You might think of a holiday with your grandchild as a time of intense happy chaos involving endless theme park lines, or perhaps swatting mosquitoes around a campfire or even plunking on a beach in an exotic location. If so, what I'm about to say might shake up your concept of a cross-generational getaway but stay with me, because if our recent experience of grand parenting on the go is anything to judge by, there are opportunities out there to create a little magic.
In August of this year my husband Pete and I took our 9 year-old grandson, Pelle, on a volunteer caretaking stint with Bush Heritage at Goonderoo, a property in the balmy Queensland Central Highlands. We chose this volunteering option because the temperatures promised to be a far cry from where we had bunkered down for the winter at our home in Tasmania.
Pelle is home schooled so there was no problem in tucking some lesson work into his luggage to round out the big dose of life skills he would be learning as he helped us with the day-to-day management of the 593 hectare property.
We didn't get far from the Emerald airport on the way to the property when Pelle excitedly shouted out the name of every bird he could recognise from the back seat of the car.
Since the area around Emerald has a lot of birdlife and Pelle had been studying the field guide for weeks before he left Tassie, this turned out to be a considerable amount of enthusiastic and urgent verbal twitching emanating from the back seat.
It beat the time we took him to Sydney a few years before when he continually hollered, "I see a bull shark!" from his plane window seat, which was met with wry amusement from other passengers as we crossed Bass Strait but wasn't half so endearing an hour later when it was still going on over inland NSW.
While we grandparents settled into life on the property, Pelle found a way to get up in to the bottle tree in the yard where he perched for a whole day with a camera in one hand and the bird book in the other.
We had to coax him down for meals as he took umpteen photos of his bird encounters in the canopy. He even shot movies of the more inquisitive and tolerant birds, narrating his clips in the hushed reverent tones of David Attenborough.
Back on ground there were creek beds to explore, fevered searches for gem stones, hands-on tool making projects, tracks and scats to ponder over, frogs in the sink, geckos in the kitchen and redbacks in the corner of the bedroom. Each day brought new opportunities to hone Pelle's photography skills, learn about new species and enough physical challenges to ensure he slept like a log every night.
The freedom of Goonderoo life gave rise to a lot of creative physicality. During the Olympic broadcasts, Pelle decided that he could give Usain Bolt a run for his money in 15 years or so if he started practising now. So on top of our daily work schedule we were cajoled into participating in training sessions, which included timed runs around the house twice a day. When our 60-year-old plus legs couldn't take it anymore we moved on to the Goonderoo Loungeroom Handball Olympics. (Note to self: you cannot beat a lithe 9 year-old at handball when he is faster, more agile, 40kg lighter and cheats when he keeps the score!)
There were moments of adventure on Goonderoo as well, like when we got asked to help out at night at the adjoining Avocet Nature Refuge, in a trap and release segment of the endangered Flashjack monitoring project.
Flashjacks, also known as Bridled Nail-tail Wallabies, are small wallabies that have a distinct white line forming a ‘bridle’ from the back of the neck to behind the forelimbs and a characteristic small nail-like spur on the tip of the tail. Pelle was wildly excited to be out after dark tearing around in the bush in the hope of being the first to spot a captured wallaby in one of the 70 traps.
On top of that he was treated as a valued member of the team and got hands-on experience helping to measure, weigh and assess the health of the gentle, delicate and stunningly beautiful creatures prior to their release back into the wild. It was heady stuff for all of us but particularly for Pelle, operating on pure adrenaline as he was. As a team member said to him, "These animals are so rare that you will be the only 9 year-old on the planet to see a Flashjack tonight." And that's not something you'll forget in a hurry.
As one of a series of rolling caretakers on Goonderoo, we actively self-managed our working days. Pete often conducted infrastructure repairs and maintenance at the homestead while Pelle and I went out on the property doing other jobs like sand-pad constructing and monitoring and re-rocking washed out causeways, but we found our calling when we discovered cactus busting.
The two of us would travel around the property, with Pelle's eagle eyes scanning the bush for the invasive, spiny weeds. When Pelle gave the "Cacti!" shout we'd carefully but determinedly wrench the offending plant out of the ground – sometimes they were as tall as 2.5m.
If we'd hit a particularly rich area of pay dirt and got a bunch of the murderously spiky buggers in one stop we'd fist bump and yell out, "Who you gonna call??....Cacti Busters!". We didn't have an audience but we found ourselves highly entertaining, laughed a lot and developed a cactus bloodlust. The first time we went out we dug up 120 cactus in an hour and a half and we were hooked! Maybe poked, stabbed and a tiny bit bloody as well, but definitely hooked!
It went on like this for the three weeks. Pelle stayed with us on Goonderoo and it WAS magic.
Taking a grandchild into the unknown and letting them have freedom, giving them responsibility and allowing them to learn what nature has to offer is a gift not only to the child, but to yourselves as grandparents, witnessing the transformation. Fostering a child's awareness and understanding of the natural world they are inheriting develops a sense of belonging, wonder and commitment to that very world.
In those short weeks we watched Pelle grow in mind, body and spirit while we further deepened our family bonds and developed a new found respect for our plucky grandson. Hail Pelle! Lifter of heavy rocks, watcher of birds, observer of frogs and spiders, sand shoveller, wallaby wrangler, cacti buster, handball champion and big dreamer.
The magic was unleashed so there is no going back. You never know where things will take you but keep an eye on this space in 15 years or so when the Goonderoo Flyer leaves Usain Bolt in the dust!