Clambering over each other to get a better view, my fellow passengers are stunned into silence by the sight of two stocky, muscular white rhinos.

It's a fairly typical reaction for first-time safari-goers, but what makes our game drive significantly different is the fact these wide-eyed spectators live just a few kilometres from the park, yet have only ever encountered wildlife through TV screens and story books.

I've joined a group of 11-year-old pupils from Grahamstown Primary School for a Bush Day in the Amakhala Game Reserve on South Africa's Eastern Cape, as part of a six-week Coaching for Conservation educational programme.

Guides from the park's 11 lodges and camps, such as Bukela, where I'm staying, have volunteered to help out as drivers for the day, and I've come along to find out how wildlife, tourism and community empowerment are so heavily interdependent.

Originally set up by anthropologist Lesley McNutt as a Botswana-based project in 2004, C4C aims to teach children about endangered species and their environment through interactive games and sport. By translating animal skills to the football pitch, children begin to have a better understanding and appreciation for the world around them.

"The animals we are trying to protect are the coaches; they become the heroes," says Lesley, a Canadian who now lives full-time in Botswana and runs the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust with her husband John. "The lion sits beside Ronaldo and the cheetah alongside Beckham."

So far, the project has been a huge success, counting Prince William and Prince Harry as supporters, and there are now plans to implement it in other regions of Africa.

In 2013, C4C were invited to join with Investec's Rhino Lifeline project in South Africa, tweaking the curriculum to focus on the highly endangered African rhino.

The country's poaching crisis is now so grave, game reserves such as Amakhala refuse to disclose the exact number of rhinos on their grounds, and rangers are banned from even mentioning the animal on radio intercoms.

As we bump across the reserve's muddy terrain, excited children grip tightly to their seats, frequently losing their orange C4C baseball caps in the wind. Several warthogs scurry into the bushes, their tails held erect like radio antennae, causing roars of laughter all round.

When coach and game ranger Melumzi stops the vehicle to pick up a dry ball of elephant dung, smiles quickly turn into wrinkled grimaces.

"Some people burn this to ward off evil spirits," he reveals, pulling apart the fibrous poop. "I even used to wash in the stuff!"

His startling admission is met with looks of amusement and horror.

But when he invites the children to have a sniff, they can't resist - between fits of giggles - lowering their noses to the dung.

Along with providing entertainment, Melumzi also has some important lessons to share. He tells the children, who are now listening intently, that on average, three black rhinos are poached in South Africa every day; then goes on to say their prized horns are made of nothing more than calcium and keratin - just like our fingernails.

While the children gaze at two of Amakhala's white rhinos, Melumzi explains how the animal can quickly divert its course, a skill that can be employed both on the football pitch and in everyday life.

"If your friends do something you think is wrong, then it's important to change direction and turn away."

Back at the camp base, which consists of a simple classroom and sports area, the message is further consolidated through games and lessons guided by project co-ordinators Jenny Gush and Kate Muir.

Some children perform a haka-style dance with sticks representing rhino horns, while chanting C4C's core values: respect yourself; respect each other; respect your environment.

Meanwhile, another small group gathers in a circle, each person representing a different animal or part of the landscape and linked together with pieces of string to form giant cat's cradle. I join in as a rhino.

"What happens if we lose rhino?" says Kate, giving me a cue to release my string. "And then water?"

Another child let's go, causing the entire web to collapse.

Afterwards, the children take part in a series of football skills exercises; first Kate times them dribbling a ball around cones, then they have to pass the ball back and forth for as long as they can until someone loses control.

Over the course of six weeks, their times will be recorded and improvements measured.

Since Lesley and John started C4C, more than 9,000 children have benefitted from the programme in both Botswana and South Africa, through courses or day visits to schools.

Data collected demonstrates that not only are they better players on the football field, but they also have improved knowledge of wildlife and, most importantly, they greater value the animals and wild spaces in which they live.

The decision to target 11-year-olds isn't a happy accident; anthropological studies suggest that age group has the right balance of cognitive understanding and a willingness to learn.

"Their minds are like sponges," says Jenny, who belongs to one of the farming families responsible for setting up Amakhala in 1999. "They soak up everything."

Jenny, who runs Woodbury Lodge, recognises the important relationship between tourism, conservation and education. The future of wildlife - and subsequently the success of safaris - in Africa will be shaped by the next generation; in turn, more visitors to the continent can give communities an essential financial boost.

"The school children we see come from a variety of economic backgrounds, but many have family members employed in the tourism sector," she says.

While most visitors to Amakhala will not be aware of the C4C project, 1% of the money they pay for a bed goes to the Amakhala Foundation, which contributes funds.

Additional financial support is supplied by charitable foundation Tusk, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

To mark the occasion, British fashion designer Penelope Chilvers has designed a safari backpack featuring embroidered patches adapted from drawings by school children on the South African C4C project. A percentage of the £249 bag will be donated to Tusk, and the individual patches will also be available for sale (from £6).

Models Alexa Chung and Laura Bailey have been spotted sporting a backpack, and adventurer Ben Fogle has taken one to Kenya, where he's filming a documentary in the Masai Mara.

Chilvers, whose parents have a home in Hermanus, on the Western Cape, draws inspiration from Africa for her collections and was keen to contribute to conservation, in particular education.

"It's the most exciting continent in the world," she tells me when we meet at her boutique in Mayfair, London, where shelves are lined with suede desert boots and sturdy leather bags that could easily slip onto a safari packing list.

"As a child, I was lucky enough to go on safari - I'll never forget that experience - and 'Take me to Africa' [her own personal motto] has always been my dream."

The school children from Grahamstown could never have imagined their artwork would end up adorning a piece of designer apparel, for which there's already a waiting list.

But then again, few probably thought they'd ever see a rhino in the wild.

Sometimes, though, far-flung dreams can become a very attainable reality.


:: Sarah Marshall was a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098; a supporter of Tusk projects Africa-wide. A tailor-made seven-night self-drive and safari trip costs from £2,640pp, including four nights at Cape Town's Clarendon Fresnaye hotel (B&B), three nights at Bukela Lodge (all inclusive) in the Amakhala Conservancy, car rental and flights from London Heathrow.

:: For more information on the projects, visit and

:: The Penelope Chilvers Tusk backpack is available from