Kimberley Davis is an active member of the Babes in Backpacks – Wanaka group. This article is part of FMC’s Outdoor Community campaign, celebrating and encouraging Family Tramping. If you’ve got stories, tips or encouragement that you’re willing to share, please get in touch.
It was the start of June, a Saturday, and it had snowed up on the mountains during the week, so the Matukituki Valley was clothed in winter glory as we wound our way along the gravel road towards Raspberry Creek carpark. Two friends followed in their rental car, and every now and then their Rav would shrink in the rear-view mirror as they stopped to take photos. It really was breathtaking. It was also effing cold.
In the back of the car, our little girl watched everything pass by the window, stating matter-of-factly, ‘Cow! Moo! Cow!’
I was relieved that she seemed in better spirits than when we’d been packing to leave earlier that morning. (I say ‘packing’, but what I mean is that we put things into our packs only to have them removed by a pair of tiny, curious hands the moment our backs were turned.) Her cheeks were violent red – teeth (it’s always teeth) – and she’d been upset at the four adults rushing distractedly around her. She wandered among us grizzling, hiding things we needed, packing things we didn’t, and I’d had this sinking feeling that I was staring down the barrel of having my hair pulled for several hours by a small, grumpy human on my back.
Doing things with a toddler is, by nature, high admin. Just getting out of the door to go to the supermarket deserves a medal – especially when one or the other of you (or, if you’re really lucky, both) are feeling tired, cranky, sick. Nerves get frayed. Food gets smeared on clean clothes. Boogers get smeared on everything. Keys get lost. It’s controlled chaos (and, honestly, not all that controlled).
So, committing to activities beyond the strictly necessary calls for a particular brand of determination, maybe a touch of masochism. Taking your kid tramping is a classic case in point. It’s something you have to really want, really believe in. It’s easy (said from experience) to wax lyrical about teaching your kid the wonders of nature, the value of physical challenge, the pay-off of perserverance … but the reality is usually that, in simply trying to put these valiant ideals into action, you find out the only one really learning about perserverance and challenge is you, while your sprog stuffs their face with the muesli bars you were saving to placate them with later on.
Anyway, in an attempt to share our love of the outdoors with our daughter, my husband and I go walking with her as much as we can. We’ve done so since the day she was born – and, in all seriousness, the joy does seem to be rubbing off.
She genuinely loves our adventures, even if they’re invariably punctuated by bouts of shouting (her and/or us) or demands that someone sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ (her, and usually perfectly timed for when you’re halfway up an especially ruthless hill) followed by ‘More!’ (growled threateningly) if you dare to so much as pause for breath.
Our little girl is well used to long walks in the pack, but until that weekend in June the last frontier still loomed before us: staying overnight in a hut. Being able to stay in huts with her would open up a whole new world of possibilities for our family tramps, but the prospect filled me with dread. Which, I know, sounds ridiculous. Isn’t the difficult part of tramping with a toddler the actual walking and carrying-them-and-all-their-stuff bit? Not for me. That’s the part I enjoy. Sleeping, on the other hand: terrifying.
Every time I thought about how, exactly, I’d execute this whole sleeping-in-the-hut business my mind whirled with questions. What would my daughter sleep in? Heaps of clothes? Her sleep sack? My sleeping bag? All of the above? And where would she sleep? What if she made noise and woke people up? What if other people made noise and woke her up?
I knew the only way to quieten these questions was to just do it, and that’s how we found ourselves en route up the wintry Matukituki. We’d deliberately picked an easy first overnighter – the walk from the carpark to Aspiring Hut, tucked into the entrance of the valley, is only around three hours and mostly flat. Plus, the picturesque stone hut comes complete with a logburner. And, on a winter weekend, we could pretty much rely on bunks when we got there.
And, you know what? In the end, it wasn’t my daughter that I needed to worry about at all. She grumbled a bit on the walk, sure – but she always does that. We just resorted to our usual toddler toolkit: snacks, songs, livestock, some time out of the pack (in no particular order, and sometimes all at once). And, when we got to the hut, she soaked up the attention of the other trampers. Well, most of them were enthralled to see a toddler running about, sweeping the floor; one or two were less impressed, muttering something about ‘noise’ and ‘mess’ that we pretended not to hear. (These were the same people who went on to snore and fart the loudest during the night.) Then, when she started yawning, off she went to sleep in a bunk tucked between me and her dad, swaddled in triple layers of merino and fleece, and cocooned in her Mountain Buggy sleeping bag. Happy as.
Yes, it was me who really put the overnighter to the test. Around 9 p.m., as the bunkroom filled with the rustling of people readying their sleeping bags, I felt an ominous gurgling in my stomach. Thinking of the frost already setting in outside, the dark walk to the longdrop, and the eerie mountain mists that had descended upon the hut, I swallowed the rising nausea and concentrated on staying ensconced in my sleeping bag. And, for the next hour, I succeeded – but then I was overcome with that sudden and horrifying realisation that, oh god, if I didn’t get up right now I was going to puke all over my child.
I won’t go into the details. All I will say is this: if you find yourself with a stomach bug in a backcountry hut, take your head torch off (or at least turn it around) before you start puking.
When I returned, all three of us relocated to the main lounge – both for the warmth of the roaring fire and so that I could get outside again quickly. It was a long and sleepless night for me, involving several excursions. My little girl slept through it all … Until about 5.30 a.m., that is, when she started dry-retching herself. I’m not going to lie: in that moment, all I wanted was to be back at home. I seriously considered packing everything up and walking out right then – but, thankfully, my husband was there to remind me what a stupid idea that would be in the frozen early-morning dark.
Fortunately, my daughter only had a mere touch of the bug I’d caught. As soon as she was presented with breakfast, she ate it, chattering happily and looking confused when I didn’t want any. Then, we packed up and began the walk out. Let’s just say it wasn’t the most enjoyable family tramp we’ve ever been on – it was bitterly cold, even more so than the day before, and a stubborn, icy wind blew in our faces the whole way. Our little girl cried, her wee nose chilled pink, and I desperately wanted to get back to the car. I was carrying her, and I willed myself to walk faster, even though my own legs were shaky and weak.
We did make it back to the car, where our daughter proceeded to boof two bananas in quick succession and immediately started smiling and laughing, running around with my retracted walking pole.
We did make it home again. And, although I regretted the circumstances, at no point did I regret the trip itself.
We did it. We stayed in a hut overnight.
In fact, the trip was more than a success. A week or so later, our friends sent some of the photos they’d taken. As I looked through them, I could feel the crisp coldness of the air and something else too, something warmer: it was pride, and joy. In all of the photos, we are smiling. Every one of us. You can see how happy we are, despite the rough night and the trying walk. You can see how proud my husband and I are to be sharing this wonderful world with a person so new to it. Our trip had not gone perfectly – far from it – but it had been a concise lesson in how, even when things go badly, you can still have a good time.
This, I think, is the magic of the mountains: they test you, try you out, see what stern stuff you are made of, all while infusing your soul with a soaring, expansive freedom. The two extremes co-exist; you can’t have one without the other. And, somewhere, in amongst it all, lies success, if you know how to see it.
And this is why we want to share it with our daughter. We can’t wait for our next overnighter. Now we know we’re up to the challenge.