Taking an Unexpected Gap Year

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Written by: Lucy Dawson

If things don’t go to plan on results day, you may find yourself faced with an unexpected gap year. Perhaps you’ve decided to re-apply to uni for next year, or perhaps you just want to take a year out to reconsider your options.

Going Wild after A-Levels

If you weren’t planning to take a gap year, the prospect can be a bit daunting. But don’t worry: it could be the best thing that ever happened to you. When I opened the envelope on results day, there it was; the final, polite rejection letter. Hmm… I now faced a decision; enter UCAS clearing and end up on some bizarre and unwanted degree course, or take a year out to re-assess my situation and apply again with the next UCAS cycle. The latter seemed a much more sensible option and so it was that I found myself on an impromptu gap year.

I had never been much of a trend-follower but nearly everyone I knew that had taken a gap year had travelled, and this idea was certainly appealing. So I decided rather than mope around for 12 months feeling sorry for myself for not being accepted into veterinary school, I was going to do something both useful and enjoyable. So I began surfing the internet for ideas and information on gap year placements.

I finally flew out to begin my big adventure, a big bag of nerves, excitement, anxiety and anticipation. I spent my time in South Africa for the first month and Botswana for the second. In South Africa, I had many a wonderful experience. The project included a lot of physical graft such as road clearing and invasive plant control and two weeks spent on a ranger course learning everything from 4×4 driving skills and firearms handling to dealing with snake venoms and general game reserve management. As well as this I had the opportunity to camp in the Kruger National Park for a weekend and go microlighting, rafting and throw myself off a cliff on the world’s highest gorge swing. Living over there for that period of time really allows you to get a taste of the cultures and societies that are sometimes so similar, yet sometimes so alien to our own. A great wake-up call to the fact that there is indeed a world beyond your own four walls.

Heading to Africa

Travelling into Botswana, I was on a research project in the Tuli Block, an area of unimaginable beauty and sheer wilderness. Here I was involved in mapping populations and herd dynamics of general game and of elephants. Studies were also being carried out on leopard populations in the area and we spent time studying the vegetation, basically taking part in a total ecological survey.

It was wonderful to be so close to, and involved in, nature and conservation. I was able to take my ‘tracker’s test’ and sit on the tracker seat on the front of the game viewer, with elephants crossing the dirt track not three metres from where I sat on the bonnet of the vehicle. We also went on night drives to study the nocturnal animals of the area and lucky enough to see aardvark, African wildcats, civets and hyena amongst others. Even beyond the touristy delight of seeing your first elephant or aardvark, there was a much deeper feeling of satisfaction gained from knowing you were actually playing a part in something important, something totally unconcerned with such superficial issues that seem to rule society in the UK.

I re-applied when I was back and was lucky enough to secure six unconditional offers to study Zoology. Not a bad improvement on last year’s six rejections from veterinary school! My placement with African Conservation Experience gave me much needed experience in the zoological and ecological fields.

New direction

I now have a new direction and a much-altered view on life and feel that I am now a more independent and mature person than I was. I believe that my gap year is wholly responsible for this. It gave me the opportunity to really cut loose and look at what I wanted in life and gave me some truly awesome experiences.

Living in tents with an open air bathroom, having elephants wander through camp at night, seeing four metre crocodiles on the Limpopo riverbank, a noisy porcupine rustling round my tent at 2am and walking into a leopard on a bush hike; all memories that will stay with me forever. As will doing sleep outs in the bush, lying there looking at the wonderful constellations of the southern hemisphere’s night sky whilst listening to the hyenas call somewhere around you. And to think, I never planned to take a gap year at all…

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