St John Paul College Safari, Bill Van Ryswyk

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After a family trip to the Top End, St John Paul College teacher Bill Vanryswk decided that more children should visit the area and experience all it has to offer. So, he started planning a school safari and was able to get it up and running through sheer dedication and hard work. The camp has now been running for the last 17 years and has been a great success, inspiring students to learn more about our heritage, Australia’s beautiful landscape and our Indigenous culture, as well as learning valuable life skills along the way.

Tell us a little about St John Paul College’s Annual Safari to the Top End …

The first safari was in 2003. They are conducted every second term holidays in July. We take 54 Year 8 students and four staff, with bookings open to the Year 7s the year prior to travelling as Year 8s. It is a 16 day experience.

This year we travelled overnight to Longreach and then continued to explore Longreach, Winton, Mt Isa, Tennant Creek, Daly Waters, Mataranka, Katherine, Kakadu and Darwin. Places of interest visited included the Qantas Museum, Mt Isa Mine, The Marbles, Mataranka Hot Springs, Arnhemland, the Kakadu Wetlands, and Darwin and the many activities and history it offers.

What role have you played in the years the safari has been up and running?

I promoted the idea of a Top End Safari in 2001 and took two years to obtain approval, before conducting the first one in 2003. I have developed the itinerary, which has been a work in progress from the first in 2003 until the most recent safari in 2018. I have led the safari with a team of staff every year, managed the budget and ensured that it remained affordable for all students, irrespective of their socio-economic status, and ensured with the help of Ms Bibby, a member of our office staff, that the highest standard of WH&S and Duty of Care were adhered to. 

I put total emphasis on engagement and the promotion of essential life skills and introduced our students to our wonderful heritage and an understanding of Indigenous culture, spirituality and art. I lived the excursion with the students, not just leading or supervising them.

The students also learn a lot about indigenous culture on the safari. Could you tell us a bit more about this ?

The students engage with many Indigenous people; they are given the opportunity to view and understand ancient Aboriginal rock art, purchase Aboriginal (Indigenous) art and crafts in Arnhemland – didgeridoos, paintings, and woven baskets. They are taught how Aboriginals manage their land and are given the opportunity to identify and eat Indigenous tucker. They also see the difficult social challenges that Aboriginals face in Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin.

How has the safari changed and evolved through the years ?

The 2003 safari was mainly camping and self-catering. We travelled up and back by coach; this continued until 2013, when we decided to coach up and fly back. 

Since 2003 I have introduced new activities, including helicopter and fixed winged flights, cruises, and 4 wheel drive visits to Arnhemland.  As the years progressed, to lighten the workload, I had more of the meals catered. 

In 2009 I led two excursions, one for the students and one for the Parents and Friends of St John Paul College. The adult one was organised as a fundraiser and raised $24,000 during the course of the safari. This money was used to refurbish the St John Paul College Chapel into a beautiful place to celebrate Mass and as a place for reflection. Out of the 17 safaris I led, three safaris were taken to the Red Centre, Ayers Rock (Uluru) and home via Coober Pedy. The remaining 14 travelled to the Top End. 

What has the feedback been like from the students?

The feedback has been extraordinary. The parents express their gratitude to me at every opportunity. Past students way back to 2003 keep in touch and always reflect on the great experience they had on safari. 

The students learned many life skills and grew academically and in maturity. This was often relayed to me by teachers, who noted this in the students in their class who went on safari. It has introduced students to the extraordinary landscape of our Outback and Top End. It defies imagination that the geographical features found in Kakadu are so much older than the Pyramids and are equally as extraordinary and magnificent as visiting Notre Dame Cathedral and the Roman Ruins.

You recently invited guests from past safaris to an Awards Night. What was it like seeing students from as far back as 17 years ago alongside recent students ?

The night was a celebration of 17 years of safari. It was an opportunity to acknowledge and thank Bananacoast Hot Bake, Morrisons Betta Living, The Clog Barn, Bailey Centre, NRMA and More Ice for their support of the safari over many years. 

It also recognised the six staff who took part in the safari multiple times; they were Wendy Storok, Janice O’Donnell, Barbara Van Ryswyk, Lance Smith, Denise Seckold and Pam Bibby. We shared stories and itineraries and reminisced with students from this year’s safari and those of yesteryears. A Year 12 student, Nathan Armstrong, who put together an extraordinary slideshow including footage going back to 2003, was recognised for his effort. 

Presentations were also made by parents to the staff who went on the 2018 safari. And Richard Mazzer from Mazza Coaches, who took all 17 safaris to the Outback, Centre and Top End, also attended on the night.

Thanks Bill.

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