From 30 April to 2 May, a group of 38 third year students and four lecturers from the Department of Child and Youth Development at Durban Institute of Technology (South Africa) attended a camp at the L'Abri Wilderness Training School.
"The School implements the concept of experiential learning using the wilderness as the learning centre – a place where personal discovery is accelerated. L'Abri is a camp situated an hour outside of Pietermaritzburg in the mountains. The camp runs courses on personal development, leadership, team building and cultural interface experiences." (Visit at www.youthkzn.co.za.)
The journey to L'Abri
The bus set off with music pulsating loudly. As we neared L'Abri, it became overcast and started raining. The bus started slipping on the dirt roads which had turned to mud and we were asked to get off. Once we realised that this was not someone’s warped idea of a joke, we left our worldly goods behind in the bus and walked the last couple of kilometres to the camp in the cold rain through the mud and mist. Some of the group started singing which kept everyone’s spirits up during our trek.
At last, we arrived at L'Abri where we were welcomed with a seemingly never-ending supply of hot tea and coffee. Our luggage was collected from the bus by truck and we changed out of our wet, muddy clothing.
The first day
The rain continued so indoor activities were organised. We divided into four teams. Each team was required to place a small jar as far as possible over a particular line without any team member touching the ground on that side of the line. Different strategies were adopted by different teams in an effort to beat the others. Some group members started accusing other teams of cheating and the atmosphere became quite tense with heated emotions and raised voices. The Child and Youth Development lecturers had been told by the L'Abri team leader to step out of our usual roles and become full participants in the experience so the L'Abri facilitators were left to manage any difficulties. Fortunately, they were well able to handle the conflict in a firm, respectful and effective manner. They also reminded us that there had been no mention of being in competition with other teams ...
"Competition crushes creativity. When we focus on beating others at all costs, we experience frustration, there are accusations of cheating and the result is conflict."
That evening, the continuous rain caused the electricity to fail so we cooked over fires by the light of a few paraffin lanterns. Each team was given a chicken, some potatoes, an onion, rice, a butternut, some herbs and spices and a potjie in which to cook. We could create whatever meal we wanted from the ingredients given. Again, the approaches of the different teams were quite different with some groups adding one ingredient at a time and others putting everything in the pot together. After enjoying the fruits of our culinary efforts, we cleaned up and went to bed, exhausted from our first day in the wilderness.
At breakfast, it became clear that the procedure for each meal would be the same – as a team, use the ingredients to cook whatever you want over the fire. We discovered that eggs and bread hold the potential for a variety of recipes!
The weather was better so we were able to engage in a range of challenging outdoor activities involving trust and cooperation. In one of the teams, a participant dropped out due to impatience with the slow progress. Afterwards, she acknowledged this and listened to feedback about how her behavior had affected other group members. Such experiences held the potential for greatly-enhanced self-awareness and future self-development.
Before lunch, we hiked through the bush, down to a waterfall. Parts of the hike were very steep and due to the previous day’s rain, rather slippy. Some group members were not able to enjoy the picnic at the waterfall because they were busy thinking about the fact that we still had to hike back up the cliff to camp!
Our final day ... We spent the whole morning at the foofie slide (zipwire). Almost every person had a turn with the others shouting encouragement and applauding. It was quite something to step off the platform holding a rope and zooming along at 60 km/hour to be brought to a halt by two people holding a special harness at the bottom. Not for the fainthearted!
Interestingly enough, the first people to volunteer were those who had expressed fear and anxiety about many of the previous activities. A few of them said, "I knew that if I didn’t go first, I wouldn’t go at all."
After lunch, we packed up. We returned to Durban, weary and aching, but satisfied with what we had achieved.
Our experiences provided many opportunities for learning about ourselves and others. There were participants who were able to demonstrate strengths which had been hidden in the academic environment. Some of the students commented:
"I also enjoyed getting to know the lecturers and seeing them differently, and them getting to know us. I realised that the lecturers know how to have fun." (Saloshnee Murugan)
The type of challenges required us to trust and support each other. At times, as one struggled to maintain one’s balance on a precarious plank, it was wonderful to see all the hands outstretched to help.
"For me, teamwork was important. We were doing practically what we learned in class. People showed trust and respect to each other. We managed to work together effectively, more than before in class. We weren’t always aware of this learning until afterwards when we reflected on activities. The way the facilitators worked together reinforced this" (Lihle Sibiya, student).
"The experience brought us together and we were able to forget about problems and conflict with each other" (Saloshnee Murugan).
"There was a spirit of togetherness not seen at campus. I have also been seeing this since our return while the students are at practical placements" (Fathima Dewan).
People were able to face their fears and achieve success in unfamiliar activities through the encouragement of others.
"There were excellent challenges to push yourself. The sense of accomplishment was immeasurable. It was wonderful to see the students doing this – the expressions on their faces were priceless!" (Feroza Shariff, lecturer).
"We learned about ourselves. I learned that I can do anything I put my mind to and that I can be strong for others, encouraging, motivating and helping them not to give up" (Saloshnee Murugan).
"I was vulnerable in front of students and I did not have to worry about being judged" (Fathima Dewan).
The natural environment at L'Abri provides real opportunities for growth and development through experience and reflection.
"When I think of L'Abri, one word comes to mind ... calm. It gives you a feeling of serenity and makes you want to know about yourself and look within" (Feroza Shariff).
"I learned so much about myself. L'Abri provides a lovely climate for self-discovery" (Melissa Gregory, student).
Such experiences add an important dimension to the learning process for child and youth care students. We envisage wilderness training becoming a regular aspect of the curriculum in our teaching programme and trust that the true value of this camp will shine through in the students' work with children and youth at risk.
This feature from Child & Youth Care, April 2002