We arrive in the middle of the night. This is how it is for Elizabeth Gilbert as she embarks on the ‘Pray’ section of her bestselling novel. And this is how it is for my husband and I and our three young children as we embark on our first camping trip as a family of five (the middle of the night being any time after 7pm when kidlets are involved.) But instead of giving way to a spiritual awakening, experiencing God’s closeness in our very being, this ill-planned arrival of setting up camp in the night-time foreshadows the many, many challenges of camping with young children. While my husband pitches the tent, I sit in the dark, breastfeeding our baby in the front-seat, while the boys climb around in the back; hangry (hungry-angry) caged animals chomping at door-handles.
There are times in every parent’s life when we are lured into a false sense of security that we may re-engage in pre-children activities; frequently evidenced by dads nursing shoulder injuries after attempting trampoline flips and other stunts they pulled off twenty plus years earlier. Like a Maserati mid-life crisis, all of a sudden living vicariously is no longer enough.
On our bookshelf, we have a book from my husband’s childhood called Panda and Ganda. Panda is demonstrating to Ganda how to play a game of catching a ball in a cup, but in doing so, completely takes over, giving endless excuses as to why Ganda cannot yet have a turn. ‘Do you think Daddy needs to read Panda and Ganda,’ I’ll say as the boys wait (and wait) for their turn, as Daddy is no longer simply demonstrating which buttons to press on the Super Nintendo or how to handle the remote-control car.
But if anything, the experience of camping is very much about sharing. Given the difficulties of our first camping trip – tears over freezing cold hands, wetting through nappies and the thousand other layers, getting boob out in the cold night air, stinky drop toilet toilet-training, refusing sleep in the great outdoors – I approach our most recent camping trip with much apprehension. The thought of more children than I have hands, outside a contained space is still bewildering.
We camp along the Murray. Without the appeal of having a boat or jet-ski, we are met with scorching heat and dust, followed by rain, mud and giant Peppa-pig-style muddy puddles; that hold more magnetism to kids’ sensibilities towards fun, than a fun-fair. But eventually the weather becomes so miserable that the rain beats us and we seek shelter.
After the rain clears, I stand at water’s edge. Something quite ugly, now rather beautiful; a blue and purple sunset, still water reflecting a treed cliff-face, gentle smoke billowing out over the water. Tearing myself away, I greet my husband and children, still in the tent, having long sheltered from the rain. ‘It is so beautiful out there,’ I say to my husband, beginning to describe the sunset, ‘I wish you could see it.’
‘It is beautiful in here,’ my husband says without sarcasm, describing the beauty of being with our boys in the close quarters of the tent, the downpour creating a pocket of time just for a father and his sons; something seemingly chaotic, now rather beautiful.