JOANNE MCCARTHY: Joy of the big outdoors

WHEN my three sons were young we used to drag them out to the bush to look at nature, with the idea that regular doses of trees, birds, animals and their droppings would be good for them.

We developed a system to make the nature trips as stress-free as possible.

We never mentioned the word walk. We talked a lot about food, and how nice it was to eat food in exotic places other than home.

We packed hats, sensible shoes, socks and sunblock quietly into the boot of the car and didn’t openly challenge the notion that we were doing something they would have preferred, like wandering through a shopping centre for hours, buying rubbish and junk food.

In fact, we didn’t tell them where we were going or what we were doing until we pulled into the carpark of whatever national park we were visiting, at which point the game was up and the whingeing started. Then we ran off into the bush so they had to follow us.

If you’re thinking I’m going to write that the children eventually developed a lifelong love of the Australian bush, based on enthralling discussions with their parents on those weekend jaunts, then clearly you’ve never tried to take kids for a reasonable walk.

They whinged, they moaned, they accidentally tripped into each other every so often to initiate fist fights in the belief we’d give up and do something else, like head for a shopping centre to buy junk food.

On a particularly memorable walk with one of my sisters my middle son, who was about 10 at the time and renowned for explosive tantrums, tripped over.

There was no blood or skin broken. I’d seen him jump up laughing from worse skateboard crashes with his friends.

But when you’re 10 and trip over on a ‘‘stupid walk’’ with your family, you milk it for all it’s worth, which he subsequently did for the three kilometres or so until we finished.

He yelled. He let me know exactly what he thought about me, the bush, the dirt, the stupid animals, the sun, the trees, and anything else that happened to come into his view.

My sister – who didn’t have children at that stage – thought she’d sweetly encourage him back to good humour, but beat a hasty retreat when she actually tried to put that theory into practice.

I suggested we walk a little quicker so we could put a bit of distance between the cranky child and our conversation. She was aghast at first. But when I pointed out we knew exactly where he was because he was yelling, he knew where we were because he could see us up ahead, and he’d calm down if we didn’t respond, she was prepared to go along with the experiment. And he calmed down, and the incident didn’t wreck our walk.

When he was 12 he actually asked to go on a two-day walk with us along the Six Foot Track in the Blue Mountains, camping overnight at Little River.

It’s not an easy trek over more than 40kilometres, but by that stage he’d worked out that walking in the bush suited his temperament. There was something about the bigness of nature, not to mention the fact he could bellow to his heart’s content and it didn’t matter, that settled him down.

I raise all this for a few reasons. The first is that my eldest two sons, who live together in a house near a national park, have suddenly discovered the joys of the bush. Which goes to show that running away from your children when they whinge doesn’t necessarily scar them for life, and can even keep you sane.

The second is that too many children living in urban Australia are shut off from the most spectacular parts of our country.

The third is that in the Hunter people are only ever a short trip from  stunning areas, and it’s never too late to drag a kid out to them.

A couple of weekends ago I was out overnight at a point along one of my favourite parts of the Hunter, the Great North Walk, during the running of the Great North Walk ultramarathon.

I, sensibly, was not running it, but had the good fortune to be out in the bush at one of the checkpoints on a still, chill, night. A walk in the misty dark at 2am, on a weekend that was like a calm point in the middle of a hurricane, reminded me, like my son years earlier, about the beautiful bigness of the world around us. 

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