpackers, rather than blog, Careri wrote a book of his trip called Giro del Mondo, which became a bestseller in France, Italy and England.

The Hippie Trail of the 1960’s

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, when love and peace perfumed the air, thousands of free souls made their way from Europe to Asia spreading flower power wherever they went. Loosely following segments of the Silk Road, an ancient trading network spreading from Europe all the way to China, most of them were young travellers seeking a different way of life. Many left home in the spirit of adventure, in search of spiritual enlightenment, in search of their own identity or in search of drugs man. Either way, these travellers greatly influenced the modern concept of the backpacker and forged routes that backpackers still take today.

One of the main routes was Europe to Kathmandu through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Nepal. Certain areas became famous as ‘hippie hang-outs’ as people congregated along the way to make a little music a little love and a whole lotta spliffs. One of the most famous ones was Kathmandu’s ‘Freak Street’ a mad haven of cheap accommodation, cheap cannabis, cheap pies and Hendrix twangs playing into the street air. Rishikesh, India was also made famous by The Beatles who spent time on a meditation retreat there and reportedly wrote some of their best songs, such as Blackbird.

Rishikesh India A spiritual hub on the hippie trail
Rishikesh India: A spiritual hub on the Hippie Trail, now a centre for yoga and meditation

The Introduction of Guide Book Travel

Backpacking changed immensely with the creation of the handy ‘Travel Guide Book.’ One of the forerunners in this field for the independent traveller was the legendary ‘BIT’ Travel Guide, which covered grass-roots info on the hippy route from India to Australia. From their birth in 1970 as half a dozen stapled together sheets with 1 staple and no cover, the guides grew to over a hundred pages of advice on everything from herbal remedies to squatting rights. It gained almost cult status with backpackers constantly sending in letters on their travels and tribulations and became known as the ‘Bible of the East.’

Shortly after this, came another book which greatly influenced the way people travel in this part of the world, the ancestor to a well thumbed paperback that’s probably sat in your rucksack right now. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, of the future mega brand, Lonely Planet, travelled overland from Europe to Asia to Australia in 1972, sat together over their kitchen tables putting together, ‘Across Asia on the cheap.’ From hand drawn cartoons to insider info, the version was a fresh new appeal to a young generation to get their rucksacks packed and their asses in gear. From Tony’s words in his introduction ‘All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over.’

Modern backpacking: The Banana Pancake Trail of South East Asia

Unlike early explorations, backpacking today seems less about exploring the unknown than heading smack bang into the well-known and the highly celebrated! The well trodden trail of South East Asia, sometimes referred to as “The Banana Pancake Trail” is one of themost popular routes for backpackers today and there’s no denying its wicked fun. The Khao San Road, made even more famous by Alex Garland’s novel ‘The Beach’ has become the most well known travel hub in South East Asia. Team that with renowned backpacker boom areas like Vang Vieng  (Tubing),  and Koh Phangan (The Full Moon Party) and you’ve got a pretty good taste of just how distinguished this route is! Nevertheless it is still easy enough to get off the beaten track in this amazing part of the world and it’s very often just a few timorous steps away from the main path…

The Tubing Crowd in Vang Vieng
The Tubing Crowd of Vang Vieng, Laos

The Full Moon Party Beach in Koh Phangan Thailand
The Full Moon Party Beach in Koh Phangan Thailand

The Future: The Techno-packer

Facebook, iphones, ipads, kindles, MSN, travel blogs, Skype, Twitter… just what will be the next invention to help the contemporary traveller keep 100% connected 24/7? Possibly, a rucksack equipped with all of these things, a digital camera and an ipod too! There are so many ways to keep in touch these days that leaving home is not like it used to be. Once backpacking meant heading out into the unknown, not talking to your friends and family for months on end and coming back with a long fuzzy beard (girl or boy.)

The improvement in communication has made the world smaller and without doubt has made people who wouldn’t have necessarily travelled before hit the road in great numbers. But be careful… some of these modern travellers it can be just as much about updating your blog every minute of every day than actually getting out there and having some true travelling experiences!

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3 thoughts on “From Ancient Explorers to Hippies & the Full Moon Party: A Short History of Backpacking!

  1. Brian Gruber says:

    This is a thoughtful piece. Where do you think the hippie trail terminates these days? I live on Koh Phangan and wonder if there is an equivalent circuit to the one you describe from the 60s.

    • Nikki says:

      Hi Brian,
      I’m not sure there is an equivalent circuit today. There are certainly some ‘hippie hubs’ in Asia, although the location of these hubs has changed over time. For example, in Goa, the main hippie centre used to be Anjuna and since Anjuna became more touristy, the hippies have now moved a few hours north to Arambol. I would say Rishikesh and Bhagsu in Dharmasala, India are also hippie trail hangovers… and perhaps Koh Phangan too! 🙂 Although these days, there is certainly not a certain route, or a ‘pilgrimage’, that people travel to reach these sort of places. I did read an excellent book a few years ago about a guy who retraced the hippie trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu, visiting places along the way that had been hubs for those types of travellers, places in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. It was so interesting to hear about what had happened over the years to each place, some like Kabul, for example, had changed beyond recognition. It was quite sad as the author bumped into old hippies in each spot who had been ‘left behind’. The book was called ‘Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India’ by Rory Maclean. Would recommend it if you’re interested in this sort of thing like I am!

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