The Spirit of South Africa

Author: Mary Oeftering

Tags: Africa

This summer, I received an opportunity quite unlike any I could have ever imagined. Discovery Education is launching student adventure tours to various countries all over the world, and I found myself on the pilot, surrounded by cameras and in one of the most culturally and environmentally vibrant destinations on the planet. I traveled for twelve days through South Africa, all expenses paid, with eleven other handpicked students from across the country.

During our time in Cape Town and Johannesburg, we learned the art of African drumming, received SCUBA training, trekked through the caves of the “Cradle of Mankind,” visited the house of Nelson Mandela, and reserved playtime with some adorable penguins. The highlight was undoubtedly our day cage diving with a great white shark! It was definitely the most extreme experience of my life! Even the boat ride out from the little village of Gansbaai was a roller coaster (which many would feel a little later on… the skipper called it “helping with the chum”). On my dive, the shark got so close his fin hit the cage, and he completely rammed into the cage on another.

The encounters I valued most were the meals with locals and the visits to the townships and orphanage. At this moment in time, South Africa is recovering from centuries of strife and prejudice, and visiting now allowed us to witness the building of a new nation and the spirit of hope and enthusiasm that accompanies it. South Africa, just like every other country, has its problems. The fact that these were not hidden from us but rather presented to us sets this travel program apart from any other types of travel I’ve participated in before. At this moment in history, it is recovering from centuries of strife and prejudice, and visiting now allows us to witness the building of a new nation. Every ingredient to the “tossed salad” of South Africa (as Nelson Mandela put it) has to be tasted in full flavor.

The last leg of our trip took us to Tshukudu Bush Camp outside Kruger National Park, where we came face-to-face with the fiercest animals of the continent. Through morning walks with lions and evening safari drives, we were becoming acquainted with the remarkable wildlife as I never thought possible. We even took part in the release of a young leopard into the wild! Forming such connections with your surroundings naturally creates a new understanding and sense of responsibility for the environment. 

Our travel manager, Alan Petersen, made the changes in the country clear to us in a casual discussion he had with us on our last night together. That night, I realized that, often, the best thing to do is sit down, be quiet, and listen—that it is the only way to travel. Instead of constantly comparing the minute details of one place to another, one should just soak it in. Let all the sounds, smells, and sights crash your conscience. In this way, I fell in love with the natural beauty of the South African coast, the food warmly offered to me, the enchanting animals that rule its corners, and the welcoming people living by ubuntu. If I remember one thing from this trip, I hope it will always be the idea of ubuntu, which was explained to us as “I am because you are,” and which I felt alive in unique ways in all the communities and people I encountered.

Each participant in Discovery Student Adventures shared his or her experiences on a blog while we were traveling, which can be found at www.dsasouthafrica.blogspot.com.