𝗚𝗿𝗮𝗱𝗲 𝟭𝟬𝘀 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗲𝘁𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗶𝗿 𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆 𝗼𝘄𝗻 𝗢𝗱𝘆𝘀𝘀𝗲𝗮𝗻 𝗷𝗼𝘂𝗿𝗻𝗲𝘆
It was with great excitement, that after nearly a 2-year hiatus on extra-curricula activities, Union High School’s Grade 10s were given permission for their 5-day 𝗢𝗗𝗬𝗦𝗦𝗘𝗬 to take place from 24 to 28 September.
The aim of the Odyssey is, that youngsters are ‘planted’ into the wilderness and taught the skills to survive and grow with all they need, carried in their backpacks – “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” – as Tennyson writes in his poem “Ulysses”.
Thanks to the generosity of various custodians of this beautiful part of the world, including Pierre and Magda Fourie, Dale and Kelly Jackson, Julian Murray, Johan Dercksen and Johan Bouwer, a remote route was mapped out in the Gats River canyon between Nieu-Bethesda and Graaff-Reinet.
The instruction to the Grade 10s was to make their way downstream, walking the 63km from Nieu-Bethesda to Graaff-Reinet. For weeks prior to the Odyssey, the Grade 10s were given talks on safety in the wilderness, the packing of backpacks, walking with packs, and were made aware of the simple changes we can make to heal our planet.
Early that Friday morning, 58 excited Grade 10s, bid their parents farewell and were transported to Nieu-Bethesda by Union’s bus drivers. After a debriefing by Mr and Mrs Langmead, the group set off on the adventure of a lifetime. With the Karoo in the grips of a crippling drought, the hikers were blessed with some refreshing pools in which to swim en route. Temperatures soared above 35 degrees, and the reality of true survival started to kick in as the heat and weight on their backs started to take their toll.
Roughly 18km later, a magnificent campsite on Riverdene welcomed weary feet and some tearful hikers – it had been a tough day with many having to dig really deep to complete the walk. Tents were pitched and delicious Boerewors rolls kindly sponsored by Mr Dean Marais and Mrs Leticia Jenneke were much appreciated. Headmaster, Mr William Pringle, then visited the camp and spent some time chatting to individuals about how their day had been.
Union is very grateful to Mr Kevin Watermeyer who assisted with the transport of water to each camp as well as his invaluable assistance with the acquisition of equipment – it was lovely to have him and his son Peter join the group for supper that evening. Sleep came relatively easy as the wonderful peace that only nature can offer descended on the camp.
Day 2 promised to be hot again. Paula Kingwill-North met the party early and involved everyone in a drama therapy session based on various situations that prove difficult in our lives, and how they can overcome them with collaboration and critical thinking. She commented afterward on how incredibly responsive the group had been, and it was fascinating to watch them working together, creating living sculptures with their bodies that symbolized scenarios we face in life.
Although the hike to Schoonberg was only about 8km, bodies ached from the previous day, and the heat was relentless. Some of the group endured the reality of diabetes, a heart condition and asthma – and through their tribulations, the group grew stronger in love, respect and support. Blisters and backache were the order of the day, and Schoonberg campsite seemed miles away!
The usually crystalline pools were stagnant, but this did not stop the weary hikers from taking a well-earned dip. Again, the reality of the importance of water really hit home – with nothing potable in the river, each person had 4 liters on which to survive the night and the following day. The logistics behind Odyssey are monumental, and it would certainly not happen without parent volunteers who give so generously of their time and resources. It was nothing short of miraculous that Mr Craig Victor and Mrs Jeanmarie Venter arrived with extra water and our ingredients for supper that evening. That evening, the group was taught to make camp bread and how to roast a whole chicken on a stick. Thrown into different groups, it is always a special evening as new friendships are forged over delicious food around the fire.
The food WAS outstanding this year – with some secret spices being added to the smell of roasted chicken and freshly baked bread. In preparation for their ‘Solitude’ experience the next day, where they would spend time totally alone, in the present, Mr Langmead spoke to the sated group about the addictive qualities of cellphones and how they are robbing us of so much quality time in our lives.
The group was woken before dawn and hiked out with the adults where they were strategically positioned for their next few hours in solitude. During this time they read letters written by their families and also wrote a letter to their future selves which they will be given at their Valedictory in 2023. This is always a mindful, focused, poignant time, and they returned to pack up camp in a peaceful state. The pool at the base of the hidden waterfall filled everyone with delight as they set up camp there that afternoon.
A delightful evening ensued which saw an impromptu cricket match being played and once again delicious food – and even chocolate cake baked by Mrs Victor – enjoyed by all. Bodies were cooled in the deep pool at this spectacular place, and many opted to spend the night under the stars – an experience of a lifetime as Saturn was magnificently large and clear, joined by satellites and shooting stars. There are few people on earth who have had the privilege of spending the night under a firmament such as this and gratitude abounded.
The true meaning of teamwork was evident the next morning as there were some who journeyed up and down the escarpment to assist with water and food containers. It was heartening to see the service ethic of some of the Grade 10s who put the needs of others before their own.
The group met with trepidation in their hearts as they knew of the difficult day that lay ahead. Fortunately, a cool breeze made the first 7kms relatively easy – before ‘Heartbreak Hill’ showed its face! It is during these 7kms of uphill that the true character of these youngsters truly emerged.
Gavin Steyn of St Olives met us at the boundary line and provided a backup of water up the steep hill. It was incredible to witness the strength of some who were determined to walk the whole way, even turning down offers of a lift on the bakkie. St Olives welcomed us with green lawns, white geese and pear blossoms. Gavin Steyn spoke to the group about the incredible work that the Herding Academy is doing regarding the preservation of Karoo veld through innovative farming practices.
Everyone welcomed Mr Pringle and Mr Mbanga who joined the group for the evening before Mr Pringle addressed the Grade 10s on what they had experienced over the past four days. The adults enjoyed a meal around the hospitable table of Mrs and Mrs Johan Bouwer, and once again, a delicious meal provided by Mrs Cheryl Waddelow and the Pick n Pay team was enjoyed by all, and once again, overwhelming gratitude for the amazing people of the Karoo really hit home.
Before departure the following morning, the group was met by Mr Donald Kingwill who loaded all the packs into the school bakkie as a reward for a very long journey!
The 12km descent to the Graaff-Reinet basin began with a moment of reflection when Mr Langmead asked everyone to pause and consider how light they felt without their packs. He likened this to leaving any pain that they might still be carrying at the top of that same hill.
The descent to school was filled with lightness and laughter where everyone was met by fellow Unionites and parents who welcomed them with pride and jubilation – memories of previous Odysseys came to the fore, and excitement for those yet to experience theirs was tangible.
Union High School is extremely grateful to parents Mr Brian Kenmuir, Mr Kallie Venter and Mrs Lisa Watermeyer – Mrs Watermeyer having given 6 years to Odyssey – who walked with the group, and Ms Zakkiyah Mahomed and Mr Shuab Mohammed who assisted with food. It was wonderful to have staff Mrs Cathy Pringle, Ms Paula Phillips and Mrs Bronwen Langmead walk alongside the Grade 10s and get to know them out of the classroom environment.
The school is also grateful to Mrs Shell, Mrs Liebenberg and Mrs Burger who assisted with admin and finances. And lastly, our grateful thanks to Mr Langmead, whose vision of Odyssey as a gift to our children and our planet is realized each time he makes one possible.