In my mind the unsung heroes within the 4×4 fraternity are without a doubt Search and Rescue South Africa (SARZA). Its origins can be traced back to the late 1980s when the 4WDC of SA asked if prospective members would be prepared to assist in times of national or civil emergency via the membership form. When I first encountered the unit it was at the jamborees and club days I sponsored, they were always kitted out and in uniform, ready to help should any situation arise. It was comforting to have them there. At that point, they were known as ORRU (Off-Road Rescue Unit).
Subsequently, they have transitioned to SARZA to provide a competent, efficient, emergency and rescue service dedicated to saving human lives. They can operate in diverse terrain (often extremely rough) in tandem with other similar rescue bodies.
SARZA comprises a highly trained group of volunteer 4×4 owners in South Africa with regional teams based in 6 out of 9 provinces, namely Gauteng, Limpopo, Lowveld, KZN, Free State and Western Cape.
The Unit works closely with local, regional and national Emergency Management Services, Disaster Management, the South African Air Force, Civil Aviation (Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre), the South African Police Service, K9 Search and Rescue Association, the Mountain Club of South Africa Search and Rescue, National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) and other official and civilian volunteer organisations. SARZA provides wilderness and urban search and rescue services, transport, logistical support and radio comms, in rough terrain and urban areas in times of need or any emergency. Each year, the Unit receives more than two hundred calls for assistance and in more than half of these instances, the Unit’s comprehensive emergency-assistance capabilities are required with members being mobilised and deployed. The Unit’s administrative structure is such that one telephone call is all that is required to put the whole call-out system into action. This results in trained volunteer members in fully-equipped 4×4 vehicles ready to leave on a search and rescue or disaster management mission, anywhere in the country within the hour.
SARZA has a National Council that coordinates the Unit’s vision, mission, logistics and training. The Regional Units are run independently, having their constitutions and committees that typically consist of the following members:
- Vice Chairman
- Operations officer
- Training officer
As a volunteer search and rescue organization, SARZA responds to people whose lives may be in danger. New member intake is done on a bi-annual basis with initial extensive training to get a prospective member going. Training is done in-house to progress a new member from Newbie to “Rescue Qualified” or Rescue Ready. “Rescue Qualified” members are invaluable assets to future search and rescue or emergencies.
Great satisfaction is derived by members of the Unit from serving their fellow citizens. However, this comes at a high cost in terms of intrusion into family, social and business time and also the cost of financing the required equipment. Each member’s 4×4 vehicle and the extensive range of equipment it contains is funded by the member. Training is ongoing both with official organisations as well as other volunteer bodies. It is theoretical and practical. On an annual basis, participants attend an annual training camp where skills are tested, these can be regardless of the weather or distance. The emphasis is on skills, equipment and the level of preparedness. Professionalism is evaluated and skills are shared between participants.
In a more recent exercise, SARZA worked with Rocket HEMS and one of their air ambulances in a training simulation. Rocket runs a 24-hour helicopter emergency service with a dedicated fleet of ICU Bell helicopters and class-leading aeromedical crews offering highly specialized emergency air rescue solutions. Indeed a worthy professional partnership.
Historical callouts include the Mozambique floods with Gift of the Givers (2019), the KZN floods (2022), the Jagersfontein disaster (2022), the Lowveld and Limpopo floods (2023), the Western Cape floods (2023), and the Turkiye earthquake with Gift of the Givers (2023).