Camping with a kid (or How playing 3,492 games of 'I Spy' develops mindfulness)

We’ve been going camping with Jack since he was small, and decided from the start that there would be no DVDs or gadgets allowed. I wanted him to get bored in the car, stare out at the changing landscape and think deep thoughts (like I used to as a child). Ha. Ha. Instead, each trip now involves about 3,492 games of ‘I Spy’.

When we headed through the Tulbagh valley for our end of year camping trip last month, I found that this game of noticing what’s around was an unexpectedly good way of clearing the mind. ‘I spy with my little eye…something beginning with…T’ got me out of my head and into the moment. 

I see. A tree. A car. A bird. 

With each simple object, my shoulders relax more and my head begins to empty. We pass the wind farm turbines at the bottom of the mountain pass and their sharp white points hook up the clouds of worry floating above my head, and gather them into candy floss balls. There is enough end-of-year stress lodged in there to power a small village.

And, when for a few minutes, there is no little voice from the back: ‘Are we there yet? D’you want to play I Spy, Mum? I’m hungry. The sun’s hot! I’m bored. D’you want to play I Spy, Mum?; or a grumpy Aussie husband berating South African drivers, for the 1,246 time, I let the peace and quiet spread into my bones. Just my thoughts, the pen and notebook in my hand, my two favourite boys, and the mountains following us along the road. 

Then, as we pass the Pissing Tree, I hold thumbs that we’ll make it past without having to stop. Each time we’ve headed to our favourite camp site, Jack’s been struck with the urgent need to pee at this particular tree. I watch the Pissing Tree slide past into the rear-view mirror, and feel a twinge of something. A kind of loss? 

More time passes, and a music singalong starts: a tussle between Aussie rock for Joel and bad rap (Gangnam Style) for Jack. I elbow my way in to play Lady Gaga, using my pen as a microphone: ‘Give me a million reasons to let you go… I just need one good one to stay.’ Jack’s little voice pipes up from the back ‘That’s good. She’s got a good point there, mum.’ 

As we pull up at the campsite we’ve been going to for the past four years, with its forest of pine trees, rocky Cederberg mountains and the generous dam that reflects it all back to us, I feel a rush of happy familiarity. Our friends are already there and Jack has jumped into the dam with his friends before we’ve even unpacked the car. 

As parents of an only child, I worry that we may have blind spots: things we’re doing or not doing in raising Jack that we are oblivious to. This is when the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ vibe of camping in a large group, can be useful. It’s here, sharing the communal braai pit, tossing jokes to each other across the coals as the kids weave in and out of the chairs, that I can observe different parenting techniques: some laissez faire, others more controlling, and feel glad we usually fall somewhere in between. It’s while camping with other families that Jack’s learnt how to fish, he’s had a go at sewing (from a Waldorf mum) and has even tried watermelon for the first time when he watched his friends tucking in. 

And it’s in this communal preparing and cooking of food and setting up tents that I do my usual covert comparison with our fellow campers. I look to see who’s more organised, what food the other families are feeding their kids (Doritos don’t count as a meal, it seems!) and get equipment-envy as they whip out some new gadget guaranteed to make camping easier. I compare myself (usually unfavourably) with their speedy unpacking and tent construction. I judge myself as I pull out something warm from my packed bag and leave clothes spilled out all over the tent floor… Until I go to find Jack in a friend’s tent and see they’ve got the same debris all over their floor.

The next morning dawns and we watch sleepy-eyed from the musty warmth of our sleeping bags as Jack bursts out of the tent. He’s in such a rush to join his friends that he can hardly pause to put on a hoodie or zip up the flap again to keep the warmth in.

I feel a flush of pride, tinged with loss, as he makes his own Nutella sandwich. This is a camping tradition and (I hasten to add) the only time he’s allowed this treat for breakfast (and every other meal if we let him). He heads off with chocolate-rimmed mouth to the dam where the other kids are playing.

By the end of the first day, I feel like I haven’t seen him in weeks. He runs to our ‘kitchen’ simply to load up on food (& a quick hug if we’re lucky) then runs off again.

The next morning, I take the kids down the dirt road for the daily feeding of the farm animals. I’m hobbling a little because I cut my foot on a sharp tree root the day before. I call out to the kids: ‘Run on ahead, I’ll catch up to you.’ 

Jack turns, hesitates, then comes running back up the dirt road. ‘Just lean on me mum, I’ll help you.’ These words, and the gamely way he says them, almost make me cry. He slings one arm around me and helps me along. I don’t tell him that it’s actually harder to walk like this, but instead, quietly enjoy the feel of his slender forearm around my waist. 

His friends kick up the dust ahead, legs and arms wind milling, as they steam towards the bunny cages. He looks along the road at them, then back up at me.

‘Can I go, mum? Are you ok?’ 

‘Of course you can go, I’m fine.’ 

For a moment, I’m speaking those words to a future young man who’s about to head out into the world, and their weightiness clogs up my throat a little. 

But this is my job. To let him go. ‘Of course you can go. You must. We’ll be fine.’ 

We get to the bunny enclosure and there are soft coos and cries of ‘Aah, cute!’ as the kids pick up the baby bunnies and cuddle them. Jack spends ages gently stroking a fluffy white bunny (who he names RedEye#SharpClaws), a soft dreamy look on his face (Jack, not the bunny. The bunny, with its freakish red glowing eyes, has been aptly named.). 

When it’s time to go, Jack is overcome with pity for the older fat bunny who’s been ignored by all the kids. So he feeds him fresh green grass and strokes him. We all walk back to camp. 

As the days unfold in that slow organic way of camping, I feel off balance as I struggle to find the new pace my little boy is setting. When I lean in for a hug, he’s impatient to get his cozzie on for a swim. I move away and leave him to get on with it, but then he says: ‘Please come with me to the toilets, mum.’ (Even though they’re only a few steps away and visible from our site.) I offer one of his favourite camping staples – a biltong and cheese toastie – but he shakes his head impatiently: ‘No thank you, mum! I’m not hungry. I’m fine.’ There’s a push and a pull from him and I struggle to get my timing right. 

Then, that evening, he comes and stands in front of me on my camp chair by the fire. ‘Can I sit on your lap, mum?’ 

‘Of course’ I say, as nonchalantly as I can, while my heart hums. I gather up his warm, lanky body, full of knees and elbows, and hold him – lightly but safely. What a delicate balance. My body flushes with warmth as our heartbeats find each other and get back into sync. I breathe in his dam-water hair and feel the heat of his dense curls on my chin. All I need is right here in my arms. In this moment, if the world came to a sudden end, I would die happy. 

And then, when he is ready to squirm off, I open my arms. I open them unhesitatingly, spread them wide, and I let him go. 

That night, a storm rolls in off the mountain and I savour the cosy security of being in a tent, warm and dry with my two boys, while the wind slaps the tent with sheets of rain. It sounds like the mountain spirits have gathered around our small shelter. They smack their huge palms against the canvas roof and pluck the taut tent ropes like guitar strings.

I snuggle in closer to my man, whose smell and warmth mean home. Jack snuffles in his sleep and calls out: ‘Mummy!’ I extricate myself from my sleeping bag and sit by his mattress, rubbing his back. The shoof-shoof of my hand on his sleeping bag drowns out the rain and soon I feel his breathing deepen once again. 

And then, as in each camping trip, the inevitable moment comes over me. Oh God, I hate camping! I never want to do this again in my life! I’m too old for this. My back’s sore. It’s all too hard.

But it’s because every simple joy is hard-earned, that I savour it more. The first cup of coffee in the morning, brewed with warm frothy milk from Amber, the farm cow who gets milked by brave kids, tastes better than any café cappuccino. The morning sun glints on the water, the wind hums through the pine trees and the smell of bacon frying fills me with wellbeing.

On our last night, I get up with a groan. This is one of the things I don’t like about camping: the night time toilet adventure. I crawl out of my warm sleeping bag, stumble in the dark over clothes and shoes, fumble for the zip and finally, emerge from the tent like a sleepy-eyed, messy-haired ogre. Trying not to trip on tent ropes or do myself a mortal injury on a tent peg, I squat down to wee. Then, pleased that this nightly ordeal is over, I look up to see an unexpected moonscape, her glowing round face reflected in the still water of the dam. The ancient stillness of this scene takes my breath away. 

And then, the next morning, it’s time to head home. We pack up, say our goodbyes and take the road home: tired, sun-skimmed and grubby. We pass the sharp-pointed wind turbines, and there’s nothing for them to hook up with their revolving arms. My mind is unknotted and smooth, my body is tired but relaxed, and the car is filled with my heart.