I opened the envelope and there it was; the final, polite ‘no’. Hmm. I now faced a decision; enter UCAS clearing and end up on some bizarre and unwanted degree course, or take a year out to re-assess my situation and apply again with the next UCAS cycle. The latter seemed a much more sensible option and so it was that I found myself on an impromptu gap year.
I had never been much of a trend-follower but nearly everyone I knew of, that had taken a gap year, had travelled and this idea was certainly appealing. So I decided rather than mope around for 12 months feeling sorry for myself for not being accepted into Vet School, I was going to do something both useful and enjoyable and I began surfing the internet for ideas and information on gap year placements.
The most logical place to go, as a born and bred animal lover was, of course, Africa. Somewhere I have never been but had dearly loved to go for as long as I could remember. I stumbled across African Conservation Experience a.k.a. A.C.E., a gap year company nestled amongst a myriad of others, which seemed to me to fit the bill perfectly. It had been running for a good number of years, seemed genuine, was concerned with the conservation of African wildlife and dealt within Southern Africa, the area I understood to be my safest option.
Before I knew what had happened, my application was accepted, details were confirmed, the deposit was paid and I was going to Africa! I then realised that the hardest part was yet to come – how to accumulate the £4000 I needed for my trip to the African Bush. I already had a part time job with a veterinary surgery, which I did during the day and took on a nightshift job stacking shelves in a supermarket. Not quite the “useful and enjoyable” work I had in mind but none-the-less it was bringing in much needed funds. I started working two jobs around the August of 2005 and by February 2006 I had paid off my placement in full. The feeling of achievement was wonderful, knowing I had completely paid for the entire experience myself; you really appreciate the whole “input/output” ethos at that point.
I finally flew out to begin my big adventure on Sunday 30th April, a big bag of nerves, excitement, anxiety and anticipation. My family have always been very close so saying goodbye, breaking those emotional ‘ties’ to home and gaining some independence was, though very important, very difficult! I think in hindsight that is probably one of the selling points of a gap year. A chance to ‘get out there’ on your own and live as an independent person in preparation for university and indeed, life beyond.
And so I spent my time in Africa. South Africa for the first month and Botswana for the second. In South Africa, I had many a wonderful experience. Physical graft such as road clearing and invasive plant control and two weeks spent on a ranger course learning everything from 4×4 driving skills and firearms handling to dealing with snake venoms and general game reserve management. As well as this I had the opportunity to camp in the Kruger National Park for a weekend and go microlighting, rafting and throw myself off a cliff on the world’s highest gorge swing (not for the faint hearted!). Living over there for that period of time really allows you to get a taste of the cultures and societies that are sometimes so similar yet sometimes so alien to our own, a great wake-up call to the fact that there is indeed a world beyond your own four walls!
Travelling into Botswana, I was on a research project in the Tuli Block, an area of unimaginable beauty and sheer wilderness. Here I was involved in mapping populations and herd dynamics of general game and of elephants. Studies were also being carried out on leopard populations in the area and we spent time studying the vegetation, basically a total ecological survey! So little is known about the Tuli Block and what animals exist there that you couldn’t help but feel a bit like the explorers of old! It was wonderful to be so close to, and involved in, nature and conservation. I was able to take my ‘tracker’s test’ and sit on the tracker seat on the front of the game viewer, with elephants crossing the dirt track not 3m from where I sat on the bonnet of the vehicle. We also went on night drives to study the nocturnal animals of the area and were even lucky enough to see aardvark, African wildcats, civets and hyena amongst others! Even beyond the touristy delight of seeing your first elephant or aardvark, there was a much deeper feeling of satisfaction gained from knowing you were actually playing a part in something important, something totally unconcerned with such superficial issues that seem to rule society in the UK such as who won which football match, which single is no.1 and who won the latest reality TV show.
Living in tents, with an open air bathroom, having elephants wander through camp at night, a few 3/4m crocodiles on the Limpopo riverbank, a (very) noisy porcupine rustling round your tent at 2am and walking into a leopard on a bush hike will stay with me forever. As will doing sleep outs in the bush, lying there looking at the wonderful constellations of the southern hemisphere’s night sky whilst listening to the hyenas call somewhere around you. And to think, I never planned to take a gap year at all!
It is very strange indeed how you set off in life with one particular direction in mind and end up through a series of events you never suspected, in a completely new and fascinating one! I re-applied in the 2006 UCAS cycle to university, and was lucky enough to secure six unconditional offers to study zoology. Not a bad improvement on last year’s six rejections from veterinary school! My placement with A.C.E. gave me much needed experience in the zoological and ecological fields and I start The University of Wales, Bangor this September studying a degree in Zoology with Conservation. I have a new direction and a much altered view on life and feel that I am now a much more independent and mature person than I was. I believe that my gap year is wholly responsible for this. It gave me the opportunity to really cut loose and look at what I wanted in life and gave me some truly awesome experiences. A.C.E. has a lot to be proud of, giving people such as myself the chance to do what I’ve done.
I realise I sound like some over paid gap year salesman, but I never intended to take a year out and yet now I cannot believe that I nearly missed out on what has been the best year of my life. If any one were to ask advice on the matter I would have to say: it is a lot of hard work. People often think that ‘gap year’ equates to 365 party days. Not true. Stacking shelves in a supermarket at 3:30am wishing you were anywhere but there, is no fun. For me, it was a real chance to learn about life and myself. People kept telling me “sacrifice and reward” and it is so true. I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks of my life doing amazing things in southern Africa but it meant a good 6 or 7 months working long hours, saving every penny and really being focused on the end goal. That said, I would tell everyone that a gap year can not only be the most amazing time of your life but it can also be vital in so many other ways, ones we might not initially realise.