Today the 4x4 Eco Challenge has spawned a series of copycat competitions and events to test the driving prowess and off-road capabilities of the competitive 4x4 driver, and Gerhard wants to shift the focus from competition to the greater challenge of conservation and promoting ecological awareness.
We meet at Klipbokkop, Groenewald’s impressive mountain kingdom, from where he runs the Goodyear Serious Freedom 4x4 Academy, in the Cape Fold Mountains outside Worcester. It’s the ultimate toys for (grown-up) boys set up. Just about as far up on the mountain as you think it’s possible to reach, with expansive views out North over the Brandvlei dam. Klipbokkop boasts sophisticated conference room facilities, accommodation (with ensuite bathrooms), a swimming pool, outdoor braai and lapa facilities, a good looking pub (the walls could surely tell a few stories) and all this looking down a beautiful mountain valley, with Gerhard’s semi-domesticated dassies performing on request. It’s a rustig spot, with a 4x4 twist.
Busting out of Cape Town, through the crowded streets, the delays and the slow stop start traffic. Through the urban mish mash, road rage and smog. My jeep wines cheerily as I steer it towards the mountains. My all terrain tyres cry for something a little more challenging than asphalt and cat’s eyes. Pass through Paarl, do not stop, then up through the tunnel and squirt out the other side, down the valley and through to Worcester. By the time I reach Klipbkokkop, my jeep feels like a 4x4 again and not some over-torqued, gas guzzling city runabout.
After lunch and an introductory chat, Gerhard offers to take me for a look around. A road reaches up into the mountains impossibly. We hop into one of several Toyota Hiluxes and start grinding our way up the hill in low gear. All along the way, Gerhard is imparting wisdom on diverse subjects such as diesel engines, all terrain tyres, fynbos and animals. His understanding of the bush is matched only by his knowledge of the transportation needed to get you there. Once we reach the summit, I am astonished to note how the road winds up and far over some of the most inhospitable mountainside I have ever witnessed. Alas that trail will take most of the day. But it’s incredible to see how long and well maintained the rugged road is. Although driving this mountain track will put even the most experienced 4x4 operator to the test, Gerhard insists that it is predominantly a sight-seeing trail.
To test your vehicle, and learn how to use it better, he suggests the different controlled terrains at Klipbokkop. Much of what they do at the Serious Freedom Academy is to introduce newbies to the capabilities of their vehicles. Providing tyre and off-road training before putting you through your paces in the sand, the mud, the quarry, the natural skidpan and over the boulder range. The varied terrain at Klipbokkop, and the controlled environment offers anyone with an interest in 4x4 driving the opportunity to test your vehicle and your skills to the limit. Across every driving obstacle and adverse condition you’re ever likely to encounter – except maybe ice. In fact if you, like me, own a 4x4 that only gets used to ferry the kids to school and on the occasional shopping run and ‘dirty weekend at the Vaal’ you should seriously consider a filthy weekend hammering your ride at Klipbokkop. Your poor tar-nannied Touareg will thank you for it.
Gerhard is motivated by the philosophy that a 4x4 is only a tool to get you closer to nature. The better you understand it, and it’s limitations, the freer you are to explore and experience what nature has to offer. The shift in focus of the 4x4 Eco Challenge represents this, taking the emphasis off a vehicle competition and placing it instead on nature conservation and research angles. In a world where natural environments are threatened on all sides by Global Warming, deforestation, urban sprawl, pollution and the human population explosion, the real Eco Challenge is conservation and sustainability.
Gerhard is a veritable fountain of African bush wisdom. As we drive he talks about Bushman’s Poison and how the plant is used in circumcision rituals to clean and heal the wound. He points out some fynbos that if brewed into a tea can be used to ease menstrual cramps. His conversation flow is natural, informative and interesting. Along the way he suggests that fear of snakes, spiders and scorpions is foolish considering that mosquitoes are the biggest killers in Africa.
‘But you don’t see people screaming when they see a mosquito.’
He’s like a bushveld Chappies wrapper: Did you know the Tsetse gives birth to live young, and only every six months. The only flying mammals are bats and airhostesses. [We laugh at that one]. Did you know that we humans are the only mammals that can sleep on our backs? Nope, neither did I.
By Gerhard’s account the 4x4 Eco Challenge is a fantastic platform for learning and sharing this knowledge with a wider audience. ‘My only qualifications are the bush.’ He says, and it would seem that he is intent on establishing a kind of Bush University. Like many in the industry, Gerhard realizes that the 4x4 community in SA is a largely affluent, white, upper middle class group. Any future growth will come from involving a broader spectrum of South Africans in the lifestyle. This involves new marketing angles, challenges and opportunities.
Gerhard seems particularly enthusiastic about this, considering that most of the bush knowledge he has learnt along the way, originally comes from traditional African sources. And in our strangely mixed up post apartheid society, there is great potential for attracting affluent, urban Africans back to the bush – and the rediscovery of this knowledge and culture.
‘It’s all about changing perceptions and appreciating the unique natural heritage we have in this country.’ Says Gerhard
Of course, greater interest and participation in the outdoors lifestyle means a more powerful constituency for conservation. It also means more jobs, development and a more sustainable and diverse tourism industry. This is very close to Gerhard’s heart, and the business he runs at Klipbokkop.
In the end, everybody wins.
It’s been an exhilarating day; climbing up mountains, driving through sand, water, mud and over boulders – not to mention drifting sideways at speed around a dirt track. We cap it off with a drink on the balcony and look out over the Brandvlei and the mountains beyond. ‘There’s not another Earth.’ Gerhard says, almost to himself, but loud enough for me to hear. ‘If this one’s fucked up, it’s gone.’