SHIRLEY LE GUERN visits Gwahumbe Lodge to experience a new brand of 4 x 4 adventure.
Suss out a few shopping mall parking lots and you’d be forgiven for believing that Durban roads are a lot more potholed than they really are or that climbing pavements is a city wide sport.
Durban is not alone in having its fair share of luxury 4 x 4 vehicles all comfortably parked in spaces suitable for low slung sports cars. The fact that the majority don’t even make it off road has to raise questions as to why so many city slickers invest in extremely costly vehicles with capabilities that they don’t even need.
The answer, according to seasoned off road driver trainer and owner of Impilo 4 x 4 driver training, Noel Stapelfeldt, is that they are largely aspirational. These big ticket off roaders are bought more for their looks than their capabilities.
In fact, he says, many owners of luxury 4 x 4 runabouts aren’t keen to venture off the beaten track because of the potential repair bills.
“I can’t guarantee that you won’t scratch your car or burst a tyre,” he admits, adding that the average 4 x 4 tyre can cost as much as R5000.
Yet, 4 x 4 leisure tourism remains a meaningful segment of the bush tourism market, offering savvy owners of private lodges an opportunity to optimise earnings through growing the so-called self-drive “safari” experience if they can just bridge the divide between roughing it and relaxing city style.
Up until now, your die hard off road adventurer has headed for faraway lands armed with tents and sleeping bags. This is a niche market for those with both the courage to get up close and personal with the big five and the time to wander for long periods.
Bring off roading closer to home and package it with a few home comforts and you could have a whole new off road adventure experience. This is what Gwahumbe, a small 3 000 hectare reserve in the sugar belt mid-way between Durban and Pietermaritzburg is doing quite successfully.
“We give roughing it a whole new meaning. Gwahumbe is the perfect destination for 4x4 self-drives and we encourage guests to traverse the entire reserve. It is now not only an extremely popular venue for off-roading and a destination of choice for a number of 4x4 clubs but also a popular venue for television shows, 4x4 launches, conferences and team building. Motor manufacturers regularly visit to test their vehicles here,” says Gwahumbe director, Shanon MacKenzie.
Ironically, the potential repackaging of 4 x 4 tourism could mimic the evolution of the 4 x 4 itself.
Dating back to the 1940’s the Landrover was the quintessential 4 x 4 – a tough, extremely basic vehicle favoured by the military and farmers.
The advent of Range Rovers during the seventies and, eventually, the Landrover Discovery, changed that. This was a cross over between the rugged, all-terrain vehicle and the luxury SUV. It was a case of spruce up the interior, add a metallic paint job, some sleek lines and some snazzy rims and, voila, a comfortable, trendy family vehicle.
In effect, what started as a very small niche in the vehicle market ultimately became a whole category with almost every major motoring brand having a 4 x 4 model. It also had a knock on effect when it came to vehicle and camping accessories and the creation of a new branch of leisure tourism, the self-drive ‘safari’.
According to Naamsa’s vehicle sales figures for May 2016, three of the top five bestselling models in South Africa are 4 x 4s with the new Toyota Hilux as the best seller and the new 4 x 4 SUV, the Fortuner, fifth. (But more about that later).
With the advent of the trendy 4 x 4 comes some interesting marketing psychology. The creation of an image to match the car – a freedom seeking, fearless but stylish adventurer who pursues an adrenaline rush in much the same way as the extreme adventure seeker.
With this has come the creation of branded accessories and clothing ranges.
The only problem is that this comes back to square one – the trend setter most likely to drive and wear aspirational brands such as Jeep, Land Rover or BMW are more likely to be armchair explorers with luxury 4 x 4s parked safely in the garage.
And speaking of armchairs, they are also most likely to be the audience sniggering at the antics of the BBCs Top Gear presenters who, incidentally, recently explored the 4 x 4 trails at Gwahumbe en route to Sani Pass.
Stapelfeldt was on hand to try to keep them on the straight and narrow and the lodge staff to throw in the luxuries.
Although they kicked up plenty of dust and created more mayhem than the average tourist, they certainly put Gwahumbe on the map. Thankfully, your city based 4 x 4er is more likely to appreciate being in one of the most tranquil and picturesque places this side of Maritzburg.
Gwahumbe overlooks the confluence of the Umsunduze and Gwahumbe Rivers and it part of the Gwahumbe Valley from which it gets its name. It is a recognised natural heritage site and home to hippo, giraffe, zebra, a variety of antelope and an abundance of bird life.
The 4 x 4 track, which is characterised by majestic cliff faces and winds through plateau grassland and across lush riverine forests, is nine kilometres long and comprises a number of different trails through the game reserve. It has a grading of between one and three, has wide variety of technical sections and takes between two and four hours to complete.
According to Stapelfeldt, whose company has worked at Gwahumbe since 2003, guides are not essential but training can be arranged at the reserve. This is not only perfect for those wanting to improve their skills and gain some extra 4x4 experience, but also for those trying off roading for the first time.
Drivers, he says, will encounter river crossings, sandy tracks, rocky sections, steep inclines and declines, side slopes, gravel and grass, muddy sections during heavy rainfall and a few twisting climbs just for good measure.
Back to technicalities, Stapelfeldt says that the track caters for all makes of four wheel drive vehicles, including those without low range but which have sufficient ground clearance (such as the Nissan X-trail, Land Rover Discovery Sport, Evogue and Freelander, the Toyota Rav 4 and Subaru Forester).
“The track is designed to allow the driver to explore the limitations of the vehicle and gives him or her an opportunity to understand their capabilities in a controlled environment with the help of an instructor. The driver will have to choose the correct line whilst negotiating the track ensuring the wheels are placed on high ground to increase the clearance of the vehicle,” he explains.
But he says it is important to balance the off road adventure with nature conservation. It is here that 4 x 4 adventuring has acquired a bad name. Initially, irresponsible off roaders caused a great deal of damage to the point where beach driving is banned in South Africa. The number of bush drives is also limited.
Private reserves where the antics of drivers and the effect on the environment can be more carefully monitored are the perfect compromise.
“At Gwahumbe, the track evolves every year. New tracks are cut out as older ones erode with changing weather conditions. We share environmental awareness with all drivers who attend our courses, ensuring that they respect the terrain, other off road users and, most importantly, the wild life. Our motto is that animals have the right of way – always,” says Stapelfeldt.
He was on hand to encourage drivers to “trust the vehicle” and keep their foot of the brake when 031business recently visited Gwahumbe for a first-hand experience of the reserve and lodge as well as the recently launched Toyota Hilux and Fortuner.
Drivers wound up mountains to 700m above sea level from 400m in the river valleys whilst negotiating mud, slippery grasses, river crossings and a variety of interesting obstacles. A stop off at a picnic spot at The Cave allowed for human refuelling midway.
Finally, when the vehicles had wound their way back to the lit up lodge after sunset, it was time for those creature comforts. Although we enjoyed a glorious braai and potjie feast at the boma, there are also glorious dinners at the lodge which is known for its fine cuisine and wine cellar.
A good night’s sleep is always the perfect ending to a day of bush whacking and the luxurious rooms at the Gwahumbe Lodge with their traditional décor, crisp linen and lovely bathrooms are a far better option than a sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere.
There are also quality self-catering accommodation options available on the reserve.
The final creature comfort that is as perfectly aspirational as the leather seating and new age electronics of the 4 x 4s that transported us uphill and own dale was the Spa@Gwahumbe which is set in a private garden and offers massage rooms, a hydro and a steam room.
For more information, visit www.gwahumbe.co.za, call 031 781 1083 / 087 150 3475 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @gwahumbe on Twitter and Gwahumbe Game & Spa on Facebook.