Published at 12:01AM, July 7 2012
When the summer holidays come round I catch my breath. Planning the schedules for six weeks of a 15-year-old and a six-year-old is stupefying.
Last summer, I decided to do something different. I’d already promised my two sons time in Australia to catch up with friends. The more I looked into it, though, the more I realised there is an ineluctable logic to flying right round the world if you are already heading half way. For practically the same price as a return ticket to Australia, we could take as much time as we liked.
We had six weeks, but we could have taken a year. What’s more our route would do away with a lot of jet lag. Starting with a north-south flight that avoided crossing any time zones, we would circumnavigate east to west, touch down in five cities, and allow a week to adjust to each time shift. But negotiating the holiday equivalent of a pre-nup was not going to be easy.
My teenager George wanted noise, hubbub and proximity to “fit” girls. I wanted discovery, tranquillity and less of the cloud of teenage sarcasm. Six-year-old Jack wanted to ride a camel.
The finer details hammered out, I had not banked on Heathrow being the biggest headache of the entire trip. A delayed flight meant we missed both our connecting flight from Johannesburg and our pick-up in Cape Town. So when we had completed stage one of our journey eight hours later than planned, Jack practically detonated in the reception area of Grootbos Nature Reserve. Thankfully, I had spent the best part of a month pinning down accommodation where I’d feel indulged, not punished, for bringing my kids along. Grootbos did not disappoint.
That afternoon we took a guided 4×4 through a tumultuous landscape of rocks and caves eroded by the wind and punctuated by thousand-year-old milkwood trees. A rainbow appeared as our guide set up an impromptu picnic on the bonnet of our truck. The boys ping-ponged their way over the crags and olive-hued fynbos, whooping at the top of their lungs. It was a sublimely liberating moment.
Our next stop, Sanbona Reserve, offered more of the connoisseur’s Africa. Less of the vast game herds and lines of gassy Land Cruisers meant serenity, yet plenty of open space for my sons’ pent-up energy. Win-win. An early morning drive summoned the usual suspects: cheetah, black rhino, zebra, ostrich, eland, kudu, plus the rare spectacle of white lion cubs padding past us oh-so-nonchalantly.
After lunch, shadowing a herd of elephant on foot, the realities of Africa jolted us into instantaneous modesty. A smug, adolescent bull approached us, ears flapping, trunk raised. Our ranger Janni — all khaki and camouflage — counter charged, gun raised, yelling wildly. The tension was palpable. “Do we run?” gasped Jack. My brain revved into gear, “Imagine this is Wii”, I whispered, “and you’re stuck on pause.”
All too quickly the thrill of the Cape — the rampant wildlife, sandboarding (think snowboarding but slower) that long-awaited camel trek and high tea at the Mount Nelson — began wearing off. While Jack missed Daddy, George defaulted to lurking, wrapped in a bathrobe, hunched in front of one or other screen. It seemed my world-weary teen had grown less and less thrilled by the prospect of Australia, our next stop (we’d driven the Great Ocean Road when he was 6 and as far as George was concerned he’d seen it, been there, done it). Plus he had a zit. Plus he hadn’t seen his girlfriend for over a week.
After ticking off Sydney’s twin icons of the coathanger Harbour Bridge and billowing Opera House, I shifted our focus seven miles northeast of Sydney to the suburb of Manly. Neatly hemmed in by a ribbon of apricot sand, hip Manly is more mellow than brash Bondi, but still brimful of sun-bleached hair and flip-flops, Speedo-clad kayakers and paddle boarders. Jack enrolled himself with the bucket and spade brigade. George came close to expressing keenness when I offered the chance to live dangerously on a 20-minute dive at Oceanworld. A tank teeming with great grey nurse sharks, wobbegong sharks and moray eels is not my cup of tea but, according to George’s Facebook entry, it was an “OMG LOL” success story (Thumb up. Like) — light at the end of the video-tunnel.
As his shadow of teenage gloom lifted, George press-ganged Jack into more and more big brother ventures. Now, try as I might to settle down with a novel and a cup of Starbucks, I found myself overcome by a numbing mindlessness, an urge to be a kid like them again. With childish abandon we passed a detour to the Great Barrier Reef’s Hamilton Island in a haze of boat trips, snorkelling, go-karting and quad biking.
Across the Pacific pond we sidestepped LA’s glitz, glam and curiosity of “did you see who that was?” Instead we cycled Venice Beach boardwalk, suffered the indignity of surf lessons, trawled the customary theme parks and took to the notorious freeways like every other bona fide Angelino.
One morning something very Thelma and Louise came over me. The realisation that I actually enjoyed driving where there is an absence of traffic lights and roundabouts got me hooked on the idea of a road trip. Car packed, top down, we sliced our way through the Santa Rosa Mountains into the Coachella Valley, heading for La Quinta where the sun hits hotter than a habanero. The journey epitomised the rolling chaos that is my family on the move. For three stifling hours, sweating like a melted candle, I bit my lip and put up with George’s incessant need for calorific pit stops and Jack’s whines of “are we nearrrrrrrrrrrrly there?” My dynamic duo, meanwhile, bore the brunt of my rattling anecdotes, perimenopausal hot flushes and wrong turns.
Months after our return, both boys maintain the highlight of the trip was New York. They loved the way art and theatre spilt out of everywhere, the street vendors, whacky stores, the nonsensical cab drivers, skyscrapers and mishmash metro. Both boys drifted trance-like, block by block, hyper-focused on everything around them.
Our hotel, the high-voltage Gansevoort, was saturated with fashionistas and media types. The two boys cornered a sheepish Will.i.am (from the Black Eyed Peas) who autographed their baseball caps. His feet aching from pounding the Big Apple sidewalks, Jack found the energy to bust some moves in a vintage hip-hop sneaker store. George, meanwhile, was brazen enough to cut himself loose and take the subway to Grand Central where he hooked up with an old pal and hit a movie in Times Square. He did not mention his girlfriend once.
As for me, I cannot get past a mental snapshot of Janni, our guide back in Sanbona. After the elephant debacle you would imagine that we had learnt our lesson, but blindly we followed our leader back into the bush. A walking safari with kids seemed like a fine idea until we were out of arm’s reach of our 4×4. Rounding a corner we came across two young male cheetahs, fresh from a kill: heart pounding stuff. My maternal instincts kicked in as Janni hissed at us to turn around and slowly file back to the vehicle. “What’s up?” I shot at him. “The cheetah have locked on to your son Jack,” he mumbled. “I’m working on a contingency plan.”
That blind leap of faith summarised our round-the-world trip. A spontaneous decision that led to unimagined surprises, a few panic button moments and some very sharp U-turns. I could have chosen a less challenging way to spend the summer but in this age of kids’ clubs, summer camps and “time to ourselves” on spa breaks, I fear family travel has become a little soft, a little vanilla. Like blancmange. I did not want my children charmed away by nannies to a corner of the resort well out of earshot. I wanted a chance for us to talk more, laugh more, try more, see more. And for a month that is exactly what I got. Zits and all.
How to plan your round-the-world trip
A round-the-world air ticket must start and end in the same country and include one crossing each of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Rates vary according to time of the year. The southern hemisphere is off-peak during our summer. Both flights and room rates drop, but there is a catch — it’s partly because the weather is less predictable. Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.co.uk) claims to be the only single airline to offer a round-the-world service with a routing between London, Hong Kong, Auckland and Los Angeles in both east and west directions. I plumped for Qantas Airlines (qantas.com.au), largely because it is the most competitive on price. Our World Walkabout ticket, for £1,235 per adult and £927 per child (aged 2-11), plus taxes, allowed for up to six free international stopovers (including Fiji and Hawaii) and was valid not only on Qantas but also British Airways, Cathay Pacific (between Hong Kong and Bangkok, Singapore and Denpasar, Bangkok and Singapore) and Jetstar.
Planning and shopping for a round-the-world ticket is labour intensive. If you are not keen on doing all the legwork yourself, take advantage of the relationships that tour companies have with airlines and hotels. Bushbaby Travel (0845 1244455, bushbaby.travel) offers a tailor-made round-the-world service especially for families. The total cost for a three-week holiday this summer is from £17,500 for a family of four. The price can be cut by choosing less exclusive accommodation in Cape Town and the US.
Pack for the best scenario, not the worst, and buy what you need when you need it. You will be more mobile — and you will save money by carrying your own bag.
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