Taking students out of their comfort zone can be as empowering as it is terrifying - Chris Sainsbury recalls elephant encounters, bad planning and life-lessons in the Namib Desert…
Never work with kids and animals, the saying goes. Yet several years ago, as a newly qualified secondary school teacher, I somehow found myself leading a group of students on a 12-day expedition which took place in an area around the Aba-Huab River in Damaraland, Namibia. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: a challenging and adventurous trek, as well as an opportunity to survey the area’s acacia trees – the main diet of elephants and very common along this main ephemeral tributary of the Huab River.
Throughout the expedition we had the invaluable presence of the indomitable Joseph, a local Namibian ranger. Like so many local guides, he was a true personality with a wealth of knowledge and he knew every inch of the area like no other.
The trek got off to an ominous start when Joseph handed me a large calibre rifle and advised me to keep it with me at all times. Fortunately, a military background made sure I test fired, checked and understood the weapon! An American photographer had apparently been killed in the area recently while trying to take photos of an elephant herd. Little did I know that the rifle would be a welcome addition to our kit, as not long into the trek we encountered the same herd. They weren’t best pleased to see us and started a mock charge. A couple of shots into the air, perhaps marking the metaphorical bad start to our journey ahead, was enough to stop the elephants in their tracks. The group remained safe; but without the rifle it may have been a different story.
On an expedition of this nature, it is good to give young people as much ownership of the tasks as possible, within the boundaries of safety obviously. With this in mind, the students organised much of the logistics – a decision which would later cost my heart, legs and lungs some angst!
Their first task was to work out the amount of water we would need during the trek. A basic formula was worked out carefully on the back of the proverbial fag packet. I am no mathematician, but I recognised that we would all be awash with fresh water in a dry river bed in the middle of a desert environment. Oh the irony!
We organised water drops at various points along the trek with 10 figure GPS coordinates, ensuring the 25-litre jerry cans would not be left to rot over the next 2000 years in the pristine bush. Days later, arriving at our final drop, the students recognised that their fag packet calculations bore no relation to the reality of what had been required. We arrived carrying a large amount of water, only to face the prospect of lugging even more as we proceeded to the next stage. In such a water poor region, it would have been out of the question and immoral to waste this resource. A point with which, to their credit, all the students agreed. What a great learning oppportunity, I thought.
But why do today what you can do tomorrow? The students naturally put off the decision of what to do with the water until 5am the next morning, at which point started a long and sometimes heated discussion. Many solutions (excuse the pun) were debated, including, among the most ridiculous… a bath!
The original planning was now seen to have been rather ‘cuffed’ and the students really appreciated that greater thought and preparation would have prevented the poor performance. The issue of rare resources and how local people live with so little water made for a great realisation of the preciousness of the world’s resources.
The finally agreed plan was to drink as much as possible within the bounds of safety and then carry the rest of the water split between the group. I was proud of the students for resolving this themselves, although, with one litre equalling one kilo, my legs were less happy!
A night to remember
Trekking on dry, sandy river beds, although flat, is not easy in 40 degrees. When Joseph offered to move the students’ kit by vehicle to the next check point, they never moved quicker. When agreeing a rendez-vous (RV) spot, the students chose to ignore Joseph’s advice. Their kit was packed on the Land Cruiser and they set off with a spring in their step safe in the knowledge that their possessions would meet them at the other end. Needless to say, having listened to our loal guide, I wasn’t convinced – and my kit stayed with me!
Later that day we arrived at the RV – right in the middle of a steep, very rocky gorge system. It was only now the students recognised the error of their ways. The nearest access by vehicle was 15kms further down the river. Panic spread like wildfire. No tents, no fresh socks, no stoves, no food (although at least we had plenty of water…😉
I recall statements like, ‘We will all die’; ‘Will we starve?’; ‘Do you think they’ll ever know we were here?’ Accusations flew and post decision analysis ensued. It is important to emphasise that the risk here was apparent; the reality was that the students – unlike my rations and tent – were very safe. And as is often the case, when the trek was finally over, the stories of this night of survival morphed into an epic tale of adventure which could have been recounted in the corridors of the Royal Geographical Society. Despite the apparent danger, the kids had loved it. It’s a good example of how fear is often confused with actual risk.
Throughout this expedition, the students remained safe, first and foremost – but powerful experiences produce powerful learning right on the edge of our comfort zone. This is why I believe educational journeys and expeditions should be an essential part of every young person’s holistic education. Many teachers and EVCs shy away from these kind of trips, concerned over safety, but it is so important that schools continue to push educational boundaries. We all have different attitudes to risk and staying the correct side of the adventure/misadventure line is very important. With that always in mind, though, exposing students to risk and failure is one of the best ways we can help to give them the tools they will need to survive in a difficult world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Sainsbury is now director of expeditions at The School Travel Consultancy (www.thestc.co.uk), a tour operator specialising in school expeditions and educational journeys. An IML and a qualified teacher, he has also seen active service with UK Special Forces.
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