Submitted by Lindsey Kirk, High School Teacher
The Journey Begins
Over Experiential Week and Spring Break, 14 students, along with Mr. Barton and I, embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in South Africa. After a year of planning and preparation we boarded a plane at SFO and landed in Johannesburg 23 hours later. Immediately following that quick flight (ha!), we piled into a bus for the next leg of our journey -- an eight hour bus ride to Kruger National Park. It was a bumpy, dusty, sweltering hot bus ride (no a.c.!) and everyone was jet-lagged. Students began questioning their decision to sign up for this trip wondering, Why did I let Ms. Kirk talk me into this? Despite the rough conditions, everyone made peace with the long drive and grumbled about their discomfort quietly under their breaths.
By the time we finally arrived at Kruger, we were a gang that vultures might mistake for a herd of dying wildebeest due to a lack of deodorant and showering. We stumbled out of the bus and dragged our luggage and stinky selves to our beautiful oasis: Kudu Safari Lodge. A refreshing juice drink awaited us and the staff passed out keys to our rooms: rooms adorned with African decor and beds carefully draped with mosquito netting. The view from our back porch was straight from a National Geographic documentary: kudu, impala, and springbok roamed freely and grazed under the hot African sun. While I was busy admiring the views from my back porch, most of our students flocked to the cold pool like a watering hole scene out of The Lion King. It was a well-deserved dip that washed away some of their jet-lag.
The first part of our experience centered around conservation. A large facet was our volunteer work with African Impact, an organization providing fun, safe, and structured volunteer placements in partnership with local communities and conservation efforts. In our particular volunteer placement we learned about the severity of poaching in the area and how to track animals, collect camera traps and input data, remove invasive plant species, and survey the area for snares. One of our students even found a snare on his assignment! Multiple students came to me expressing their interest in volunteering with African Impact for a summer or an extended time after graduation.
When not volunteering at African Impact, students and chaperones piled into open air vehicles and roamed through Kruger National Park with very knowledgeable safari tour guides. From the moment we entered the park, we were blown away! We saw everything! There were elephants right in front of us sucking up water in their trunks and spraying themselves to cool down. As a pack of hyenas relaxed in the grass, two of their cubs approached our vehicles to sniff and greet us. Giraffes, watching us with caution, stuck out their long purple tongues to snatch some leaves. Hippos popped curiously out of the water, flicking their ears as we called to them from the shore. We watched the almighty lions as they feasted on a hippo carcass and roared to the motor of our vehicles. A shy lone rhino let us approach with caution, as he grazed in the dusk. There was even a tame cheetah that had no qualms with us scratching her on the back of her head as she lay in the sun swatting her tail.
One evening, while visiting the Kinyonga Reptile Center, we met one of the most passionate conservationists on the planet, Donald Strydom, who spoke to us about the creepy crawlies and slithering creatures that are feared by so many. We learned the docile behavior of some snakes, and the misperceived aggression of others. We held tarantulas, pet cobras, and put puff adders in a box with a snake hook!
Another highlight was visiting Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center, where students fed vultures, watched fearless honey badgers play, listened to cheetahs purr against their cage, and witnessed a demonstration of agility and speed by leopards racing after a piece of chicken. Another night, while on a game drive in Tshukudu Game Reserve, we saw bush babies leaping from tree to tree. We also visited the Jane Goodall Chimp Eden, where we learned about chimpanzees rescued from the circus and other inhumane environments, now living in the most beautiful sanctuary. And we even walked hand-in-trunk with rescued elephants, who kissed us on our necks with their big, sticky, snotty snouts.
It seemed that each day couldn't top the day before, but somehow each did. After seven amazing days in the Kruger region, we said our farewells and flew to Cape Town for the second chapter of our experiential program -- cultural immersion.
Once we arrived at our beachfront hotel in Cape Town, students darted straight into the ocean -- ignoring the 50 degree water temps on a windy day. Brrrrr! Our first excursion was to Boulder’s Beach, home to the endangered African penguins, where we watched them waddle just inches away from us. From there we took a tram up to Table Mountain where we hiked while taking in views of the city from 3500 plus feet above sea level. In diving cages, we got up close and personal with Great White Sharks through Apex Shark Tours. Our travel program even arranged for us to spend an evening in the home of Jasmina, a Cape Town local who taught us how to prepare a Cape Malay dinner, which we all enjoyed together.
Toward the end of the trip, students volunteered at a local preschool made out of three small shipping containers. This school was surrounded by lean-tos, had broken windows, and very limited supplies -- including water. We found running water to be scarce during our time in Cape Town. Signs denoting running water few and far between.
On our very last day, we focused on the slave trade and Apartheid. We visited the District Six Museum and had a personal tour from Noor, a former resident of District Six. Noor told his story of displacement and racism, and yet he was filled with pride for being able to share his time and history of Apartheid with our group. A poignant moment, felt by the entire group, was when we realized, if it were just a few decades back, this trip would not have been possible because of our skin color and ethnicities.
The Journey Ends
This trip was extraordinary in every way. We were across the world! For some of our students it was their first international trip. Regardless of travel experience, each tour, each volunteer post, each excursion and lecture, and informal learning moment was truly magical. Yet above all of this, it was the laughter, newly kindled friendships, kindness between students, and the shared experience that brought us all closer together.
Our school has some truly remarkable young adults, and spending two weeks with 14 of them personified this sentiment. It was an honor to be on this trip with these awesome teenagers, and I'll cherish this time with them forever.