Every year on Mother's Day, it's our family tradition get up early, don our headlamps, and climb to the top of Mount Maunganui, reaching the peak in time to see the sun rising over the sea. My children relish waking up in the dark, having the mount to mostly to ourselves, and getting down in time for take away cafe breakfast on the beach. It's pretty darn special.
One of Dan's friends thought it was such a great experience that he requested we walk up in the dark to celebrate his seventh birthday. The day didn't go as planned. We were a bit late arriving at the surf club, our customary starting point at the base of the mount. As we set out, a crack of sunlight had already peaked out from between the clouds and the water and the sky was lightening so we didn't really need our head torches to see the track. The kids were disappointed, but ambled up the mount still keen to reach the top and greet the sun from the lookout.
There are multiple routes up the mount. We went counterclockwise, taking in the pixelated low-light view of the islands and the Coromandel to the north. Much of the top of the mount is forested. Most times we go up there, the kids play in the forest near the trig lookout. That morning, as we approached the trig, Dan (7) asked if he could guide the other two children (7 and 4) through the forest to the trig. "All by yourselves?" I checked. He nodded, "It's the bunny track. I've gone this way heaps of times before." There wasn't a clear track exactly, but we were only about 20 metres away from the trig if we continued along the main track, so I agreed saying I'd meet them at the trig in a few minutes.
I made it to the trig in about two minutes. I did a few stretches and sun salutations, expecting to see the kids appear out of the trees at any moment. The mount was bustling with people by that point, so any voices coming from the bush would have been obscured by the crowd chatter. I walked into the forest a few metres to see if I might hear them, still expecting to bump into them. No sign of them, so I wandered further into the bush. The bush doesn't cover a great area, so they would be found - I wasn't worried about losing them, but I did begin to wonder how they were feeling about their extended absence. Instead of lost and worrying, I hoped they might be distracted by the discovery of some special sticks or climbing a beckoning tree.
The people noises coming from the track disappeared completely as I entered deeply into the bush. I kicked myself for not having my kids wear their backpacks. They always wear their backpacks so they always have their whistles. This morning we'd left their packs in the car, opting to make the trip light and quick. I took a deep breath, attempting to activate my super sonic hearing through the power of positive thinking. Soon, it worked. I heard crying. Not crying from my littlest one, the one who never wants to be left at birthday parties and who keeps my lap warm in the waiting room at the doctor's and the dentist's, but the sound of my biggest one, the one who initiates conversations with strangers and never cries when he hurts himself. He was sobbing.
All at once, the three children appeared through the dense bush. I swatted at the vines hanging between me and the kids so I could get to them. I knelt down, squeezed them all, and gave them big, crinkly-eyed smiles, registering only calm on the faces of the birthday boy and Sadie. In Dan's pale face, I saw pure panic. "I cut my arm," he said. "We weren't lost, I hurt myself." I nodded, glancing at his perfectly fine arm, telling them that we'd find out way back to the track together.
At the trig, we had a snack, then a fun, fast descent back to the beach. Dan usually likes to debrief, but when I asked about the bunny track later that day, he changed the subject so I didn't push it. A week later he brought it up. We discussed what we could have done differently, what he could do if it ever happened again, and how scary it feels to be lost.
As a tramper, I was reminded (again) to always pack properly in consideration of safety and wellbeing, even for day walks. As a parent, I was reminded that the kids are still learning, as I am, and the scaffolding needs to be adjusted according to age, stage, mood, and situation.
Months later, Dan still brings it up as the time he got lost when we went tramping. It's a lesson we won't soon forget.
For future tramps, Dan and I made a list of how kids can avoid getting lost or, if it comes to it, getting found:
- Stick to the plan. Go the way you said you'd go.
- If you get off course, stay put and blow your whistle. Always bring your whistle.
- Pack for the worst case scenario. See #2. Also bring your emergency blanket, a change of warm clothes, a rain jacket, a snack, and water.
- Know your markers. Check to see if the track is marked with orange triangles or green DOC signs or something else. Make note of other coloured triangle markers. Pink ones often mean traps, not trails.
- Stay together. If you break off into smaller groups, make it a deliberate choice and be sure to communicate that with everyone else.
- Use walkie-talkies* to communicate between smaller groups spread out along the length of the track. *Dan's idea! Maybe a xmas present?!
- Set a meeting point. This might be the start/end point on a short walk or an obvious feature of the track.
Stay safe and have fun tramping!