In his monthly Flash Pack column, Ed Stafford explains why he and his wife decided to take their two-year-old son and live off-grid on an uninhabited island in Indonesia for a month – and the lessons he learned from the ultimate family adventure.
Every now and again a parent shows blatant incompetence in full view of the public. Michael Jackson holding his baby over the edge of a balcony had us inhaling sharply and covering our eyes in disbelief. “He’s not fit to be a parent,” we judged. David and Samantha Cameron leaving their eight-year-old daughter in the pub had us rolling our eyes and smiling wryly at the sheer incompetence. “What buffoons!” we mocked. So when I decided to take my wife and then 20-month-old son onto an uninhabited island in Indonesia for a month for a TV survival show, I had primed myself for a backlash. Incredibly, there was none.
Why didn’t I get burned at the stake for being an evil attention-seeking dad who was prepared to put his own son’s life at risk for the sake of fame and fortune? Perhaps because its just telly and everyone assumes that there will be doctors hiding in the bushes with rehydration sachets and Mars Bars on call? Or it could be that people watching made the assumption that this was well with in my comfort zone, and that Laura and I would be able to provide just fine for our toddler? But maybe, I suspect, it was because we’d resonated with a creeping societal feeling of dissatisfaction with our stressful, modern day lives: “Surely there has to be a more natural way to live as a family?”
Rewind three years and our boy, Ran, was appropriately conceived in a tent at Steve Backshall’s wedding to Olympic rower Helen Glover. We’d only been married ourselves for a couple of weeks and were ensconced in an aura of young (ish for me) love and an exciting new life ahead of us. Both Laura and I come from a background of overseas travels and adventure, and so prided ourselves on our lack of possessions and our free spirits. Living out of a rucksack was nonchalantly normal – pay-as-you-go (contract-less) phones were carried as a badge of pride.
We told everyone super early that Laura was pregnant as we didn’t know any different: we were brimming with pride and wanted everyone we spoke to to be as happy as we were. Then the helpful advice started coming in…
“You *must* buy that little Gina Ford book on sleep routines. If you train them young then you’ll get your own night’s sleep back much sooner.” “You *must* use this anatomically-shaped mattress for his cot – it’s the only way to ensure he sleeps well.” “Give him a dummy – it will help him settle.” “*Don’t* give him a dummy – it will disfigure his teeth.” “These bottle teats replicate a mother’s nipple and will *force him* to suck more.” “This drug will help him stop refluxing his milk.”
I’ll admit I’m crap at being told what to do – I revolt – and that wasn’t even 5% of the advice we were gayly sandblasted with. But it was the final pearl wisdom that made me revolt and metaphorically urinate in the head-teacher’s handbag. *Give him drugs* (at less than one years old) to stop him sicking up cow’s milk? No – this could not be right. Instinctively we switched him to goat’s milk (that he wasn’t intolerant to) and the vomiting stopped. If we’d taken the doctor’s advice we’d have been giving him a chemical that would have artificially stopped him being able to reject food substances that didn’t agree with him. And the Brucey-Bonus would’ve been mass murder on his gut bacteria, too. Nice.
Once we’d cut the umbilical red wire we were now fugitives on the run from the the Gina Ford school of conventional wisdom and we had to rely on our instincts to survive. Ignoring Ran’s crying to try and discipline him into settling into a rigid sleep routine had almost broken Laura, and my marriage. Who knows how it affected the emotional development of our son, and so we did what felt right – we consoled him when we felt he needed it.
Hidden from Gina’s searchlights in a shallow, damp bunker, with the dogs still barking in the distance we hatched a plan. We would trust that parenting was natural – and that we intuitively knew what was right. If it felt wrong, we wouldn’t do it. If it was unusual but we wanted to give it a try and felt it could work – fuck yes – we’d experiment. Even the chat itself felt good; as the white noise of the sirens faded we could feel the calm of common sense prevailing. For the first time we relaxed into being ourselves, and, even in that soggy trench, Ran drifted off naturally in our arms.
So was it a normal thing to do to take Ran (not yet two) onto an uninhabited island off the coast of Padang in Indonesia with nothing but two machetes, a single bunch of bananas and a bottle of water? No of course it wasn’t bloody normal. So it must have been a tough decision to make then? No – it was easy – and this is why…
We both instinctively knew our own collective skillset. We then did a mini-risk assessment (in our heads) and determined that we could conduct the experiment safely for everyone. We also saw the vast potential for good.
For Ran in terms of his development – to have the chance to live outside in a natural manner with both of his parents for a month just felt like an extraordinarily healthy thing to do. Mistakes to learn from, wonders to see, falls to pick himself up from. And also for us as a family: what could we learn from being stripped of the trappings of the western world? With no prams, no bottles, no toys, no books, no cots, no car seats and no fucking nappies – how would we cope? I began to grin – this was suddenly thrilling for us all.
I’m not going to recount the island experience – you can watch the show on Discovery Channel or you could read last month’s article in Bushcraft & Survival Skills magazine, where I detail what we did right and what we did wrong. Instead, I’ll explore what we learned.
I learned that being able to lock the front door is a privilege. That aside from the obvious comfy beds and fridge full of food, the real comforts of home are the fact that it’s a safe and private space. I didn’t realise it before but I can only relax at home precisely because we’ve carved a little section of the planet out that is ours. Ran can play safely in the garden because we know who and what is there. I can sit and relax and watch rugby with a beer on my sofa because I know I have a) money in the bank and b) a job which I’m confident will continue to provide. Strip those things away and no amounts of coconuts and white sand will stop the ever-present need to be vigilant. I found myself on full-alert for the entire month, looking out for every danger, and that, I can assure you, was not relaxing.
I learned that home comforts also give you the luxury to disagree. In our little safe homes we can argue and slope off to other parts of the house or jump in the car and escape. None of that is permitted if you are one of two people who have committed to looking after a helpless child on an otherwise uninhabited tropical island. Reactions had to be tempered – relations had to be managed more like when you are at work, and you have to get a job done. Storming out was no longer an option.
When it came to Ran, our boy, I’m glad to report that our instincts had indeed been correct. I think he asked for a biscuit once and then realised that he had to accept his new environment. The swelling pride of having a child crunch through crab legs to get the little chunks of meat out was incredible – once the safety buffer of bananas was gone he just took what was on offer. We learned that it seemed to be the luxury of being so spoilt that make kids fussy. And thus, we saw the power and wisdom of withholding and not overindulging.
Ran’s interactions with nature could not have displayed more contrasting side-effects than being distracted by technology. Drag him away from the telly and you are dealing with a short-tempered, frustrated boy liable to meltdown; interrupt his hermit crab time and his eyes were bright and alive, his demeanour was light and giggly. I cannot help but feel that long-term, this would make him a far healthier person with considerably lower stress and a far healthier body and mind.
In general our biggest lesson was learning to trust ourselves to live a decent life and to bring our boy up in whatever way we feel is right. To listen to advice but not be constrained by an obligation to follow it. And in a world where you decide to go off-piste a little – there is no guide book – you might as well learn to listen to your gut.
Images: Ed Stafford/ International Networks