You may encounter the odd stray leopard or have to decapitate your meals, but Camp Kenya offers a great chance to put something back

In a low voice, Francis is recounting another big game adventure. He was out at night in the bush on a conservation project, he recalls, "and I was sitting in the jeep waiting for my colleagues to return. I saw them coming towards me and was about to call out, when they stopped dead in their tracks, staring at a point just behind my head... I turned very slowly to see a leopard sitting in the back seat! What could I do? It had crept up so quietly. If I ran, its instinct would be to chase me. If it wanted to kill me, it would have done it already. So I knew the best thing was just to sit there, very still. Eventually, the leopard jumped out of the jeep and disappeared into the bush again."

This may be a true story, or it may simply be a fable for the benefit of Francis' audience of young gappers, a parable of Africa: it's intimidating, sure, but stay calm, keep your head, and it won't bite. At Camp Kenya, a gap year site on the coast south of Mombasa, this group of 14 teenagers is experiencing some of the best that East Africa has to offer, and with the help of a group of unmatchable Kenyan staff - like Francis - they can comfortably ease their way into Third World travel without feeling overwhelmed.

Tonight they are camping out in the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary, a corridor of national parkland in the hills above the coast, and it's been a long day. In the morning, some of the gappers were out on a game drive, getting up close and personal with the local elephants for the first time. They spent the afternoon making paper from elephant dung, to be sold to tourists as souvenirs in the form of diaries, photo albums and notebooks, with the money being invested in the local community.

And then there was dinner, which had to be killed first. Kieran, one of the gappers, leapt at the chance to slaughter a chicken, but it wasn't easy. The first bird's neck stretched, instead of succumbing to the knife, and he gave up, concerned that he was tormenting the wretched creature. Juma the cook finished it off. But, determined, Kieran came back for another try, and the second time sliced the chicken's head clean off with one stroke. Afterwards, he mutters under his breath: "I couldn't have slept tonight if I hadn't done it..." What, killed a chicken? "Yeah. You can't do half of something, can you? You have to finish it."

Kieran has spent most of his gap year back in England, training to become a qualified football instructor. One of his fellow gappers has come direct to Kenya from touring the beaches of Australia's East Coast in a camper van; another spent the past few months at home, working for a youth organisation; one is taking time out before restarting her A-levels. Contrary to stereotype, only one of the group attended an expensive boarding school. All of them have made firm friends in their time together.

Most were drawn to the Camp Kenya experience by the combination of adventure activities and community work that it involves. Mwaluganje is a good example: the game drives are great fun, but the students also help to monitor the elephant population for the Kenya Wildlife Service. Selling elephant dung paper is just one way to generate capital from the sanctuary; the gappers are encouraged to think of other means of making tourism profitable for the local community. Many of the teenagers take advantage of the opportunity offered to climb Mount Kenya or enjoy an extended safari.

Back at Makongeni, the village which is home to Camp Kenya's main site, however, they're helping to build new classrooms and a decent water supply for the local school and, indeed, to teach the children there. When the new Kenyan government introduced free primary education last year, the school's roll leapt from 150 to around 700 overnight, making Camp Kenya's input more important than ever.

Down at nearby Diani Beach, where the students can earn a PADI diving qualification, try their hands at game fishing and even kite-surfing, Camp Kenya is also developing a marine conservation programme. The Camp itself, at Makongeni, is a cluster of tents and outbuildings constructed from sustainable materials, largely culled from the surrounding environment.

"It all comes down to responsible tourism," says Stuart Rees-Jones, who runs Camps International from the UK for most of the year. "We want a commercially successful company, but in such a way that it's ethically sound. Any tourism should be of benefit to the local community, and Camp Kenya is a local industry: we work in partnership with the community."

Rees-Jones' days as an army liaison officer with the UN in the former Yugoslavia have taught him plenty about the nuances of communication and cooperation. But it's his no-nonsense partner Simon Englefield, Director of Camp Kenya, who has the unenviable task of dealing with what they call the African factor on a day-to-day basis: the delays, the frustrations, the palm-greasing.

"The difficulties are enormous and quite often very restrictive," Englefield admits. "Problems with corruption, infrastructure, lack of development, roads, communication - things that you take for granted in Britain. But then, if it was all there on a plate, you wouldn't be able to hand these challenges down to the students."

And, of course, the problems are molehills next to the mountain of benefits associated with working in Kenya. "Kenya is a magical place," continues Englefield, who has lived there for 14 years. "It gets in your blood. The geography of the place is fantastic - you've got Mount Kenya, you've got wildlife, the beaches, the marine life and, of course, the people. A lot of gap year students make lifelong Kenyan friends as well as lifelong gapper friends."

Englefield and Rees-Jones are unstinting in their praise for their Kenyan staff, to whom they happily hand over responsibility for the running of the camp and the pastoral care of the students. From the cooks to the drivers, the gappers relish their interaction with the staff, who have largely been recruited from the village and surrounding area.

Francis, a relatively new addition to the team, is a conservation expert and thoughtful senior staff member. But the star of the show is Duncan, the camp manager and mentor to each group of green English gappers. A gentle giant at six foot something, he is, as Kieran explains, "the daddy of the camp". Duncan clearly holds his young charges in great affection, and is a constant reassuring presence, whether he's dragging them from their bunks in the morning for their latest adventure; or chaperoning them for a night on the town in Diani's local bars and nightclubs. While there are limits placed on the 18 and 19-year-olds at Camp Kenya - mostly in the name of safety - they are kept on a leash long enough so as to be near-invisible.

The gappers visit Camp Kenya for one, two, or three months at a time, and many of them have enjoyed themselves so much that they're extending their stay to the full three. The structure is such that, while independent travellers may have more time on their hands during a gap year, they'd be hard pressed to fill it as tightly as those who choose Camp Kenya.

Kenya will exert a strong emotional pull on the students for years to come, but the experience will teach them a few of the frustrations of the continent they come to love, too. Out for a walk with Francis on the day after their chicken dinner, Lucy and Anna - two of the gappers - come across a leak in the water pipe that runs alongside the dirt road.

With the best of intentions, they go about plugging it with sticks and mud. The local children passing by on their way home from school watch them with some bemusement. Finally, the torrent slows to a steady drip. The pair dust themselves down, satisfied, and start to walk on again, only to watch - in great distress - as a young girl promptly unblocks the leak, cups the water in her hands and drinks.

Francis wears a wry smile. Another parable to add to the collection. "Maybe they made the leak themselves," he says. "Maybe it's the only place they can find running water." "But it's such a waste," the girls cry. "In Africa," Francis reflects, "you will find many things like this."

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