“How easy it was for me to be away from home”
-student response to the question “What surprised you most about the trip?
With a huge smile, each drops his/her bag as we gather at the red and white cube, known as "The Meeting Point" in the Amsterdam Schiphol airport. Others come with a trolley heavy laden with luggage. Parents greet us with warmth and excitement on behalf of their children and linger about with anticipation of the departure.
It isn’t a school trip. Yet, my students surround me. It isn’t a field trip either, yet I carry responsibility.
Our expedition has been organized through the Opwall Wallacea group, a non-for profit research organization that includes both university and high school level students in their projects. We are headed to South Africa to participate in studies involving, among other things, the assessment of the effect of elephants on the ecosystem of a private reserve in the greater Kruger area. The scientific component and anticipated lecture series of this program thrills me, excites parents, and makes the students somewhat leery of the trip. My current and future biology students will experience many links to the curriculum. The chemistry and physics students will be exposed to a new aspect of science.
By 13:30 the last of the 12-person group had arrived and the expedition was ready to proceed. Good-byes. Check-in. Passport control. Security. We are truly on our way! Our group of 12 (ten students plus two teachers) remains together for our 15-hour journey to Johannesburg, South Africa that includes a 2-hour layover in Cairo.
We emerge in Johannesburg somewhat bleary-eyed but surprisingly rested despite our overnight flight. After securing a phone card and cash, we find the Wallacea group. Two other school groups are there, both international schools from Shanghai, China. Our students check-out and size-up these other students. Will they become friends?
We are loaded into tour busses and are combined with one of the other schools. As we pull into Hoedspruit, pick-up trucks stand in readiness for us. Neutrally clad individuals with lilting South African accents organize all participants into the open pick-ups. Why is it inherently exciting to be sitting in an open topped vehicle tearing off on dirt roads through the bush? Dust swirls behind us as we are jostled about in the back of the vehicle. The jeep slows as we pass by lions, giraffe, and bushbok, forshadowing of what lies ahead of us.
Two hours of bumping around and rapidly dropping temperatures leaves us all eager for arrival at the camp. Finally, our jeeps pass through the voltage-gated fence. It’s dark so we can’t see the river that runs past the camp, however, we can hear the hippos ‘laughing’. We partake of a delicious dinner under an open-aired grass-thatched roof. Toby delivers his orientation and distributes the students into the 6-bunk rooms. They quickly decide who will sleep where and have already organized their shelves with an excited fury.
To our utter surprise the teachers’ are allocated cabins with sheeted beds and blankets. My colleague and I are so proud of our students and their flexibility and ability to travel this great distance without even getting temperamental. And we are really pleased with our housing situation. We all settle down into our accommodations and students and teachers alike can hardly wait for the morning sun to rise.