Out of range: The fun and free­dom of a tech-free fam­ily hol­i­day

Two fam­i­lies, one dog, one beach cot­tage and no phone or in­ter­net cov­er­age – what could pos­si­bly go wrong? Fiona Fraser gives Face­book and Net­flix the flick to see if she can cope with the tech-free life

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When I first men­tioned to a friend that my sis­ter and I, plus com­bined broods, were about to rent a beach cot­tage in an ex­tremely iso­lated lo­ca­tion for a few days – no TV, no phone, no wifi and no Net­flix – she had some help­ful ad­vice. “Take flares.”

“Emma!” I scolded her. “It’s an old bach, sure, but we’re not about to con­vert it into Stu­dio 54 and do the hus­tle!”

“Safety flares,” she re­it­er­ated. “In case of a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter.”

She had a point. If there was an­other big quake, and with us only a few kilo­me­tres from the Hiku­rangi sub­duc­tion zone on the North Is­land’s east coast, we’d need to move fast to avoid a pos­si­ble tsunami. A scary thought, but po­ten­tially not as ter­ri­fy­ing as the re­al­i­sa­tion that, dis­as­ters notwith­stand­ing, we were about to have to en­ter­tain four chil­dren and a dog in a teensy house for the best part of a week.

FREE RANGE

Crest­ing the hill and turn­ing sharply onto a steep gravel road, I glance down at my phone. This is it – of­fi­cially out of range. A full bat­tery, but no bars. No Google Maps. No con­tact with the world. If I haven’t fin­ished that text, sent that email, made that call, I’m cer­tainly not able to do it now.

Our lit­tle cot­tage is perched on a blan­ket of green grass, over­look­ing a glit­ter­ing sea. And once we’re all on-site, cars un­packed, griz­zly chil­dren re­freshed af­ter long drives in hot cars, we head straight to the golden sand. It’s low tide and the most amaz­ing rock pools have ap­peared – waist-deep, per­fect for a dip. My son, 11, and the Labrador are first in. The wa­ter is the most as­tound­ing blue, and the pools teem with seal­ife. It’s an awe­some start.

Back at the house, I grab my note­book and pen to jot a few ini­tial thoughts down about this place, this view, the feel­ing of the sun on my face, and the quiet. As I pop the lid on my new Uni­ball Fine it oc­curs to me how rarely we use pens these days. And what joy there is in find­ing a per­fect one – the flow of ink to the nib, the com­fort­able grip, the sat­is­fac­tion of see­ing rows and rows of your own hand­writ­ing. These are the types of thoughts one has when one isn’t check­ing Face­book no­ti­fi­ca­tions 158 times each day.

THE SIM­PLE LIFE

My sis­ter and I, both Girl Guide grad­u­ates, have pre­pared well. Colour­ing pen­cils, fris­bees, the beach cricket set, books, packs of cards, two chilly bins of food, plenty of wine. The near­est shops are 45 min­utes’ drive away and we’re not plan­ning on hav­ing to use them. She’s also pur­chased the Lis­tener Quiz Book, so we set­tle in to see who’s the smarter sis­ter. At some point our quizzery erupts into a de­bate about what year Madeleine McCann dis­ap­peared. No­body can pin­point it... with­out Google.

Din­ner is na­chos, and when there’s no TV to watch, it turns out that as­sem­bling

‘It oc­curs to me how rarely we

use pens these days’

them is the coolest thing out. All four chil­dren want to have a turn at grat­ing cheese. We lose the dog, only to dis­cover she’s busy wolf­ing down the con­tents of the com­post bucket, which is hugely en­ter­tain­ing for the pre-schooler. Af­ter din­ner, we set up the ta­ble for Uno and while the kids play, I ab­sent-mind­edly check my mo­bile and dis­cover a wifi net­work ex­ists, some­where, close by. A surge of adren­a­line cour­ses through my body, and I start guess­ing at pass­words, just to see if I can get in. What for, I don’t rightly know. The phone is locked away.

Scat­ter­gories re­vives me – my sis­ter is a dab hand and soon we’re gig­gling un­con­trol­lably as we re­view her choices. For ‘D’ and ‘tools’ she’s writ­ten “Driver of screws.” Fail. For “W” and “Mon­ster or vil­lain” she’s cho­sen “Wha­le­oil”. Re­sound­ing pass.

Through­out the fol­low­ing days, a sort of peace­ful rhythm de­vel­ops – the fam­ily bounces be­tween beach and bach, pad­dling, stingray spot­ting, play­ing soc­cer, throw­ing ten­nis balls for the dog. Sand gets in the sleep­ing bags. Cutty grass scratches ap­pear on all our legs. Mul­ti­ple games of backgam­mon and Guess Who? are started, and then aban­doned.

With so much time on our hands, each meal is beau­ti­fully planned, rather than

a rushed, ex­hausted af­ter­thought. There are ribs, mar­i­nated for days, and my sis­ter has brought pas­try to whip up del­i­cate lit­tle pear tarts. By Day Three, though, sup­plies are be­gin­ning to dwin­dle. Peer­ing into the fridge, one child re­quests “a steak and honey sand­wich”. It’s a good thing we’re leav­ing the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

WEATHERING THE STORM

A storm is brew­ing. A real one – thun­der is shak­ing the house and we’ve lit the fire in re­sponse – as well as a the­o­ret­i­cal one. A dis­pute over whether one can col­lect rent while in Mo­nop­oly prison. I say no – surely one’s as­sets are frozen? My brother-in-law says he’s tak­ing my money. We can’t check the rules, so I have to al­low it.

Our fi­nal day dawns – a howl­ing gale, per­sis­tent rain. With­out ac­cess to the Met­ser­vice app we need to de­cide if it’s wiser to leave early, or wait for the weather

‘Com­ing back into range, rather than re­lief, feels like a bum­mer’

to blow over. Metal roads and mud could make the jour­ney treach­er­ous. Like some sort of an­cient ex­plorer I gaze at the clouds hope­fully, and con­clude that I don’t have a blind clue. We pack up and set out.

Climb­ing back up over hills and through farm­land to the main road point­ing for home, there’s a ball of dread build­ing in the pit of my stom­ach. Any minute now, I know the phone will start whirring and bleep­ing as emails be­gin fil­ing into my in­box. Com­ing back into range, rather than a re­lief, feels like a huge bum­mer.

And that’s the thing. Days later, I’m re­flect­ing on our time away, the peace that be­ing bliss­fully un­avail­able af­forded us. There have been no ca­su­al­ties from our lack of tech – un­less you count my car, which now sports a dent in the rear where a cricket bat made con­tact dur­ing an en­thu­si­as­tic back­yard bat­ting ses­sion. I quite like hav­ing it there.

That week, co­in­ci­den­tally, my iPhone starts ask­ing me to set up a thing called Screen Time that will, ap­par­ently, cal­cu­late ex­actly how long I spend on my phone each day. I’m re­sis­tant. Handy? Prob­a­bly. Great for fam­i­lies, I’d imag­ine. But am I keen to use it? Hell, no. I don’t need an app to tell me how wed­ded to my phone I am.

But be­ing scared tech­less for a few days has re­minded me that when you’re a work­ing mum, or like me, run your own busi­ness, that con­stant blip­ping and beep­ing of a de­vice is some­thing you can eas­ily be­come a slave to. There’s plenty of lan­guage in ev­ery­day use at my house to prove it. “I’ll just quickly send a text.” “I’m just check­ing Face­book, and then I’ll be right there.”

The most fright­en­ing thing about forc­ing your­self to go tech-free for a few days is that fact that we have to force it at all.

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