The South Africa Experience
Arriving in Hammersmith all nine of us were meeting only for the third time, and this time we were going to be spending twenty one days in each other’s company, so getting along was quite an important factor. This this turned out not to be an issue and before we had got on the plane the next day, after having all started a small modelling career with the aid of the photographer, we had gelled together. Out of the nine, there were two ACF cadets, three ATC cadets, two SCC cadets, a CCF cadet and a St Johns Ambulance cadet from all over the country, which created some difficulty with the understanding of accents.
After a sleepless 14 hours of flying we landed in Durban, SA, and had a short bus journey to our first port of call, Umkhumbi Lodge, Hluhluwe. The first few days were all about introducing us to the wildlife and the bush, we were taught about the dangers of the different types of snakes, spiders and scorpions (many of which are hibernating at this time of year thankfully) and handled some of the less deadly. Our introduction also consisted of the anatomy of a warthog when we skinned and gutted two before eating them the next day, short walking and driven safaris and an environmental awareness course. Four days later, after negotiating the Swaziland border customs and one of us being accused of having a fake passport, we were ready for a two day wildlife trail in the Swaziland bush. I found these walking trails are so much more worthwhile than the driven safari as being on foot, we got to both experience the bush properly and got much closer to the wildlife, some inquisitive white rhino even came within ten meters before our guide told us to slowly back away.
It seems we were cursed by the Swaziland border. The next day, on the way back through one of the fuel lined popped off and was repaired in the traditional African way by the border security and our guide, Anton, with what was to hand; a multi tool and some wire. We then drove on to the Pongola River for my favourite part of the trip. For the next two days we drifted in a canoe down the scenic waterway, camping each night in beautiful, idyllic spots on the river bank. After a week of sweating it out in the bush it was nice to relax and cool down in the water of the Pongola.
Straight from the beauty and peace of the Pongola River we proceeded to the Kosi Bay mature reserve, another example of the beauty of Africa. Unfortunately only four of us cadets and Mike, our leader, could experience the sights of the bay and Indian Ocean because everyone else had come down with vomiting and diarrhoea (sometimes simultaneously) as soon as we arrived. On the way to the bay, there was a viewpoint which took in the bay and the lakes, but later in the day Adam and I found a spectacular view from a dune. It was the most spectacular sight of my life. It belonged in a panoramic scene from Jurassic park. Unfortunately, we had had to swim to get there and didn’t have any cameras on us. That evening Adam got ill like the others, but luckily he didn’t miss out on anything as the next day we were travelling to Sipho High school.
The high school was our first real immersion into the culture of rural South Africa. The most powerful moment of the trip was during the school assembly when a young girl started spontaneously singing and the whole school sang back at her. She then led the school in a song for a few minutes. Even if I couldn’t understand the words they were singing, I could see how happy they all were to be singing together. Another thing I noticed about the children was discipline. They would be singing, dancing or talking and one word from the teacher would make a class of fifty sit still and listen, in seven years of school and college in England I have never seen this happen. Having not seen any disciplinary action taken in the school in the days we were there, I can only assume the discipline and respect came from the family and home.
Our last stop on our South African Adventure was Elaandsheim for the battlefield tours. En route, the trailer top broke, again repaired in the traditional way by the helpful taxi company staff, the ever resourceful Anton, some washers, and a hammer. 22nd January 1879 a massacre of British soldiers occurred in the morning at Isandlwhana followed by a heroic (and successful) last stand that evening and the next morning at Rorke’s Drift where eleven VCs were awarded. The whole story was told in an enrapturing way by Reggie over two days. After this, it was sadly time to make our way to the airport, but on the way we stopped off at a HIV/AIDS care centre. It was a pretty grounding experience. A lot of the patients were well on their way to recovering their strength thanks to the programme set up there, but a few I can only compare to looking like the men and woman I have seen pictures of when Nazi concentration camps were opened in WWII. It really does highlight how lucky we are to have the NHS and the education to help ourselves prevent the spread of HIV.
The trip may have ended on that sobering note, but it was just one of the experiences that made it an unforgettable and life changing trip for all of us. Every day held many new experiences in store, from skinning and gutting your own dinner to getting close enough to a rhino that you can hear it breath. Apparently amazing was used something like sixty times in the blog for the group who went the year before us, and now I know why: there is no other word that comes close to being suitable for describing this trip. It was amazing.
Thank you Jamie Bamforth (Surrey ACF)
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