Cadets are flying high after a once-in-a-lifetime expedition helping an impoverished African community.
Five girls and eight boys from 346 (Tynemouth) and 404 (Morpeth) air cadet squadrons spent three weeks in South Africa labouring on a life-changing project, trekking, visiting battlefields and big game spotting.
The cadets, aged 15 to 18, spent the first week of their trip at the Entabeni Education Centre in KwaZulu-Natal in northern South Africa, where they were tasked with creating a sustainable garden at a school in Insonge.
The teenagers dug trenches, tilled the earth, planted trees and vegetables and turned an unpromising patch of dry earth into what will soon be a productive garden producing healthy fruit and other crops.
Insonge’s elders were so impressed with the group’s efforts 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.
Sgt Elliot Rogers, 17, from 346 (Tynemouth) Squadron, said: “I was planning on going to university after my A levels, but now I want to go back and volunteer at Entabeni.
“It was an amazing experience. The work was hard but once you have met the people and seen the lives they lead you have a better understanding.”
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 and slept overnight in caves; camped out on the rugged Ithala Game Reserve where they saw elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, giraffes and monkeys, and visited the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift on the Natal border with Zululand.
Sgt Rogers was joined on the trip by his 346 colleagues Flight Sgt Liam McConville, 16, Corporals Josh Gribbin, 17, and Ben Hennessey, 18, and Cadets Patrick Quinn, Jack Sherrin and Kai Korzonek, all 15, and Callum Watt, 17.
They were accompanied by Sgt Sarah Robson, a 27-year-old veterinary nurse, and Civilian Instructor Kirsty McVay, 23, a staff nurse at North Tyneside General Hospital, who both volunteer with 346 (Tynemouth) Squadron ATC.
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.
On her return to the UK that Cpl Megan Milbourne discovered that her great-great-grandfather had fought and died in the battle. “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.”
The highlight of the group’s trip was Entabeni, however, and spending time with the Insonge villagers.
Cpl Alex Sikkink 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.”
None of the cadets missed the comforts of home. “You think you need so much, but you don’t,” said Cpl Rebecca Reed. “I enjoyed not using my mobile phone, and it shows that you can still be happy without those things.
“One of the things that really struck me was how excited everyone was by our cameras. Every time we went to take a photo everyone crowded around and wanted to be in the pictures.”