Destination Seniors Card

A gold candle - and a gold card - can make a birthday sparkle, or not. Writer Mark Dapin travelled to Vanuatu for his 60th birthday, the age many Australians can receive a Seniors Card.

By Mark Dapin

I used to think that 60 was the oldest anyone could possibly be.

My grandad – the oldest person in my world – was always in his sixties, just as my mum was always in her thirties.

It seems incredible to me but recently, I turned 60.

I wasn’t sure how to mark my “special birthday” but knew I wouldn’t want a party, as my last three parties (all in the UK) ended with (1) a broken toilet; (2) a bloody fight; and (3) a gang of football hooligans smashing down the garage door and stealing my housemate’s record collection.

I decided to flee the country and spend the weekend on Vanuatu, where I could forget about being 60.

Erakor Lagoon in Vanuatu, where writer Mark Dapin spent his 60th birthday.

I had a similar plan when I turned 50 on holiday in Sabah in Malaysia. Unfortunately, that same year (2013) turned out to be the 50th anniversary of Malaysian federation, so there were massive, illuminated “50” signs everywhere I looked.

I checked before I left, and Vanuatu only gained its independence in 1980. The nation to avoid this year would be Kenya, which became a sovereign state a couple of months after I was born in 1963 (although, to tell the truth, I wasn’t really considering going to Africa for a weekend, anyway).

I’ve always felt a bit cynical about the paraphernalia of birthdays. My dad was a factory worker, who became a greetings-card salesperson after he married my mum and she taught him how to read.

For many years, I shared a house with hundreds of sample birthday cards – not to mention an ever-changing selection of related novelties such as toy plastic number plates inscribed “UR21” to mark a 21st birthday, or “U2R1” for the first birthdays of twins.

Novelty birthday greetings

I’m not sure how much my dad enjoyed selling cards – or even how much of it he really did. He probably spent as much of his time meeting with my uncle in a café near the secondhand furniture shop that was once owned by our former next-door neighbour who is now a singing reclining-chair salesman in Toorak, Victoria (true story).

My dad died at the age of 57, and his own dad passed away at 56. I am the oldest known Dapin in my line (earlier records are lost in Belarus, the unlikely home of my ancestors). My mum’s family live longer: my grandad took the precaution of preserving himself in alcohol, a safeguard which I have done my best to replicate.

Unsurprisingly, everyone around me is growing older too. I’ve become used to getting messages from mates saying that they have received their Seniors Card (or, more dubiously, their Gold Card) and they can now take a bus or train anywhere they like – which is generally nowhere, since they all have cars.

My dad never lived long enough to retire, but my stepdad, who was younger, retired at 55. Back then, the retirement age seemed to be going down all the time. Now it keeps on going up, and it looks as if my generation will work ourselves into not-very-early graves – while simultaneously pretending to do no more than 20 hours a week in order to qualify for Gold Cards that we will never use.

It’s not as if I want to stop working. I’m incredibly lucky: I do what I love (for no more than 20 hours a week) and people pay me for it, and other people leave comments on websites saying nice things about it.

My poor dad had to spend 2 years performing national service in the British Army before he could even go back to a factory job.

He managed to travel quite a lot in his later years.His second wife came into a bit of money, and the two of them used to like to go to the US and eat big plates of food. But I doubt my dad had ever heard of the country where I spent the birthday that he never reached.  

The seniors discount was more like half-service

I had imagined seniors might get a discount on international flights, but they don’t, generally. And I wasn’t a senior on the outgoing journey, anyway, so I paid the full fare on Air Vanuatu.

The airline responded by supplying half-service: there was no beer, wine or spirits on the flight from Australia, and the inflight meal was a Dad’s Meat and Cheese Pie from New Zealand (rrp NZ$4.19).

Air Vanuatu serve a New Zealand pie on their flights.

At least it wasn’t a grandad’s pie, I suppose.

I stayed at the Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu in Port Vila. I would recommend the place to anyone planning their 60th birthday in Vanuatu – and there are more of us than you’d think. On the day I arrived, a woman named “Anne” turned 60: I know this because the resort staff marked out a huge heart on the beach, inscribed with the words “Happy 60th Birthday Anne”.

This wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for – and, as it turned out, it wasn’t exactly what I got either.

After a lovely weekend in the beautiful (if slightly faded) resort with views across the magnificent Erakor Lagoon, I went down to the restaurant to eat a ludicrous breakfast of sausages, pastries, fruit, yoghurt and potatoes – and there it was, drawn in the sand for all to see: a heart shaped out of driftwood and the message “Happy Birthday Dapin Mark”.

When your surname precedes your first name ...

I’m not sure how they got my name the wrong way round– or why they gave me 2 names, when every other birthday guest had only one – but my partner suggested I should probably wear my glasses the next time I fill out a hotel registration form.

A troupe of ni-Vanuatu waitstaff danced out of the kitchen carrying an iced cake with a single candle (because 60 candles isn’t a cake decoration, it’s a bonfire) and singing ‘Happy Birthday’.

The crowned me with a tropical laurel wreath, which sat on my baseball cap like a fallen halo.

I didn’t feel 60 – and I wasn’t.

Vanuatu is 10 hours ahead of UK time, so I was still in my 50s – forever young.




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