• Petra Vandecasteele

The Benefits of Family Travel

by Rachel Bray – anthropologist specialising in the experiences of children

Travelling is different

Haraka Haraka Haina Baraka (Swahili)

There are no blessings when you hurry

Sometimes, under the starry night, listening quietly to the cicada symphony after dinner, the rumble and dust of an overland truck or convoy of 4x4s would break into camp. Before dawn, the engines would roar again and pass into the distance, pressing on relentlessly to the Serengeti, or some other destination very far from home. These drivers of endless miles bewildered us. "I like driving," one man told me, "we've driven 8000 km in two weeks." We asked a young woman on an overland trip, "Where have you come from today?" "I dunno," she replied. "What was that place...? I think we crossed a border... all we do is drive and drink."

Travelling is different to 'driving' or 'overlanding'. It is about being. At first the word 'travelling' might seem to be the opposite of being, which might imply something sedentary. But, they are not contrary. If you move at the right pace, you can begin to engage with each new place. To truly experience a place – its culture, subtleties, contradictions, moods, seasons, past and possible futures – requires years, the way of an anthropologist, not a tourist. 'Travelling' does not claim so much, it is not trying to be a pilgrimage, nor an expedition, nor anything so self-conscious. Travelling is about pausing, giving enough time to get to know new friends, to use your senses, to 'be' long enough to create some memories.

Travelling with kids is about being together, as a family. In part, it is about being away together, to escape the routines, pressures and distractions, the cycles and patterns. And, to break out of the ruts that soon channel the flow of life. Also, it is about being a family under a new sky, adventuring together, learning how the world works, being a team, honing new skills, having fun and facing problems. From the planning of the journey to the memories that linger, the family is brought together in something unique.

Our route

We spent a year travelling from Cape Town to Mt Kenya and back, covering a distance of 28000 km, which is about the annual distance covered by many people who commute. We spent R200,000 during the journey, which, again, is much the same as we would have spent covering the normal bills in Cape Town for a year.

Our daughters were aged four and six when we travelled in a Toyota SUV (2x4), towing an off-road caravan that we called 'Vagabond'. We were joined by an American film and anthropology graduate, Jay Simpson. He was 22 and possessed excellent skills as an Eagle Scout and a videographer. Roddy was turning 40, Rachel somewhat younger. Roddy did most of the itinerary and kit planning, Rachel the provisioning and 'road-schooling'.

Our route began near the Cape of Good Hope and almost six months of our journey was spent exploring South Africa, the first three months concentrating on the coast, including Swaziland, and, on the way back, ten weeks in the interior, including Lesotho.

The other six months were spent travelling through Botswana, Namibia (Caprivi), Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania (including Zanzibar), Kenya and Zimbabwe – ten countries in all. This route was carefully planned so that we only travelled north of the Zambezi in the winter months, which are dry, and relatively cool and bug-free.

Typically, we tried to stay in one place for a few days in order to explore, get to know people and do some 'road-school' and editing work each morning. When we found an unexpectedly lovely place, we stayed longer than planned. Our itinerary included many unplanned days so that we could be flexible and take interesting diversions. On travel days we tried to get away promptly and drive until mid-afternoon, covering typically around 350 km. We tried to avoid back-to-back days in the car or single night stops.

Why go?

Time flies by, seemingly faster and faster. In a blink Monday has become Friday, and January has become June, and you wonder where all the time went. It is a common experience in the modern world. No wonder people tell you, when your kids are small and cute, "Enjoy them while you can, it all rushes by so fast" and "Before you know it they'll be leaving for university!"

The truth is that diaries fill up. As Westerners we raise our children in a nuclear family, and we work, and try to pursue interests, keep fit, and join in the social whirl, through a constant juggling act of our numerous commitments. The more cramped life becomes, the more it seems to rush by. Kids too are caught up in the whirlwind with little opportunity to connect to others, or their world.

We tend to forget that all of us, and especially children, learn best through doing things with others – what psychologists call 'scaffold learning' and what underpins apprenticeship, the traditional way in which knowledge and skills are passed from one generation to the next. We all played posting box with our toddlers, because we knew it was valuable. Yet, as our children grow, and enter 'formal' education, we get stuck into other things. At what point do we pause to ask whether our children are building the emotional capacities and life skills they will need to navigate this complex world? More and more evidence is emerging to show that it is in early and middle childhood that these abilities are formed. Amidst all the zooming about, not only can we forget the value of learning through collaboration and the value of everyday intimacy as a family, but the possibilities to encounter and work with new situations together are unwittingly time-tabled out.

Travelling showed us an antidote – a way to feel rooted in ourselves, to nurture our closest relationships and to learn through doing, under no pressure of time.

A visit to the museum

We re-discovered natural rhythms. Waking with the sun and falling asleep under the stars is one of those basic anchors to our well-being that we've pulled against for a century or more, and to our detriment. The extension of the day through lighting, electronic media and simply being indoors cuts us of from darkness, real darkness. Camping gets us back to these basics. You cook, eat and wash-up by dusk, and there is nothing to do but absorb the stillness that descends as the stars appear.

Tracking the movements of the constellations and planets became a familiar pleasure as our journey progressed. Six weeks after returning home, four year old Lorien shouted out, "Look there's the one who travels with us, the bright, bright star." The journey technically over, she continues to recognise and draw comfort from a constant in her universe. It is this connectivity with the natural world that travel enables. It is a moment to be "... so close to nature that everything you do is determined by her and each passing minute is felt rather than made use of." (Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love, p 464)

The press of 'normal' life can also reduce the space for your own inner child. Early on in our journey, Roddy lost his diary and his watch. He replaced neither, and you will not find them on our packing list. They are not necessary when you travel, at least not when you travel as we describe in this book. Like kids, you live in the present moment, one rich in newness and experience. You are no longer controlling time, ticking off your task list. Now, life is bigger than you and you can wallow in it.

Learning together

Too often, education is assumed to mean schooling. Many teachers would be the first to encourage parents to regard their children's 'education' not as the school's task alone, but requiring opportunities to engage with the big wide world, alongside a deep involvement of family.

There are many things to be learned when travelling together. Some are 'academic'. We followed a Steiner (Waldorf) curriculum in homeschooling our kids and we took every opportunity to explore museums, archeological sites etc. We also chatted with our children in the car or out walking, discussing what we saw, and responding to their questions on everything from culture to geography. We employed guides to lead us, often asking us the questions we wanted the kids to think about.

Naturally the children pick-up the practical skills needed for travel and camping. About what to do when the car gets stuck in mud, how to make a fire and cook supper on it, how to barter in a market, and how to communicate when no-one speaks the same language. These will count in the future, enabling them to adapt to new situations, to cross cultural barriers and to enjoy the wilderness.

Travel also gives children an understanding of fundamental concepts used in geography, science, history and cultural studies. Because they can see stratification, peer down into the Great Rift Valley, walk around the volcano's rim, hold a stone age hand axe, chat with a Maasai herdsman and fish off a dhow, these concepts take on a tangible reality. Suddenly children not only grasp the concepts, but can engage and argue with how they are understood. And deeper still, there is an emotional learning taking place. The confidence which comes from adventuring, the humility of being a visitor in a foreign land, the wisdom of being prepared and organised, and an instinctive connection to, and appreciation of, the intricate diversity of the natural world.

Finally, there is nothing like travel to teach you about other people, including your own family. It brings out the best and the worst in everyone. Together you camp, explore, adventure and discover, the results of which are close bonds and stellar teamwork. You depend on each other. And, you play together.


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©2019 by Kids of Nature.