The next time you drive the 54kms between Graaff-Reinet and Nieu-Bethesda, take cognisance of just how far the distance is and how long it takes in a car. Then imagine walking this distance (in fact – walking 65km), carrying all you need to survive on your backs for 5 days! This year marks the 3rd year that the grade 10 class of Union High have participated in their ‘Odyssey’ down the Gats river canyon, starting in Nieu-Bethesda and ending in Graaff-Reinet. This year’s learners walked the furthest distance yet – covering 65km on their journey – averaging 15 km per day.
Union’s Odyssey is indeed a journey of self-discovery for these learners who are afforded the privilege of walking through some of the most pristine wilderness that the Karoo has to offer. Thanks to the generosity of landowners -namely Pierre and Elizna Fourie, Julian Murray, Johan Dercksen and Patty Coetzee who allow them access and campsites on their farms, Union’s grade 10s are fortunate to call the Gats Canyon home for 5 days and 4 nights. Carefully selected stopover points are chosen for camps each evening. A policy of zero impact on the landscape is adopted, and there is absolutely no evidence that anyone passed through these places when they leave. The learners are given stringent talks on litter, pollution and the impact that humanity has on our planet. It is indeed heartening to see the respect that those who partake in Odyssey show the environment that they are privileged to use. This year, thanks to the good snowfalls during the winter, the river was pristine and could be used for drinking and swimming. Although temperatures were still chilly in the evenings, hikers enjoyed refreshing swims during the course of the day which soothed aching bodies and tired minds!
The Odyssey has gained momentum since its inception 3 years ago. Those who walk it are no longer fearful of what it entails and seem to relish in co-existing with the exquisite environment that we are graced with in the Karoo. According to Union Headmaster Mr William Pringle, the learners who have participated in Odyssey emerge unified, respectful and with a strong sense of who they are. He says that this year’s grade 12s are testament to this. During their time in the wilderness the grade 10s learned many life skills including: setting up camp in suitable places, fire making and the management thereof, cooking for themselves, team-work and co-operation. Little things like making a cup of coffee from scratch become vitally rewarding. They soon learn which things that they thought were essential, become heavy and redundant in their lives and on their backs! And, of course, the lack of cell phones and technology for the entire time leads to a refreshing new view on the world where they are seen looking upward and outward instead of having their heads downwards and consciousness inward. While some find the daily hikes relatively easy as they are strong and fit, there are many who find it physically challenging, yet somehow each and every one finds the inner strength to complete each leg of the journey. The grade emerges out of Odyssey bonded in a way that is noticeable, with camaraderie, encouragement and admiration of one another being key factors that become evident. They also learn that no matter how difficult and painful things can be sometimes, giving up is not an option, and each and every participant was extremely proud to complete the 5 day challenge.
On day 2 Paula Kingwill facilitated a drama therapy workshop to the learners in the wilderness. This year they focused on what life lessons they have learned from nature, and according to Paula, the creative ideas that the group enacted were remarkable. Solitaire is also an important exercise during their time away. Waking before dawn, all 52 children were placed out in the environment in total solitude and silence for 5 hours. During this special time they were given a letter written to them by their parents, were encouraged to write a letter to themselves which they will open at their Valedictory in 2 years, and were taught the art of paying attention to life in the ‘now’ by David Langmead. It is a beautiful thing to witness learners emerging from this valuable exercise – some quietly reflective, some emotional – all filled with peace. On the final day, as they stand unified on top of Ouberg, with Graaff-Reinet in the distance before them, and Compassberg far behind, the group is encouraged to take a moment to leave any pain that they may be carrying behind them on that mountain, before they descend light and free towards home.
Odyssey could not happen without the love and generosity of so many who give so much to make it a success. The custodians of the land who are so gracious and generous; Union High that supports the concept financially and logistically; parents who make food behind the scenes that is delivered each evening to far flung places, and Kevin and Lisa Watermeyer, David and Bronwen Langmead, Elrich and Lisa Jantjies, Jonathan Britton, Flippie Loock and Nibs Price who devote a week of their lives to logistics and walking with the group ensuring their well-being along the way. Union High’s Odyssey is about hearts. The hearts of those who give, and the hearts of those who grow.
Follow the link below to view the Odyssey Album