The CVQO Westminster award finalist trip to South Africa was without a doubt one of the best two weeks of my life and I know that I will never forget it. I have made some lifelong friendships and experienced things I never imagined I would get the chance to.
The 11-hour plane journey gave us all time to get to know each other and started off those bonds that grew stronger throughout the trip. After we had landed, our first port of call was to get to the first camp we would be staying at for the first three nights called Elandsheim. Our first activity when we arrived was to complete a muddy assault course and take part in team activities, just to really make sure we got to know each other very well.
During our stay here, we learned about the history of the Zulu tribes and the battle of Rorke’s Drift, we were even fortunate enough to visit the museum created where the battle took place. An amazing fact and piece of British history I learned was that this battle was where the most Victoria Crosses were won in a single battle. We also walked the Isandlwana battlefields tour, which showed us some of the beautiful landscapes of the country and encountering the famous Buffalo River which we crossed, barefooted.
One of my personal favourite experiences here was in the evenings before we went to bed we would all lay down on the field and look up at the stars. They were so incredible not like anything I have ever seen before, we could even see the milky way and the more shooting stars than I could even count. It was just spectacular and I will always remember the beautiful starry African nights.
We left the camp on the minibus to go to our next destination, on the way we played karaoke which was hilarious and a good way to pass the time. Our next stop where we would be staying for the majority of our trip was Albizia camp in Hluhluwe. After settling down and picking tents we gathered round the campfire for a talk about the current global poaching situation, we all asked questions to get a better understanding of what was going on in other countries and things we weren’t exposed to back in the UK. It is safe to say a few of us were choked up or had a tear in our eye unfortunately not for the right reasons. It is so sad what goes on and makes me very angry and want to help.
After this we had our first ever Indaba session, this is where we all sit around the campfire and we had chosen an Indaba stick which was used when someone wanted to speak, no one else could speak unless they were holding the stick. Our first session included people sharing past experiences they have had both good and bad, things they were afraid of or just anything they wanted to get off their chest. Some more tears were shed but it was well worth it and I’m sure everyone will agree we are all now closer as a group because of it. What more perfect of a setting than the beautiful Umkhumbi safari lodge, surrounded by nature and true ‘wild camping’.
The next day was very interesting and probably the most unforgettable day, not necessarily for the right reasons though. Today we skinned and dissected a Nyala Bull. I watched from the sidelines. It was upsetting to think this animal was alive before I had eaten my breakfast that morning, however, it showed us all just how real the circle of life is. I can still smell it now though, yuck not one of my favourite things I have ever done! The rest of the day we went on an adventure walk through the conservation park we were staying in, came across lots of evidence of previous animal action such as footprints of hippos on the bankside and hyena’s faeces, which actually turn white due to the amount of calcium they intake from the bones of their food.
Our project the next day was to help join two conservations so that the animals have a place to roam. To do this we took down a 3km fence and barbed wire - this meant that our South Africa team really had to work together. All the members of the conservation park were so pleased with the worked we had done and how quickly we had done it. It would have taken them nearly three times as long if we weren’t there to chip in. We then trekked through the bush looking for a zebra that went missing recently. During this time, we witnessed Tommy use his tracker expertise; for example, pointing out to us that the zebra’s dung was only an hour old. Sadly, we were not able to find the zebra but it was still an experience to remember.
A new experience today for most of the team as we went to a local school. All the children were so friendly and loved seeing us, plenty of high fives and piggybacks to go round and they were all fascinated by our long golden hair. Plenty of pictures were taken with us and they loved seeing the picture on the screen. We were then tasked with giving presentations to the classes about rhino poaching and getting them to understand the importance of how dangerous it is and how it can impact their future. It was quite difficult because at first, they didn’t understand us as there was a language barrier, but as soon as I started talking about the big five they all sprung to life and were getting involved putting their hands up and answering the questions. We were also able to play a game of football and volleyball with the kids, who were surprisingly good!
Today we went to another school to do another talk about poaching. After we did the presentation the school performed lots of different songs to us. Then a young girl who spoke amazing English talked to us about Nelson Mandela day. We performed a pretty tuneful rendition of the national anthem to them and they responded by singing the South African anthem to us. We then took part in a mini sports day - some of us played football, netball, and volleyball and of course, there was lots of singing and dancing. To finish the day, the teachers insisted that we had a whole school photo, which was absolutely amazing. On the way home from the school we took part in a home visit where we saw how the grandparents made the sleeping mats used in Zulu households. Once they gave us a talk about it, we helped them with making food, planting vegetables and collecting water from the well.
Next, was our well-deserved rest and relaxation day and we were all excited to head to the beach and work on our tans. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the walk ahead of us once we parked up at the gates of the bay. We slid our way through the sand and down the hills, passing some ancient fish traps, which date back to over 2,000 years ago with the technique being passed down the generations. The sight we were met with is like nothing I’ve ever seen or will ever see again; with beautiful clear water, sandbars and green hills that surrounded the bay and opened only for the ocean. We splashed about in the water, played football and had a laugh as not only a team but now a group of friends that has honestly come so far since day one.
Game drive day, we set off in two trucks with open tops down the road to Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park. This journey was almost colder than the ‘mud island’ (Tommy’s nickname for the UK) but we soon warmed up and the real fun began. Despite the early start it was a relatively relaxing day with our aim being to see lots of animals, especially the famous big five. First came the wildebeest then the impala and the nylala, buffalo and finally some elephant before stopping for a braai (bbq). After lunch we had even more success spotting animals – we saw plenty of white rhinos which are truly amazing to see, weighing a hefty two tonnes, but even more fascinating was seeing three wild dogs and a glimpse of a lioness, both of which are a rare sight to see.
The last day was my 17th Birthday, how memorable to wake up in my new found favourite country. Probably one of the most special birthdays I will have in my lifetime. I opened my presents from my parents that I had carried with me the whole trip and had been so excited to open. Then, unfortunately, it was time for us to head to the airport for our final day together as the team.
We were looked after so well during our time in their beautiful country, the South African tour guides and coordinators made my time out there just that extra bit special. They have all sparked something in me to be more like them and the experience would 100% have been different without them. Since going to South Africa my life has most definitely changed for the better. It has been a whirlwind of busy cadet nights, awards ceremonies presentations and I have well and truly been rushed off my feet.
CVQO and the Duke of Westminster Award have helped my Sea Cadet career to prosper beyond my belief and it has opened doors for me that I didn’t even know were there. For example, a picture of me and the Captain of the SCC at the House of Lords made it onto the Sea Cadets Main Social Media sites for thousands to see, I have had an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire to attend his Awards ceremony and to receive an award myself. Even things like my mum posting on Facebook how proud she is of me, then me getting dozens of replies from friends and family congratulating me and telling me in person what an amazing young lady they think I am. It is a really big confidence boost to show me that I am doing something right. Not to mention the brilliant qualifications that I have gained along the way.
We are such lucky young people to have the opportunity to gain the complex qualifications we have obtained from doing this award. They are nationally known, and I appreciate how much value they are worth not just on my CV but in the skills gained from completing them too, I will take these leadership qualities with me through every future job or Sea Cadets role I can.
I cannot put into words how life changing and spectacular my two weeks out there were, and the effect they have had on me as a person. It has made me realise things about myself I thought I knew but discovered in more depth when in close proximity with the other teammates. Things like learning to laugh at things that don't matter, and that it is the little things in life that make it so amazing and memorable and these little things will fuel certain memories that bring you back to those experiences.
TIA ‘This Is Africa’
Katie is a Leading Cadet at Warsash Sea Cadets and a 2018 Westminster Award Finalist.