Meet: Leah of Kid Bucket List - The Expedition

Growing up in the Australian countryside, Leah had a “free-range” childhood.

“As long as I was home by sunset, my parents were happy for me to be out in the bush on my horse exploring,” she says. “My summers were spent camping with my friends, swimming in dams, and adventuring outside.”

Today Leah is a school principal in Sydney, where she lives with her husband, T, and their two kids, Striker (14) and Sunshine (12). When the kids were younger, she took them on a trip to visit her parents, and realized how different their childhood was from hers. So she created a long list of experiences she wanted them to have. 

“Things like skimming stones across water, catching yabbies [crayfish], collecting feathers, spotting an emu in the wild and shearing sheep,” she says. The family started knocking items off the list, blogging about their undertakings to keep Leah’s parents updated. Over time, more families began following their adventures and asking how they could do something similar. 

The list is holding steady at about 100 entries. It now includes destinations, and as things get checked off, the family adds more. “We’re also guided by the kids’ interests or what they are learning at school,” Leah says. “For example, Sunshine has become interested in collecting money so we added some ‘coin making’ items to our list and then headed to the Royal Australian Mint. Check!”

The family manages to keep traveling even with T.’s health issues—he became very ill in the late 90s and required an organ transplant.  That means they have to be careful about their destinations, always seeking medical approval, and have to manage paperwork for special medications, deal with travel insurance fine print, and more. 

We caught up with Leah to talk about how families can start their own bucket lists, tricks for saving money on travel, amazing under-the-radar destinations in Australia, and more.  

In three words, our travel style is…

Eclectic, immersive, fun. 

Our first trip as a family was…

To Queensland’s Hamilton Island. Striker was only three months old. It showed us how easy travel was for us (we baby wore, breastfed and co-slept). When Sunshine arrived we again headed to Queensland, and again had an amazing time. 

Our favorite family destination is…

Japan. It’s a surreal destination, always offering something quite removed from our experiences in Australia. We love the people, the food, the history……the fun! It’s a very safe country (aside from the earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons) and I know that I can send the kids off to explore a site by themselves. We love Japan!

I should also mention that my solo trip to Macedonia with Striker and Sunshine was incredible. T stayed back in Australia due to work commitments, and I took the kids over to meet their great-grandmother. We spent just under three months exploring the country and learning about the culture. Both my kids became fluent in the language and understood more of their paternal cultural heritage. It was amazing. 

My advice for other parents who want to do something like this is…

Start with a list and start small. Think about what you would like your kids to experience before they start school and list it down. We dedicate at least one day each week to working on our list. A great number of our items on our list are free and easy to do; time is the only commitment.

If destinations are what you want to focus on, I recommend knowing your top five places for each season and then stalking flight and accommodation websites so you can settle on the one which will fit into your budget. 

One of our most memorable experiences was…

Since the kids were little, visiting a castle was something they both wanted to do. Australia doesn’t really have any historic castles, so we knew it was something we would need to do overseas—and I was adamant that the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland was not included. 

Technically, Hearst Castle in California was probably the first castle we visited, but I felt it wasn’t really what we meant when we added visit a castle to our Kid Bucket List. 

On one of our trips to Japan we visited Nijō Castle with the kids. It was incredible, with its nightingale floors and history of the samurai. The kids were in awe and walked around with a complete sense of wonder on their faces. This was a great introduction to castles, which was followed up by a visit to Himeji, which absolutely blew them away with his grandeur and size.

I don’t think we ever will…

Finish our list!! I’m very much driven by a good list so I suspect that it will continue on. 

Managing a chronic health condition is…

Embedded in how we live as a family. I would say that it is easy for us to manage as it has always been part of what we do. The kids know no different. 

I guess one of the big impacts is that we probably buy a whole lot more bottled water than your average traveller. I do feel some guilt about our reluctance to fill up from the tap, but we can’t take the risk when we’re travelling and far from home and doctors that know us. 

Some of our favorite hidden gems in Australia are…

Inland, with no crowds and plenty to see. For example, Outback New South Wales is stunning, with so much to see and do. I’ve found that most families tend to stick to the coastline when planning their holidays, with a reluctance to head inland unless a caravan is towed behind the car. 

Broken Hill was incredible. It is the most accessible outback town for families, and from here you can explore silver mines, see wild emus, see the red dirt and enjoy a yarn or two with the locals. From here, you can head to Mungo National Park which a surreal place to visit. Mungo Man was discovered here and dates back to over 50,000 years, the oldest human remains found outside Africa. 

Norfolk Island is another hidden gem. Typically visited by retirees, we found it to be a stunning family destination with one of the most glorious beaches in the world, Emily Bay. The kids still rave about this destination and ask to head back regularly. 

For our family, travel is…

Part of what we do and one of our priorities. When buying new items for the home I typically pause and consider whether I really need it or if I should put that money aside for our travels. I’ve even been reluctant to buy a new car for the last decade as I want the money for travel. 

Some of our secrets for making travel more affordable are…

I enter a lot of competitions for free passes to things (and often win), seek out coupon codes and even attempt to negotiate accommodation prices by approaching the provider directly. I always broaden our destination choices so I can find the one with the best deal, and I research, research, research!

The Kid Bucket List isn’t all about the destinations, so many of the things we want to do and have done are free and can be accessed locally. You don’t need a plane trip to experience some of the wonders of travel. 

Our must-have travel gear is…

First, my cameras. I have an Olympus PEN with a few lenses which is light and fits into my day pack. I always have my iphone in hand to take photos and videos, and I always carry a few portable chargers (I have bought Miniso versions which are cheap, fast and outperform the big brands).

I’m a big fan of packing cubes which help to keep each family member’s items together. I have also just found some vacuum seal travel bags that have a one way valve so you don’t need a vacuum! These have been a game changer for packing on our last trip.

Gosh, what else! Investing in colourful suitcases for panel travel has been helpful (most people choose black or navy so they all look the same on the carousel). And have a good quality, comfortable day pack to carry the things we need.

The best travel advice I’ve ever received is…

Let your curiosity take you places! The other thing, there is no “right” age to travel with kids. If you’re waiting for the ideal time you may never do it!

As an Australian, I think it is sad that…

We often look overseas for our travel adventures when we have so many incredible places to visit here with a real depth of history and cultures. I wish we invested in the destinations here on our own continent. 

I hope that travel has taught my children…

The importance of being kind, that the world is a gigantic place with so many wonders and opportunities, and that there is always more to learn. 

Our budget always helps us…

Decide on where we are heading. We always know our dates (school holidays) and try to balance places we can head via car and those that we might need to fly to. I then stalk the airline websites for those destinations. If we find an airfare within our budget, we choose that destination (aligning accommodation availability). 

Our favorite travel apps are…

For road trips, Live Traffic. It has become one of my favourites as it identifies any issues on the roads we are taking. Trip Advisor is a great research tool to find out what others have thought about the accommodation and attractions of a destination we are heading to. And Atlas Obscura helps me find the weird places near destinations. 

Other families learn more about us at…

Our website, on Instagram or on Facebook.

Sara Clemence is a freelance journalist, formerly travel editor for The Wall Street Journal and news director for Travel + Leisure. She's the author of Away & Aware, a guide to mindful travel.

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