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Beautify, educate, treat, feed – legendary Limpopo nature school gets a revamp

Beautify, educate, treat, feed – legendary Limpopo nature school gets a revamp
The Lapalala Wilderness school received a 'net zero carbon' building certification from the Green Building Council South Africa. (Photo: Angus Begg)

In a mountainous expanse where wildlife roams, and where ancient people once walked, a famous education institution has had a major makeover.

Thirty years after the Lapalala Wilderness School (LWS) in Limpopo’s Waterberg was founded by conservation educationist Clive Walker and philanthropist Dale Parker, it recently reopened its doors.

Gone were the outside toilets that by night frightened some of the children on school camps. Built of Waterberg sandstone and bonded by cement – “pieces added on over time”, according to Lapalala Wilderness Reserve CEO Glenn Philips – the characterful old building had seen its best years.

“They were a bit like renovated rondavels,” said a long-time visitor to the accommodation at the old LWS school.

Replacing the rondavels, a fair distance away – just outside the reserve’s southern boundary and above a bend in the Palala River – is a brand-new, architect-designed school building complex, both unexpected and in sync with its surrounding natural landscape.

Detailing, as he walks, the thought behind the construction process, school head Mashudu Makhokha remarks on the rammed earth walls that were created using soil from the foundation excavations, which he says, at a practical level, provide natural insulation and effective noise reduction.

It’s for the birds

Makhokha says all power needed on the complex is generated on-site via a hybrid, integrated solar-power system with batteries. “Water is sourced from two boreholes, rainwater is harvested into tanks, and wastewater is collected, treated and reused,” says the Vhembe-born conservationist.

Lapalala Wilderness Reserve is looking lush and green after a season of good rains. (Photo: Angus Begg)

A bit like Walker, who spent his early years as a youngster on a family friend’s farm, Makhokha says his first real engagement with the environment was while hunting birds near his village.

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“We set traps for and caught birds, and I started wondering what they ate, where they sleep. I was curious. That was the start of my journey in conservation.”

It’s a big step from curious child to this modern institution, which he joined as senior educator in 2009.

As if it was always here

Though brand new, the complex fits hand-in-glove with its environment, as if it was always here, built for purpose.

Makhokha says the indigenous grasses, succulents, medicinal plants and a vegetable garden have been planted to “beautify, educate, treat and feed the learners at the school”. Areas between the various buildings are full of landscaped, indigenous trees and plants.


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Officially reopened in November, the school is legendary among many in the conservation industry.

In the library, Tshegofatso Sekele, a conservation studies graduate intern from a Pretoria university, says she chose to study nature conservation because of her love of trees. The wild olive is her favourite.

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Sekele will be sharing her passion for biodiversity with the children in visiting school groups, in keeping with the school’s mission statement: “To help our children and young adults discover the value of biodiversity in our natural world and our place within it and to identify and nurture Africa’s future conservation champions.”

Tshegofatso Sekele, a conservation studies graduate intern from a Pretoria university, in the school library. (Photo: Angus Begg)

Children from local and distant schools attend the LWS for a week at a time. Those from neighbouring local communities are fully sponsored, and fee-paying schools come from various parts of South Africa to attend courses at both primary and secondary levels. In partnership with the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve, Makhokha says the school offers tertiary-level students the opportunity to complete practical components of their conservation qualifications.

“Our challenge isn’t so much to teach children about the natural world, but to find ways to sustain the instinctive connections they already carry,” wrote environmental author Terry Krautwurst, expressing the aspiration LWS strives for.

Such education costs a significant amount. While the Parker Foundation funded the new complex, Makhokha says the LWS has major funders “like Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, Ford Wildlife Foundation, Rufford Foundation, Mapula Trust and Italtile, among others”. The annual fundraising target is about R6-million.

The Palala River runs through the reserve and past the Lapalala Wilderness School. (Photo: Angus Begg)

It’s not only the school design, business model and location that have changed. The Waterberg hills and mountains in which the school and reserve lie were declared a Unesco biosphere reserve in 2001, long after the LWS was born.

Across the Palala River from the school is thick riverine vegetation, above which is a ridge of cliffs and the  Lapalala Wilderness Reserve – elephants, lions, buffalo herds and plains game roam the classic savanna bushveld, with crocodiles and hippos inhabiting the rivers. The human history is also significant.

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It has been suggested that Homo erectus moved here from Makapansgat in search of summer game, and that San bushmen inhabited the riverside cliffs 2,000 years ago.

Makhokha says the school, which took five years to build, is a perfect place for learning.

“The new school is built for purpose, while the previous  school was an old farmhouse, with lots of infrastructure challenges like plumbing and [electrical wiring] in the building.

Resonance with the wild

“But now, proper connectivity and a proper plumbing line have resolved our infrastructure challenges. And having paved pathways and an ablution block that caters for the disabled is great.”

Speaking at the new school’s opening in December, thought leader, academic and businessman Dr Ruel Khoza noted that there is “massive capacity” for education that is focused on conservation and enjoys greater resonance with the wilderness.

He noted, too, that attention should be given to a healthy balance between industrialisation and commercialisation – “what in governance terms is seen as the interplay among people, planet and profit; a requirement for human sustainability”.

The Lapalala Wilderness School, said Khoza, “is, in this regard, a small but significant project”. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

DM168 11/03 FRONT PAGE

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Grimalkin Joyce says:

    I visited this area when it was first established all those years ago. It’s wonderful to read about this project. I wish everyone many more years of learning in a beautiful environment

  • Grimalkin Joyce says:

    I visited this area when it was first established all those years ago. It’s wonderful to read about this project. I wish everyone many more years of learning in a beautiful environment

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