The joys of a tech-free life

Even when it’s just for a week

My family has just returned from our annual one-week camping trip with friends in a sleepy fishing village on the Central Coast of NSW.

The town where we stay is attractive for many reasons, including the river – with its strong-flowing current which pulls a flotilla of thrill-seekers to the sea each day. There also is the beachside location, just a ferry ride from the millionaire’s paradise of Sydney’s Palm Beach.

In this alternate universe, things – and people – move more slowly.

But we especially love the town because it’s out of mobile phone range. Well, pretty much. Tucked beneath the cliffs of the Hawkesbury River, it’s a place that (most) networks can’t reach. In fact, if reception is needed to attend to an urgent message, it requires a trip up the hill. Most years, we simply switch off phones before setting up camp or allow our electronic dictators to die slowly, until charging them one week later when we leave.

Over the past six years that we have made this trip, we have come to appreciate our enforced digital detox more and more, especially as our kids have become teens.

In 365 days of living, it’s the only place where the constant ping of notifications is replaced by the chirp of cicadas and other sounds that you simply fail to hear with a device in your hand. And it’s the only place in my family life where the dreaded tune of a mobile phone alarm is substituted by the dutiful quacking of ducks as they march through the campsite to mark the dawn.

In this alternate universe, things – and people – move more slowly. Yes, there are still inescapable daily rhythms and routines, like the mammoth washing-up sessions required after feeding 15 mouths, but these are congruent with conversation. There is time and space for relationship, even with tools in hand. And the only interruptions to which these routines fall victim are those of immediate importance, such as chatting to a fellow camper about the upcoming weather conditions. Here, the constant barrage of outside news and commentary simply has no place.

Needless to say, this is a place where we actually talk to our friends who we see at church every Sunday. Camping together brings the only chance we get to dissect our yearly highlights, lowlights, parenting triumphs and failures, and spiritual experiences.

In the evening, instead of watching TV, we spend hours discussing these meaningful things, as well as laughing about meaningless things.

Over the week’s holiday, we have “dates” with our kids and spouses, just hanging out and talking or not talking on beach walks, fishing trips and canoe rides. The hours stretch longer, and yet the time goes faster as we enjoy each other’s company.

There is also space to extend hospitality to those outside our families. We invite the “neighbours’” kids along to our activities and engage in lengthy conversations with their parents – just because there is time. Over the years, these relationships have deepened, and we keep watch over their kids around the campsite just as we do our own.

Communal coffee making in our campsite home. Photos: K. Barclay

One of the surprising results of these device-free days is the creativity they breed. Over the years, particular traditions have developed: creating a swing out of a piece of driftwood and rope; fashioning camp “devices”, such as a toasting fork made out of two tent pegs taped together; and a talent quest, held on the final night of camp each year – which is attracting a growing audience, as neighbours pull up chairs to catch the show. The items usually include original songs and poems, skits and jokes, dance-offs, magic tricks and more.

As we wind up the performance, and the holiday each year, we are always left feeling incredulous about just where these ideas and talent have been hiding all year.

Of course, like any family holiday, there are unpleasant moments: kids fighting, jellyfish stings, oyster cuts, scorching summer heat and freak storms. But even these have a beauty – because they are shared experiences, face-to face, together with our family and friends. No image is required to share them, no tweet needed to convey their meaning. And when they happen, most of the time we feel present, part of the action, able to give it our full attention.

There is always a sense of sadness as our car crosses the crest of hill above our holiday spot and we re-enter digital reality for another year. When we get home, and have unpacked the mountain of camping equipment, our kids head straight for device world. Meanwhile, I determine (every year) to set stricter boundaries around the time absorbed by these crafty electronics.

Knowing this resolve will, most likely, dilute in just a few weeks, I look forward to next year’s camping trip when I will again rediscover the joy of tech-free life.