The flagship of the Somerset College Outdoor Education Programme is the Trek, which is now in its 20th year.
Undertaken by all Grade 9 pupils in November each year, Trek offers a rare and unrivalled opportunity for students to explore their natural surroundings and to further their education in an extraordinary 360km journey of physical discipline, spiritual reflection and personal self-discovery.
As the only school outdoor programme of this magnitude in South Africa, this 27-day adventure is undertaken on foot, in canoes and on bicycles; traversing the unique and striking landscape of the South Western Cape.
Through mountains, valleys, rivers, forests, farmlands, eco-
reserves, sand dunes and seashores, Trek is an incomparable educational expedition, where these young people find and build an essential understanding of themselves and a deep appreciation of others and the environment.
Starting and finishing at Somerset College, the Trek journey’s emotional culmination is the signature flag-raising ceremony in the De Hoop Nature Reserve on day 25.
This full and unique experience embodies the seven R’s of the Outdoor Education programme at Somerset College: Rites of Passage, Relationships, Reach, Rootedness, Responsibility, Risk and Reflection.
The entire Grade 9 year group is divided into single-sex groups of approximately 14 pupils, and each group is allocated two accompanying adults, some of whom are teachers and some past students, or “Old Oaks”, returning to contribute to the extraordinary spirit of Trek.
Each “Trekker” is given the opportunity to lead their group for a day, where they make decisions affecting the group.
From the simple choosing of a rest stop to the more complex delegation of responsibilities,
students learn positive leadership skills and how to work together
to ensure a healthy team dynamic.
As Trek continues, students become increasingly adept in their camping and outdoor skills, enhancing their orienteering and map reading, refining their food preparation, and taking care to keep their gear clean and one another safe.
It is a special time of aspiration, growth and adventure – a true rite of passage.
Pupils are also involved in community service activities during the course of their journey.
Cultivating an admiration and respect for the people and neighbourhoods that share the setting of the Trek route, each group is able to contribute to the community and to make a difference in the lives of others.
The pupils’ safety is of foremost concern. Accompanying adults undergo an extensive training programme and experienced mountain guides and river guides accompany the groups on particular stretches of the route.
A dedicated medical team is always on call and further assistance from doctors and medical staff in towns close to the route is arranged beforehand.
The generous assistance and goodwill of farmers along the way also ensures the success of Trek, and forms part of the comprehensive support and protection network carefully and precisely coordinated by the dedicated Trek organisers.
Coming at a crucial point in adolescence – the end of the Grade 9 year – Trek takes young pupils out of their various comfort zones and offers one of the rarest and most definitive experiences of personal growth and maturation.
In a time where adolescents are admittedly challenging the world around them, Trek expands the horizon of their immediate world, offering an authentic and purposeful journey, full of rich learning and cherished experiences.
In the great outdoors Trekkers have the opportunity to overcome difficulties, to reflect deeply, and to take stock of their lives: life skills which cannot be taught in a classroom.
The sense of self and the human and environmental communities we inhabit become the focus. There are also no electronic devices like cellphones, nor are there parent taxis or fast food deliveries.
However, that is not to say that Trekkers are entirely isolated. Indeed, there is regular communication.
Instead of cellphones though, hand-written letters are thoughtfully crafted and lovingly sent to friends and family – another forgotten skill of personal and creative expression that Trek reconnects to pupils.
“Trek distinguishes our students from most others their age, those who haven’t done Trek and who will never have the privilege.
“Trek also makes our students distinguished in that it elevates and strengthens them in body, mind and soul, and joins them to the hundreds of Trek predecessors for whom Trek will always be one for their greatest memories,” comments Graham Sayer, the executive head of Somerset College.
In short, Trek is so much more than a camping trip or long hike. It is a mental, physical and emotional challenge that has changed many young lives.
Throughout history, many societies have established rites of passage as children enter their teenage years, and Somerset College sees Trek as a deeply fulfilling rite of passage – one that focuses on aspiration and accomplishment, commitment and contribution.
One from which these young people emerge stronger, fitter, healthier and more mature – ready for their last three years of high school, and empowered to come of age with purpose and dignity.
But perhaps most importantly, for all of its magnitude and significance, Trek also remains a rite of passage that is enormous fun for all who undertake the odyssey.