It’s not the first mountain bike race to be held in a wilderness area in southern Africa. The Desert Knights Mountain-Biking Tour in the Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park will beat them to it when it takes place at the end of October 2012. Starting at the Fish River Canyon in Namibia and ending at Sendelingsdrift in the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa, the action includes 275km of cycling and 34.5km of canoeing. The event is a collaboration between various organisations, including Namibia Wildlife Resorts and SANParks.
Arguments for sports events inside national parks all over the world emphasise that they are not just for the fun of it all, but to raise funds for conservation. For instance, there’s the Big Five Marathon in Kruger National Park or the marathon in Lewa Conservancy, Kenya. Exactly how much money these marathons have raised over the years I don’t know, but I’m told that it’s ‘lots’. The Kruger marathon, for instance, insists that each runner must raise a certain amount of money through sponsors in order to qualify, and this is used to help fund conservation projects both in Kruger and beyond.
March is the beginning of the nesting season for tawny and bateleur eagles, and there are lots of nests between Nossob and Union’s End, where the cycle challenge will be held.
Bateleurs are especially sensitive to disturbance and readily abandon their nests, eggs or chicks – with negative effects on already-declining population numbers. So the organisers agreed to move the event to September. They say there are already only a few spots left.
1. One big issue with events like these is the common/public areas provided for all the spectators and competitors and support teams and food providers and organisers and medics and so forth. How tightly controlled will these be and how impeccably will they be cleaned up so that no trace remains in this wilderness area?
2. What environmental effect will all the extra traffic (not only the cyclists, but the vehicles of organisers, supporters, spectators, food suppliers, medics and others) have on the single sand road between Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Union’s End, which is already a maintenance nightmare? Also, you gotta believe there will be back-up and safety vehicles off-road in the riverbed, despite what the organisers might say now about only cyclists being allowed in the riverbed. And don’t tell me filming and TV sports channels are going to stay on the road – hell no, not when all the action is in the riverbed!
3. What as yet unknown effect will all this extra activity have on nesting birds, plant ecosystems, animals? For instance, it’s all very well to say the cycle route will avoid raptor nests that are known to be in use, but what about all those that nobody knows about yet? And how are the ‘sensitive areas’ going to be established anyway? By riding around in the riverbed and into the dunes trying to locate them for the cycle event, that’s how.
5. Although field guides will accompany each group of ten cyclists, what happens if there’s a bicycle-animal exchange or other accident involving serious injury? Union’s End is incredibly remote, at least a ten-hour drive to the nearest hospital in Upington. Will a helicopter be on standby to carry out emergency medical evacuations from the course? And at what cost, both financially and environmentally?
6. I can't really see how the entrance fee of R4000 each for 50 cyclists is going to cover much more than the cost of mounting the four-day event– if that. R200 000 isn’t much to cover the expenses, with monitors, meals, accommodation, medics, etc, so where is the profit going to come from to use in conservation efforts? If the park is subsidising it, how much money will be ploughed into the event and lost to the worthier causes of conservation (or, indeed, general park maintenance)?
7. If you watch the promotional video some other concerns might pop out at you too. For instance, at first you might think I’m kicking up a fuss about nothing when the voice-over says this race is ‘an opportunity [cyclists] will never get to have again in their life’. The phrase ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ is repeated more than once. But then towards the end of the video comes the comment, ‘One day we hope this will be the premier cycle event of the calendar.’ So the plan is not for this to be once-in-a-lifetime event after all, but a regular event on the sports calendar, year after year. That changes the perspective.
9. The promo video also talks, understandably, about the privilege of being able to ride in a national park and among wild animals. Of more concern is the comment that cyclists will have the ‘opportunity of riding into predators’. We can only hope – for the sake of both cyclists and predators – that this was a slip of the tongue.
Presumably parks management sees this event as a good idea from a marketing perspective otherwise they wouldn't be doing it. I’m not sure, though, how thrilled visitors to Nossob are going to be next September when they find their route north blocked because this event is taking place. And that’s negative marketing.
In any case, how badly does this park really need to be marketed? Every month a clutch of South Africa’s travel and outdoor magazines run at least one if not more articles about the wonders of the Kgalagadi, so is a cycle race really needed as a marketing tool?
As far as I can see, there’s only one other reason to hold such an event: to raise money for conservation. And I’ll
remain sceptical about how successful that will be until I see proof to the contrary. I really do hope I’m wrong.
If you feel strongly – either agreeing or disagreeing with me – please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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