Before my husband and I had children, we travelled. Quite a bit. Within seven months of meeting, we were on a plane to Malaysia, exploring Kuala Lumpur’s best street food and staying on idyllic castaway islands.
We did city breaks to Paris and Malaga, explored the street art of Miami and partied in New York. Even our wedding was on tropical shores in Jamaica. We just loved the freedom of travel and the excitement of exploration. So, when we started to think about having kids, I felt a yearning to take a big intrepid trip together, before our lives took a dramatic turn.
When Ben shared his desire to see some of eastern and southern Africa, it seemed like fate. I’d grown up listening to my parents talk nostalgically about Zambia, where they had worked and met in the 1970s. I wanted to regale my children with the same kind of adventures.
It was about challenging ourselves as a couple – and individuals
We whittled it down to four countries: Tanzania and the offshore spice island of Zanzibar, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. Eight months after our wedding, our ‘Before Children’ sabbatical became a reality.
On paper, many aspects of our itinerary sounded dreamy (and they were). But I was under no illusion that travelling with my new husband was going to be a honeymoon. We’d done the romantic stuff – this was about challenging ourselves as a couple – and individuals. It would be intense and, I’d go so far as to say, could make or break us.
Many of the challenges came from the logistics of travel itself and the very real issue that sometimes your logical-thinking brain simply malfunctions when you’re not on home soil. We learnt the hard way to leave plenty of time between flights after a connection to Zambia was cancelled, forcing us to fork out several hundred pounds to avoid missing our safari plane.
It made me realise how much I relied on Ben
And I’ll never forget the stomach-churning moment we realised we’d got our currency conversion terribly wrong, paying a taxi driver a small fortune for a short journey down the Kenyan coast. These kinds of tense moments, of course, led to bickers between us and that dreaded feeling that perhaps we weren’t cut out for this.
But as time has passed, these blunders have turned into amusing anecdotes that now surface on a mundane Tuesday evening while we’re cooking the kids’ tea. In case you’re wondering: yes, we did get the money back. Thankfully, the taxi driver was a regular for a couple we’d been staying with. So, after a quick (yet tense) phone call, the money was wired back to us.
It was a tough lesson learned – though, challenging moments like these reminded me how much I relied on Ben for the logistical and financial whizz he is. Perhaps I needed to step up if we were going to survive this trip.
The sleep deficit was a doddle compared to the night feeds now
Ben is fazed by few things in life and my sensitive disposition meant he became my emotional rock quite a lot. Like when we veered around the hairpin roads of the Great Rift Valley to find a heap of distressed goats that had been catapulted from the back of a truck.
When it comes to travelling itself, I’m the one who’ll get the queasy stomach or crumble when sleep, physical comfort or personal space are in deficit. In hindsight, having to turn-take cat naps while we spent the night outside Dar es Salaam airport in Tanzania was a doddle compared to the night feeds and sleepless nights we’d endure as parents.
I don’t think Ben will ever forget the shade of green I turned while on the boat trip between Cape Town and Robben Island. The 10-hour ‘luxury’ coach trip between Zambia’s Lusaka and Livingstone (with zero air con) was equally tortuous and served as the ultimate test to our endurance as travellers. With a fear of heights, it was me who had to switch off my senses with a meditation app and eye mask, while Ben gasped and gawped at the incredible Zambezi River views from the window of the safari plane. I’ve since learnt that this is a highly effective technique for escaping myriad challenging moments – including childbirth.
I pushed myself to be braver, kayaking along the Zambezi
But while these moments exposed the yin and yang of our personalities and relationship, it challenged me to be braver. I was determined to steady my nerves as we braved the chilly waters of Devil’s Pool, located some 100 metres above the Zambezi River.
Similarly, I realised that I’d kick myself if I turned down the chance to take a rowing trip down this same waterway, alongside one of Africa’s most misunderstood but lethal creatures: the hippo. Our safari guide, Alex, carefully guided us through the adventure. But it was only when we’d safely arrived at the next camp that Ben confided how Alex had masterfully navigated my boat away from the path of a hippo that had been careering towards us.
I could go on with the hero-survived-near-death anecdotes but alongside the calamities and character-building moments were some of the most incredible highs and life-affirming moments.
We met Maasai locals and lionesses with cubs
For all the mosquito bites we endured and days spent carrying backpacks through hot, dusty cities, we were humbled by meeting Maasai matriarchs, experiencing some of Africa’s awesome peaks (Mount Longonot and Table Mountain) and sharing edge-of-your-seat wildlife moments, such as watching baby elephants tackling swathes of sticky mud to reach a watering hole or a lioness snoozing in the shade, her cubs frolicking around her.
I won’t pretend that a BC (Before Children) trip of a lifetime will ever fully prepare you for the emotional and physical rollercoaster that is parenting. But this was a trip that solidified us before our lives became dominated by nappies and toddler tantrums. Undoubtedly, it allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of each other in all sorts of ways.
Now we’ve become a family of four, travel is not as wild or carefree as it used to be. That’s taking some getting used to. But whenever I feel that longing creeping in, I reach for our photo album and tell my children all the amazing stories behind those three months we had in Africa. Just like my parents told me.
Lucy McGuire is a traveller, writer and parent. Find out more about Flash Pack adventures right here.
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Images: Lucy McGuire & Unsplash