Thursday, 11 June 2015

Kevin McCloud's Escape To The Wild

I met a German lady on The Boat who put me to shame. She was travelling alone with her three beautiful children, all aged under five, from Inverness to Dresden. The ferry to Rotterdam and a visit to friends in Muenster were her only overnight stops. Her youngest child was strapped on her back by a complicated wrap, and all three were impeccably behaved. At home they apparently ate super healthy food and had no television. They were travelling in a tiny petrol-efficient car so had hardly any luggage. They were going to be away for three whole weeks without the dad, who had stayed home to work. The woman was utterly calm and taking the whole thing in her stride.

Whereas my daughter was racing uncontrollably between the TV area and the soft play, and ignoring my requests not to (1) throw things at people, (2) squeal or (3) trip up anyone carrying bottles of Duty Free.

And we only have one of her.

And I had my husband with me.

And we had a car rammed to the hilt with stuff. Including our tablet because the caravan we were going to be staying in had no television.

And I was already feeling shattered.

Now, it's perfectly possible that at the end of the three-week trip, the woman might have looked a little less fresh and the children might have been pulling each other's hair out. But I doubt it. She just oozed capability in a way that I never shall.

So she was impressive enough, but here was Kevin McCloud off to meet a family who were even more extreme. The von Engelbrechtens (German Boris, English Karyn and their three sons) jettisoned everything from their lives and went to live on an uninhabited island in Tonga, literally the other side of the world from the UK. You can't get further away from there without starting to come home again. So why had they done it? The mother said it was something to do with having been born in Swindon.

Their island had golden sands, turquoise seas and on the surface looked like paradise. The von Engelbrechtens had built their house while living under canvas. Boris wasn't a professional builder but was more than a tad skilled at this sort of thing. Whereas my husband and I can barely hang a picture on the wall. Boris used only materials available on the island - some slabs of coral rock and a whole load of palm trees. Though I suspect the solar panels might have been imported.

For they were "off grid", generating their own electricity by sunshine in the day. Kevin was roped in to help them to erect a wind turbine to keep their fridge running at night. It turns out paradise is rather windy. Windy to the point of them needing a concrete "hurricane bunker" on higher ground at certain times of the year. Which doubles up as a tsunami shelter at others - earthquakes are a regular occurrence. The family aim to be as self-sufficient as possible - they catch fish, and have a garden where they grow bananas, sweet potatoes and pineapples. They did try broccoli but it missed the English rain and wouldn't take in the blistering heat. Though it does rain in paradise - enough to store a couple of tankers of the stuff at a time.

And of course there is definitely no television. Or internet. Does this result in a prolonging of childhood innocence or is it denying the kids a chance to learn to function in the real world?

I am all for a family beach holiday. Especially one in guaranteed sunshine. But for the rest of my life? Having to catch my own sashimi? With only my husband and daughter for company? (Much as I love them.) Admittedly this family had three kids to keep each other entertained, but can that be enough? My daughter really needs her friends, and misses them terribly when we go away. And I am so reliant on my network of local mums to retain my sanity. That friendly smile at the school gates, the music groups and swimming lessons, the odd night out on gin. And hell, that 3-hour break when my daughter is at pre-school - I really struggle without it.

Yet here this family were living away from everybody, but still having to home-school their children according to the national curriculum. Which seemed rather pointless and bizarre. Shackled by British rules when you have intended to escape all convention.

I have no idea what they did for money, apart from running the occasional whale watching trip. Or what they did when they got ill. Maybe they have a ten-year supply of Calpol stashed in their hurricane bunker. I guess not ever seeing anybody else limits their exposure to viruses, but surely some of the island insect nasties must carry a few germs between them. Or one of the kids might fall out of the palm trees they climb all day. It did occur to me as they all sailed off to collect a haul of bat poo to fertilise their garden that they might be a little too blissfully ignorant on the health front. Like about the source of Ebola, for example.

Kevin McCloud on the other hand is my kind of traveller. His journey from the UK to Tonga takes him five days owing to a volcano erupting under the sea near Fiji. All flights are cancelled and Kevin is stuck sleeping on a bench in the airport for two nights. After one night on paradise island, he is covered in mosquito bites, which he can't stop scratching as he pontificates about the meaning of the von Engelbrechtens' life beside the campfire. He likes the view, but needs his home comforts. And he is all too aware of the bacteria that breed in bat shit.
I tried to go to paradise, but it rained.
Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand
But ultimately Escape To The Wild just show us parents that we can never win. The von Engelbrechtens have tried to create the perfect lifestyle at one with nature and the world for their children. But as soon as he can, the eldest boy buggers off to boarding school in New Zealand. "I have a need for friends", he explains. And I can't argue with that.

Auckland calling

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