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The Great Outdoors

by Harald Breiding-Buss

To many a dad, taking his children out of the city and into the bush is about much more than just having an adventure together.

Harald Breiding-Buss asked some dads what they want their children to learn in New Zealand’s Great Outdoors.

There’s nothing like waking up to the song of tuis and bellbirds, accompanied by the soft gurgling of a mountain stream, opening the flap of your tent and peering out to a wilderness landscape that couldn’t be any more different to that of a city.

Never mind the sandflies, tramping boots that you are wise to place downwind of the tent after a day’s walking, or the prospect of having to wash in a stream fed by glaciers. Not even daughters are safe anymore from Kiwi men’s enthusiasm to seek out that special feeling that comes with places untouched by civilisation: not for nothing was it New Zealanders who invented the outdoor baby backpack (such as MacPac’s ‘possum’ or ‘koala’) to let their offspring suck in the unspoilt air of remote places together with their breastmilk.

Not that it’s all fun.

Ten minutes into the hike you’ll be confronted with “When are we theeeere, dad?”, and two or three minutes later your seven-year old will remember that morning tea hasn’t happened yet. Your attempts to motivate your children by telling them that you packed chocolate to fuel the physical effort now comes to haunt you.

I’m one dad who readily admits that if I want to enjoy my trip into the bush, I leave the children at home. Nevertheless, the experience is powerful enough to make you feel that you failed as a dad if you haven’t at least tried to introduce your children to it.

Russell Walker, who featured on the last issue’s cover, wants his son to get ‘familiar’ with natural environments, and that’s one reason he started taking him out as a baby.

“I suppose it’s something I have a lot of appreciation for, being in the outdoors”, he says. “I’d like him to get a taste of it as well, and it’s also something about enjoying it with the family, not thinking that this needs to stop now that we have children.”

During his last trip to Fiordland earlier this year, he and wife Edel did three day hikes with Liam in the backpack. “He did well, and he learned to sleep in the backpack” says Russell when I asked if he got some grizzles from his son. He and Edel planned each trip the night before, and laid out what they had to pack to get them through the day.

Bill Grandison is another dad who makes an effort to introduce his son to the outdoors. To him, experiencing nature is also a religious experience: “From my own point of view, I stand in awe every time I go in the bush, to think that God created every detail – it’s wonderfully designed.

There’s not many man-made things that can compare with the beauty and the splendour of God-made stuff.

“I was exposed a lot to the mountains [as a teenager]. I’ve got millions of memories and I grew up to love and appreciate the countryside out of the cities, so I’d like to be able to ensure that he [son Scott] has the opportunities of a similar exposure in the hopes that he, too, will come to an appreciation of another part of God’s creation.

“I remember the benefits it had for myself when I was taken out to Mt Ruapehu as a teenager.”, he says. ” I grew up in Rotorua and it wasn’t before I was a teenager that I was exposed to snow.

I went with a group of a dozen other teenagers and one adult, who, I suppose, made it his job to be almost like a boy scouts leader. He made it a habit to visit the mountains in the national park and take a group of young teenagers with him, and then he would pay for the entire trip, which would go over the whole day.

I still regard him as my best friend, he’s in his late 60s now. Apart from the occasional holiday to the beach, these were my first outdoor experiences.”

He doesn’t want his son to wait for so long. When Scott was six, Bill tried for the first time to take him through the Cave Stream cave in the Canterbury foothills, together with some friends. He put Scott in a safety harness he uses for window cleaning, and strapped him to his back.

“We had to turn back about half way through – there was just too much water and the waterfalls were too high.”

This year, with Scott being a year older, Bill plans to take him on a short tramp to Lake Daniels, in the Lewis Pass National Reserve – and, just in case, the safety harness will be part of his equipment once more.

“My expectations [on his fitness] are not very high, given his nutrition. I’m expecting his energy levels to wax fairly quickly. He has been with me a quarter of the way once, and he has indicated that he’d like to go all the way there.

He might just surprise me and get there by himself. Frequent rests and snacks should see him through.”

As a non-custodial father, Bill feels pretty powerless of instilling some of his own values, lifestyle and ideas in his son. He feels his son is watching too much TV, playing too much Playstation , and eating the wrong food. Together with some of his friends, they are “trying to get the kids away from tar and cement, cars and glass, people and pollution. There’s actually other things out there. Hopefully the love and appreciation [for nature] will continue over into love and appreciation for people, which is the most important thing of all.”

At least, experiencing the outdoors together gives Bill and Scott a rare opportunity for bonding:

“[We can] have some time out in a situation where there’s probably more opportunity to bond closer, time where father and son can, I guess, just be in a situation where there’s no other influences from other people.”

Jason James is another non-custodial dad who feels he doesn’t get enough time with his son to do the things he wants to do with him. “If it was up to me, I’d [take him out] every second weekend or so.

The frustration is, a few years back I took him to Cooper’s Creek near Oxford and a few weeks later I got a letter back through a lawyer saying that I ’wasn’t attending to [Jonathan’s] needs’, referring to how he hadn’t been dressed warm enough and so on.” Jason had the photos to prove that he was, but to hear it through a lawyer showed him that he and his son’s mother live in different worlds when it comes to the outdoors.

“His mother doesn’t appreciate his skills and knowledge – it doesn’t mean anything to her. I don’t think she really understands what I’m trying to achieve.”

Like Bill, Jason didn’t exactly grow up in the outdoors. He didn’t get serious about tramping or kayaking before he was about 22, but it turned his life around. “My family could never be bothered with it, and maybe that’s why I make a big fuss of it now.

Today, I would put my bond with my friends and the outdoors lifestyle ahead of any relationship [with a woman].” Jason’s long-term goal is climbing Mt Cook.

Outdoors, to him, is “about the importance of fitness, the importance of physical and mental well-being, the feeling of having achieved something.” It’s also about being healthy.

“There’s just too much convenience food around. The body was designed to eat healthy food and get regular exercise. We live in a Society where we do the opposite, and if you do things to your body which it wasn’t designed for, you end up wi

food around. The body was designed to eat healthy food and get regular exercise. We live in a Society where we do the opposite, and if you do things to your body which it wasn’t designed for, you end up with depression or obesity etc.”

Most of all, it is about a certain kind of life skills. “It’s a complete break – the air smells fresher, different scenery, your focus is on things kilometres away instead of two metres in front of you. There’s so much more – pride, survival, even a bit of hardship. Also conservation and environmental values – that’s important.”

So how does Jonathan (11) appreciate his dads efforts to teach him some life values this way?

“He usually doesn’t appreciate it at the time – it’s always an effort and the feel is ‘why do I bother?’, but when you hear him talk to friends months later, or years later, he refers to that a lot.

He can remember stuff from five years back. Even stuff that only I’ve done: he says to his friends ‘my dad’s done this, my dad’s done that’.

“When I was in Australia I bought him a T-Shirt “I climbed Cradle Mountain”. When people ask him about it, he refers to me and he’s quite proud.”

Like Bill, Jason finds tramping together a good time for bonding.

“You tend to talk more when you’re out doing things. Here’s your opportunity – when you’re walking, you have to start communicating, you start talking about anything – could be how your legs are aching, or how things are going at school, and we talk about what we did when we weren’t together.”

The outdoors experience seems powerful enough for guys to want to share it with their kids, even if they don’t necessarily appreciate it at the time.

It doesn’t seem a bad place to teach values and to learn about your own body. Most of all, it’s the kind of learn-through-doing activity that works so well for father-child bonding.

Next: Life’s Important Questions

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