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Oriel High School – World Challenge Swaziland Expedition 2018

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On 8th July 2018, seven students from Oriel High School (Rhys Ash, Ellis Pickering, Megan Walkey, Alice Paton, Nabil Yusif, Joe Coucher and Alex Lake), accompanied by
Miss Rumsby and myself (Mr Myson), set off for an adventure like no other: two weeks of hiking, safari and charitable project work in Swaziland. We’d been told that we’d have no signal or electricity to use phones, no running water to shower with, nothing to cook on but an open fire, and nothing more than a shovel (which the students aptly named ‘Doug’) with which to do our business (if you get my drift…). So what could have possibly compelled this unlikely group to want to spend over £2500 each and two weeks of their lives in such conditions?

Well, firstly let’s talk about Swaziland. Like us two years ago, you probably don’t know very much about this tiny country. It turns out to be quite a colourful and unique little nation! Swaziland sits landlocked on three sides by the eastern border of South Africa and on the fourth side by Mozambique. It is very small, with a perimeter of just
535km (a distance covered by our students collaboratively in their cyclathon to raise money for the trip). The country struggles hugely with H.I.V. – one in four adults are
thought to have H.I.V. and that rate is even higher amongst pregnant women, of whom 40% are thought to have H.I.V. Partly because of this, the life expectancy is just 48 years old. The country is the only nation to be ruled by an absolute monarch, a man named Mswati III who has 15 wives and 23 children and recently renamed the country eSwatini because… well, he wanted to. So there.  The country is also home to some stunning landscapes: open plains, luscious, green mountain vistas in the wet season and vast expanses of protected natural spaces that provide habitats for some stunning wild-life. Its economy is based largely on sugar and pineapple farming as well as a bright and distinctively-patterned textile industry. So the students had an adventure ahead of them. Much of it promised to be full of excitement: a three day hike through the Ngwempisi Gorge; a day of whizzing down mountainsides on zip-lines and two days of safari drives at Hlane national park.

Much of it also promised to be somber and challenging: four days of working at a Neighbourhood Care Point, helping to finish a building that would allow up to 50
children to play, learn and socialise away from the difficulties of their daily lives. Off we go!  The trek was incredible. Lugging all of our equipment on our backs we hiked about 10km in total across three unforgettable days. The Ngwempisi river was our ompass and our two guides led us rambling through heathland, clambering over
boulders and sloshing through the river itself in a pleasant 20 degree heat (being in the Southern Hemisphere we were experiencing Swaziland’s mild winter). The evenings found us setting up tents on the river bank, sparking up fires, cooking and sharing big pots of stew and afterwards lying on our backs gazing up at the wonderful (lightpollution free) dazzling southern constellations of the night-sky. Each morning the braver members of the group would endure an ice-cold bathe in the river whilst the not-so-brave happily forfeited hygiene for warmth and we all huddled around the fire once again for – groan – more porridge. After a bit of morning yoga we’d be on our way nice and early, feeling fresh and enthusiastic.

On the third day, the landscape gradually becoming more epic, we neared the final destination of our hike, the Rock Lodge: a deserted hostel sitting atop what is, quite
frankly, a very, very big hill. Leaving the river behind us, we followed our guides straight up the hillside to our destination and, wow, were we rewarded with a view to soothe our aching legs and backs! The Rock Lodge is one of the highest points in the Ngwempisi valley. As a refuge for weary travellers it is clear that whoever built it knew the best way to take your mind off your pains. The shower (thank the lord!) is outdoors, facing over the valley so that as you wash you watch over the greenery and mountainsides that represent the three days’  trek just completed. As for the toilet… well probably (hopefully) most toilet trips in your life provide nothing worthy of note. Let’s just say that our students, and we, will never forget what is rather aptly named ‘the loo with a view’ (pictures below!). Onto the next phase of the expedition: Project Work. This is why we had come to Swaziland. The most important part of our trip: helping a local community. We arrived, by rather bumpy minibus, at a compound where a sad building stood half-finished. Four or five local women had come to meet us but we’d been told not to expect children until Monday (it was Friday).Well, as soon as the growl of the engine was heard and the doors heaved open we were flooded by greetings. Children ran into the compound to take our hands and yank us towards any form of entertainment (and I mean any). Our Oriel students did us so proud – we barely had time to brief them before they were overrun with children wrapped in woolly clothes (20 degrees is positively chilly when your summers can reach above 40 degrees!). Joe procured an oil drum and began to bang out a rhythm for
a circle of children to dance to; Rhys, Alex and Nabil needed no encouragement to get the football out and begin an epic match that would last for three days; Ellis was to be found with children dangling from every limb and one (for good measure) sitting aloft his shoulders. But the girls, Megan and Alice, were nowhere to be seen. A little
exploration soon revealed that they’d secreted themselves behind our tents and had a circle of about ten children absolutely enraptured by the bracelet-making workshop that was already underway. It was heart-warming to see that across language barriers, across economic and cultural differences, youthfulness, happiness and laughter remains a common language. Playing with the children was a full-time job in itself but it was not what we were primarily here to do. There was construction work to be done: walls to be sanded and painted; structural roof beams to be put in place; ceiling panels to be erected and – it makes my back ache just thinking about it – a mountain of sand to be shovelled through an industrial sieve and then to be wheel-barrowed across the site later to be used to cement over what was currently mud flooring. When the students were offered breaks we had to force them to take a rest, so eager were they to help to get the job done. We arrived to a skeletal framework of a building and worked tirelessly for three days. We left behind a building that, given some finishing touches, wouldn’t look out of place as an additional unit on the grounds of Oriel High School.

On our final night at the NCP we feasted with Nati – the lone builder who was overseeing the entire project – and some of the locals who helped to run the project.
They made us pumpkin stew (rather wonderfully named Sidvudvu; try and say it!) and spinach curry. The boys’ faces lit up at the sight of enormous plates of goat and chicken (we’d been meat-free for a week). Subsequently, the boys’ faces dropped when told that the liver and kidneys were considered a luxury and they were considered honoured in being gifted them, but good old Ellis bravely chewed on through! To round the evening off we joined in a circle, presented the community with a further £300 that we’d raised for the NCP and then celebrated our work with much dancing and singing – the Swazi locals’ performances putting our rather weak rendition
of ‘The Macarena’ to shame! But there’s no time to stop and rest on expedition! We were whisked off the following morning to Malalotja nature reserve where we spent the day clipped into cables and flying across gorges on zip lines to small wooden safety platforms, ten in total and so many stunning views utterly wasted on us because of the terror of the drop below. Who ever thought zip lining would be a good idea? (Apparently the kids enjoyed it rather more than we did.) How time escapes us! Just two days  left of this crazy adventure and what better way to spend them than in an open top jeep being driven around Hlane national park? Our guides had done their best to dampen our expectations – ‘bear in mind that you might not see anything’, they said, ‘it’s just pure chance’. But chance was on our side. Across the duration of two safari drives – one at sunset and one at sunrise – and wrapped in our sleeping bags for extra warmth, we watched in awe as five lion siblings stalked right up to, and past, our jeep, displaying huge yawning mouths of sabre-sharp teeth; we were mesmerised by the majestic sway of four elephants trundling beside us after sunset – giant, dark shapes against a fading sky; we were made to sit patiently whilst, on the track ahead, we witnessed the lazy drift of a rock python stretched out sleepily, snakily; and – my personal highlight – we were allowed to leave the jeep (‘don’t stray too far!’) to share coffee and flapjacks as the morning mist dispersed revealing an entire herd of giraffes elegant and haughty, their babies gamboling playfully, clumsily as the sun rose on our final day. as if that wasn’t enough, we spent our last day lazing by the watering hole as rhinos moped and hippos bathed and, yes, more elephants came for a drink in the midday heat.

And so we’re back. Safe and sound and happy and tired and infinitely changed from the nine people that embarked upon this journey of fundraising and expedition, of
teamwork and adventure, of charitable goodwill and compassion. And we, all of us, have memories we will never forget. But when asked on the last night what they’d miss most, the students were unanimous in their responses: those evenings by the campfire, talking, joking, learning, laughing, and, I see now, befriending one another. Reflecting upon this from my desk, in my English-teacherly way, I’m reminded of a quote from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
but to be young was very heaven!’

Mr Myson and Miss Rumsby are running another expedition trip to Nepal in 2020. If this account has whet your appetite for adventure and you’re in years 10, 11, or 12, then go and seek them out – it’s not too late to be involved!

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