Recently a group of friends got together after not having seen one another for a while due to the lockdown restrictions. On seeing the variety of 4×4’s and dual-sport bikes he asked if we were happily ripping the environment up. It was somewhat “tongue in cheek” but confrontational.
My response took me back to the early days when a group set out to control the off-road industry and bring about legislation and regulation.
I have always believed in self-regulation as I find that most off-roaders are very responsible people and care for the environment.
I pointed out that the 4×4 is an “enabler” it allows you to do lifestyle-related activities such as visiting a game park, photography and a wide variety of outdoor pursuits. It often takes you to places where a conventional vehicle will not, enabling you.
When I revisited the work we did with the Department of the environment there was a great deal of emphasis on what they call the “Triple Bottom Line”. It espouses that each activity should have a social, environmental and economic consequence. The local population should benefit as well as the environment and there should be positive economic activity.
So let’s unpack things and look at the activity objectively and analyse it.
The 4×4 industry saw growth about 25 years ago with Botswana and Namibia becoming favourite destinations. Then growth took place within South Africa which resulted in the development of a new industry and trails with some even offering campsites, camps and catering.
This brought about further growth in terms of chains of fitment centres, accessories and outdoor outfitters. Tyre suppliers added off-road tyres to their ranges and many manufacturers sold special editions kitted out for the bush.
Back on track let’s look at the use of trails and the various types. SANPARKS have a variety of trails, some guided ( overnight routes ) and self-drive ( day routes ), these are all managed and maintained. And in many cases are an absolute pleasure. In this regard, I refer to the well known Lebombo Trail, a 4 night 5 day experience that runs along the Mozambique border from Crocodile Bridge to Pafuri.
Specialist magazines were launched, the competition was fierce, trail assessments were done and regular “top 10” trails were rated on an annual basis. Rating systems were developed with an average trail being rated as a grade 3 and the more arduous trails rated as grade 5. The ratings specified the degree of difficulty yet an experienced off-roader in a standard vehicle would in most cases be able to negotiate a grade 5 trail. Well, known trails such as Klipbokkop and Moolmanshoek are regularly featured in the top three ratings. They were examples that were world-class and offered great scenery and an overnight experience.
Trail owners were generally off-roaders themselves and developed routes that were challenging but well maintained. Vehicle damage was minimal other than minor incidents due to driver error. There were routes such as Van Zyl’s pass and Baboons pass that are extremely challenging and only suited to well-accessorised vehicles with double lockers and lift kits. These trails are not in South Africa though. Then you get to the trails that are located near the major centres and are used for training, once again developed for the very capable vehicles with lockers and other accessories with escape routes for the lighter vehicles many of which do not have low-range gearing and locking differentials. These facilities offer trails with a short off-road trail experience that is excellent for first-time owners. The instructors often offer a second-level experience which would be a visit to a day trail with a slightly more challenging experience in terms of the obstacles which may include a basic recovery course.
Lastly one gets the so-called”sacrificial” trail, this is a term widely used in Australia and the USA. These trails are often extremely challenging with little maintenance. They tend to be used for 4×4 challenges and hardcore driving. Many of them are in abandoned quarries which resemble wastelands with little chance of environmental rehabilitation. Yet should you visit Bass Lake near Henley on Klip you will be amazed at the changes to a Dolomite Quarry which features a 4×4 trail, a dive site with a restaurant as well as a tented camp. It’s neat, grassed and well laid out. A prime example of a job well done by the owners.
All in all the work we did with the environmental folk resulted in no regulation opting instead for a self-regulatory approach. Some good operators have even paid specialists to write environmental plans for their venues which are regularly monitored. Having looked deeply at the overseas trails and management systems I can only say that we are on a par with our trails and tour operators.