Available now in bookshops nationwide.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I walked through the south of Spain. Partly inspired by the English writer Laurie Lee and his account of the period he spent in the 1930’s walking through Spain, I spent a month or two walking along agricultural roads or on the gravelled shoulders of highways. Once I had overcome my fear of wild dogs and malevolent people (the former I learned to avoid, the latter never materialised- Spanish society has a soft spot for pilgrims), I experienced a certain blissful freedom: in the words of Lee, I grew fat with time. With this in mind, you could understand how The Art of Free Travel, the book as well as the ethos at its core, would in my case be a seed dropped on fertile ground.
In November 2013′ 2013, Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman, their toddler, Woody, eleven/twelve year old Zephyr and Zero the Jack Russell (hereafter collectively known as ‘The Artist as Family’ or TAAF) left New South Wales on touring bicycles. They returned in January 2015, having covered 9000 kilometres of Australian territory, mainly along the east coast, inland at times. Daylesford to Cape York return, for the most part on homicidally busy highways. Jones rode a tandem with Zephyr behind and Zero out front; Ulman had Woody in a bike-seat out back (total combined weight: >300kg). They primarily ‘stealth-camped’ ie. pitched their tents in non-official sites, beside rivers, the sea, in reserves and parks, near the main road when desperate. With limited cargo space, carried food was kept to a minimum. Foraging for ‘bush-tucker’ (walked- or biked-for wild food) was integral and successful; the book closes with a 256 item list of the free foods and medicines located and used along the way. The art of free travel and a frugal family adventure? In actual fact, yes.
At this point, you could be forgiven for exclaiming “Why would you do this, with (to!) a toddler and a pre-teen?! It’s hard at the very least, outright dangerous at worst. Have ye no sanity, no sense of responsibility?!” And you would not be alone. The authors asked themselves these questions, waking sweating in the night in the weeks before they set out: “We were sure we were going to kill our kids on these totally unsuitable roads for bicycles. It was madness. Jesus! I could never forgive myself if they were killed. We spent our last nights in our emptied-out house… feeling a mix of dreadful foreboding and restless excitement.” Readers will recognise this train of thought; I experience it every time my family goes on a road trip, even in the relative security of a car.
Describing how his family became car-free in the first place, Patrick Jones writes:
“I was too often cooped up in a metal bubble on four wheels, technologically brilliant but ecologically stupid. I resented flashing past environments rich in intricate life that could only be experienced and better understood by going slow. I didn’t want conditioned air, I didn’t want radio heads, I didn’t want speed and glass and oil wars.”
Meg Ulman’s explanation of their developing desire to shed routine and have a family adventure provides further insight:
“…Camping, the lack of boundary between inside and outside, how brave it feels to sleep under the stars in summer and crawl into the womb of a tent when it’s cold. I love how intrepid I always feel with my head-torch on… no floors to sweep, no cleaning toothpaste spray from the bathroom mirror, no wiping dried milk from the stovetop… we felt suffocated by routine and more than ready to untie ourselves.”
Readers will be familiar too with these longings and aversions. New Zealanders tend to respond according to circumstance and personality: a camping trip to Golden Bay, a week on the Central Otago Rail Trail, perhaps a trip to Bali… but what propels the Artist as Family out the door and onto their bicycles for over a year? Big ideas and Big ideals, accompanied by saddlebags full of capability, fueled by serious willpower. The activism that lies at the heart of The Art of Free Travel will likely have readers shifting in our seats as we consider the choices we make, our willingness often to submit to comfortable numbness, and our complicity in cultural, economic and environmental unjustness. The action of living your ideals, and steering in the opposite direction to the norm, is guaranteed to cause friction, both within a group and in external encounters.
This is exactly what occurs, as TAAF rubs up against not only landowners and taxpayers, the law, traffic on the Bruce Highway, dehydration and aggressive fauna (there is something truly Homeric about the guaranteed appearance of wild dogs in this sort of journey), but also against its own constituent parts. There are arguments, negotiations, complex dynamics, tears and realised fears. The trip is not a lark; Jones and Ulman don’t beat around the bush. They both write excellently, from the heart and head, about the pain and joy of the ongoing adventure but also about issues important to them: raising children, the abuse of indigenous rights, and the degradation of Australia’s environment. The details of emotion, place, character and dialogue are finely observed; the whole epic shebang is shaped into a coherent whole, with credit also due to the editors at at NewSouth.
Breathing fresh air, eating fresh food and having a lot of good fun can be done to a greater or lesser extent in a variety of ways, but it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive way than that chosen as a way of life by TAAF. And coming back to that fraction too much friction that was a companion to the family adventure: perhaps, as is sometimes the case, this friction contributed to the creation of the pearl that was the adventure, which became the pearl that is The Art of Free Travel.
*The artwork and writing of Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman and TAAF, as well as details of their current book-promoting bicycle-tour, can be found at permapoesis.blogspot.com and theartistasfamily.blogspot.com
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
The Art of Free Travel: A Frugal Family Adventure
by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman