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Most tourism enterprises across Africa are now actively engaged in community development and conservation work, as efforts are made to protect our natural heritage and support growing rural populations. One of the best examples of this is in north-west South Africa, where a longstanding project is now developing tourism to help fund its education and environmental work. The impact is impressive, on all fronts.

For my twelfth birthday my parents gave me a novel present: they packed me and nine school friends off into the wilderness. Their plan, apart from getting the boisterous pre-teens out their hair for a while, was to have us slickers of the urban sprawl of Johannesburg educated in the forgotten ways of the bush.

The place of choice was Lapalala, a 5000-hectare reserve of the most pristine wilderness deep in the Waterberg in the remote north-western part of South Africa. Here, isolated red-soiled valleys lined with spectacular layered sandstone cliffs echoed the flow of rivers cascading into rock pools where endless wooded and grassland landscapes harboured a diverse range of wildlife. If an African wilderness could be personified, this was it.

The ten of us were dumped on the bank of the Palala River, where some rudimentary huts, a tiny thatched kitchen and a pit latrine awaited us. Over the next few days we were taught how to read spoor, study scat, interpret salt licks and other signs of the wild. We took long hikes into the bush, quietly getting up close to wild animals and learning how to conserve our water. We shot the rapids of the Palala in old tyre tubes, identified a dizzying number of bird species, gazed in awe at the star constellations, unveiled in their magnificent splendour so far from the light pollution of the city. Someone lost their penknife in the pit latrine. This caused a lengthy debate as to whether anyone should attempt to retrieve it. In the end no-one volunteered.

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About Travel Africa

Why Botswana? Where to go, what to see, how to plan for your trip to this amazing country • Slow safari - letting wildlife come to you • Kaokoland, in search of remoteness • What it's really like to walk in Luangwa • Self-drive Tanzania • Know your owls • Sierra Leone rises • 60 reasons to visit Nairobi • Lapalala Wilderness... and much more!