The summer after my GCSEs I went on a school trip to South Africa. It was, hands down, the best trip I’ve ever taken. We spend two and a half weeks exploring four areas of South Africa; seeing countless animals and experiencing the Zulu culture.
Looking back now, I'm really not sure why I signed up, it didn't sound like my kind of thing at that age. I'd never done DofE or even camped outside before. My parents were convinced they were going to get a call home, two days in, with me crying about how I'd seen a spider. Luckily that wasn't the case. Fifteen year old me packed her bags and set off to South Africa without a care in the world.
We landed in Durban and stayed overnight in a camp before we split off into groups of six and meeting our guides Douwe and Sicelo. Our first stop was the St Lucia Wetlands.
St Lucia Wetlands
We spent three days in the wetlands and all got to know each other pretty well. I went along knowing my two friends but came back bonded with our whole group - we went through everything together, experiencing a rainbow of emotions as we went along. As we trekked through the wetlands Sicelo and Douwe told us about the animals we spotted. We saw hippos, rhinos and kudu (a type of antelope).
We carried everything we needed on our backs, including all our food, so you can imagine I was quite happy when we got to our ‘home’ for the night and dropped everything off. Home wasn’t quite as you would expect - it was a cluster of trees. Our sleeping arrangements were simple: a sleeping bag under the stars. We stayed safe from any inquisitive animals by doing 'night watch' which was where we each took turns to stay awake for an hour to keep the fire going and shine a touch around our clearing. I thought getting up for an hour each night would be difficult but as the trip went on, I appreciated the hour to myself. I kept a diary throughout the trip and it’s been amazing to look back on every few years and recall some of the serious and not so serious memories.
Next stop was Imfolozi. This was a big game park where we spent four days. To get there we all piled into a safari jeep and sung countless amounts of Disney songs along the way (YAY!). On our way into the park we spotted zebras, kudus, rhinos and a few giraffes.
We made our way to home for the night and crossed a big winding river which looked like something out of the Lion King. You need to be careful when crossing the rivers there as there could be crocodiles lurking in the depths. We had to stick to the shallow sections just in case and keep an eye out. When we woke up one morning the section of the river we had crossed the evening before had a croc lounging on the banks!
Speaking of which, night watch was suddenly more dangerous. One night we were camped out by a cliff and next to the river. Seeing leopards or lions etc. on the other side of the river was fine but if we heard splashing, we were in trouble! The Imfolozi was possibly my favourite section of the trip. I loved that we fell asleep to the sound of lions and baboons and that we bathed in the river every day. We also walked for hours around the plains learning more about the history of the area and the animals.
After the Imfolozi it was onto the Drakensberg mountains. There weren’t as many animals there, although we saw a lot of baboons on one of the days. The views were I-N-C-R-E-D-I-B-L-E!
Our home whilst in the Drakensbergs was underneath a giant rock near the top of one of the mountains. On our first day we decided to walk up to what we though looked like a rock in the shape of a bear. We also climbed inside a waterfall and spotted bushmen paintings inside rocks. After missing my daily dips in the river I decided to jump into one of the pools on top of the mountains. As you’d expect, it was freezing, refreshing but freezing!
On our last night in the mountains something happened. One of the rules of the trip was that you leave no trace. This includes setting fire to any toilet paper you use. As one of the girls burnt hers she accidentally dropped it and the dry grass immediately ignited. We all ran out to try and stop the fire. We’d seen areas of the mountains which had been set alight under controlled circumstances so as not to cause a wild fire. We knew the importance of putting that fire out, quickly. We battled it by pouring the little water we had on it and hitting it with our jumpers, finally managing to direct it towards a rock and extinguish. If we hadn’t acted so fast we would have been in a lot of trouble. One tiny accident could have been a catastrophe. We worked as a team to fight it off and I can remember sitting in our cave that evening with everyone coughing and spluttering but happy we had all worked together and beat the fire.
Our final stop was a Zulu village. I don’t remember where this was exactly and I can’t seem to track it down online but it was this little community we stayed with for a few nights. During the day, we visited a nearby school where we fixed up and painted the classrooms and taught the children. I can remember on our first night a little girl taught us a song. You say “I love my teddybear” twice then “I polish your shoe” as you pretend to polish someones shoe, give them a hug and then both skip around the circle whilst everyone claps.
As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been looking back at the diary I kept and reading all the messages from my group. One of the things that everyone commented on was how much they enjoyed everyone else’s company and how much fun we were all having together. Words can’t describe what the trip meant to me. A trip like that is something you need to experience yourself to understand. Being out in the wilderness for so long has such a calming effect. I spent my days laughing, smiling and jumping about being silly. Half of my memories were so personal to our group that they would never make it into this post. It was the best trip of my life made great by my group and our amazing guides Douwe and Sicelo.
“The wilderness on the outside is a reflection of the wilderness on the inside” Douwe Van Der Zee, 2007. RIP.