A Volunteering Placement in Africa and InterRailing Throughout Europe

Last year on results day I was devastated. I hadn’t done enough work during my final year at school and had missed my grades for my first choice university. Rather than take my insurance choice, I decided to take a year out, re-take the necessary modules to get my grades and re-apply to finally head off to university in 2014.

Just before results day I had begun working at a restaurant and when I decided I was taking a gap year they kept me on and I worked five days a week for six months to afford to travel. That was a learning curve in itself, as it requires immense discipline to get up at 8am every day through horrid weather and days when travelling seems so far away! All my friends were either heading off to uni or had planned their gap years months in advance so I felt rather alone. The possibilities for gap year travel are endless and deciding where to go and who with is a nightmare if it’s all done very last minute!

The first part of my gap year

I had always wanted to go to Africa and searched the Internet for possibilities. An organisation called Frontier popped up that organises volunteering placements there, and I found one which looked perfect: a six-week expedition in Madagascar which included teaching English to local children, exploring forests and learning how to survey various species of plants and animals, and learning to scuba dive on coral reefs and studying marine life.

I went to Madagascar alone, although I met other volunteers at various airports along the way so the whole experience was less daunting. Leaving your family and friends for almost two months to go somewhere that has no mobile phone reception and email only once a week is terrifying but is a truly valuable experience as you learn pretty quickly to fend for yourself.

Madagascar was such an adventure for me. From spending 27 hours on a ‘boutre’ (read: pirate ship with no shade) on our way to the research site, sleeping under the stars and going to the loo over the side while other girls held up sarongs, to learning how to dive and becoming a Rescue Diver, memorising numerous coral species so the research you do is beneficial, teaching English to the children in the village and learning to get on with people from totally different backgrounds and countries. It is something I will never forget and I have never felt as happy as when I was living in a leaky hut, infested with cockroaches and getting up at 5.30am to head out into the Indian Ocean and dive with species of flora and fauna seen nowhere else in the world.

The second part of my gap year

The other part of my gap year was spending five weeks InterRailing around Europe with a close friend who had done the complete opposite and done far better in his A levels than he had expected! We had an amazing time, visiting nine cities spending roughly 3-4 days in each. Europe was a completely different experience from Madagascar but equally valuable. It taught me to be far more patient and to understand that if something doesn’t go to plan, it isn’t the end of the world. It was also great to be free and just drift to wherever took our fancy.

We met some wonderful people who we are still in contact with and visited some awe-inspiring places, including the Auschwitz concentration camp just outside Krakow and the 16th century Hungarian baths in Budapest. The guards on the night trains are also worth a mention. Being told to hand over your passport at 3am by a large, bearded, Polish border guard pointing a gun at you is definitely an experience, albeit a terrifying one!

Final thoughts

My unplanned gap year was the best experience ever. Ironically, I can’t imagine not taking one now and if I had fulfilled my offer requirements last August I wouldn’t have met the people I have, done the things I’ve done and grown so much. Part of me thinks that if you plan it too carefully you build your expectations up too high and it’s never as good as you imagine it will be.

Gap years are all about spontaneity and broadening your horizons, so if you do worse than you expected to, it isn’t the end of the world and I really urge you to consider taking one. However, if you aced your A levels you have nothing to lose, except the experience of a lifetime if you don’t take a year out.


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