How would you like to go to school in the bush, in the midst of animals, trees, flowers, insects and birds, learning from nature? Well, that is the exciting but tranquile life for the 180 or so students at SOUTHERN CROSS SCHOOL, www.southerncrossschools.co.za, just outside the small town of Hoedspruit, on the edge of the Kruger National Park in Raptors View. I have driven 2 hours north of Nelspruit in Mpumalanga Province to Limpopo Province, named after that great river. Nearby is an airport, Eastgate with a civil terminal, while the runway forms part of the South African Air Force base, where Africaans is the lingua franca.
Only 5 years old, the school takes children up to the age of 16 and will expand to the full 12 grades in a couple of years. I was staying nearby in the home of Leslie Blandy who has a thatched roof home with all the mod cons, electricity, hot showers, cable TV, a swimming pool and is called Warthog Wallow. True to form as I awoke with the birds and sat on the small terrace for breakfast, but what should amble along but 4 one-year old warthogs, 3 sons and a daughter of mother warthog Esmeralda, who was off somewhere about to drop a new litter. The females have one pair of warts, and the males two pairs. They enjoyed some sliced apples and water mellon and then wondered off. Soon a gigantic giraffe appears and then a pair of guinea fowl and a foot long millipede 'races' across the terrace on its many feet. This is life in the African bush.
Each house must be thatched roofed and at least 2 1/2 acres away from the next. Outside were a few burrows from where dwarf mongoose would appear, and the various birds including the yellow billed hornebill was in a tree by the front door trying to attract a mate.
At the school a drum sounded for assembly rather than the traditional bell and its normal for wart hogs, impalas, waterbucks and giraffes to show up. The kids are dressed in dark green short sleeve shirts and grey shorts and while many pay a fee, there are scholarships available. About a quarter are boarding students from all over the world-USA, Hong Kong, England, South America, while many are children of managers and owners of the many private wildlife parks in the area.
I was walked round the campus by Mike Cowden, whose wife Tanya is also a teacher and their two daughters ages 9 and 10 are students. Mike coaches soccer but is also the ecology teacher and enjoys snakes and recognises all the birds in the district. I had suggested that I would love to see a small hand held camera be invented that you could point at a tree, a bird, a flower or an animal and the computer inside would identify it. Well, thats not available yet but he does have an Ipod like machine that when you point it at a bird it recognizes the sound and tells you what kind of bird it is. He knows all the species by heart anyway.
Of course ecology and the wildlife and fauna are a big part of the economy of South Africa and it will need conservationists, teachers, park rangers and directors and guides to cater for income producing tourists in the future. Fourty students are borders in Tamboti Lodge, two houses for boys and girls in 4 bed dorms. How about waking up in the morning facing the Northern Drakensberg mountains to the call of the wild, in the Valley of the Olipants.
If you look at the web site its shows him handling a very poisenous Black Mamba which he 'retrieved' from a neighbours house. The children use the environment in maths, english, science etc and meet all sorts of snakes, spiders, and study the trees and plants. One project is for each class to be given an area and for them to chart the progress of the trees and fauna. Mike can capture a kingfisher without hurting it and explain its place in the ecosystem, or the same with snakes and animals, or talk about the beautiful baobad tree. Vicenza, a 15 year old was carrying his African drum back from a band practice, while the trail bikes were all lined up in a row, with the required safety helmets. The majority of the children were practicing the Nativity Play for this weekend.
I met a couple of 16 year old boys who were mad keen on soccer, Ben and Ngato and told them to register as volunteers for South Africa 2010 when they will be old enough to help at the airports, the press centres, the stadiums, the FIFA headquarters etc. The students have trail bikes and ride around the outdoor campus of 100 acres. One of them, Andrew, had a shock the other day when, with his head down he collided with a giraffe. Both were suprised and shaken and both walked away unharmed.
The lessons are both indoors and out, and a new computer centre is almost up and running. Assemblies are outdoors and thats when small and large animals, birds and reptiles are likely to wander in. They are building two new tennis courts and a new soccer and rugby field are planned, but it will have to be fenced to prevent the many warthogs rooting the surface with their tusks. In fact all the buildings, which have to be thatched, and the houses outside have to be fumigated below ground and made insect proof. There are termite mounds all over the bush, many as large as a man, and some hundreds of years old. The queen stays below in moist and warm surroundings as do the white coloured termites, while those going up to ground level foraging for food are normally dark.
One programme that Leslie is in charge of is the Reach A Cross project. Hundreds of teachers from across the province come in at weekends to study and learn with computers and other resources to then go back to their small schools in the townships. These schools may not even have elementary assets such as running water or enough books, and up to 100 students in a class. Leslie speaks Afrikaans, English, Shangaan, Zulu to communicate better, and this weekend is a busy graduation day for a couple of hundred of these teachers who will be at a ceremony at the school, while the youngsters will break for Christmas holidays in a few days. The country schools teach in the local native languages, and also have English classes. the Soweto riots of 1976 were caused when the authorities insisted in teaching all pupils in Africaans. However most parents want their children to learn English as soon as possible, in order to get on better in life and get a well paying job.
On the bush trails I learn to identify the spoor, the footprints of the various animals, by their size, shape, and depth. You can tell how old the spoor is and how many of the animals and their ages(by their weight) have passed by. Their droppings also give out clues. Giraffes obviously drop from a great height, so the little pellets scatter more than those of a warthog or a small impala.