South Africa is globally renowned for its accessible, wide open spaces. For those who were not raised clambering over rocks, skipping along cattle tracks or drinking from mountain streams, the idea of raising children to embrace the elements and celebrate mountain summits may seem far-fetched, or even questionable in terms of safety. But in a world lived digitally, many families have countered or collapsed screen time in favour of bringing up little wildlings, and the benefits are endless.
Zane Schmahl and his wife Carmen from George in the Western Cape have three children under the age of 4: Lukas - 3.5 years, Zak - 2.5 years and Kara 2 months
“It was a natural progression for us. We live an outdoor and active life, the kids just had to come along. We are fortunate to have them initiate activities now. When the kid carrier backpack or bicycle trailer gets pulled out from the Garage, Zak gets all excited in his baby language, even though it sounds more like a monkey in the forest.
We have done some proper trips (in kid terms) but I try to get them out three times per week on small, manageable activities. Based in George, we have forest and mountain trail within a 5km radius from home. The adventures seem so much greater for them if we leave home on foot or bicycle and return the same way. Hiking and riding are probably our most regular activities, but we kayak and SUP as well.
I’ve learned that nature is the best stimulant activity for our kids. Whenever things get too hectic in the household, I saddle up the troops to get outside. Parenting is super, super hard, we have 3 kids under 4 and most days, ask ourselves what we were thinking. But seeing the smiles from something as simple as throwing a rock into the dam makes all the issues go away in an instant.”
As with any chosen lifestyle, and with parenting through the ages, there are lessons along the way.
“On our latest boys bike-packing trip everything seemed to go wrong and we all were out of our comfort zones. It was winter, mud everywhere and the boys were impossible to control. Control being the key word in this story, and as soon as I let go a bit, things got easier. The Ahah moment! There is no point taking them out into the “wild” and still trying to control everything. Let them be and explore and enjoy it on their terms. Within reason!”
For families who want to continue their outdoor pursuits but have new wildlings to consider, gear is a frequently debated entity. Zane advises, through trial and error.
“Carriers, invest in good ones! Front baby carriers are the best for when they are small and then backpacks when they are bigger. You can spend plenty of money on prams, but you will always be limited to where you can go with it.
Living life as a trail family results in happiness. What has applied to myself applies to the kids. I need to go for a run, bike or surf to function normally, and so do they.”
Claire and her wife, Andrea, are raising three trail babies in Cape Town. Lacey (1), Oliver (4) and Ben (11).
Claire reminisces, as she was brought up on the trails 42 years ago and this naturally progressed to a need to raise her children similarly. She and her clan are regularly spotted on the Constantia Nek trails and surrounds.
“I have learned that trips out are not going to go to plan and like everything else with little ones involved, some arguments will entail and lots of patience is needed. But get out anyway. A basic light weight baby carrier, with some storage space and water bottle holders on the side is key. A removeable sunshield is important for summer, especially if your little one won’t wear a hat. Some hacks for your pack which we learnt along the way: tie the hat on to your carrier if there is no one walking behind you to pick it up. Have a little mirror accessible to hold up and check if baby is asleep and comfortable. Put long pants and sleeves on baby. Thin in summer for sun cover and thick in winter as you may be hot, but they get cold just sitting. Longer covers on their arms and legs also stop them from being brushed with itchy plants that can cause a rash later. We carry sweets for when the kids get tired and need an incentive to walk to the next little landmark. Warm clothes, a change of clothes, small towel for impromptu dam or waterfall swims, sun cream, raincoat, fun plasters, more sweets and perhaps a promise of an extra Ben Ten episode or play date if you just make it to the car…. (these hacks may even work for tweens). Also, pull up nappies are easier to use than trying to lie a baby down on a rock.”
Frances Fuchs, Ben van Rensburg and their children Ian (18) and Emma (almost 12) live in Somerset West, in the Cape. They all run regularly.
Frances describes their journey as a family. “It progressed very naturally. We never forced the kids to do it. Hubby and I did our first trail race (Wildrunner Trail Series!) in 2011, but before that my dad took my son for many hikes and walks in the mountains, as a baby carrying him in a carrier. I think my son's love for hiking and the mountains stems from this. In the following years, our kids just got used to mom and dad doing something in the mountains every weekend, sometimes inviting them and other times not. The kids started doing the races with us. Emma is entered into the Trail Series this year as part of a fundraiser #Active4Hope for the Thembalitsha Foundation. Obviously Covid has put a spanner in the works!
We are part of a trail running crew, #HTRCrew and these guys have really adopted and embraced the kids. Ian is now one of the top dogs and runs with the fast guys and gets included in all the epic stuff. As a crew we have organised a virtual race to help Emma with her fundraiser while the Trail Series is on hold. Community is everything!”
As a family they are regulars on the Helderberg Farm or Nature reserve.
When pressed to describe the lessons learned. “SAFETY FIRST! We did a very hot hike a few years ago and didn't realise how hard Emma, who was then 8 or 9, would find it. We were a bit worried about her. But on the whole, raising kids on the trails results in lifelong, wonderful memories, a healthy lifestyle and respect and love for the environment.”
The van der Sandt family also hails from George. Dad Riaan, Mom Thea-Mari and their son, Victor, who is three years and 10 months old. Thea-Mari describes their journey into raising a wildling.
“We just took him along in a carrier (baby backpack). It was the way I grew up. My parents took me on day walks from the age of 2 and from the age of 6 I went on overnight hikes with them. I hiked the Otter Trail at the age of 7, so it is just our way of life, naturally. My husband grew up in the bush (Etosha National Park and Kruger National Park as a teenager), so we knew we would raise our children in the outdoors.
Now we hike with Victor, with an odd rowing session added to the mix. We as parents are trail runners, mountain climbers and mountain bikers.
We have learned that patience and selflessness is key. We want for him to love it to be outside and discover the outdoors as we do, therefore we try not to push him to go faster and we often take breaks and look at the birds or gather sticks and rocks along the way.
The most amazing moment for me happens after each hike when we are back at home, when Victor says: "Mamma ek wil more weer in the bos saam met jou gaan stap." (Mommy, I want to go hiking with you again tomorrow.)”
Thea-Mari advises that you choose a backpack that is comfortable for you, but don't worry about spending too much money on a carrier. “The kids grow out of them quickly. Victor couldn't sit still, so we got rid of the carrier very early and then he had to walk himself. I would also not worry too much about getting them the "right" footwear, we let him go bearfoot as often as possible.”
Thea-Mari and Riaan are hoping to build memories as a family that last a lifetime, and a lifestyle imprinted on their children going forward.
Words by Kim Stephens