Sand, snakes and soccer surprise 4x4 enthusiasts

Herpetologist Marius Burger with a Smith?s Plated Lizard (Gerrhosaurus validus)

By Melissa Wray
In the Lowveld


The 15 vehicles and 20 competitors from the Goodyear 4x4 Eco-Challenge spent half of this year's off-road competition in the Kruger National Park, from September 12 to 19, 2005. Along the way they fulfilled several of the quests involved in the 15-day off-road adventure that took the competitors from the Western Cape up to the far north of South Africa and back.

The Eco-Challenge touched on both the Big Five and South Africa's five international borders. It fulfilled part of its ?eco? title by taking part in the Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment, a University of Cape Town-coordinated venture that aims to build an atlas of Southern Africa's abundant reptile diversity with the help of members of the public.

Southern Africa has 498 species of reptiles ranging from geckos to crocodiles, more than threequarters of which are found nowhere else on earth. The Eco-Challenge teams encountered and logged around 40 different reptile species on their journey. Many of these were found in Kruger, with the Mpanamana concession providing nine different species by itself, including the rough scaled plated lizard.

Another reptilian highlight for the team, when not enjoying the sights and sounds of some of the remotest parts of Kruger, was finding a species of flat gecko along the Lebombo trail. Previously, its range was thought to be restricted to parts of the park much further north. The finding of the shed skin of a snouted cobra in the north-east of the park made a change from all the lizard sightings, and helped add to their reptile log.

The competitors and their support teams found that their time in Kruger offered more than just scaly sensations ? the early morning find of fresh lion spoor right next to the camp at Twanana on Pioneer Dam near Mopani had a few people sleeping lightly the following night. The campsite also provided a close-up encounter with an elephant enjoying a snack next to the camp.

The team enjoyed the challenge on day 10 of counting the roan antelope in the roan enclosure near Mopani, finding a total of 34 of these? endangered grazers in the 500ha camp. The winner of the Eco-Trophy was determined on the same day, with teams having to prove their bush savvy by finding traps, weapons and other planted objects in the veld around the camp, in a test similar to what the park rangers undergo.

Physical endurance of the competitors was tested and found lacking when the challenge teams visited the Fumani Primary School at Malamulele on Kruger's borders. Here their gift of sponsored caps, soccer balls and netballs was immediately put to good use when the pupils roped the 4x4ers into a soccer match. Despite the eco-challenge fielding more team members than normal rules allow, the match ended with an even score.

A penalty shoot-out declared the Fumani pupils the winners, although they were eager to schedule a re-match to allow the older participants a chance to save face. The challenge teams and crew left Kruger and headed for Mapungubwe National Park, visiting the raised tree-top boardwalk before heading off back to the Western Cape.

This year the overall winners of the challenge were Nico de Wet and Niel Hamman, also winning the Campmor team spirit trophy. Adriaan Naude and Erik Bakkes won the best support team prize. The teams? antics along the way have been filmed and will be screened on KykNet on Friday evenings. For a glimpse of their reptile sightings, and more information on taking part in the reptile conservation assessment log onto www.saherps.net.



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