Odessey in the rain

Midstream College Climb the Mountain to See the View

Veni, vidi, vici!’ (‘I came; I saw; I conquered’) is usually what Midstream College head, Dr Carel Kriek, says, when welcoming the Grade 10 learners back after successfully completing the Odyssey.

Odyssey is a nine-day adventurous journey in the Magoebaskloof and Wolkberg wilderness areas. It takes place in September, when over 200 boys and girls journey around the country town of Haenertsberg, Limpopo. In groups of no more than 16 learners and accompanied by a Midstream College staff member, students must self-navigate a 110-kilometre route.

Hiking, paddling, cycling, canopy touring, tubing and abseiling all form part of Odyssey. The students need to do all their own cooking as they camp out and manage the dynamics of their group. Odyssey is a zero technology zone and not even watches or cameras are allowed.

The Magoebaskloof and Wolkberg wilderness areas are a unique part of the Limpopo province. The area receives over 1000 mm of annual rainfall, making its forests and surroundings a beautifully green natural setting for Odyssey.

The farming community and those living in the 125-year-old gold rush town of Haenertsburg are incredibly supportive of the event and have even built special camping sites on their private land for the learners to enjoy. Pine forests and avocado orchards, which make up the predominant foliage, cover the undulating relief of the area. The natural vegetation includes protected grasslands and the infamous cheerio flowers that are in full bloom during the month of September.

The incredibly lush natural forests of the Magoebaskloof, with its beautiful crystal clear mountain streams cutting through the valleys, offer the learners a complete variety of fauna and flora. The area has important natural, cultural and historical value, as it hosts some of the tallest planted trees in the world, the endangered Wolkberg Zulu butterflies, and the site where the last Long Tom gun was destroyed by the Boers.

One of our alumni, Jualene du Preez, coined the phrase, ‘Climb the mountain to see the view’, and this has been printed on the Odyssey shirts for the last seven years, and is a fitting motto for this event. The learners have to summit the Iron Crown (2 126 metres) which is the highest mountain in Limpopo. In doing so, they experience the rewards of setting goals and achieving them. At the top of this peak, surveying the Magoebaskloof and Wolkberg wilderness areas, is where they enjoy their rewarding ‘view’.

Physical challenges and raw emotions

Midstream College pupils at MagoebaskloofMidstream College is a parallel medium, co-ed school, so an event like this is a perfect opportunity to ensure that the learners experience each other’s traditions and cultures. The single-gender groups are made up of a mix of English and Afrikaans learners, which is the perfect platform for positive integration.

However, it is not only physical challenges that develop the learners, but also the morning devotional time, guided by a thoughtfully compiled manual. Raw emotions that emerge as a result of being cut off from society and having to deal with the challenge Odyssey poses, are what make the experience irreplaceable.

The learners are led through the manual with daily instructions, Bible verses and challenging, thought-provoking questions. These questions are discussed within each group at a daily debriefing by the accompanying staff member as everyone sits around a warm fire and reflects on the challenges of the day’s journey.

Another valuable part of Odyssey is the writing of letters. Learners write a pre-Odyssey letter to themselves, in which they will note their fears and concerns over the pending journey. On the final day, they then read these letters as a reflection of their sense of achievement. They are then tasked with writing another letter to themselves, which they will read a year later when the next year’s Odyssey departs.

The only communication from home over the nine days is a handwritten letter from their parents, which they receive on day six. This always proves to be an emotional moment. This letter has significant value, as it is their only contact with the outside world. Learners are then required to respond to the letter, which often proves to be a monumental challenge and a unique experience.

Considering the challenge, Odyssey has become a rite of passage amongst the Midstream College learners. Grades 8s and 9s look forward to their Odyssey and Grades 11s and 12s recognise the growth of the Grade 10 learners progressing into their senior years as they complete Odyssey. This adds value to the experience within the school’s culture. It is also a great medium to enhance the sense of community that Midstream College aims for, as those who have gone before are able to share their ‘same but different’ Odyssey stories.

Midstream College Odessey

Discovering the importance of Odyssey

It was, however, in 2020 during hard lockdown, that the real value of Odyssey was experienced. Youths are naturally social beings and thrive on physical activity and challenge. However, the global COVID-19 pandemic reduced our youth to isolating in their rooms and learning behind screens.

It was this reality that drove headmaster Kriek to ensure that the Grade 10 learners would not miss out on their Odyssey, as during 2020 they had already lost out on so much. The opportunity to allow the learners to put their screens down and pack a backpack and then to head into the wilderness for nine days of open-air social interaction, was vitally important.

All schools have seen an increase in learners’ experiencing anxiety and depression, and it is channels such as Odyssey that allow learners to share experiences and learn how to deal with emotional hardships. The opportunity to be reduced to a simple lifestyle, with the emphasis on their emotions and developmental growth, proved to be hugely valuable during the challenges of the pandemic.

Organisers had to put great effort into developing an Odyssey that was both COVID-19 safe and still offered an experience that was equal to previous years’ Odysseys. Fortunately, due to the outdoor nature and seclusion of the groups, it was possible to comply with the COVID-19 regulations and the learners once again were able to ‘climb the mountain to see the view’.

The continuation of such events for the millennial generation is crucial to the success of a school and its learners. As Dr Kriek often says, ‘Learners won’t necessarily remember their maths lessons, but the experiences and lessons learnt outside the classroom, and on Odyssey, will be embedded in their memories for a lifetime.’