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Echoes from a silent landscape

Jenny and Malcolm Gunter took a party of A-level students on fieldwork location to Namibia, where they explored textbook examples of geomorphology, and shared their water hole with the jackals.

Most A-level geography students spend a week doing field work in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District or the south Dorset Coast. Tewkesbury and Churchdown schools from Gloucestershire chose to study desert and arid landscapes, river processes and tourism more than 5,000 miles away from home in Namibia, south-west Africa during the summer holiday.

Fifteen students and three teachers arrived in July on a direct flight with from Heathrow to Windhoek, and returned home four weeks later with some excellent fieldwork notes as well as memories and experiences that will last them a lifetime.

Why Namibia? Why choose a country more or less unknown to most Europeans for a school geographical expedition? The relative newness of Namibia as a nation was one of the reasons. It is now quite difficult finding a landscape in the world which has been unspoiled by tourists. Namibia has made great efforts to ensure tourism and natural beauty remain in harmony. Being able to find so many excellent "textbook" examples of geomorphological features to study in one country is also difficult. Namibia has so many - the sand dunes of the Namib and Fish River Canyon to name but two.

It is also important to have a feeling of exploring the unknown, but still be able to guarantee security and safety for students when you are in charge and you're 5,000 miles away from home. At no time in Namibia did we feel threatened or in danger, even though we camped at many of the remote sites in the Namib-Naukluft Park.

The expedition members were selected in May 1993. Apart from studying A-level geography, successful applicants had to demonstrate personal qualities of self-reliance, ability to work in a team, ability to cope in difficult circumstances, and show that the expectition would benefit them in a personal, social and academic sense.

For the next l5 months they worked hard on planning the four weeks, preparing material for their own individual study topics and raising the necessary money. Apart from their own personal contributions of Pounds 620, nearly Pounds 8,000 was raised by the team to supplement the costs. Events from car-washing, ice-cream selling and coffee mornings to piano concerts and dinner parties were organised. These fund-raisers helped to weld the team and ensure that students from both schools got to know each other well.

On arrival in Namibia the group were hosted by Air Namibia at their training hostel at Gamans in Windhoek for three days. This provided an ideal base to acclimatise, explore the capital city and begin urban fieldwork. They studied an area from the central business district through the coloured township of Khomasdal to the black township of Katutura, looking at the height of buildings and their material, residentialcommercial use and population count.

The transport on leaving Windhoek was hired from Acacia Expeditions in London. This was a four wheeled drive, 12-geared self-sufficient truck with camping gear and water supplies for bush camping.

The expedition itinerary took the group south over the Tropic of Capricorn to complete extensive fieldwork studies at: o The Dunes at Sossusvlei, an oasis in the Namib Desert where students studied the dried up lake bed and surrounding sand dunes, mapping vegetation type and distribution in the two contrasting environments.

o Kuiseb River Valley, where the focus was on geomorphology and its relation to rock type, land use, slope angle and water table level.

o Etosha National Park, to study the managment and conservation of a wildlife park with particular reference to the impact of tourism in a natural habitat.

They also conducted fieldwork at the Kokerboom Forest and Karakul Sheep Farm at Keetmanshoop; Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world; Kolmanskop, a deserted diamond settlement; and at a petrified forest near Khorixas.

Comment from the students highlight the most memorable experiences of the trip: o Climbing orange-coloured dunes at 6.30am when the temperature was a few degrees above freezing and then watching the colours change as temperatures rose to above 35 degrees in the next few hours; sitting on top of Dune 45 and experiencing the emptiness, silence and vastness of the Namib.

o Driving to the edge of Fish River Canyon and suddenly seeing the huge cavern below; then attempting to descend and ascend it in an afternoon. The heat at the bottom was overpowering even in the middle of winter.

o Arriving at the Okaukuejo water hole at 6pm and within the space of a few hours seeing two separate herds of elephant, one of 22 and one of 26, three white rhino, two hyenas and numerous jackals. Nobody wanted to leave.

o Staying at Homeb and camping in a deserted area with no other people around was special. Exploring the sand dunes and river sides of the Kuiseb gave the feeling our footprints were the first on that area.

Namibia is Africa unspoiled - a vast, beautiful country waiting to be explored. It has so much to offer to geographers. There are few places in the world where it is possible to experience silence, where "blue skies" does mean blue and "open spaces" does mean emptiness. Namibia has all this and more.

Jenny Gunter is deputy head of Tewkesbury School, and Malcom Gunter is deputy head of Churchdown School, in Gloucester o Air Namibia run weekly direct flights from Heathrow to Windhoek.

Factfile. Politics: Namibia, formerly South West Africa, gained independence from South Africa in March 1990. President Samuel Nujoma heads a multi-party government with SWAPO majority. Population: 1.8 million.

Size: 823,144 sq kms lying between latitude 18-28 degrees south, 14-21 degrees east.

Language: English is the official language with German and Africaans widely used.

Industry: renowned for diamond and uranium; fishing and stock farming.

Currency: Namibian Dollars, closely linked to the South African Rand.

Landscape: Four main natural regions: Namib Desert; semi arid mountainous plateau; low-lying SE and NE areas; northern plains.

Climate: Sub-tropical desert climate. Sparse rainfall in the hottest season (between November and March). 300 days of sunshine per year.

Religion: main western religion Christianity.

Natural vegetation: varies from dense bush in the north to Savannah and thorn trees in central area, and desert scrub in south and west Left: Dune 45, some 300 metres high

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