Maureen McTaggart visits the National Trust's study centres for a packed programme.
Sunshine and lush vegetation were reminiscent of an African safari. But instead of walking among big game, the 28 members of a Welsh safari at Stackpole in Dyfed were threading their way through undergrowth harbouring nothing more threatening than ants, butterflies and frogs.
As well as Stackpole's summer safari fortnight, every week fromFebruary to November, up to 40 students aged between nine and 14 visit this National Trust study centre with their teachers. It is the only residential environmental centre of its kind owned by the National Trust and, to judge from the reaction of its visitors this summer, it has only two problems - too much to see and too much to do.
Stackpole is one of the Trust's richest habitats, home to the most northerly colony of greater horseshoe bats in Europe, while freshwater lakes and lily ponds, overshadowed by limestone cliffs and acres of woodland, provide the perfect seclusion for otters.
Students can try a variety of environmental and outdoor pursuits including coastal walks and rocky shore studies, and woodland walks, as well as experiencing the more action-packed excitement of abseiling and canoeing.
According to 12-year-old Laura Hancock: "You need more than a week to do everything, that's why I have been coming every summer, for four years". Her main worry was whether she would get enough sleep if she was to go bat watching at 10 in the evening and get up in time to spot an otter about 4.30am.
Susan Falch-Lovesey, senior education officer at the centre, says the centre tries hard to cater for all the children. "Even though all our courses are tailor-made to previous experience, class, year and teacher requirements, we are open to suggestions, and will change our timetable, so long as we can work within safety requirements."
She and the other four staff members and volunteers have designed an impressive programme of events for the children. If rain stops work, there is plenty to do in the common room with its colourful wall displays, aquarium and extensive library of reference books.
Although the timetable is largely dictated by the weather (canoeing while the water is high, rocky shore exploration while it's low) so long as safety permits the course goes on, even in February and November. Rachel Holland, who shares abseiling and canoeing duties with a colleague, Peter Ward, said: "Sometimes in winter we wish the children would beg not to go out, but they don't seem to feel the cold and we are the ones standing by shivering, while they learn to master the finer details of canoeing."
They aim for variety, so the more Indiana Jones pursuits are complemented by coastal walks, woodland rambles, orienteering and visits to the castle in nearby Pembroke. Susan Falch-Lovesey said: "The balance is important because Stackpole is neither just an environmental nor just an outdoor centre."
Safety is paramount. The fun does not begin until every child is standing to attention listening to the rules governing the pursuit about to be undertaken. Each activity is several lessons in one. Every step the children take is designed to open the environment to them. Orienteering, for example, involves looking at wildlife while doing sport. Moreover, it's fine by the instructors if a child is more interested in the wildlife than the sport itself. None of this year's summer safari group balked at the idea of controlling a kayak single-handedly, despite watching their colleagues spinning around in the water at Stackpole Quay for what seemed like hours. And several of them cheerfully agreed to lower themselves backwards down a 30-foot cliff in a disused quarry.