If you want to embark on a family odyssey, the first person to convince is your partner, then your young children (in our case Lucy, aged 14; Katie, 12; Georgia, 10; and Arthur, 7) and then, when and if they agree, yourself. Once all are in agreement, the major obstacles to overcome are cost, the kids’ schooling, your work, the planning, and the mind-set that says, ‘The world is a dangerous place and why are we doing this?’
The first obstacle is easier to overcome if you have money; if not, the cheapest solution is to extend your mortgage. The size of your extra loan will depend on where you stay, how you travel, and the number of children you have. As for schooling, we took along a teacher and friend who followed the curriculum as best she could. Any sensible school head would agree that to travel the way we did is the best education a child could get; in fact , it should be compulsory!
I work as an actor, Annie, my wife, is an independent midwife, and as neither of us had any births due – either real or theatrical – we were free to follow our inclinations.
The planning is more complicated. Our first stop was the Royal Geographical Society where we enrolled on an expedition weekend to discover what approach to take when travelling to extreme locations with children. I had been there in 1994 to launch ‘drive round the world’ expedition. Among hardened ex-SAS men taking on impossible odds in the Artic and students cycling anywhere and everywhere for charity, we were the only family. However, many useful contacts were made.
After that, we bought a small library of travel books and maps and eventually honed down our schedule to cover six main countries.
Our equipment for the various climates and locations had to fit in our backpacks, and each member of the family had to carry their own stuff, right down to seven-year-old Arthur. Apart from the 20 train and plane tickets per person, booked in advance, accommodation and the itinerary were usually organised on arrival. The sight of four backpacking children diminishing in size and programmed to look frazzled in times of need often helped our situation.
The dangers are the same the world over; you can be run over anywhere, but it’s more likely in Cairo, which seems to operate as a permanent racetrack. You could fall off a mountain in Nepal, or a tree in your own back garden, as Georgia did when we got home.
If you’re worried about being mugged, even the world’s meanest people think twice before taking on a whole family. For potential diseases, you can have the jabs recommended by the Foreign Office or travel companies, but you have to research this, as advice can be contradictory. We all took a course of Paludrine and Nivaquine malarial tablets but not Larium, which can have unpleasant side effects. Food can be a problem for delicate young palates, but don’t worry – a child will eat anything if hungry. In case of illness or accidents, Annie took a first aid course, but in the end we relied mostly on popping homeopathic pills and local remedies such as cocoa leaves and garlic for altitude headaches.
I complicated the travelling process by making a documentary. This necessitated taking less clothes to make space in my backpack for the equipment. The discipline of charging batteries, logging shots, begging your children to wear radio mics, cajoling people to respond to the camera and covering twice as much ground as everyone else gives the phrase ‘reality TV’ a different meaning.
The highlight of our expedition was the trek up the Langtang Valley to nearly 5,000 metres in Nepal – even though tears were shed for Katie, who got altitude sickness and mild hypothermia at a high pass. Aside from that trauma, the Himalayas will never be forgotten, their beauty locked in our souls forever. Next on the great moments list was the walking safari in Zimbabwe, where sightings of a pride of lionesses, bird-chomping crocodiles, laughing hippos and perhaps the oldest elephants alive, whose single tusk skimmed the dusty savannah, were thrilling.
Lucy’s ‘most wicked time’ was celebrating her fourteenth birthday swimming with dolphins in New Zealand. Our penultimate destination, the Manu rainforest in Peru, was the most challenging. Our encounters on night walks with marauding army ants, giant slugs and spiders as big as a dinner plate had us all checking for the slightest hole in our tents.
Canoeing on the river by day, we trailed a family of giant otters squabbling over a breakfast of catfish. Add to these a stunning eclipse of the sun in Hungary, a sail to an island paradise in the South Pacific, weekends in Paris, Rome and Venice, and, finally, Christmas in the Caribbean, and you have the whole story.
Our worst moments were being stuck in the transit lounge in Mumbai for three days because of Indian bureaucracy; being bumped off a flight by Avianca after confirming our seats; and being treated rather shabbily by Air Nepal – but considering the amount we travelled, it was bearable.
If there was another downside it was missing the people and paraphernalia that tie you to home, the latter becoming less important the longer we were away.
For the Duncans, this trip was all about escape, a sabbatical, inspiring our children, and most of all, a challenge. The first activity on our return was to clear out the attic of junk, a symbol, perhaps, that we needed to live less complicated lives.
-The Observer, 22nd July 2001.