Oakhill Odyssey

On a Friday morning in mid-March every year, a beautiful tradition unfolds at Oakhill School in Knysna. The entire school excitedly forms a human corridor to send off the Grade 10 students on a very special journey called The Odyssey. `With everything they need in their backpacks, they head off on foot with a map, directions and the Oakhill flag in hand. Their route will lead them through the magnificent natural environment of the Garden Route and Langkloof, through forests, over mountains, across semi-desert and along lakes, rivers and the breath-taking Southern Cape coastline. They cover around 400 km on foot, bicycle and kayak and are due to arrive back at school 21 days later to hoist the Oakhill flag. What happens between taking down the flag on Day 1 and hoisting it again on Day 21 is a rite of passage that sets Oakhill and its students apart from ordinary schooling. Oakhill has been offering The Odyssey for seven years now and has refined it to be the gold standard for similar experiences around the country. More recently The Odyssey has attracted interest from other independent schools and for the past two years Oakhill hosted pupils from various schools in Gauteng on what has informally become known as the “Jo’burg Odyssey”.
Everybody agrees that The Oakhill Odyssey is a profound experience that leaves no one unchanged but why would the school cut three weeks out of the Grade 10 academic schedule for an excursion like this? Surely not only for the thrill of the adventure…


On page one of the content filled diary that every student carries in their backpack, appears a message from the Head of School as a reminder that this journey is a rite of passage: “You are about to embark on a journey that will always remain a landmark in your life. Is it because it promises to be physically demanding? Yes, but by no means only because of this. You are in for a treat! Not only will the landscapes vary on the journey ahead but also the emotions you are about to experience – excitement and disappointment; contentment and frustration; courage and fear; joy and sadness. Through all of these, remember that growth seldom takes place in one’s comfort zone. What you get out of the journey will be determined by your attitude and your engagement with your peers. Keep going. Keep laughing. Keep a diary. Be positive. Be sensible. Be kind. Be safe!”


Spending 21 days on a trek through nature implies leaving behind most of the everyday luxuries that we take for granted as essential. For some, this fact proves to be a great challenge, especially in the first few days en route. However, the Odyssey offers one luxury that most modern people have in short supply. This is time… The programme is designed to provide ample time to complete what needs to be accomplished every day, including a splash in a mountain pool after breakfast, a siesta under a Yellowood at noon and a moment of awe when a loerie’s call stops you in your tracks. Although there is constant change in the environment along the route, the task for each day remains similar and simple: Move from point A to point B.
The Head of School’s message further encourages students… “Take time to explore your own inner landscape as much as you do the magic of Mother Nature, with all your senses. Take time to build relationships with peers and to share yourself with them; to listen and to be heard. You will have time to test your individual resilience and to discover the immense power of teamwork. You will have time to lead but also to follow… your leader, the route, your common sense and your inner voice. Enjoy the precious luxury of time and make the most of it!”


Reflection is encouraged on The Odyssey. This tends to happen spontaneously in a beautiful natural setting when one is far from home and faced with tough mental, physical and emotional challenges and afforded enough time to work through these. Odyssey The Odyssey experience covers 400kms in 21 days and features hiking, kayaking and mountain biking.
Trekkers are required to formulate their thoughts in reflective letters to their parents, the Head of School and their future selves. Around half-way through the 21-day journey, the students enter a 36-hour ‘solo’ during which they spend a day and a half alone in the bush. The contrast between this time of silent solitude and the intense group dynamics of the first ten days brings out profound and honest thinking, much of which is documented in the students’ letters. It is a revelation to read their thoughts on gratitude, humility, perseverance, delayed gratification, mental strength, grit, respect, tolerance, confidence, collaboration, values, priorities, resilience, compassion, endurance, privilege, opportunity, relationships and much more. Some quotes from the letters to the Head of School include the following: “Odyssey has helped me to just be myself and to accept others for who they are.” “I have never experienced anything as peaceful as solo. I think I needed this peace and quiet to reflect about what I want to change and do with my life.” “If Odyssey taught me one thing, it is gratefulness.” “Odyssey has shown me that I can do anything if I put my mind to it and believe I can.”


Just before the end of the journey, each student writes a letter addressed to “My Future Self”, which is handed back to them one year later on a Friday morning in middle-March – the departure day of the next Odyssey group. It is a moving observation to see the emotions welling up as their letters take them back to that magical place where these were written. One then realises why The Oakhill Odyssey is fondly referred to by those who have completed it as ‘the journey to your soul…

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