If you’ve ever aspired to have a bookshelf full of Lonely Planets then you want to talk to Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of the brilliant guidebooks that had 20-somethings backpacking around the globe. The godfather of intrepid travel recently told suitcases&strollers and Air India Magazine about the unexpected joys of travelling with children, why you shouldn’t underestimate kids as travel companions and some of the surprising doors that can be opened when you travel with kids.
“We’re tombed out,” my two children announced in unison. “We have done quite enough tombing today, we are visiting no more tombs, it is time to return to the hotel and try the swimming pool.”
My children, six and nine years of age at the time, had developed a technique of taking perfectly fine nouns and converting them into verbs. We’d already heard on various occasions that they were “templed out” or that they had done altogether too much “museuming” for the trip. Now, in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor in Egypt, just after we’d emerged from Tutankhamun’s Tomb, we were told that any more tombing was out of the question.
Heartless parents that we are, there were still some more tombs to be seen, not in the Valley of the Kings but in the adjacent Valley of the Nobles. Furthermore we planned to walk there. Today, unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed to just ramble from one valley to the next, but back in 1990 it was no problem so, instead of taking a taxi or bus between the two valleys, we were going on foot. My wife and I started up the hill and our two children announced that they were now officially on strike and were going nowhere. They sat down beside the path.
We walked half way up the hill and sat down to wait for them, convinced that they would soon give in and follow us. A few minutes later we were amazed to see them coming up the hill…riding donkeys!
“We saw this man coming down the hill with the donkeys,” my son said as they rode past us. “So we said, ‘How much to ride two donkeys to the Valley of the Nobles?’”
“Don’t worry dad,” he continued. “I got him down from four Eygptian pounds to three.”
That’s travel with children. They clearly learn important things – like the techniques of bargaining – even when you’re not aware anything is being taught. They can be hard work, particularly when they’re very small and require a quite disproportionate amount of equipment, but they can make important improvements to your travels.
For a start, they’re door openers. With kids in tow you’ve suddenly become a real human being, not just another tourist. You’ve got an immediate contact point – “your children, my children” – and very often you don’t even have to make the effort, somebody will come over to talk to your kids even before they notice you.
Secondly they open your eyes – or more correctly reopen them. Things which you’d become used to over time, jaded towards even, are suddenly brand new experiences. And sometimes it’s a useful reminder of how wonderfully strange some things are, particularly when you see them again through fresh eyes.
Never underestimate children. Sure, they can reach their limits on tombing, templing and museuming, but it’s remarkable how far they will go, often dragging you in their wake. Walking, for example. They may give you the impression that walking to the TV is far as they ever want to move, but we’ve had great trekking trips with ours in Nepal. We did a short walk out of Pokhara when they were eight and six, just a three day walk, but the whole camping, cooking and sherpa crew routine worked perfectly.
So three years later we were back for a longer eight day trek, this time with friends and a total of 13 children, half of them Nepalese. The trek organiser made it a real children’s trek, the cook brought along his two sons. At the end even the two six year olds had walked almost the entire eight days and announced they were ready to do the whole thing again. To be truthful the kids had more energy than the adults. We may have collapsed at the end of a day’s walking; they were off playing hide-and-seek as soon as camp was set up.
Wildlife in Africa was another big hit with our children. Seeing a zebra or a lion in a zoo is one thing, seeing it in the wild is quite another. On our first African trip we wanted to experience the full range of African travel experiences. So we signed up for a fancy park tour, we stayed in luxurious game lodges, we rented a car and drove around national parks ourselves and we went on a down-and-dirty camping tour. And which one did the kids like best? Right, the cheap-as-chips camping expedition where they got to help put the tents up, help the cook fix dinner and shiver in the tent when that lion’s roar seemed to be right outside. [For some ideas on African safaris with kids, type "Safari" into the suitcases&strollers Search bar.]
Of course travelling with children you have to balance your travel aims with their interests. If you’re going to subject them to museums, temples and tombs, you have to balance it with the sort of experiences they get a real kick out of. So I’ve managed to rack up visits to the Tokyo and Paris Disneylands, as well as the Californian original, places which otherwise might not have been on my “must do” list. On the other hand a visit to Universal Studios when our son was two was not an unmitigated success. Some of those rides were just a little too frighteningly realistic for comfort.
My daughter Tashi (a Tibetan name acquired from a visit to Ladakh a few months before she was born) and my son Kieran (a good Irish name, my wife is from Ireland) are now grown up and married. They still like travelling.
For more reasons why you should travel with baby, see the suitcases&strollers story here. For a more humourous take on the perks of travelling with kids from a suitcases&strollers mum, click here.
By Tony Wheeler