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May 2015 Issue
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Teenagers doing it for themselves

Photo; Jo Stilwell
The young tramper’s rite of passage is their first trip sans parents, writes Jo Stilwell

I didn’t grow up in a tramping family but was very fortunate to live in Nelson where my introduction to the outdoors as a child was via our annual summer family camping holidays to Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park.

It was here my mother taught me the term ‘dawn chorus’ and where, all those years ago, there was no wasp hum among the beech forest. I experienced the usual school camps involving overnight tramps to local huts or camping on the beach at Abel Tasman National Park. But it was the first trip I did with a couple of girlfriends from school that really cemented my love of tramping.

It’s over 30 years ago now and the details are sketchy, but I know we felt excited, confident and capable. We only went as far as Browning Hut in Mt Richmond Forest Park – an easy walk of two hours. We were supposed to head on to Roebuck Hut, a further four hours along the Pelorus Track, but somehow never made it. It was a stinking hot summer’s day and we lumbered under our heavy metal frame packs to which we had tied our oversized sleeping bags wrapped in black plastic rubbish bags. There was a lot of swimming along the way and we weren’t in any hurry.

We stayed at Browning for two nights, ate sausages and dehy spud, had Weet-Bix for breakfast and shared the hut with a hunter who took us under his wing, provided us with venison and accompanied us to Totara Saddle for a walk. We didn’t really know what we were doing – none of us had a tramping background – but we didn’t care. I had my Norsewear socks and my dad’s black woollen singlet and I felt like a real tramper.

When my daughter Alice and her friend Lucy did their first tramp without parents a few years back, aged 15, they were far more prepared than my friends and I had been. They’d both tramped for many years with their respective families and as parents we had no worries about their capabilities. We hadn’t consciously involved the kids in decision making on family tramps but they’d picked up the necessary skills by osmosis. Alice knew to mix the milk powder and the instant pudding mixture before adding the water so it didn’t go lumpy. She knew to open a hut window while using a burner, and that the top of a hill will always come if you keep walking. Similarly, Lucy was a fit knowledgeable tramper who had been keenly tramping with her family from a young age.

The girls chose the Mt Somers Walkway where it was likely other trampers would be around, there were huts, bridges over the major rivers and even intermittent cell-phone coverage. Given the popularity and nature of the route, they didn’t take the locator beacon. They took the gas cooker rather than the white-spirits burner, planned their own gear and food without needing any input from their parents. And they had so much fun. They could do stuff parents might think senseless such as tip their Jaffas into the river to make them cold (they taste better that way), climb unnecessarily up the side of the swingbridge and swim five times in one day because each swimming hole looked better than the last. They played with glow-sticks in bed at night time and took many unsuccessful photos of the moon. And being teenagers of their time, they perfected the art of the tramping selfie – there were outside-the-hut selfies, post-swim selfies, the swingbridge selfie and the shadow selfie.

But alongside the fun was an immense sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at having survived independently for three days, carrying everything they needed on their backs and doing it their own way.

Dropping the kids at the road-end and leaving them to it is a rite of passage for every young tramper – and their parents. It was such a joy for me to send them on their way, confident they had the knowledge and skills to have a safe and enjoyable trip. There’s no way I would have let them loose in an unknown city for three days on their own aged 15.

It makes me grateful that our teenagers have the New Zealand outdoors in which to develop, explore and test their independence in such a safe and secure way.