Each year, Union’s Grade 10s spend months anticipating the Odyssey which takes them on a physical, soul searching journey down the Gats River Canyon, starting in Nieu-Bethesda and ending in Graaff-Reinet five days later.
The aim of the exercise is that everyone carries all that they need to be self-sufficient and to survive this time in the wilderness.
Kevin and Lisa Watermeyer spent months planning the smooth execution of the adventure, but were unfortunately unable to be a part of the 5-day journey due to circumstances beyond their control.
Union is eternally grateful to Kevin, Lisa and the team of parents who worked so hard to make logistics and cooking run so smoothly behind the scenes.
This year, Brian Kenmuir, Flippie Loock, Bronwen, David and Rebecca Langmead, Elrich Jantjies, Hanli and Rowan Rose-Innes, Nibs Price, Cathy Pringle and Headmaster Mr William Pringle accompanied the learners on all or some of the trail, ensuring the safety and well-being of the hikers.
This year’s Odyssey was a different one, in that the Karoo is in the throes of a drought and the rivers are nearly dry with no potable water en route at all.
Water was driven in to the campsites by means of 70 five litre containers – one for each child, which would last 24 hours.
This in itself was an excellent exercise in the value of water and how precious each drop can be. It was interesting to watch the Grade 10s nurturing their marked, 5-litre containers, and it was impressive that they managed to survive each day with this scant amount – this included cooking, washing and all drinking water!
Fifty-eight slightly nervous Grade 10s set out from the Nieu-Bethesda Sports Club on Sunday 15 September.
Packs had been inspected and weighed beforehand, so this year everyone’s packs were of an acceptable weight. The Development Trust has provided funds each year and Union now has enough packs and tents to accommodate those who don’t have their own.
This year, 15 braai bread pans were also purchased, all which add to the smooth running of the journey. The first 5 kilometres out of the village is a long slog on a district road. During this time, packs were adjusted and by midday everyone caught up at a decent sized (albeit slightly slimy) swimming hole before heading into the canyon at Aasvoëlkrans.
Here the orange cliffs, poplar glades and slow moving river provided incredible vistas and after lunch and a good swim everyone was energised for the final push to the campsite at Riverdene.
It was uncanny to discover that the place where we set up camp this year had been a huge pool in the river last year! But this provided a perfect beach and a gorgeous tent-town was set up before long with a well-managed fire place in a safe spot.
Blisters were tended to, and the group settled into an evening of real conversation, card games and getting to know each other without the distraction of screens and cellphones which were banned. David Langmead gave the group a fire-making lesson and after a hearty meal sleep came easily!
The next day, drama therapist Paula Kingwill engaged the group in a workshop during which the Grade 10s delved into some soul searching about how their environment adapts to change.
This gave everyone the opportunity to get to know each other on a deeper level, and some of the groups produced extremely original and creative ideas which they acted out to their peers.
The group also delved into the role that their ancestors played in their lives and realised how similar – and how different they are on various levels. After a quick pack up, the hike to Schoonberg began.
Some got a little lost (and found) on the way, the previous day’s blisters let themselves known, and packs weighed heavily on some shoulders.
For those at the back, the day was long and painful, and everyone was grateful to eventually see that the pools at camp 2 still had some water in them, providing delicious relief for aching feet and bodies!
Those who found the hike easy, got wind of a secret pool up one of the tributaries and an enthusiastic group headed upriver to see if it had water. The intrepid explorers came back exuberant a few hours later, reporting of the watery beauty that they had found! That afternoon Bronwen and David Langmead presented an outdoor cooking demonstration and before long everyone set out to make their own delicious bread and roast chicken which was thoroughly enjoyed as the moon rose later!
With tummies full, David called the group together and explained the art of stillness and living in the moment. The Grade 10s were asked to meet before sunrise the following day, when they would spend some hours in ‘Solitude’.
Hardly anyone needed waking at 04:30 the next morning… in beautiful, quiet consciousness, the Grade 10s settled around the fire with their sleeping bags, water, and precious letters from loved ones. The adults led them out quietly into the dawn and positioned them individually among the rocks, under bushes and next to pools, where they spent 5 hours in total silence and solitude.
During this time they wrote a private letter to themselves which will be kept in the school safe to be opened at their Valedictory in 2021. The privilege of this time of silent reflection is one which few in the world are blessed with.
On return, someone commented on the quiet, contemplative mood at camp and everyone packed up, ready for the short hike to the waterfall.
After the pools at Schoonberg, the lack of water became evident. The huge pool at the base of the waterfall was reduced in size and not really even fit for swimming. It was decided to camp in the riverbed at the top of the waterfall, and it was here that Mr and Mrs Pringle joined the Grade 10s.
There was talk about the ‘torturous’ day of hiking that lay ahead, and more than a little trepidation filled the air as delicious mugs of soup and roosterkoek were served for supper. The organisers are extremely grateful to land custodians Pierre Fourie and Elizna Smith Fourie, Patti Coetzee, Julian Murray, Johan Dercksen, Sarah Cromhout, Johan Bouwer and the Herding Academy, without whom, the Odyssey would not be possible.
The trackers from the Herding Academy met everyone down the valley at 08:00, ready to guide them along the 14km hike, part of which included 7km of pure, unrelenting uphill.
It is this day of hardship which tests the endurance and tenacity of each and every Grade 10. There are times when giving up is simply not an option, no matter how difficult the going may be.
While endurance hiking is easier for those who are naturally fit, massive admiration went out to those who did not find it easy, yet absolutely refused to give up at all. Mr Pringle described the day’s hike as ‘brutal’ and expressed his real admiration to the Grade 10s for completing this gruelling day, having experienced it himself.
Summiting the neck over which lay the oasis of St Olives farm, was a major life accomplishment for many. Few had ever experienced anything that physically challenging in their lives. Everyone was grateful for the green grass, swimming dam and shady pear trees which made the campsite seem like a hotel after the untamed wilderness they had experienced!
Mr Pringle addressed the Grade 10s later in the evening, speaking to them of the meaning of Homer’s poem, “The Odyssey” in which Ulysses’ 10 year epic journey is described. He likened the Grade 10s personal journeys to the words from the poem, Ulysses, by Tennyson when he says:
“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
The final day dawned bright and early, and while everyone appeared excited that home was close by, most expressed sadness that their time together was over. As a surprise, all packs were loaded into trailers and, free of the weight, the Grade 10s set off quickly on the 11km final stretch down to Graaff-Reinet.
As they reached the top of Ouberg, David Langmead called everyone together for the last time, asking them to leave any troubles, worries, baggage and pain at the top of the pass. As has become tradition, the Grade 10s wrote that which they wanted to metaphorically leave behind in the Karoo dust, before scratching it out and heading off, lighter than before, towards Union.
At school, a heroes’ welcome awaited them as they walked through a tunnel of Unionites – some who had gone through what they had, and some who anticipate the Odyssey in the future.
Tears of joy, accomplishment and pride flowed as parents and friends welcomed their now changed young people, who, for a good part of a week had accomplished walking 65km from Nieu-Bethesda to Graaff-Reinet and while doing so, had learned so much more about who they are.