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Suspended in Reality on my Midlife Gap Year

Written by Milly Whitehead on 30 / 11 / 2018

MidLife Mutterings

I am 48. Wife, mother of 2 teenage boys, chief dog walker, fridge filler, middle lane driver and jointly responsible for sending hundreds of gappers away each year to faraway lands.

Sometimes I rock it and feel invincible, other times the rocking feels like a hail storm and chaos ensues. Nothing unusual, except I was getting bored with my day-to-day routine. I needed an adventure, as opposed to a sports car. I talk about travel and volunteering all day, every day and all of a sudden, I needed to do it for myself.

Apparently, I am not alone and after a few encouraging conversations The MidLife Leap was born with a team of 7 women and one very brave man to live the dream in the depths of the desert in Southern Namibia. Here we were going to help our hosts Ed and Andrea at Oana Conservancy with their conservation projects before throwing ourselves down the Oranje River in a raft and trekking up very high mountains.

This was our journey…

The Arrival

As a team of 8 I knew half the group well, but they only knew me (or maybe one other) – so we were all secretly dealing with the first day of school jitters. Clearly as team leader I had definitely over thought my safari look and now look back at the photos and smile at the middle lane driver trying to be Lara Croft.

Anyway, for me it was love at first sight – this eclectic group was the first MidLife Leap, they had juggled their logistics, stepped out of their comfort zone and were ready for the challenges ahead to make lifetime memories and that we did. Bonded for life.

The Camp

Think massive, endless, panoramic views of an ever-changing desert landscape. This is not the Namibia you see in the guide books. This is the deep south, way off the tourist trail; think Grand Canyon meets Wild West on steroids.

To get there we traveled by minibus and Land Rover from Upington (South Africa) across the Namibian border and beyond. You know you’re getting close when the tarmac disappears and your teeth get that lovely coating of dust across them. Welcome to Africa, in all its glory, and the “crossing awaits” - which I can’t share with you, as, if you go, it would ruin the moment…but put it this way, this is when you realise you’re on an adventure. The dormant backpacker in you gets awakened and, for the record, you can feel 18 again.

Eventually (5 hours in all) we arrived at base camp, which is a pretty cool set up, built by Ed and Andrea over the last few years. To me it resembles one of those 1920 safari tented camps – think boho, army surplus – big stand up canvas tents with the South African roll mats on top of camp beds – I promise they were comfy and after the first night of mysterious noises we slept like logs.

They had shower tents and genius flushing loo’s tucked away behind granite walls, open to the stars and the watchful eye of rock hyraxes. Utter heaven.

We were cooked delicious food by Mighty and looked after by gentle Monika – who also taught us to bead jewellery so we could return home layered up like a true gap yah traveller.

The Volunteer Projects

The whole reason for going was to contribute to Oana Conservancy which is a conservation project The Leap has supported for the last few years. Oana was rescued from its previous life as a hunting ranch by the renowned conservationists Ian Craig and Pete Morkel who secured the land with the aim to ecologically restore, re-wild and link up with neighbouring conservancies to one day turn the greater protected area into a National Park to home the endangered black rhino.

We worked solidly as a team, rolled up our sleeves and tackled two main jobs. The first was to slash and burn the poisonous trees on the reserve. In the space of one morning we must have destroyed about 5 of the beasts which you might not think is much but it was tough work and burning them in 40-degree heat was enough to force me to have a lie down in a discarded bath. They have calculated that if every group did the same (gappers clearly do more of this, as they are there for 4 weeks) then in 4 years the reserve will be clear. Job done.

The second job was to complete the waterhole the gappers had built in September. We had to grout it, clean it up and sort out the edging – which involved smashing rocks, mixing cement and getting the consistency just right, filling in the grooves, brushing and washing. This was my favourite part of the whole experience – we grafted like little worker bees side-by-side, gossiping and laughing as we laboured. The result was a triumph – water hole filled up and open for business. The reason behind this being built so close to the camp is that the wildlife needs to learn to trust human sounds. Having been a previous hunting ground the wildlife are skittish, elusive and therefore hard to study.

The Adventure

Intertwined and never stopped. From ‘the crossing’ arrival to the starlight loos; the steep treks; to the rafting; the heat; to the mountain top sundowner. This all consuming adventure had us on our toes and we were exposed to different experiences every day.

What I did notice about our group was how unbelievably kind we were to each other as the adventures all challenged us for different reasons at different times. Being selfish was not part of the deal and never entered the dynamic. We helped each other, supported and let each other take time out if that was required, but not for long as we all loved to chat. On occasion Ed made us walk in silence to take in our surroundings and be more mindful or popped us solo on a rock to take stock

The rafting was a welcome break from the heat of the desert which was unusually hot so the woolly hats and new thermal puffas never saw the light of day. The Oranje river was clean, fresh and crocodile free so in we went until sundown. Sleeping on the riverbanks in star tents was out o this world – just don't camp on the hot rocks as it was like sleeping on an electric blanket. Along our watery journey we saw otters, amazing birds and stunning scenery – oh and searched for diamonds...albeit unsuccessfully.

Suspended in Reality

So now we get to the heart of the matter.

For 9 days I was me – Milly in my silly Lara croft outfit, having a ball, bouncing around and suspended in my desert reality without a care in the world. I wasn’t a wife, mother, employer or school run mum. Take me as you find me, in all my dusty attire. I loved it. And so did everyone else.

Did we talk about our families? Yes of course, but not to any degree.

Did we talk about the struggles of life? Yes, but only when Ed got the Rafiki stick out.

Did we talk politics? Absolutely not. Brexit, what Brexit?

Did we laugh? Whole heartedly, from the bottom of our hearts.

Did we make friends? Yes, lifelong.

Did we find our mojo? You betcha.

Was re-entry hard – yes, but my lovely family have been patient and so proud of what the fridge-filler could achieve when she puts herself out there.

So, what next?

Namibia, Costa Rica, Madagascar and Guatemala – The Midlife Leap is a winner.

Who’s coming?

Check out our MidLife Trips

Guatemala, Madagascar, Namibia and Costa Rica are just a few to start you off, take a peek and see which tickles your fancy.

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