"We didn't want our children to be among those who miss out on experiencing the grandeur of nature, without David Attenborough's voiceover," says Erina. So, with husband Luke and children Eli (aged 12), Emily (10) and Noah (9), Erina says her family decided to walk South Australia's legendary Heysen Trail. All 1151km of it, in one hit.
"We decided we would forego the comforts of suburban living and clear our schedules to make time to show our children the wonder of the trail – the trail that goes where vehicles can't and most city dwellers won't."
Lauded as one of the world's greatest long distance walks, the Heysen Trail traverses rugged gorges, dramatic coastlines, native bushlands, pine forests, farmlands and historic towns. Here, Erina recounts the highs and the challenges of her family's extraordinary ten-week hiking adventure.
"Our children's reaction to taking two months off school to go hiking wasn't all sunshine and lollipops. We have very social children and they were all initially reluctant to spend such a considerable amount of time away from their school friends.
They grossly underestimated their abilities and were not confident that they could go ten weeks without hanging out with their friends. Although, they didn't mind the prospect of not having to do any school work!
Three days into the hike, however, the endorphins of exercising for 8-10 hours a day kicked in. That, combined with the royal treatment we received at Wilpena Pound reserve on day 6 and 7 was enough to shift the children's attitude towards life on the trail.
They too began to marvel at nature: the moss in the desert, the two-leafed shoots of grass emerging from the cracks in the red soil brought to life by the first of the autumn rains.
One of the challenges of hiking with children is exhaustion. Mine. Not theirs. It takes a whole lot of energy to keep up with three pre-teens. In fact one of the misconceptions about hiking with children is the idea that kids can’t go the distance, when most kids would have more energy and stamina than their fast-approaching-middle-aged parents.
Sometimes I let rest breaks turn into lunch breaks. Other times, I just downed my pack and let them set up camp while I went ‘looking for firewood’.
Other challenges included refusal to walk (not due to exhaustion), to eat and to wear a particular item of clothing, as well as communication issues. Children have a limited repertoire of words and parents have an incredible ability to tune out to the words they use, such as ‘I’m tired’ and ‘how much longer?’
When hiking, it’s important to give a child the attention they deserve when they make these statements and to always be on the lookout for non-verbal cues to tell you how your child is doing on the wellness scale.
Stumbling, falling over, falling behind and conversational silence can all be signs of exhaustion that require immediate breaks and sustenance – such as sugars, carbs and proteins, which are all excellent for immediate and sustained release of energy.
Complaining of pins and needles and numbness can indicate a pack is too heavy for a child, and this requires immediate remedy also. As a rule, children shouldn’t carry more than 20 per cent of their body weight – especially if they have not done any prior training.
Another misconception is that children will ‘miss out’ if they are not at school. We are of the opinion that in living life, we learn.
Life on the trail is full of education experiences. From the geography of map reading, the biology of identifying snake breeds and the spelling of town names to the mathematics that can answer the ‘are we there yet?’ question.
For entertainment, in national parks, sandy beaches, cosy tents and cafes our children played card games and hacky sack. They read books we found in laundromats or purchased at second-hand shops and newsagents. They played 8 Ball at pubs and watched TV in caravan park camp kitchens.
They fantasised about owning a farm. They built tee-pees in forests and foraged for scorpions under rocks. They learnt star constellations. They drove a ute, searched for tadpoles and photographed kangaroos. They lit campfires, chopped down dead trees, explored rocky caves and dipped their toes in the ice cold ocean.
They watched baby lambs enter the world and old sheep leave it. They scaled towers atop mountains. They collected heart-shaped rocks and rounded, broken shells. They told jokes in the sunshine and stories in the dark. They lost the hacky sack.
On the final day, in the final hour, we took a rest break to contemplate life on the trail. Each of us decided, if we could have it our way, we would turn around and begin the 1200km journey northward rather than conclude our adventure on the trail.
On all the days, through the wind and the rain, the freezing cold and the exhaustion, the children very rarely complained about life on the trail. The promise of a warm, dry sleeping bag at the end of each day was sufficient. The company of their siblings and parents was enough to satisfy the cravings of their soul for socialisation. Out there, we were enough.”
Through our Summit Club Adventure Sponsorship program, we were able to provide Erina and her family with essential hiking gear.