Travel News

The woman who took her whole family on a gap year

Ever dreamed of packing it all in and travelling the world? One Kiwi family of six did just that and now, one year and 32 pairs of jandals later, they tell NEXT about their amazing journey.

That Kiwi dream of working hard, getting your quarter acre paradise, and paying off the mortgage wasn't all it was cracked up to be for 38-year-old Sophie Stokes and her husband Carl Dickens, 47.

The realisation came to Sophie when she was home one day just how quickly her four kids – Kasha, 13, Triton, nine, Ronin, seven, and Cove, four – were growing up, and how fast time would fly before they'd be leaving the nest. The fact the couple were so busy doing everything else except spending time with their children hit her like a ton of bricks.

"Everyone told us this is what you do: get a house, work, and pay a mortgage. We did that, and we got to that point where we were like, 'hang on a minute, there's got to be more to it than this'," says the Papamoa mum.

Both Carl, now an operations manager in the construction industry, and Sophie, who works in an organic bakery, had limited travel experience. They joined the army straight out of college, and never did the typical OE in their 20s.

Since the children came along, the family hadn't travelled much at all. Other than a two-week stint on the Gold Coast with their eldest, Kasha, the family hadn't even ventured out of the country after the three boys were born. Two of their sons had never been on a plane.

"It was like, okay, we're over this, let's do something different," says Sophie. We had four children because we love our kids, and yet we never had any time with them."

For Sophie, once she had the idea to travel, there was no turning back. It was never a 'should we?'; it was just full steam ahead.

"Carl came home from work that night and I thought, 'oh, he's always been quite strict with wanting to pay the mortgage off and getting cash behind us. He'll never go for this, but I'm going to pluck up the courage and tell him anyway.' He just looked at me and said, "When do we leave?"'

With 12 months to prepare, the couple discussed ways to make it happen. They initially thought about selling the house. But after talking to the bank, they were convinced to keep the house and rent it out, and to increase their mortgage by $100,000 to fund the trip. The rent would more than cover the mortgage, and being able to come back to the family home after their year away was an added bonus.

Once they had the funds, they then decluttered and went on a massive 'saving spree' for the year before the trip to save every cent they could. They received plenty of encouragement and support from family and friends.

"I don't know what people were saying behind our back; they probably all thought we were mad. We definitely had people saying that backpacking with four kids would be their worst nightmare. Luckily we've got a really supportive family. A lot of people looked at us and realised it's possible to go outside the norm and follow your dreams."

With the tick of approval from supportive employers who offered both Sophie and Carl a year's leave without pay and the promise of coming back to secure jobs, next was getting the kids' schools on board – and thankfully, they were also encouraging. "They pretty much said, 'Go for it; we can't teach your kids what the world's going to teach them'," says Sophie.

The children were excited – but being kids and living in the moment, a year seemed far away. The closer they got to leaving, however, the reality of what was about to happen began to sink in. They realised they had an input and if there were things they wanted to see or do, there was no reason why Sophie and Carl couldn't make that happen.

"They were constantly coming up with, 'We want to go here, we want to go there, we want to see this, we want to do that.' That was when they really got excited for a different way of life."

Kasha loved Greek mythology, so a trip to Greece was definitely on the list, while Borneo was added to the itinerary so Triton could see orangutans in the wild.

A 4am flight out of Auckland was booked. The day before setting off, the family locked up the house and got in the car for a three-hour drive up to the city.

Sophie recalls their mixed emotions: "There was this relief that we finally made it. Just a massive amount of pride that this is what we said we were going to do and now we're doing it. And a little bit of, 'Will this be all it's cracked up to be?'"

However, the initial nerves soon settled once they landed at their first destination, Bangkok. Flying straight into Asia was a baptism of fire for the family, but they knew it was where they were supposed to be. The next five months were spent backpacking through southeast Asia, seeing Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo and Sri Lanka.

"From that first day it was everything we hoped it would be. It showed the kids that 99.9 per cent of people in the world are awesome. They're just like us, they just want to be treated with kindness and respect," says Sophie.

Money was the biggest challenge. There were plenty of activities that couldn't be done because of the strict budget, such as going up the Eiffel Tower or touring the set of Harry Potter in London. But the kids soon learned to stop asking for things as they knew there was no extra money.

And, says Sophie, doing it on a budget contributed to the fun.

"We stayed in a five-star resort for one week over Christmas; we hardly had anyone talk to us and the kids didn't make friends with anyone. Yet at cheap backpackers and campgrounds we made a huge amount of friends.

"If we'd had an unlimited supply of cash we probably wouldn't change much at all. Having the opportunity to teach the kids about choices, sacrifices and compromises was only possible by having such a tight budget."

There were big, exhausting travel days taking buses and trains through Asia, where hours were spent travelling between cities and towns. And then, of course, there was the challenge of backpacking with four children.

"The border crossings where you have to fill out six immigration passes with four kids and the officials don't speak English and your kids are tearing around the border patrol area; that was hard work," admits Sophie.

Throughout their whole year of travelling, there was only one trip to hospital, for a concussion, after their youngest, Cove, fell off a table in Bali and hit his head hard on a tiled floor. And after leaving New Zealand with all the necessary medication and hauling a big first aid kit around the world, it was opened just once, again for Cove, after he had an allergic reaction to squid.

Thankfully, the child antihistamines they packed worked and he needed no further treatment.

When it came to schooling, Sophie and Carl started off with good intentions of doing reading and maths each morning with the kids, but that quickly went out the window.

"We very quickly realised we were terrible teachers and the battle to get any formal schooling done was just detracting from what we were on the trip for," says Sophie.

"In the end, we pretty much gave up and let them soak in the world for a year."

After five months in Asia, next on the itinerary was a four-month road trip around the UK and Europe, starting in London. They hired a car and stayed in campgrounds, Airbnbs, and whatever cheap accommodation they could find. The original plan was to head to the States for another three-month road trip, but when they finished the UK roadie, the kids were over that idea.

"They said, 'We don't want to go on another road trip,' so we said, 'Alright, where are we going?'"

Sophie and Carl wanted to head in the direction of New Zealand and the budget didn't give a lot of options. The kids' answer was Asia, so back to Asia it was, to revisit Thailand and surf in Bali.

"We are a heat-loving, beach-loving, street-loving family, so Asia is the perfect destination for us. We know how it works, we can totally wing it, it's cheap and the people are amazingly friendly."

While travelling, Sophie fell in love with writing, and with the newfound passion the family created a blog, Justsix Backpacks, to keep family and friends in the loop.

They spent the last three months exploring the Philippines and Indonesia before arriving home one year and four days after departing. It's been back into normal life since being home, with the kids fitting straight back in with their old friends, sport every other day, and the laundry piling up again.

But there have been some changes: the children get the washing in without being asked, and there's no longer a TV in the house, with the family preferring to play cards or backyard cricket to unwind instead. At first they felt a gut-wrenching sadness that it was all over, but the bond created with their children is something money can't buy, says Sophie.

"As parents we absolutely could've kept travelling, the whole lot of us would have been quite happy to carry on. I can't even put into words what they've gained.

They just know how the world works. They know how to be good people, they know what's important. They actually look for other cultures to connect with. They know their dreams can come true. They know we're all in this together and all here to help each other.

"Our travel motto of 'impossible is nothing' has filtered into our regular life. We have an overwhelming sense that our family is meant to be out in the world; exploring, adventuring, creating, learning, helping and being together."

The family would do it all over again in a heartbeat, and another trip is already in the pipeline, with plans to spend 12 months travelling around New Zealand in a caravan. A year around South, Central and North America could be on the cards, too – this one led by the children, who approached their parents, asking to start in Patagonia and end up in Alaska.

"When we travel next time we'll definitely consider our kids' education, especially now our oldest is in high school. There are so many options available for a quality education, so it won't be hard to find a system that works for us."

The children have worked hard since returning and are now at the same level as their peers. Sophie and Carl have had nothing but positive feedback from the kids' teachers and are completely comfortable that travelling the world has had a positive impact on the children. The couple might have a slightly higher mortgage, but Sophie has no regrets.

"If this is your dream and what you want for your family, go for it. We're not taking that money with us when we go, so why are we trying to put money aside for a retirement that we're not promised? We haven't been promised we're ever going to make it past next Christmas or get another birthday so we are just going to enjoy what we have right now.

"Take the time with your kids, because it just goes in the blink of an eye. We had to absolutely cherish the time while they are little and make those sacrifices because it's worth every penny, without a doubt.

"We're an open book; we'll tell anyone how we did it and what it cost because it's no secret. We're so normal and regular, we're definitely not special, and we're definitely not rolling in cash, but those priorities of family and time with our kids has led us on this massive adventure."

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