Walking with lions, standing at the edge of Victoria Falls and learning to throw spears with the Bushmen of the Kalahari were just three of the highlights experienced by 16 students during their trip to Africa.
The month-long World Challenge adventure comprised sight-seeing, trekking and taking part in a community project where students had to hack their way through dense thorn-bushes and collect rocks to build a road used by wildlife rangers.
Unforgettable experiences included the vast flaming sunsets, watching hundreds of zebra congregate as the party journeyed along a road and encountering elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes in the bush and hippos in the waters of the mighty Zambezi river.
The students took turns to lead the group and manage the food budget of between two and six dollars per person per day for the 20-strong party. They shared cooking and washing-up duties and a particular challenge was when they had to buy enough food to last for 600 meals during a 10-day period when they were 80 miles from the nearest shop! Food consisted of vegetarian rations, porridge, rice and pasta. Only once did they have beef and spicy sausage to break the monotony.
The party spent 26 consecutive nights under canvas and travelled huge distances. Botswana and Namibia are both more than twice the land area of Britain and the World Challengers journeyed from one side to the other of each country.
They arrived in South Africa and went by bus to Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. They spent a few days in the desert with the Kalahari bushmen where they were introduced to traditional hunting, trapping and survival skills, eventually taking part in bow-and-arrow and spear-throwing competitions with certificates for the winners.
The party visited Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world located between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was in Zambia that they also walked with young lion cubs due to be re-introduced to the wild in prides under a conservation initiative. The adventure continued with trips in dug-out canoes up the Okavango delta, culminating in an encounter with a herd of five wild elephants.
The group travelled to the Waterberg Plateau in Namibia where they spent two days collecting rocks to build a road and hacking through thorny scrub so that wildlife rangers could access accommodation blocks and the radio mast on which all of their communications depended.
Student Vicky Gill said: ‘World Challenge was the best experience of my life. It was so much fun although it was quite a long time to be away from home. My favourite part was the lion encounter and Victoria Falls. I have been to Niagara and thought it would be a bit like that but it was so wide; I got soaked! I loved every single minute. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.’
Student Andrew Faulkner said: ‘It was absolutely amazing. I had to fend for myself and learned how to cook. My organisation has got better. When I was leader we went shopping for the very first time so that was definitely a challenge. Getting enough food for 20 people was tricky but rewarding. I worked for a year-and-a-half to raise the money to go but it was definitely worth it. The lion experience was my favourite part of the whole trip. Not many people can say they have touched a lion!’
The students were accompanied by Head of Modern Foreign Languages Mr Nicholls, as well as science technician Heidi Golby and Faye Cannon, the expedition leader from World Challenge.
Miss Golby, who was born in Africa, said: ‘The highlight for me was just being back on African soil because I love the whole continent. The wide skies and the oranges, yellows and reds of the sunsets were amazing. The students lay down and watched the sunsets then the stars and were really quiet and tranquil as there was no noise or light pollution.’
‘Cutting through the bush was physically very demanding. The thorn bushes were absolutely evil, but the students didn’t moan at all on any of the challenges they were given. They worked together and gained confidence in their abilities. They made decisions and had to communicate those to the rest of the group.’
Mr Nicholls is presenting a series of assemblies on different aspects of the expedition. He said: ‘The most memorable thing for me was Victoria Falls, it was just jaw-dropping. You become aware of this thundering noise as you walk through the bush and then you see this indescribable mass of water cascading over an enormous cliff. It was just dumb-founding.
‘Sitting round a campfire with Kalahari Bushmen was also pretty special. The Bushmen have traditionally lived off the land but it is a civilisation that is gradually dying out because they are being resettled into towns by the government. All their traditional skills are disappearing. We spent four nights with three Bushmen, the last generation that will know these skills used for tracking and capturing animals and finding water and medicines from plants.
‘At one point in Botswana we were travelling in a crowded bus late at night when we started to see the odd zebra on the side of the road. As we travelled we saw more and more, and finally there were hundreds just gathering around the road. I have seen zebra before in Africa, but never in these numbers.
'What do I think the students learned from this expedition? Well, they learned something about the contrasts between rich and poor in Africa. They learned a lot about themselves and what they are capable of, when they need to be. Most of all they learned that if you have a good rucksack, a decent pair of boots and a bit of courage the whole world is at your feet.’