A week after landing back at Heathrow, I am finally sitting down to compile my thoughts and reflect on an adventure in Africa. My last diary entry stated, ‘What an amazing summer (technically winter in Southern Africa), so many unique experiences, yet full of the familiarity that you know will always warm your soul. I cannot wait to get planning the next set of expeditions’.
The adventure began way back in the middle of July as I took off from London, heading for the beauty of Cape Town with twenty students by my side. I had the support of the amazing Mrs Opperman; whenever I go away, I know for a fact that if Mrs Opperman is by my side it is going to be a great trip. Her campfire cooking and stories are worth triple the airfare alone.
As we touched down twelve hours later, the clouds began to part and the wonderful Cape Town started to appear. Like slowly opening the world’s biggest Christmas present, Cape Town gave the students their first glimpse of the surprises that lay ahead. Cape Town has majesty about it, a mix of old and new, a happiness and excitement that bubbles around you. However, it also has an important story to tell. As you stand next to the statue of Nelson Mandela and look up at Table Mountain on the one side, and then out to sea on the other… this could be the greatest 360 degree view you will find in any city in the world. One thing for sure though, it’s not the worst place to gather round students and give them an insight into Mandela’s story and also what lies ahead for them in their adventure in the most captivating of continents.
After 24 hours of enchantment, we broke the spell and headed north towards Namibia and the Fish River Canyon. It’s always a fantastic drive, despite us having three punctures this time. Thanks to the previous days rain, the flowers were painting the scenery with rich infusions of orange and pink. When we finally arrived at the canyon, we were treated with a special experience as the sun rose. Nobody else around us, we sat in complete silence – a great effort when you have 20 teenagers with you, and you want them to hold their breaths for one minute. Not a sound could be heard… no animals, no wind, no artificial interference.
With the sun up we continued north and into the ancient Namib Desert. Our journey gave us glimpses of some of nature’s desert specialities. This included the majestic Oryx, whose noble presence gave an air of ease in the testing environment. My group included some of the most athletic students you can find in the UK. Talented and confident they stood at the bottom of Dune 45 – one of the big highlights of the trip. Stories of the harsh climb to the top had heralded whispers of apprehension, yet my current band seemed to have strong faith in their ability. “No problem Sir, we will be at the top before sunrise”. Really? “I shall see you at the top then” was my response.
A significant amount of time later, as I sat drinking water at the top, the final members of the group made it. “Tougher than you thought?”, I whispered to the group. Nods of yes occurred, rather than words! I love the way Africa can time and time again leave teenagers speechless. With the sun in full early morning glory and everyone fully recovered, the ecstasy of happiness was released in a cloud of orange sand as they ran, bounced, rolled and tumbled their way to the bottom. You cannot put a price on those smiles. As educators, you are lucky if you get to see a change in young people. For me we saw it then. “I loved it at the top of Dune 45. The sunrise was so beautiful and worth the climb to the top… and then the ride down… it was so fun and made me feel so happy” one of the students, Anna, said.
Our journey continued, peppering our hearts and minds with love and amazement. We moved from the smells and sounds of a seal colony, to the quietness of tracking in a dry riverbed. Each night we sat under the stars, eating scrumptious food, surrounded by our tents and the sound of the bush. Warmed by the campfire, we talked fondly of what had happened that day and told stories of past adventurers. Mrs Opperman and I fell in love with Africa a very long time ago, and now, in front of our eyes, we could see Mr Munday and the students doing the same. If Africa was a lady, you would be sending her flowers and telling her that she is beautiful every single waking minute. When asleep, you would dream about the joy of waking up next to her and seeing her beauty all over again.
We finally took a break from our journeying and settled down into community life in the Erongo region of Namibia, camping on the edge of a school. Here the students became part of day to day life: going to school, playing sport, visiting the orphanage run by the local pastors wife and helping with a few community improvement projects. Whenever we have visited, we were always lucky to be able to bring gifts for two great causes: one for the elders to whom we bring glasses (and have a very busy morning of eye testing) and then the sharing of some sport kit with the children at the orphanage. Toothpaste, which is kindly donated by The Dental Surgery in Broadstairs (UK), is also shared with them. I always find this part of the trip interesting. Life in Namibia is very different from what the students experience back home, yet at the same time, very similar!
Our final destination was Etosha National Park. I love this place for two reasons: the elephants and the rhinos. Thankfully, we were not disappointed during our visit. Each night as dusk fell, the air around the water hole that we viewed, was a symphony of noise created by low-frequency rumbles. Large herds of satisfied elephants drank as impala and jackals danced between the maze of legs and trunks, searching for their chance of a sip of water. Then one night as moonlit sky shone down, a female rhino and her calf appeared. These are moments of magic that will stay with me and the group forever. We were truly privileged.
Unfortunately I am seriously concerned that these iconic animals will be become just memories in people’s photo albums, or lessons in history classes and displays in a natural history museums! This worry leads me into part two of my elephant epic adventure and my next stop, Zambia, and my cycle ride to support the educational work being carried out by GRI, and supported by DSWF, in their ongoing fight to end poaching.
As I finish off, I have one wish of the British government: to include a visit to Africa on the national curriculum. The 16 days in Africa continues to do more for students then anything else I have known in my 14 years of teaching. Africa is a place of wonder and magic. Each area conjures up a spell of amazement. If you are a teacher reading this then the comments below, from a few of the students, will hopefully make you want to take a group to this most special of continents.
“Sitting by the watering hole and seeing rhinos, elephants and giraffes come and go was amazing… I really do think this place has changed me” – Dan
“I loved the singing. You could not help but smile and be happy when they sung.” – Maddi
“Every second, of every minute, of every day was a brilliant experience.” – Chloe
“Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces makes me realise how lucky I am.” – Molly
“The animals we saw were amazing, especially the elephants.” – Dom
“The honey badger is the coolest animal I have ever seen.” – Alfie
“I loved it at the canyon when everyone was silent. It was the quietest thing I have ever heard. Oh, and meeting a real life goddess in Mrs Opperman.” – Esme
Thank you to all those who made this trip possible, from students to staff and all those other little, but vital, cogs that made it such an enjoyable experience.
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