These do-gooders are the lifeblood of gap year organisations and the communities they serve. But you don’t have to be an angel who’s always dreamed of campaigning against landmines and has spent all their Christmas holidays playing bugle for the Salvation Army.
“They’re just young people who want to have fun, meet other young people, work in a group, and see another country,” says John Lawler, chief of Madventurer, the community development specialists.
“It’s when they leave the project that they get enthused about the ethical side and how the project has actually contributed to the local community.”
Africa is the typical destination for these willing workers and, alongside a number of projects worldwide, Madventurer works with communities in five African countries: Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda. Gappers get the chance to live as part of the local society while undertaking development work, which often involves construction.
Madventurer volunteers have completed some 200 large building projects, from primary schools and health clinics to orphanages and even loos. “We’re always asked to build public toilets because it helps with sanitation. They’re not the most glamorous of projects but they’re always fun to get involved with and it’s really very rewarding,” insists Lawler.
The main thing for these gappers is to make sure the project is community development and not colonialism. “Check out the organisation,” says Lawler. “Make sure the ethics behind it are similar to yours.” He says that it helps to go with an independent company, such as Madventurer, and that you can’t go wrong with practical development: it’s easy to see how a block of toilets helps a community.
“With this kind of real development, you actually see something and you get the feedback from the locals that comes with practical volunteering. When the volunteers look back on the trip, the bit they’ve enjoyed the most is the part where they’ve lived in the community: and you don’t get that through backpacking.”
The typical tie-dye gapper is a common breed. Emanating from the finer schools of rural Britain, or the choking smog of the inner-cities, they yearn to escape the shackles of their staid upbringing and get down like Dennis Hopper.
Tired of sanitised travel, they seek not tourism, but unbridled cultural immersion. If this sounds like you, then you’re in luck. The fabled Istanbul to Kathmandu hippy trail of the Sixties and Seventies has been resurrected by those crazy guys at Ozbus. A combination of buses, coaches, trains, and even the odd camel, apparently, will take you on a majestic journey through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal ( www.hippietrail.com). You could even do the whole hog from London to Sydney ( www.oz-bus.com).
With departures in September and March, a 49-day hippy trip costs up to £2,450. “This kind of trip was going on back in the day: a case of young kids from North America and Europe going off to find themselves through spiritual enlightenment,” says Mark Creasey, director of Ozbus.
The old trail used to take the idealistic hordes of 20-year-olds through Afghanistan in VW camper vans. Nowadays, Afghanistan is closed for business, the mothership is more likely to be a Volvo 9700 coach (or something less snazzy), and the clientele will be a mixture of career-breakers, middle-agers and your usual gap year school leavers.
But there’s a benefit to having different age groups, says Creasey. “It makes things more interesting and, if you’re homesick at all, you can turn to someone who’s older and has a bit more experience.” Besides, what could be more hippy than mixing with as many different kinds of people as possible?
You’ll discover most of the exotic places the earth has to offer on this tour. You might even find yourself, man. “It’s a fantastic route and it’s following in the footsteps of history,” says Creasey.
Of all the gappers, these guys are the ones to watch. These are the savvy types who see the expense of university, see the congestion of the graduate market, and decide to set themselves apart. There’s nothing more attractive to employers than someone who has gone out there and done a gap year for a reason: and if that reason is to get work experience, all the better.
”Graduate recruitment is very competitive, and an increasing number of employers are looking for graduates who’ve got industry experience,” says Mike Barnard of Milkround.com, the graduate recruitment website. “Banking, accounting and finance firms tend to encourage placements and work experience, and doing this in your gap year will set you apart from the other people applying.”
But it’s not a case of just strapping on a suit and heading down to the City. “The best way to use a gap year is to get placements in a few different industries,” says Barnard. If you want to get into something competitive and creative such as film, journalism or music, then it’s even more vital as there are only a finite number of positions,” says Barnard.
And if you want to get into TV, being a runner is one of the lowest paid jobs you can get. So why not get it out of the way during your gap year? But don’t just limit yourself to the UK. “Quite a lot of people are considering going abroad for relevant work experience, which can tie in with travelling,” says Barnard. “It shows you have world experience.”
If you’re the sporty kind, it doesn’t get much better than taking a year out to play and coach your way across the globe. These guys are the lucky ones blessed with sporting talent and are happiest when on the pitch, piste or playa. (And just as happy off it.) “Our travellers are passionate young people who love sport,” says James Burton, co-director of Global Sports Xperience, formerly Gap Sports ( www.global sportsxperience.com). “They are really excited about sharing their sports knowledge and experience with other people while they coach, play or train abroad.”
Global Sports Xperience offers sporting chances to everyone and anyone across a range of disciplines. For the supremely talented, there are academy courses to hone your skills in football, cricket, athletics, and so on – just in time for your assault on the BUSA rankings at university. If you’ve got the balls for it, you could test your mettle with white-water rafting in New Zealand. Or you could just chill out on an African dhow boat in Mozambique.
For those with a taste for white powder, you could head to Quebec and become a qualified snowboard instructor (basically a passport to the finest resorts of the world). Water-based fun could see you kite-surfing in the Dominican Republic. If you want a pummelling, you could go a couple of rounds with Accra’s finest on a boxing course in Ghana. Or for those with an eye on becoming the next Hoff, why not get some lifeguard training with the pros down at Manly Beach, Australia?
“Some are looking for a career in sport and want to develop their talents, others are sporty people who want to retrain or qualify as an instructor in the sports industry,” says Burton. “Whatever the kind of placement they choose, our gappers just love spending time with other sporty people and often get involved in playing and training with the locals while overseas.”
It would be pretty easy to classify these chaps as “science geeks” – taking soil samples, poking holes in ice, measuring tree girths. But talk to Mark Davison, co-director of VentureCo, the expedition specialists, and you get a very different picture.
“Our gappers are very easy to pigeonhole,” he says.” They’re bright, yes, but what always impresses me is the spectrum of their interests: for example, they could be a little bit sporty, but with an interest in the arts.” So, not science at all. “There’s no formal science,” says Davison. “It’s just about the experience of being in a different environment.”
Typically costing around £4,000 including flights, VentureCo gap years could have you doing anything: walking along ice caps and glaciers in Argentine Patagonia; trekking in the Torres del Paine natural park in Chile; scouting through jungles and rowing on the headwaters of the Amazon in Equador; or indulging in a bit of Darwinian analysis on the Galapagos (www.venture co-worldwide.com).
Gap years like this often come with 12-page kit list and a warning that you will only be given “sufficient calories” by way of food. But VentureCo is different. For instance, on trekking trips, they don’t actually do any technical climbing. It’s all far more rounded than that, and your three month trip will include an intensive language course and work experience with a local NGO.
So do you have to be a tough guy to do this kind of gap year? “It’s attitude, rather than hardiness,” says Davison. “Most of our gappers have done bronze or silver Duke of Edinburgh, which simply shows that their attitude, their willingness to do something for others.”
And what about that “geek” charge? Well, you’ll come back with language skills and enough confidence to blag your way through university. “The way these gappers change over the course of the expedition, you just wouldn’t recognise them,” says Davison.