When German-born Renate Belczyk set out in 1955 to tour the world with her childhood friend Sigrid, two young women travelling alone was considered revolutionary. They stayed on the road for three years visiting England, France, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Canada, Japan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Egypt, Turkey, Macedonia, and Greece. They went back to Germany in 1958 and the following year Renate returned to the Canadian Rockies to work in the backcountry but she stayed, marrying mountaineer Felix Belczyk and settling in Castlegar. She recounts her youthful tour in, Our Trip Around the World (RMB $22), a snapshot of the postwar era when adventure travel -- mountaineering, hiking, hitchhiking, and cycling -- was just gaining wide public acceptance.

Our Trip Around the World (RMB Sept. 2020) $22 9781771603775

[BCBW 2020]


Our Trip Around the World by Renate Belczyk (RMB $22)

Review by Beverly Cramp, BCBW 2020

As young girls growing up in Germany during WWII, Renate Belczyk and her childhood friend Sigrid Hirte dreamed of far off lands. They became fixated on travel and adventure, if only in their imaginations at first.

After the war, while still in their mid teens they began cycling around Europe. They started out relatively close to home with a cycling trip to Italy in 1948, spending their summer holiday on “ancient, prewar, one-gear bicycles” says Belczyk that they rode all the way from Frankfurt to Naples and back.

“Very few cars were on the road then and we had a wonderful time.”

They met few fellow travellers. “Very little travelling was done by anyone in those difficult years,” admits Belczyk. “Yet we were obsessed with seeing the world.”

In 1950, they listened to a speech by the German writer Heinrich Böll who urged his audience to travel to new countries and make friends. To do so, he argued, would help prevent another war. Belczyk and Hirte made a pact that day to do as much travelling as they could and worked to get visas and passports.

That summer they went to Switzerland, Italy and Austria cycling everywhere, pitching their tent in farmers’ fields and talking to people who frequently invited them home for meals.

“Often we had flat tires on our bikes and other problems, but somehow everything got solved.”

Eventually a bigger trip loomed, one that would take them over continents and last three years from 1955—1958.

Now at the age of 88, Castlegar-based Belczyk recalls those travels in the days before globalization had begun homogenizing diverse cultures in her memoir, Our Trip Around the World.

Perhaps Belczyk and Hirte’s trip would have started earlier, as in 1951 the two women went to England, hiring themselves out as nannies.  Improving their English was as much on their minds as seeing England, Scotland and Ireland. They knew that learning new languages would be integral to their ambitions to travel the world. French and Spanish were next on their list.

This led them to France in the spring of 1953, this time with three-gear bicycles, “the latest in bike technology,” says Belczyk. “For eight months we bicycled all over the country and enjoyed the land and the people. Whenever we ran out of money, we worked: four weeks as chambermaids in a Paris hotel, another four weeks in Southern France during the wine harvest.” Their pay for picking grapes included a bottle of wine a day.

Working while travelling was to become a way of life. From France, the two spent the rest of the year cycling through Spain and Portugal. Africa was next on their ambitious adventure itinerary but they had to kibosh this part of the plan when Hirte’s mother fell ill and beckoned her home.

Back in Germany they kept reading adventure and travel books, and made plans to visit a new continent—North America—starting off in Mexico in 1955. This was to be the start of their three-year-long adventure taking the two young women to Canada, Japan, India, Nepal and other countries.

They went to Mexico as Hirte had relatives in Mexico City. It was a good base and both got jobs quickly. They visited beach towns and small villages where handmade crafts were still very much in production. They also joined a mountaineering club and climbed several mountains, which at times proved to be dangerous expeditions.

But they loved Mexico and contemplated staying permanently. Belczyk had even received a marriage proposal, which she declined.

“We had to make up our minds whether to settle in Mexico (very tempting) or move on and see more of the world,” Belczyk says. “We decided on the latter and applied for visas to the United States and Canada.”

News that four of their mountaineering colleagues had died while climbing Mount Victoria in the Rocky Mountains inspired them to head to Canada in order to place a memorial for their Mexican friends on the mount where they perished. Another deciding factor was that Hirte wasn’t able to get an American visa. Mishaps as well as fortunate circumstances were to influence where they travelled in the following two years.

The first Canadian stop was in Windsor, Ontario from where they departed for Montreal and cycled along the St. Lawrence River. When they didn’t ride their bikes, they hitchhiked, a common travelling method throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s.

“The people who gave us rides were all very friendly and almost all of them invited us for either a piece of pie or a hamburger,” says Belczyk. “I remember wondering, ‘Is there anything else to eat in this country?’”

They eventually hitchhiked to B.C. and hiked Mount Victoria to fulfill the memorial duty for their Mexican friends. They also met Hans Moser, at the time a mountaineering guide, but later founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays and widely credited with inventing heli-skiing. They returned to Montreal to work and save but came back to B.C. in the spring of 1957. Hans Moser directed them to Little Yoho campground in Yoho National Park where they hiked and skied to a mountain cabin (Stanley Mitchell Hut) that Moser was staying at with some clients he was guiding. Belczyk and Hirte spent six weeks in this backcountry skiing idyll.

Their next destination was Alaska but here they were stopped and prevented from going further because they didn’t have the right visas. Undeterred Belczyk and Hirte turned tail and caught a ride to Vancouver where, by chance, they met some Japanese sailors in the Vancouver Harbour. This meeting set them off on a detour to Japan where they rode bicycles around the main Islands of the country.

They soon become celebrities in the local media and were eventually offered motor scooters to aid them on their way.

Belczyk and Hirte used the scooters to drive across India, visiting remote Nepal and Bhutan en route. Camping wild and living simply, they took what looks today like big risks. They were fortunate also not to meet any major misadventures. Perhaps the times were less dangerous too, for as Belczyk recalls, they were for the most part, welcomed and helped by locals.

They wandered on foot through the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and drove their scooters through Turkey, across Macedonia and through the Balkans and finally, back to Germany in 1958.

Belczyk would return to B.C. to marry and raise a family. Hirte stayed in Germany but the two have remained lifelong friends.

Renata Belczyk is still skiing at the age of 88.  9781771603775