Gap-year students lured by 'mystery of Africa'

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The Independent Online

Africa is now the most popular continent for gap-year students working voluntarily between studying for A-levels and university.

As students receive their results on Thursday, up to 100,000 will plan on working and travelling abroad, with South Africa and Tanzania the top destinations, says the Year Out Group.

Sarah Bishop, spokeswoman for the African Conservation Experience, a company that offers work in game and nature reserves to gap-year students, said she believes the "mystery" of Africa is enticing. "Previously, Africa had not been travelled so widely by the gap-year market, whereas Australia, New Zealand and Thailand have been done to death," she said. "So there is a sense of adventure. Also, countries such as South Africa have become safer."

In 2002, Australia was the most popular destination. Richard Oliver, chief executive of Year Out Group, believes the popularity of Africa reflects a general trend across the travel sector, as more Britons of all ages want to discover the continent. "Countries such as South Africa, Tanzania and Ghana are relatively stable, the people very welcoming and the climate favourable," he said. "There are plenty of opportunities for those who wish to travel independently at the end of their placement."

David Wright, 19, took a year out after his A-levels and travelled to South Africa and Botswana. In September, he will study zoology at Bangor University. He worked in a veterinary surgery and stacked shelves at a supermarket to raise £4,000 for the trip.

He said the experience he gained in Africa was "a real chance to learn about life and myself". He worked on a research project in the Tuli Block in Botswana, and took his "trackers' test". "I was involved in mapping populations and herd dynamics of game and of elephants. So little is known about which animals exist there that you couldn't help but feel a bit like the explorers of old." Confronting a leopard on a bush hike will stay with him for ever.

But the cost of volunteering to work abroad combined with the onset of tuition fees this year can be prohibitive. Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "One of the knock-on effects of tuition fees is that a lot of youngsters have to spend the year working to save money.

"It can be very sad if you cannot go and do what you want to do. It would be good if schemes such as Raleigh International could get sponsorship from companies or government so people are not prohibited by the cost of voluntary work."

Top 10 destinations

* 1. South Africa
* 2. Tanzania
* 3. Canada
* 4. India
* 5. Peru
* 6. UK
* 7. Costa Rica
* 8. Ghana
* 9. China
* 10. Mexico