A world of difference as family lets nature be teacher

The Leavey family at Katharine Gorge in Australia's Northern Territory.
The Leavey family at Katharine Gorge in Australia's Northern Territory.
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Helen Leavey and her husband Michael took their young family out of school to learn about life while travelling for five months. Here Helen describes their adventures.

It’s not every day that you come eye to eye with a humpback whale. But there we were, staring at this magnificent creature through an underwater window on the boat while it looked right back at us. My five-year-old daughter Tilly was convinced the whale was waving a fin at us too.

The afternoon my family and I spent whale watching off Australia’s east coast was just one of a multitude of unforgettable experiences we have had since beginning a five-month adventure in July.

We decided earlier this year that after several years living in Beijing it was time to move back to Britain.

My husband Michael and I and our children – eight-year-old Sam is big brother to Tilly – have been on the road ever since, happily absorbing the amazing sights of Bali and Australia. We are off to New Zealand next.

We have been trying to home school the children along the way, but mostly the kids have been getting an education in what I have begun calling the “classroom of the world”.

We originally went to China to study Mandarin when Sam was small and thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

But we had become increasingly disillusioned with big-city life. Beijing has more than 20 million people – about the same population as the whole of Australia. That is an awful lot of buildings, traffic and noise.

Naturally, we also disliked the pollution that has become the unwelcome by-product of China’s booming economy. We worried about its effect on our lungs and health in general. Plus, we wanted to put down some roots at home.

But before setting off back to Yorkshire we decided to have a long trip exploring the great outdoors.

It was not an easy decision to make, as, although we would be doing it as cheaply as possible, we would still be spending money when we don’t have permanent jobs to go home to.

But we hoped it would be the perfect antidote to our rather manic lives in Beijing. It would give us the chance to breathe some clean air, see clear skies and beautiful places, and hopefully encounter some creatures the kids had until then seen only in books and zoos.

Counting on the likelihood that Sam and Tilly would not want such a long holiday with mum and dad in a few years’ time – and the fact that they were young enough to miss school for a while – we began planning our big adventure while tying up the loose ends of our lives in China.

Michael and I resigned from our jobs and the kids finished their term at Beijing’s French school. We packed up our belongings and said goodbye to our favourite places, such as the local dumpling shop and the housing compound of thousands of people where we had lived very happily.

We said sad farewells to colleagues and friends and went shopping for books in English, Chinese and French to help with the children’s schooling.

In between we began arranging our trip. We booked flights, trains, buses, hostels and campsites, arranged to stay with friends and sorted out three house swaps that meant we could stay in homes in Australia for free.

All too soon we were at Beijing airport, saying a very tearful goodbye to Wang Liying, the children’s “ahyi” (nanny) who had helped to look after them.

“Why do you have to leave?” she kept asking me between sobs during our last few days in China. I could not answer her without crying too. She was, and is, like a much-loved auntie whom we really hope to see again in the future. A few months on, we are already missing her dearly.

The classroom of the world has not disappointed us. We have seen some truly spectacular scenery – volcanoes, gorges, rainforests and white sandy beaches with not another soul on them.

But for Sam and Tilly it has been the variety of wild creatures that seems to have impressed them the most. To name just a few, we have seen monkeys, stingrays, kangaroos, dugongs, dingoes, pelicans, deadly snakes and saltwater crocodiles, known as salties.

We now know that salties are more dangerous than freshwater crocodiles because on our first day in Australia, in a beautiful campsite not that far from Darwin, we were warned not to go near the water’s edge because of a potentially deadly one in the creek.

One guide told us a horrible story about an unlucky fisherman who a few years ago had his 
head ripped off on the banks 
of the river we had just been boating along.

We have learned about sharks that might eat you and those that will leave you alone. We have even seen a dead Great White shark in the freezer in a museum, where the kids bought shark’s teeth as souvenirs.

Sam is proud his dad actually saw sharks while snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, although he’s glad it was not him who saw them.

We have walked through a rainforest desperate to meet a six-foot-tall bird called a cassowary. We had never even heard of these endangered creatures before reading a sign telling us what to do if we saw one.

And we have seen forlorn, injured koala bears on drips, tucked up in dog baskets in an animal hospital. Cars knock many of them down as development encroaches onto their natural habitat.

Home schooling has not gone as we thought it would. We expected to do around 10 hours of formal schoolwork each week, but it has not worked out like that.

The children were reluctant from the very beginning, inventing all kinds of excuses to avoid work including toilet trips, hunger pangs and tiredness.

In the end we decided not to spend all of our time arguing and to take a more relaxed attitude to their on-the-road education.

They do a couple of French and Chinese lessons each week with tutors who teach them on Skype, and some reading and writing. Sam is keeping a journal detailing some of his adventures.

We came to realise the children’s increasing appreciation of the natural world and everything living in it far outweighs a few lost lessons in a classroom.

When their grandmother visited 
us at Valla Beach, a gorgeous 
spot a few hours north of Sydney, Tilly told her off for not immediately picking up a plastic bag. “Do you want a turtle to swallow it and die, grandma?” she shrieked.

If the environment has been the classroom of the world, then the people who we have chatted to have been their teachers.

The whale watching crew taught Sam and Tilly a lot about humpbacks, including how they had almost been hunted to extinction not so long ago.

A retired headmaster taught them how to fish; we cooked their first catch for dinner that night.

And the manager of an art gallery in Melbourne explained various aspects of the lives of Aborigines, inspiring the kids to try and draw some of their own Aboriginal art.

Another man explained how his ancestor, a convict, had been on the first fleet of British ships to arrive in Australia in 1788 to begin colonisation.

The children, and we parents, have learned so much and we have no regrets. Leaving our jobs and stable lives in Beijing was a leap into the unknown. We do not know exactly what awaits us when we get back to York, and we will all have some adjusting to do. But it has been worth it.

York will be somewhat different to Beijing; for starters, the kids speak Chinese and French as well as English, which might be hard to replicate. But there are things to look forward to; the environment and history back home will be hard to beat.

It has been wonderful to spend so much time with Sam and Tilly exploring some distant parts of the world – even if we have had to keep one eye out for snakes, crocodiles and all the other things that can kill you.