Sporting events in National Parks

The Otter African Trail Run takes place annually in the Tsitsikamma Section of the SANParks run Garden Route National Park. Before entering the 2010 event, I had an enlightening chat with Galeo Saintz (Rim of Africa) about his concerns over the use of the Otter Trail for such an event. This caused me to be curious as to a number of aspects of the event, and I am satisfied that the information at hand leads me to believe that the organisers, Magnetic South, have worked together with SANParks to ensure that the event benefits the Trail, and does not create more of an impact on the area than the existing trail already does.

Before reading this any further, you need to know something that influences my opinion on matters such as these very strongly: I believe that as a tax paying citizen of South Africa, I hold ownership in the National Parks of South Africa and so do you, and that we have, albeit indirectly, appointed SANParks / CapeNature etc as custodians of our national treasures. It is our responsibility to hold them accountable.

The above Tweet brought to my attention to a MTB tour that has been proposed for the Kgalagadi: the Kgalagadi Desert Classic Riverbed Cycle Challenge. Details of the tour are sketchy: there appears to be no official site or information / entry forms for the event, and a search turns up a list of references on blogs (mostly vehemently opposed to the idea) and this video:

There is also a post in the forum on the SANParks site. As of writing this it runs to 22 pages. I urge you to register and follow the debate. Unfortunately the forum is littered with much off-topic rambling, and very little authoritative content or opinion. One of the topics that comes up repeatedly is the absence of an EIA report. If there was one, it would have been produced to help silence those in opposition to the event.  It appears that the driving force behind this event is made up of some Honorary Rangers.

It appears that the event is being organised by the West Rand Honorary Rangers (please note the event is not mentioned no their site). I do not fully understand what an Honorary Ranger is, or what conservation-related qualifications (if any) an HR might possess. I agree that some of the Forum posters were being highly critical of HRs in general, and I don’t think that will help the matter. I must also note however, that some of the HRs posts displayed an attitude which I consider unbearable. Unfortunately, it is against Forum rules to post content from the Forum here, and for now I will abide by its rules.

A vague reference is made to a group of people having done a recce ride of the route. Even if this included senior parks managers / conservationists / HRs, I do not believe this constitutes an EIA. What bothers me most is the lack of transparency around this issue. In fact, as is suggested by some forum posters, the lack of transparency borders on subterfuge. SANParks / the organisers are doing themselves no favours by adopting this approach. In one of the most recent posts, a SANParks official notes that in this instance an EIA is not required. In essence I think we can agree that the route will not be using existing trails or roads, that they will be creating, albeit temporarily, new ones. How can it be possible that this alone does not require an EIA?

In addition, despite there being no website for the event, and so little information available, isn’t it amazing apparently almost all the entries are taken? Taken by whom? If I can’t find info about the event, how are these people even entered? In an event that takes place on my land! I note with interest that even though the HR’s organised, or are involved in organising the event, I cannot find it on their website event page, along with all the other events they have organised.

In his Year in the Wild presentation, Scott Ramsay has a very effective visualisation of just how limited the area under conservation is in Southern Africa. This area is increasing at a painfully slow rate. Should we be then be increasing the ways we use these spaces and thereby our impact on them?

In my opinion there are a number of issues here:

  1. SANParks is the custodian of our much of our National Heritage. People have noted that this event ( as well as others in the past) seem to be very hush-hush, as if they are trying to slip this under the radar. This is in stark contrast to an event such as the Otter African Trail Run which is well-publicised, and for which information is freely available (including names of participants).
  2. The impact on other Park users. Public booking trips to the area that will be affected in ANY way MUST be advised of this when booking. The Otter African Trail faltered in this regard one year, although they assured us that all the hikers affected were contacted to advise them of the mistake. It is inexcusable that someone who has planned to visit a Park is subjected to an event like this which will seriously impact on their enjoyment of the Park.
  3. The Park must benefit:
    1. Financially. This must not be contingent on organisers making a profit, and must include:
      1. Non-returnable deposit to cover loss of income should event be cancelled / postponed
      2. Normal conservation fees
      3. Accommodation fees where applicable
      4. A donation to the Park. This should take the form of the financing of infrastructure, such as the building of an ablution block that is needed, or a walkway to protect an ecologically sensitive area
    2. Positive media exposure.
  4. The surrounding community should benefit.
  5. Guidelines must be drawn up and enforced with regards
    1. Behaviour of entrants
    2. Behaviour of organisers, volunteers and all others involved
    3. Behaviour of spectators
    4. Cleaning up after race (litter)
    5. Repairing any damage (steps, railings)
  6. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies must be undertaken or at least an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) compiled to establish the impact of different sports and sporting events on the areas affected:
    1. I don’t believe that a runner on a trail is any different to a walker on a trail.
    2. However, volume must be allowed for. So for instance, the Otter Trail only allows 12 people onto the trail per day, which is a total of a maximum of 60 people in total on the trail at one time. On race day there are 150 people, therefore the trail must be closed for 2 or 3 days to compensate and keep the average traffic / impact constant. Simple math. Allowance must also be made for marshals, safety officers, photographers, press, spectators and any other people involved.
    3. After witnessing the damage to MTB trails in Tokai Arboretum, there can be no doubt that MTB causes massive damage / degradation to trails. SANParks themselves recognise that MTB in TMNP has a heavy impact and needs to be restricted accordingly (there is an EMP in place).
    4. Existing trails and roads should be used, and only after the impact of such is evaluated by the EIA or EMP. There may be special circumstances where creating a new trail or road may be beneficial if this would benefit the Park in a positive way, as supported by an EIA.
    5. The nature of the Park. If it is a Wilderness Area, then no aspect of the event should contravene the definition of a Wilderness Area.
  7. Organisers must be reputable and have an established track record. It is not even clear to me at this stage who the Kgalagadi Desert Classic Riverbed Cycle Challenge organisers are (I believe it is the West Rand Honorary Rangers, but the event is not mentioned no their site), let alone whether they are in a position to successfully run this event.
  8. The event must be inclusive, and the entry process must be fair and transparent. The Kgalagadi Desert Classic Riverbed Cycle Challenge has failed dismally in this regard.
  9. Concerns over the perceived “thin end of the wedge” effect must be addressed in terms of:
    1. what expansion will be allowed in the future
    2. if this is allowed, what events will be allowed next

In my opinion, Magnetic South have demonstrated just how an event can be successfully run in a National Park, demonstrating meaningful engagement, commitment to the environment, investing in the community, and a love of the sport.

Here are links to other sites and forums concerning this matter:

Please take time to read this letter by Isaac Jocum.

I think that if there is some king of Conservation Watchdog in South Africa, it is time for them to weigh in.

SANParks logo CapeNature logo


Outdoor adventure enthusiast living on the Garden Route.

2 thoughts on “Sporting events in National Parks

  • 22 October 2012 at 16:04

    What an uninformed opinion! The event is not being organised by a company but by volunteers and all the money goes to the park. An EIA is a legal document and is legally not applicable to this type of event. On the other hand extensive efforts have been made to ensure that there is no damage to the park and the park rangers have studied the impact and given the go ahead. Organisers have put in management policies to adress almost all of the concerns you express. Only 50 entrants … obviously it is going to be booked up immediatly the rumour spreads! The scare mongering of what is next … realy get a life! Are you jealous that you did not have the opportunity to book?

    • 22 October 2012 at 16:39

      Thanks for your opinion, Piet. I look forward to your continued input as I am sure that your right to judge my opinion uninformed is supported by the knowledge to provide all the missing information with regards this matter.
      If I am uninformed, it is only because, as I point out in my post, there is a massive lack of information, and despite numerous, repeated requests, a lot of very concerned people feel that some very important questions remain unanswered. The main theme of my post should make this clear. I am sorry you missed that.
      By volunteers, do you mean Honorary Rangers? As I point out in my article, I don’t fully understand who they are and what role they play. In fact, I ask some questions, as do others, and one of them is: are they qualified to make such an assessment? And no Piet, having a passionate love for nature does not “qualify” you as such.
      You claim that park rangers have “studied the impact”. Where is the record of the methods used in this study, and where are the results of this “study”? The only reference to any such “study” is the recce ride that was made. Once again, the question has been asked: who was included in this team, and what are their qualifications? And riding over what I understand to be pristine, ecologically sensitive land to measure the impact is like killing and dissecting the last pair of breeding Dodos to better understand their reproductive organs.
      “Immediately the rumour spreads”? Did you even read my post? One of my points is that it is my opinion that if you are going to hold an event within a National Park, the entry process should amongst other things be transparent and fair.
      In a way, Piet, I am jealous that I didn’t get an opportunity to enter. I have twice been lucky enough to run the Otter African Trail Run in the Storms River Mouth Section of the Garden Route National Park. If this event had been organised in a similar fashion and satisfied my concerns in the way Magnetic South has done over my concerns with using the Otter Trail, my name would most likely be on the waiting list.
      Piet: as you are the so knowledgeable on this (and I am so ignorant), it would be nice for my readers to know a little bit about you. I am pretty sure that they will want to quote you as the imminent expert on all conservation matters in Southern Africa. I for one would like to be able to quote you as the authority you clearly are. I am certain that such a passionate conservationist such as yourself has a blog that will have my pathetic attempt at sharing my love for nature hanging it’s head in shame. Or a book or two published. Or even just the source of the rumours you mentioned in your contribution.

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