Classroom in the bush

Sun Herald

Should you ever get close enough to a lion you will immediately note that the king of the beasts is not quite as handsome as he’s portrayed in glossy wildlife photos nor quite as depicted in the classroom. A gap year in Africa can challenge many previously held assumptions.

When seen close up, a lion’s tufted ears are usually infested with ticks. He may well have festering sores from insect bites. Scars marking his whiskered muzzle will be from wounds inflicted by other lions. You’ll only see such fine detail if the lion in question has first been darted and tranquillised – or if he’s dead.

Thrills such as tracking and darting lions for TB tests lie a long way from the classroom. Yet getting up close to big cats, elephants, buffalo and rhino forms part of an alternative educational conservation program, one designed specifically for students taking a gap year after school.

Many school leavers choose to travel overseas as a rite of passage. If you’re the adventurous type, interested in natural history and the great outdoors, why not harken to the call of the wild?

Predators and prey enact a perpetual ritual dance of life and death in the African bush. The Kwa Madwala Gap Year Experience provides the opportunity to observe this awesome natural spectacle, while also learning some of the skills needed to survive in this ever-exciting environment.

“Not for the faint hearted!” quips Conrad van Eyssen, owner of Kwa Madwala Private Game Reserve, which is south of the Kruger National Park in South Africa and tucked between Swaziland and Mozambique. “The students see Africa in much greater depth and get a far better understanding than a tourist.”

Meet the Big 5

Kwa Madwala is a 4000-hectare “Big 5” conservancy, meaning that elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and hippo inhabit the territory along with many other wild creatures. There are two luxury guest camps. A more basic tented camp hosts the gap year program.

There are three options; a three-month (84-day) experience, a 25-day course and one lasting only a week. They suit the “all-rounder” seeking adventure and challenge. You need be 17 years or older to participate in the longer options.

“It’s a conservation adventure rather than work experience,” explains Van Eyssen. ” It shows how a community, eco-tourism and conservation can combine, making it possible for a wildlife sanctuary to survive all the socio-economic pressures.”

So much for mission statements. What budding candidates want to know is exactly what they’ll do. Feedback from former participants gives a good indication of content.

Staying on a game farm was unique in its self, let alone all the activities,” said Marion Yarrow from the UK. “Shooting the .375, tracking animals and catching birds of prey, BBQ’s in dried-out river beds, bundu-bashing in the 4×4, sleeping in our proudly made tree house …. I could go on. It was all awesome.”

Nick Ingham, also from the UK, was equally enthralled: “Among the highlights were the elephant-back safari, microlighting over the wilderness, camping in Kruger National Park, shooting with a large calibre rifle, learning about the bush species and tracking skills, 4×4 driving and having coffee amongst feeding lions!”

Darting and tracking

Mike Farrally from Canada was one of the program’s first participants when it began six years ago. “The highlight was definitely the darting and tracking of the lions. I worked closely with the lions for 3 months and learned a great deal about their behavior and way of life.”

The Gap Year program runs year-round. Starting dates for the three-month experience are January 15, May 15 and September 15. Starting dates for the 25-day course are April 18; August 18 and December 18.

In charge is the former head ranger at Ngala, which was the first private safari reserve to be incorporated in the Kruger National Park. Various other professionals, including vets, pilots and conservation experts, lend their expertise.

You will learn about all sorts of African animals, birds, insects and reptiles, study the art of tracking and will, at some stage, track lion and dart them for TB testing. You’ll also catch and release raptors on the birds-of-prey course.

Instruction is given in shooting a .357 rifle, as well as hand gun target shooting, clay pigeon shooting and archery. You can expect to count wildlife from a microlight, take a elephant-back safari and participate in an adventure course that includes absailing and white-water rafting.

“The sort of students who come here want to be constantly entertained, so we keep them busy,” says Van Essyen. There are also excursions to the Kruger Park, to the coast in neighbouring Mozambique, and into mountainous Swaziland.

All together it’s quite a package, one you’re unlikely to ever forget. It may even change your life. In Africa you soon learn to expect the unexpected.

For full information about the Gap Year program contact Kwa Madwala Private Game Reserve, P O Box 192, Hectorspruit 1330, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, phone +27 (0) 13 792 4526, e-mail:

Gap Year Experiences

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