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How young is too young?

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October 2021 Issue

Far from being reckless, parents and their children say being exposed to challenging and risky outdoor adventures at a young age brings benefits far beyond the bush.

How young is too young for your child’s life to be put at risk in the bush – or should it ever be? How young is too young to be wet, cold and miserable, separated from your destination by a flooded river, maybe even separated from your parents? How young is too young to attempt to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook? 

Keen outdoor parents know that kids generally love any trip to the hills, so it makes sense to avoid anything risky or unpleasant that might turn their kids off the outdoors, right? Some parents, however, take the opposite approach and are discovering their kids are capable of feats that would make adult trampers quiver. 

Not only that, they’re seeing tremendous growth in character as a result and a fast-tracking towards independence. So how do they do it? 

At first glance, you might wonder why Victoria Bruce would post such a video to social media. She’s tramping with her seven-year-old daughter Emilie in the Taipo Valley, inland from Hokitika, heading for the historic Dillons Homestead Hut. But the weather is bad and the Taipo River is raging, cutting off their only route to the comfort and warmth of the hut. Emilie is miserable and holding back tears. 

Emilie has been tramping since she was four. Together, mum and daughter have visited more than 50 huts, so tough tramps are nothing new, but the rain has made this one especially dangerous. 

Speaking to camera, Bruce explains the situation. “We’ve got to a bit of a scary part, where what was probably a nice little side creek before the rain is now a monstrously swollen thing.” 

Emilie looks nervously over her shoulder at the monstrously swollen thing as the discoloured water smashes into rock. Bruce leans in closer to her daughter and reassures her. “But we’re not going to cross it, because that would be crazy. We’re going to walk along the side, through the trees.”

Emilie doesn’t look convinced. She bites her lip and says, “But what if I fall in?”

Bruce kisses her head and tells her, “You’re not going to fall in.”

Victoria Bruce believes in exposing her daughter Emilie to different outdoor situations so they become normal rather than scary

In the next clip little Emilie is negotiating rocks and wet undergrowth, bush-bashing her way along the overgrown bank, through tutu weed, ferns and gorse, sometimes through the icy water. Soon she’s smiling and relaxing at a grassy clearing where mum has just pitched the tent. She points with pride across to the riverbank where minutes ago she had been in tears. “That’s where we started, way over there. Now we’re over here!”

Emile picked up a few scratches on the way but more importantly, she picked up an experience to file away and learn from; an invaluable lesson in problem-solving and staying calm in a tricky situation. Bruce says she wants Emilie to understand risk and decision making, and learn how to cope with difficult scenarios. She hopes that will increase her daughter’s  appreciation of the outdoors.

Bruce grew up in the outdoors, often figuring things out for herself. She says all those cumulative experiences have made her feel comfortable in both her physical and emotional capabilities. That’s partly what she wants to instil in her daughter.

“Where I grew up, there were no trails and my brother and I usually picked our way through the bush. So when Emilie and I were bush bashing I showed her how to crouch low and look for animal tracks to follow, rather than fight through the dense undergrowth. A lot of children grow up with limited contact with the wild outdoors, and so it seems a strange and scary place, instead of seeing themselves as part of this natural environment. I think that with the right guidance and encouragement children are capable of anything.”

The secret, Bruce believes, is to expose children to different situations so they become normal, rather than scary.

“That way they develop their own resilience and confidence,” says Bruce. “I hope that if she can bush-bash her way up a creek safely, then she’ll be able to stand up to most things in life.”

Bruce and Emilie are now about to set off on the Te Araroa Trail, hoping to become the youngest mother and daughter duo to complete the whole trip. Bruce says she hopes to connect with conservation and environmental groups along the way and learn about the great mahi being done on the trail.

“Emilie is at an age where she just absorbs stuff like a sponge, plus she’s a real people-person, so it will be great for her.”

If you’re looking for a link between an early start in tough outdoors activities leading to increased outdoor independence in adulthood, look no further than Tara Mulvany. In 2014, the Te Anau adventurer became the first woman to circumnavigate New Zealand’s three main islands in a kayak. Mulvany says she feels most comfortable when in remote areas and enjoys travelling alone. She credits some of this confidence to the experiences she had as a child.

“My parents always looked for challenging activities,” she says. “We did a lot of tramping, rock climbing and kayaking.”

Mulvany completed the challenging Hollyford–Pyke Loop when she was eight, plus the off-track Five Passes tramp in Mt Aspiring National Park, trips that would scare away a lot of adult trampers. At 10 she went with her parents on a rock climbing trip to Mount Arapiles, near The Grampians in Australia, and led multi-pitch trad (traditional) routes. At 11, Mulvany climbed Mt Aspiring/Tititea, and the following year attempted the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook, making it past the summit rocks before being forced to turn back after feeling unwell. It was another good lesson: go as far as you can, but always be prepared to turn around.

“Starting young gave me a really good base of skills,” says Mulvany. “I started doing trips on my own at an early age because I had already learnt so much. I was comfortable being on my own in tricky, off-route situations.”

Cambell Bennett with Alana and Jamie

Mulvany says she was never “babied” in the outdoors by her parents. Her dad saw early on that his daughter was more at home in the bush than she was in a structured school environment and so nurtured and encouraged that part of her character.

“It made me self-reliant,” Mulvany says. “My dad trusted that I knew what I was doing. I found a lot of freedom in the hills.”

She adds that parents have a big role to play in the mental and physical development of their kids.

“I think we often underestimate what kids are capable of in the outdoors. They can be resilient, but a lot aren’t, and I think that’s because of how they’ve been brought up. Taking kids into the outdoors and doing challenging things builds resilience, and in today’s world I think that’s really important.”

Some children though don’t have to wait until adulthood to test out their independence. Thirteen-year-old Alana Bennett has just started tramping with her friends, without any adults. The skills and confidence needed to wave goodbye to mum and dad and head into the hills with her friends have been developed through exposure to challenging situations in the outdoors throughout her life.

The Rotorua-based Bennett family are nothing if not intrepid. Alana’s parents Cambell and Hayley have taken her and her brother Jamie, 10, on trips few parents would dare. Alana walked to the summit of Mt Ruapehu when she was seven, with Cambell carrying then five-year-old Jamie on his shoulders (Jamie ran the whole way down, says Cambell, scaring his mother half to death). Cambell took Jamie on a pack-rafting adventure down the Mohaka River in Kaimanawa Forest Park when Jamie was nine, eliciting strange looks from other trampers as they left Oamaru Hut to set off down the grade-three river. More recently, the family tackled their biggest challenge yet: the high route over the dangerous and aptly-named Dragons Teeth in Kahurangi National Park.

“It was the hardest tramp we’ve done with the kids,” says Cambell. “It’s a pretty confronting route, at times it’s like clambering along monkey bars with a couple of hundred metres of fresh air under you. Could someone have fallen to their death? Yes, absolutely. But Alana rides her bike 9km to school every day, which is probably riskier.”

Cambell says the key to taking kids into potentially dangerous places is preparation. “Kids enjoy surprises, but they don’t enjoy being scared.”

He’s noticed that kids are less likely to be enraptured by the beauty of nature; for them it’s about excitement and fun. “My kids wouldn’t enjoy a 20km trudge along a manicured Great Walk track as much as a 5km bush-bash. Kids have a finite number of footsteps in them each day, so you’ve got to use them wisely.”

Tara Mulvany was introduced to the outdoors at a young age and now completes incredible sea kayaking and tramping expeditions

Cambell involves the kids in the planning of each trip and the family talk through the scenarios they might encounter. “I talk to the kids about how they would feel in a certain situation. It lets them appreciate that there will be challenges we have to confront together and that they can’t just lose their shit at a key moment.”

One of the things Cambell and Hayley want their kids to learn is decision making. “You want to have your kids experiencing risks and putting themselves out there and making decisions, but more importantly you want them watching adults make decisions. That’s a key part of growing up: watching us deal with difficult situations.”

While the adventure is fun, the real reward is family bonding. “How often in our lives do kids have 100 per cent of their parents’ attention?” says Cambell. “When we go bush, particularly off-track, we’re 100 per cent engaged with our kids, talking about where we’re going and what’s happening. It’s a full family immersion; there’s no better family time.”

So how young is too young for the Bennett family? There’s no hard rule, says Cambell, but there’s no reason not to start early. “There are magic moments in your children’s lives where they reach a milestone. At age five, ours could walk to a hut. At eight or nine they could do it carrying their own sleeping bag and clothes. Alana is now going on tramps without any adults.”

Cambell says before Alana and her five friends left for their kids-alone tramp in Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park, he went through a planning session with them, quizzing them on what they’d do in certain scenarios such as arriving at the hut to find it was full of hunters. After all, surprises are good, but so is good preparation.

But the last word on the topic should go to the kids themselves. Ask 10-year-old Jamie what the hardest thing he’s ever done in the outdoors is and he tosses up between venturing deep into Okupata Caves in Tongariro National Park (dark, scary and full of wetas, with the added fear of getting lost) and the Dragons Teeth. “The adrenalin rush was incredible, I really loved it.”

Alana says her first tramp without adults was probably the hardest, but also the most rewarding. “I loved the serenity of just being out adventuring and sharing the experience with my best friends,” she says.

Both kids agree that doing adult-grade trips as youngsters has given them the tools needed to take care of themselves and others in the bush.

“I’ve learnt to cope happily in more difficult weather, by having the right attitude and the right gear,” says Alana. “And how to solve problems and figure out the best thing to do when times are tough. A valuable life lesson I’ve learnt is it’s okay to be reckless, but not too much! You have to respect the outdoors and have fun at the same time.”

As for what Alana would do if she and her friends arrived at a hut and it was full of hunters, well, the young tramper laughs, because the answer is obvious: “The hunters will probably leave!”