I am not the most athletic of people. OK I am not at all athletic, the less charitable of my colleagues might go so far as to say that I am a trifle overweight. In addition my bush craft is somewhat lacking, while I can navigate round the mall with the best of them and triangulate with unerring and pinpoint precision the nearest coffee shop, my sense of direction deserts me the second the words outdoors and, great, meet up together. In short I would much rather be inside than out. So it was with a sinking feeling (a sensation that I was to experience again too soon) that I caught my lift to take me out to join a group for the second week of our school 13 day ‘Journey’ experience.
Involving six full days of hiking including the ‘barrier of spears’ of the high Berg, three days of mountain biking, three days of paddling and 40 hours of solitude (which has a certain satisfying Biblical resonance to it), this expedition is not for the fainthearted. Add in to the mix that for staff comes the added responsibility of making sure the 25 or so boys in your group are fed, watered, cared for and behaved for the duration of the journey. Not so much 24/7 then as 24/13. There is often no privacy, no bathrooms, no downtime, no escape. When nature calls, heading off under the gaze of 25 adolescents into the bush, complete with toilet roll and a spade leaves no room for doubt in terms of how you will be spending the next few minutes.
On one previous occasion when I had finally ensconced myself in a location designed to provide maximum privacy in order to complete my rudimentary morning ablutions, I had an overwhelming sense that I was being watched. Given the vulnerable stage in the proceedings that I found myself, I was unable to move and so slowly turned my head while trying to maintain my precarious balance (the consequences of toppling are best not spoken about). Sure enough three pairs of curious and intent eyes belonging to a family of giraffe no more than a stone throw away were silently observing me with no small degree of curiosity.
In the mountains one boy thought he had headed a decent distance from the camp, however altitude can do some funny things to ones sense of perspective and distance and he made his midden in full view of the campsite. Given that it was an extremely windy day and that the young man failed to get full control of the toilet paper, the results were unpleasant both for the participant and forced observers alike. Suffice to say the view of the Berg was somewhat sullied for all concerned.
Putting such thoughts aside I grabbed my final cappuccino for some days from the ‘Pig & Plough’, the name of which should have given me enough of a clue as to the type of landscape we were heading into. Sure enough under an hour later I joined the group in a field full of cows and where there are cows there is always … yup you guessed it, it seems that part of the journey involves dealing with excrement of one kind or another. It was a treat though as we braaied T bone steaks kindly provided by the local farmer. It was less of a treat as we cooked them in a cattle feeding trough while standing in the middle of unseasonably cold and wet weather.
The next few days were more of the same, punctuated by 20 kilometre walks, with fully laden backpacks, splashing across rivers, clambering over, under and through barbed wire fences. The one evening was spent with four other staff uncomfortably squashed in the back of the small support vehicle sheltering from the weather while listening on the radio to South Africa being beaten by Japan in the rugby. Not the best Saturday night I have ever spent.
I also struggle to understand that no matter how tired you are, sleeping in a tent on the ground means that you will wake up more exhausted than when you went to bed. I use the phrase ‘wake up’ in the loosest possible way of course as it implies that you had actually slept beforehand when nothing could be further from the truth. Then of course come the joy of packing up a wet tent, while it is still raining, before heading off on the next part of the journey.
There are wonderful moments of course, arriving at a venue with a flat lawn, or where the farmer has allowed access to hot showers, or even provided fresh bread, farm milk and butter for your weary arrival. Many groups also cross battlefields, Spionkop included, and this provides a wonderful opportunity for hands on spontaneous historical, geographical and political lessons. For me what is perhaps most notable is that one learns to value and appreciate the simple things, shelter, food, warmth and water (hot or otherwise).
OK I spoke to soon, I am not sure I learnt to value water. The final three days of our journey involved paddling down the river. This was demanding on the lower back, shoulders, biceps, abdomen and hands. Added to the fact that I was partnered with someone who had certainly not paddled before, and possibly not even during, his time with me on the plastic contraption that passed for a canoe. Despite this all was going well until the end of the second day when we had our safety briefing for the next day when we would head into ‘The Gorge’. The fact that we even had to have a safety briefing is cause enough for concern in my eyes. I don’t want to go into details but the phrase ‘foot entrapment’ wedged itself in mind, apparently if that happens your foot is actually the last thing you have to worry about. A more wide-eyed and attentive audience of teenage boys is hard to imagine. Once the briefing was complete a subdued group of teens and staff headed for yet another night of restlessness, made worse by dreams of rushing water, rocks and yes ‘foot entrapment’.
The following morning we headed down the river picking up our white water guides (one of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to a character from the Hangover) before stopping on the final bend to listen to a technical briefing about which route to take down the approaching rapid. I say listen, but due to a combination of nerves (fear) and the roaring noise from around the corner no one really heard anything. This was evidenced by the glimpses of legs, paddles and safety rope that went flying into the air as the first few boats headed into the Gorge. Somewhat mercifully for those of us waiting to go we could not see much more than that due to the drop at the entrance to the white water.
Finally my nautically deficient crew mate and myself launched into the current, to our surprise picking an almost perfect line into the drop. That was about as good as it got. I am not sure what happened next, just that there was a lot of rocks, a lot more water and even more adrenaline. I managed to ride the entire rapid, some three hundred metres in length, the only problem being that I was no longer in the boat. I have to stress that this was not recommended in the safety briefing, I learnt the hard way that rocks in a river are much harder than a 40 + year old body.
I am told that the spectators at the bottom the rapid saw first my one shoe appear, followed quickly by the second, then by my paddle and finally myself. Of the boat there was no sign but I took the words of the guide that you are to look after yourself first and your equipment second, very much to heart. Hauling my already bruising body out of the river I coughed up a good portion of the Tugela River. In terms of appreciating water, I think I swallowed more in that few short minutes than I had in the previous five days. As I lay on the rocks recovering, my aquatic partner, who had managed to get to the side soon after falling in, made his way to me down the bank and asked what had happened to my shoes. I replied that the river had not only robbed me of my shoes, but also my courage and my dignity.
So why do it? Well there is lots of literature to support the idea of outdoor education in terms of the benefits it brings. Appreciating the simple things in life, working within the rhythms of nature, rising with the sun and sleeping under the stars, cooking your own food, relying on the kindness of strangers, time spent away from electronic devices and having time to talk to others. I had some wonderful conversations with staff and boys alike that I would not otherwise enjoyed. As per the Outward Bound philosophy, it is also good for young people to overcome real mental and physical challenges. The phrase ‘character building’ is often overused, but it is apt in this case. A psychologist friend of mine says that character is built when we choose to act ‘contrary to impulse’. We do what we don’t feel like doing. There was plenty of this over the last 13 days accompanied by moaning, whinging, crying, swearing and anger outbursts, and that was just the staff.
Building character and developing resilience or grit we know to be key for success later on in life, so much of which is pushing through when we don’t want to or even feel we can’t. Do you have to be outdoors for this? No, but when you are outside, away from your home comforts, the consequences of not doing what needs to be done are immediate and vivid. Teenage boys need this in order to learn. If you don’t put your tent up you will get wet, if you don’t cook your food you will go hungry, if you don’t read the map correctly you will walk an additional 12 kilometres in the hot sun and if you don’t listen to the briefing you will fall out your boat.
The same psychologist friend describes fathers and mothers today as ‘Gourmet Parents’ He believes that we give our children the fillets of life without any of the roughage or emotional fibre. By giving young people the best of everything all the hard digestive work is done for them leaving them vulnerable when they come up against serious obstacles, challenges or failure for the first time.
Perhaps it is true that some things really are better out than in. Rivers for sure, but also maybe character education and learning for life. I hope these young men are able to internalise some of the lessons they learnt while in the great outdoors and apply them to their day to day lives both now and in the future. Oh and I really did learn to appreciate water, just so long as it is not white and full of rocks.