By Tim Jarvis
I am not at all athletic. In fact, the less charitable of my colleagues at Michaelhouse College in KwaZulu-Natal might go so far as to say that I am a trifle overweight.
In addition, my “bush skills” are 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 “great” and “outdoors” 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 of students for the second week of our annual school 13-day “Journey” experience.
The call of the wild
Involving six full days of hiking, including the “Barrier of Spears” of the high Drakensberg mountains,1 three days of mountain biking, three days of river paddling and 40 hours of solitude (which has a certain satisfying Biblical resonance to it), this expedition is not for the fainthearted. Add into 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 well-behaved for the duration of the journey. Not so much 24/7 then as 24/13. There is often no privacy, no bathroom, no downtime and 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 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’s throw away were silently observing me with no small degree of curiosity.
High in the mountains, one boy thought he had headed a decent distance from the camp. However, altitude can do some funny things to one’s sense of perspective and distance, and he made his midden in full view of the camp site. 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 mountains was somewhat sullied for all concerned.
Hiking is heavenly
Putting such thoughts aside, when I could, I grabbed a daily
caffeine dose from a rural pub.2 On one particular occasion, under an hour later, I rejoined our group of young hikers 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 invariably involves dealing with excrement of one kind or another. More pleasant was our braai of T-bone steaks kindly provided by a local farmer. We cooked them in a cattle-feeding trough in 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 and clambering over, under and through barbed wire fences. One evening was spent with four other staff members 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 2015 World Cup rugby tournament. Not the best Saturday night I have ever spent.
The simple life
I also discovered 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, comes 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 flat lawn, or where the farmer has allowed access to hot showers, or even provided fresh bread, farm milk and butter. Many of our Michaelhouse groups also cross battlefields – Spioenkop3 included – and this provides a wonderful opportunity for hands-on spontaneous historical, geographical and political lessons. And, for me, what is perhaps most notable is that one learns to value and appreciate the simple things in life: shelter, food and warmth.
A “rapid” decline
Nature had some special lessons in store for me. The final three days of our journey involved paddling down a river. This was demanding on the lower back, shoulders, biceps, abdomen and hands. 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 final day. That we even had to have a safety briefing was cause enough for concern, to my mind. I won’t go into details, but the phrase “foot entrapment” wedged itself in our imaginations. (Apparently, if that happens, your foot is actually the last thing you have to worry about.) Once the briefing was over, 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 downriver, picking up our river guides (one of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to a character from the film The Hangover4) before stopping to listen to a technical briefing about which route to take down the approaching rapid. I say listen, but due to a combination of 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 ropes that went flying into the air as the first few boats headed into the gorge. Somewhat mercifully for those of us awaiting our turn, we could not see much more than that, due to the drop at the entrance to the white water.
Finally, my nautically challenged crewmate 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 was that I was no longer in the boat. I have to stress that this was not a recommended course of action in the safety briefing. I learned 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 of the rapid saw first my one shoe appear, followed quickly by the second, then 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 water, I coughed up a good portion of the Tugela River. I think I swallowed more in those 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.
What’s it all about?
So why do it? Well, there is lots of literature to support the
benefits of outdoor education.5 Appreciating the simple things
in life, working with 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 are all documented skills and values. I had some wonderful conversations with staff and boys alike that I would not otherwise have enjoyed.
According to the Michaelhouse “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 sort of occurrence over the 13 days of the expedition, accompanied by moaning, whingeing, crying, swearing and anger outbursts. And that was just the staff.
We know that developing resilience or grit contributes to success later on in life. 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 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 of your boat.
The same psychologist friend describes fathers and mothers today as “gourmet parents”. He believes that many of us 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 both internalise some of the lessons they learned while in the great
outdoors and apply them to their day-to-day lives, both now and in the future. And I really did learn to appreciate water – just so long as it is not white and full of rocks.
1. See, for example: http://www.southafrica.net/za/en/articles/entry/articleukhahlamba- drakensberg.
2. See, for example: https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/Restaurant_Reviewg662254- d2079635-Reviews-The_Pig_and_Plough- Winterton_Drakensberg_Region_KwaZulu_Natal.html.
3. See, for example: http://www.zulu.org.za/discover/destinations/battlefields.
4. See, for example: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1119646/.
5. See, for example: http://www.englishoutdoorcouncil.org/ Values_and_benefits.htm.
Category: Winter 2016