Hiking for children in the Drakensberg: A silver lining to KZN troubles – Megan Bedingham

In the Northern Drakensberg, there is a small independent primary school called the Royal Drakensberg that is educating children from the area from the age of 4–10. It was co-founded by Megan Bedingham and Loretta Mecklenborg in 2007, initially to educate their own children, but was then expanded to include children from the area and now caters for 100 children. Their mission is to transform their local area through quality education initiatives and they also provide programmes to local communities to encourage early learning and child development. To raise funds for the school and their programmes; they have an annual Big5Hike through five peaks of the Drakensberg. Bedingham told BizNews they wanted to raise R1m with this year’s hike and were looking for corporates to sponsor two peaks … and for anyone who has an urge to scale a mountain, there are places left. – Linda van Tilburg

Summit five peaks while making a success of somebody’s life 

[It is] five quite steep peaks, which we hike over in this beautiful Drakensberg range where we live. The hike is all to do with education and trying to uplift the community and make a difference through education.

We started as a fundraiser, for education. We run a good little independent school up in the mountains, which focuses on the foundation phase. But the school helps further and its reach goes into our community through other projects. For the hike itself, we ask hikers to join us, who each have to raise R8,000. That money goes directly to the school and we host them in the mountains for the weekend. They have to summit the five peaks that surround us and we sell off the peaks to corporates; so, we fly the corporate banner on each peak. We have wonderful corporates that come in. Mugg & Bean sponsors our coffee station halfway up the first climb, then we have Wimpy burgers in Cannibal Cavern. It’s a wonderful event and all sorts of people join us, from the very fit to those who have had to train hard for the climbs. It takes some people between eight and 10 hours to complete the hike. They all come here to challenge themselves, which I believe is always a good thing to do but they also make a contribution to somebody else. Those are two key things. With Covid-19, we have all needed to escape, to get out, do good and feel good. On the other side, they are uplifting a little person who maybe wouldn’t have had the opportunity to read so well. They wouldn’t have the opportunity to make a success of their lives and this is what we are aiming to do in this area; to make a contribution to the children, make sure they learn to read, so they can read to learn and be a success in their own lives.

Take-up for the Big5 Hike has been slow this year

Well, this year is the first time we found things to be a bit slow. We will do two more hikes after this. Two more years to go. We do have two peaks still up for sponsorship. We’re looking for two corporates to spend R25,000 in our area. That R25,000 goes directly to the schools and the projects and we can issue 18A donation receipts and provide letters to corporates because 92% of the children we are supporting are black South Africans. This is a rural area, so the need is great and the contribution is enormous.

The teachers do outreach programmes from the school to help early child development

The little school we run has 100 children in it; 92 of those little people are black South African kids from previously disadvantaged communities. The funds raised make sure we can continue to run this school. The funds go towards the running of the school and towards investing in our sustainability. We have an investment fund, the savings, which we will be able to tap into later to ensure we can continue to do this work. We have six incredibly dedicated teachers who work with us and do outreach from the school. We have another project called the Khanyisela Project and run a programme called Baby Boost. The Khanyisela Project helps 18 pre-schools in the greater amaZizi district and Baby Boost focuses on the first thousand days. We run a series of workshops with mothers and carers to highlight the importance of early stimulation because the earlier a child is stimulated, the more success they will have later on when it comes to reading and being successful at school.

South Africans have returned to the Drakensberg but overseas market needs to recover

It has been particularly hard. People rely on tourism in the area, which is probably the greatest provider of employment in this area. We had to close our business for four and a half months. That meant our whole team went home but we were fortunate the government had set up the TERS UIF scheme. Our staff managed; they were all right. But those in tourism … it’s not only the jobs, it was also crafters in the areas who suddenly didn’t have tourists coming to visit. They were badly affected. Where you would usually be able to invest in skills development, all of those things have been on the back end now because everyone is trying to survive. Yet, South Africans have been amazing. They have supported tourism businesses in the area and, by doing that, they’re supporting jobs. We’ve been very fortunate. People were desperate to get out [after lockdown]. I think the Drakensberg provides such an amazing playground for people. There’s lots of space and you don’t have to be terrified of Covid-19. That has been a huge win for this area. People could get out into nature. They needed space, they needed to be restored.

We have seen a lovely bounce back in the South African market. But what the tourism sector needs now is for the foreign market to return and to return well. That feeds into a lot of the low-season times. We cannot all be vying for the same South African business; the economy and people just do not have the resources to be able to holiday often. So, we need tourism and the foreign sector to bounce back as quickly as possible.

A Big5Hike and a little hike with coffee, burgers in a cave and doing good

Our Big5 Hike is coming up on 21 May. For those who would like to join us, they can pop us an email at [email protected] and we will be able to give them the information. We have still got a few places open on the hike. If any businesses are looking at sponsoring a peak, they can also send an email to the same address. We look forward to sharing this lovely weekend with like-minded people doing something for somebody else.

For the Big5 Hike, you do need to be pretty fit; there are some quite scary places where you have to climb. The start of the two-hour climb goes up the nose of Hlolela and can be quite scary. Many feel quite exposed at that point. You do need to have a head for heights but so many people manage it. I don’t want to put people off. We also have a Little5Hike for those who aren’t as keen. The Little5Hike is still fairly strenuous but more manageable for those who just want to do a really good walk. It is about 10 kilometres and includes five stations; it also goes past the lovely Mugg & Bean coffee station and lands up in the cave for Wimpy burgers. Everybody congregates in the same spaces and then we all come back for a celebration on the grass. There is a welcome home party, which is sponsored by Total Gateway. Lots of corporates come in. We are very fortunate to have sponsored clothing. Each hiker receives a jacket, a T-shirt and a day pack, and those are all made possible by the generosity of so many corporates.

This hike is another avenue for people to do something good for themselves, something good for somebody else and to enjoy the Drakensberg, which is an amazing space. We are just three and a half hours from Johannesburg and three hours from Durban. So, it’s easy to meet up with friends. It is just a great place to be.

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