A Summer of Adventure on Two Continents

This article is part of Summer Stories, a special, online issue of Dukengineer Magazine, in which students wrote about their experiences in the Summer of 2007 during their time away from Duke.

by Varun Gokarn BME/ECON ‘09

img_2873.jpgThis summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel and work in South Africa for two months through the Robertson Scholars Program. Along with nine other students, I flew to Johannesburg where we visited the Soweto township, former home to Nobel Peace Prize Winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Nelson Mandela. From there, we drove to Durban, the large coastal city in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where we would stay for the next seven weeks.

After a week of Zulu language lessons and guest lectures, I had organized a service placement to teach biology to high school seniors at Wiggins Secondary School in the township of Cato Manor, where I stayed with a Zulu host family. Townships like Cato are fascinating settlements that are the result of apartheid era policies delineating where certain races of people could live, work, and interact. Though these communities are riddled with problems of unemployment, crime, and substance abuse, most people I met during my stay were warm, generous, and resilient. Many afternoons I would play soccer with my younger host brother, or help my host mother prepare dinner.

A Change of Plans

Unfortunately, my service placement did not pan out as originally anticipated. After just one challenging but enlightening week of teaching at the under-resourced township school, unions instituted a nationwide public servants strike that shut down all the schools. Since there were threats on teachers’ lives, it was unsafe to return to work and I was forced to find something else to do with my time. Along with a couple of other students in our program, I began tutoring through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization in Durban. We worked at various orphanages in the city, helping students with the schoolwork they were neglecting due to the strike.

After living and working in Durban for almost six weeks, our group went on safari in the Kruger National Park. Amazingly, we saw all of the Big 5 animals--lion, leopard, water buffalo, elephant and rhino--in just one day. We continued to drive and camp through Botswana, where we saw hippos, crocodiles, and elephants on the Chobe River. Finally we reached Zambia, ending at magnificent mile-long Victoria Falls. Since the regions offer many adventure activities for tourists, I had a chance to micro-light over the Zimbabwean side of Vic Falls at sunset and face Class 5 rapids on the Zambezi River. Our boat only flipped once, but we made the wipeout count! Though it was sad to end my southern African adventure, the summer was far from over.

A European Vacation

From Zambia, I flew to Switzerland to visit family and meet up with my brothers. Having a free place to stay in Zurich allowed us to make several hiking trips in the Swiss Alps. With picturesque green slopes, azure lakes, well-marked trails, and a world-class public transportation system, Switzerland is definitely one of the best countries for hiking. One of my favorite hikes was around Mt. Rigi, a trail that gives breathtaking views of Lake Luzern. After two weeks of hiking, though, we took a break and did some traveling through Europe. We booked a cheap flight to Prague, Czech Republic where we stayed for two nights. Prague is a historic city that not only offered great sight-seeing, but nightlife as well.

From Prague we took a plane, then an overnight train to Rome. Though it was hot, we spent the next two days walking through the city, visiting sites such as the Colosseum, the ancient Roman Forum, and Vatican City. From Rome, we took a train to Munich, Germany. Not only is Munich a great walking and biking city, but it is also home to the best beer halls in the world. I can’t remember a better dining experience than at the historic Hofbrauhaus -- eating bratwurst and drinking liter mugs of the home brew. With my European adventure coming to a close, I headed back to Zurich to pack for the most grueling experience of my life.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

Throughout the previous year, I had worked with five other Duke students to raise money and awareness for WISER, a girls boarding school in Muhuru Bay, Kenya. Duke students and faculty started the WISER project with the aim of breaking the cycle of poverty, illness, and particularly gender inequality in that region (check out their website at wisergirls.org). Part of our fundraising push was the publicity generated by a charity climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Though Kili stands at a daunting 20,000 ft. above sea level, it requires no technical climbing skill, only a lot of willpower and the ability to walk for long periods of time. Still, when I arrived in Moshi, Tanzania on August 10th, I was dreading the climb I had so boldly committed to months earlier.

The first five days were not too bad as we walked about four hours each day, leaving the rest of the time for acclimatization to the high altitude. We camped in tents and tried to stay warm as the temperature dropped and the air became thinner. Eventually, after trudging through rainforest, scrambling over boulders and crossing what could only be described as a barren lunar landscape, we reached the final camp at about 14,000 feet. The ascent to the peak began at 11:00 at night, up a zigzag trail of frozen volcanic scree.

Though we suffered headaches, nausea, and drowsiness from the lack of oxygen, our entire group reached Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. Barely able to breathe, I couldn’t fully enjoy the moment until I was sliding back down the mountain, realizing that we had actually climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro! Looking back on the whole experience now – from Durham to Durban, from the Alps to Kili, I could not have asked for a more incredible adventure.