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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



12 October 2014

Stepping off the plane in Johannesburg to a welcome of 6 degree temperatures caused many members of Queen’s University Officer Training Corps to question their packing choices. Nonetheless, it soon became clear that South Africa’s transition from winter to summer is a swift one, and soon enough the tell-tale signs of sun exposure began to appear amongst the Northern Irish skin.

Treading on the same soil as many regiments from across the UK had fought upon offered a poignant insight into South Africa’s military history. As the corps revelled in the stories of Zulu soldiers running 9 miles in 45 minutes at Isandlwanna and the actions that were rewarded with 11 Victoria Crosses at Rorke’s drift, it was impossible to ignore the bravery of those soldiers as they toiled with such incredulous terrain and conditions.

Although not quite on the same level as running five minute miles barefooted and in over thirty degree heat, the Officer Cadets were able to challenge themselves both physically and mentally through the range of adventurous training activities that were on offer throughout the two week trip. Based out of Em Seni camp near Winterton, Queen’s were able to travel to various locations, on two day rotations allowing them to experience kayaking, abseiling and rock climbing, hiking and mountain biking. Providing copious amounts of good food, a camp fire and a swimming pool (in case the day’s activities had not tired everyone out completely), the camp offered a brilliant location for the two week stay.

The Tugela River presented an exciting setting for the Officer Cadets to develop their kayaking skills. The first day took place by a dam in Spioenkop National Park, where, surrounded by giraffes, rhinos and a range of other South African wildlife, the basic kayaking skills were taught, including the ever important capsize drill, which gave the team a chance to cool off, whilst simultaneously preparing them for the following day. Day two consisted of an 11km paddle down river, incorporating white water that really tested everyone’s abilities. The groups passed through the stunning landscapes of the South African countryside without many mishaps, until, that is, a member of the final group managed to not only capsize his kayak, but also attach his shorts to the vessel at the same time. This resulted in him having to be cut free from his kayak and leaving a slightly questionable alteration to his swimwear!

Abseiling down a slippery rock face gave many of the Officer Cadets the chance to push themselves mentally, especially due to the number of overhangs.  The following day took them to Swinburn Rock, where climbs of varying challenge levels catered to individual abilities. The breathtaking scenery provided an impressive backdrop to the day’s activities. The second group did, however, encounter an unusual interruption. Whilst tackling the hardest climb, the group were joined by a local farmer, who alerted them to the fact that one of the spontaneous fires caused by the dry ground and warm weather was heading their way over the mountain. Sure enough the team hung around long enough to witness the flames, before making a swift exit.

Hiking in the Drakensburg Mountains for two days gave the groups the opportunity to test their navigation skills, whilst also tackling the steep mountains in the South African heat. The views were, without a doubt, worth every step, providing numerous photo opportunities. A night in Zulu Cave, accompanied only by the occasional cries of the resident baboon troop and the noise of the waterfall, which caused many to wake up believing it to be raining, added definite authentication to the South African experience.

Over 50 km of mountain biking pushed many of the cadets outside of their comfort zones. Trails led the teams through Zulu villages and mountainous forests, testing their physical capabilities greatly. Morale was boosted continuously, however, as waves and enthusiastic greetings from local children followed whichever path the bikes took.

As a collective, the corps endured a testing day of white water rafting on the Ash River. Encountering rapids of up to grade four, Officer Cadets and staff alike felt the intensity of the water, with not one person managing to stay dry.

Queen’s UOTC raised money for two of the schools which are local to Em Seni Camp, allowing them to purchase a number of items on their wish lists including netballs, footballs, paper and school uniforms. Two of the teams had the opportunity to spend a very entertaining afternoon with some of the school children who they had helped.

An additional opportunity, in the way of a horseback safari, made its way into the trip’s schedule. In groups of ten, the teams were led by a guide throughout Spioenkop National Park, experiencing first-hand the South African wildlife. It soon became clear that on horseback it was possible to get a great deal closer to the likes of rhinos and springboks than the enthusiastic cadets had ever managed before. Considering that for many this was their first horse riding experience, the groups did extremely well. Throughout the whole corps only one person lost their horse entirely along the way.

Having completed two weeks of rigorous activity, the corps decided to challenge themselves one more time in the form of a gun pull on Waggon Hill, known as the Swartzkop Challenge. Queen’s entered two teams of twenty, who collectively coordinated the manoeuvre of a 1.5 tonne gun up a 150m hill. A calculated mix of both brains and brawn enabled both teams to tackle the hill’s steep, rocky terrain.

South Africa proved to be a fantastic opportunity for Queen’s UOTC to test themselves through a variety of activities, whilst also experiencing first hand South Africa’s incredible culture and history. The trip was thoroughly enjoyed by all, and its stories will be retold for a long time.