With a whisper, I caught Kate’s attention and pointed across to the other side of the ger, where our nine-year-old daughter Sarah was having her hair brushed by an elderly Mongolian nomad. We were the first tourists that this family of nomadic herders had hosted (they had kindly dug a new pit toilet in our honour), and the ‘grandma’, who spoke no English, was very taken with Sarah and her sister, seven-year-old Zoe, spending quite a bit of time with us in the ger – the felt tent that is a ubiquitous part of nomad life.
The previous day, we had joined the family in the animal pens, where everyone was hard at work reuniting the lambs and kids with their mothers. Each day, the adult livestock is sent out to feed in the hills, while the babies stay behind in the pens. Mother and offspring have matching pieces of cloth tied to them to enable them to be reunited again in the evening, but with numerous animals jostling about in the pens, this was still much more easily said than done. It was made even more onerous by the fact that the back pen had a wooden roof that was just low enough that I bashed my head on it with painful regularity.
But today it was time to move on to another family. When we were packed and ready to go, we returned to the animal pens to watch the cashmere goats being combed – a spring ritual that brings in a pretty healthy income – before everyone got together for a group photo. Then it was time to say goodbye, which was a surprisingly emotional experience, given that we had only met our hosts for the first time the previous day. The grandma said that it was like saying goodbye to her own children when they went away.
In 2014, after 12 years in the UK, Kate and I had finally decided that our ‘working holiday’ had come to an end and it was time to return to Australia. As we began to plan the move, we realised that due to a quirk in the school intake rules in the UK and Australia, we could take the girls out of school for 18 months and they wouldn’t, technically, miss any school at all. In no time, our overland plan began to take shape.
Our initial idea was to drive from the UK to China and then ditch the car, but the lack of a safe route and the problem of how to legally dispose of the vehicle made us rethink things. In the end, we plumped for a six-month driving trip around Europe, followed by an overland journey from Winchester to Sydney via Russia, Mongolia, China and Southeast Asia.
When we discussed our plans with other parents, a phrase that came up with alarming frequency was ‘you’re very brave’ which, of course, is parental code for ‘you’re foolhardy, bordering on reckless’. But the more we looked into it, we found that what we were doing was far from unusual. Indeed, the practice of taking children out of school and travelling with them for extended periods even has a name: world schooling.
But what about actual schooling? As we travelled, when we met new people and explained to them what we were doing, they almost invariably pointed to the girls and asked, ‘But what about school?’ They then usually answered their own question by following it up with: ‘Well, they’ll learn a lot more travelling than they would sitting in a classroom.’
While we heartily agreed with that sentiment, we didn’t take the girls’ education for granted, although given the fact that they weren’t technically missing school, we were fairly relaxed about it.
Before we left, I found and downloaded the New South Wales syllabus, and when we settled anywhere for more than a few days, we used it to construct formal lessons for the girls, focusing mostly on maths and English. The rest of the time, we would give them ad hoc lessons, infusing schooling into what we were doing rather than it being a formal routine. For example, the discovery of a piece of coal on the railway platform during a scheduled stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway prompted a short geology lesson.
We took the view that maths was the one subject that we didn’t want the girls to fall behind in. While we travelled, we did our best to blend numeracy into everyday life, getting the girls to carry out currency conversions, calculate the restaurant bill or the cost of buying fruit at the market, and to take over the scoring when we played cards. We also downloaded a few maths apps onto the iPhone.
After we had been travelling for some time, we discovered Khan Academy, a free, US-based online educational resource that mixes YouTube-based lessons with quiz questions that children have to answer correctly before they can move on to the next topic. And before we left, we bought some cheap UK-curriculum-based workbooks, which the girls would do during long-distance train journeys and in hotel rooms in the evenings.
Finally, as we arrived in each new country we tried to learn a few words in the local language – ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ at the very least. So each time we crossed a border, we gave the girls the task of finding a local who could tell them what the relevant words were. For the most part, however, we were happy to sit back and let the world do our schooling for us.
All told, we travelled through 25 countries during our year’s travel. We ranged from snow in the Swiss Alps to the sand of the Gobi Desert to the jungles of Borneo. Because we travelled overland, we got to see the world around us changing gradually as we moved from place to place – culturally, ethnically, economically, climatically, ecologically – in short, geographically.
In the process, we fell in love with train travel. Sleeper cabins are perfect for a family of four, acting as a private room in which we could spread out, relax and watch the world go by. In all, we made 16 overnight train trips between St Petersburg in Russia and Penang in Malaysia. Notable among them was the trip between Yangon and Bagan in Burma, where the tracks were so warped that we were frequently bounced out of our seats and a leaking water tank above the bathroom in our compartment meant that you needed an umbrella to go to the toilet.
However, we were able to travel with the windows of our compartment open, which brought us so much closer to the communities through which we passed by allowing us access to the smells and sounds that are denied to those travelling in hermetically sealed, air-conditioned comfort.
The Mekong was another recurring theme. We started out down in the delta in Vietnam, where we hitched a ride on a cargo boat plying its trade through the maze of waterways. We caught the ferry up the river from the border town of Chau Doc, where we watched rats scavenge among diners’ feet at an outdoor food market, to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. We saw the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the river at Kratie in northern Cambodia and then stayed in the 4,000 islands (Si Phan Don), an archipelago in the Mekong in southern Laos. And finally, we caught a slow boat up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai on our way from Laos to Thailand.
Without really setting out to do so, we racked up an impressive list of historical sites during the trip, including the Great Wall of China, Pompeii, Delphi, the leaning tower of Pisa, and the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Burma.
We also had a string of amazing wildlife encounters, the most memorable being our first sighting of a wild orang-utan in Sumatra – an event that fulfilled one of Kate’s lifelong dreams. Not all of our brushes with the animal kingdom were quite so welcome though. Long-tailed macaques became our nemeses, menacing us in Borneo, Penang and Thailand, and repeatedly breaking into our room in Sumatra and tearing it apart in a frenzied search for food.
For me, the one great reward of the trip was that we (and especially the girls) got to see so many of the different ways that people live. In the process, the girls were introduced at first-hand to the harsh reality of life in the developing world, which will hopefully give them sympathy for people less fortunate than they are. I’m sure it will take some time for Sarah and Zoe to process all of the experiences they had during their year of travel, but I’m equally sure that the knowledge and the insights they’ve gained will go far beyond anything they could have learnt in school.
TEN OF THE BEST
When travelling with children over long distances, Geordie Torr found that you need more than the usual array of personal survival gear. Electronic gadgets loaded with educational and entertainment activities are the key to keeping things running smoothly. And, of course, you’ll need the power to keep them all running...
Lightweight, but with all of the bells and whistles of a modern backpack. Most importantly, it’s comfortable to carry. It also comes in a 70-litre version.
The girls had a Kindle each, which we loaded up with a mixture of ‘fun’ books and set texts from the New South Wales English syllabus. The Paperwhite versions were perfect for using at night during the long train journeys on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Small, lightweight and with reasonable battery life, this touch-screen laptop was a good option for travel. It’s no good for graphics-heavy games, but perfect for word processing and the like.
Although we travelled with an iPhone, we didn’t bother with SIM cards, using it mostly as a small tablet rather than a telephone. Wi-fi is ubiquitous in Asia – even in some pretty remote areas – so we were able to plan and book our accommodation and transport as we went. When we did need to actually call someone, we used Skype or Viber.
Kate picked up a few of these workbooks before we left and during our many long-distance train/bus/boat rides, we would get the girls to polish off a few pages to keep their schooling ticking over. The material is tied to the UK curriculum and was nicely tailored to the girls’ level.
6. Universal adapter
Changing countries means changing power sockets. Compatible with more than 150 countries, this handy travel adapter features a series of sliding buttons to select pins that are then secured using a lock button. Newer models also come with two very handy USB charging ports.
7. MP3 player
Small, lightweight and reasonably inexpensive, these little MP3 players were perfect for long train, bus or boat journeys, of which we endured many. The battery life is pretty good, offering up to 20 hours of music playback or four hours of video playback.
8. Power block
The reality of modern travel is that you’re weighed down by electronic devices whose batteries need regular recharging. And when there are four of you, well… This surge-protected power block comes with four sockets, two USB sockets and a two-metre lead.
Yes, it’s heavy, and yes, the image quality is far from perfect, but the convenience of travelling with a single lens that covers everything from wide angle to telephoto is difficult to argue against. Comes with vibration compensation and high-speed Piezo Drive autofocusing.
10. Educational website
Created in 2006 by educator Salman ‘Sal’ Khan, this non-profit educational organisation produces short lectures and practice exercises on a number of different subjects (there are more than 5,000 courses in all). Sal has a great way of explaining the various concepts and we found the maths exercises to be particularly helpful for our girls.
… a stash of sweets, or ‘energy pills’ as we took to calling them – essential for reviving the spirits of flagging offspring during long walks.
This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.