A group of teenage air cadets have returned home from an amazing adventure overseas.
The five girls and eight boys from the 404 (Morpeth) and 346 (Tynemouth) Squadrons spent three weeks in South Africa labouring on a life-changing project, trekking, visiting battlefields and doing some big game spotting on safari.
The quintet from Morpeth were Corporals Alexandra Sikkink and Rebecca Reed, both 18, Megan Milbourne, 17, and Ellie McGrady, 16, and Cadet Lisa Hunter, 15. The contingent was accompanied by Sergeant Sarah Robson, 27, and Civilian Instructor Kirsty McVay, 23, who volunteer with the Tynemouth Squadron.
They spent the first week of their trip at the Entabeni Education Centre in the KwaZulu-Natal region, where they were tasked with creating a sustainable garden at a school in Insonge – an hour’s trek from their base.
The caring teenagers dug trenches, tilled the earth, planted trees and vegetables and turned an unpromising patch of dry earth into what will soon be a garden that produces healthy fruit and other crops for use by the village children and their families.
Insonge’s elders were so impressed with the group’s efforts that they invited them to a coming of age party for two villagers where they tried the local food and joined in with traditional Zulu tribal dances.
Alexandra said: “Without a doubt the best bit for me was the coming of age party – it was a wonderful experience.
“Going on safari was amazing, but to go to South Africa and then as a stranger be invited to a 21st birthday party and be welcomed into the community like that was a real privilege.”
The cadets, who each had to raise £2,500 to meet the cost of the South Africa expedition, also went trekking in the Drakensberg Mountains, where they walked nearly 2,000m to the top of Mount Lebanon.
They slept overnight in caves, camped out on the rugged Ithala Game Reserve where they saw elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, giraffes and monkeys, and visited the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift on the Natal border with Zululand.
It was here they met the descendants of some of the warriors who fought in the Zulu wars against the British and heard their unique perspective on the 19th Century battles.
They were particularly moved by a 10km walk along the rocky and steep Fugitives’ Trail that the few British survivors of the carnage of the battle of Isandlwana escaped along.
Ellie said: “All the way along the route there were piles of stones marking the mass graves of the British soldiers who fought and died. They are still maintained by the locals and painted white so you can see them for miles around.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of these cairns. It was really eerie and seeing all those memorials was very emotional.”
It was only on her return to the UK that Megan discovered her great-great-grandfather had fought and died in the battle.
She said: “It was a strange feeling knowing I had been to where he died. I know nothing about him, but I now want to find out more.”
All of the cadets feel that the expedition has changed them for the better.