Otter African Trail Run earns prestigious SANParks award

Positive Partnership - Tsitsikamma Park Manager Victor Mokoena with Otter African Trail Run Race Director Mark Collins. Photo - Courtesy Magnetic South

The Otter African Trail Run has walked off with a prestigious ‘Kudu Award’ at the annual South African National Parks awards ceremony in Johannesburg this week, with the Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park, through which the annual trail race takes place, and their partners pocketing another three Kudus.

The Kudu Awards are made annually in recognition of both SANParks staff as well as external stakeholders for their contributions and efforts in enhancing SANParks.

Tsitsikamma Park Manager, Victor Mokoena, and his team nominated the great trail race for an award in the Associate Partners’ category, their community-based partner, Nature’s Valley Trust and Rate Payers Association in the ‘Community Contribution to Conservation’ category and Jocelyn Bauer, a local Storms River resident, for ‘Women in Conservation’.

Otter African Trail Run race director, Mark Collins, receives a Kudu Award for ‘Associate Partner’ at the annual SANParks ceremony. Photo – Phokela Lebea

All won Kudus, while Mokoena’s team also won a Kudu for being named the ‘Best Ranger Post of the Year’ for the second year in succession.

A further nod to Tsitsikamma at the awards ceremony was a lifetime achievement award presented posthumously to ‘Oom Popo’ Scott, whose life changed when he was picked up in the early 1960s by the then Park Manager while walking home from school.

The Park Manager took him on as a general worker, something which was to reap significant benefits as Scott went on to design and build the original huts for the Otter Trail, one of which carries his name.  

Oom Popo Scott against the backdrop of his beloved Tsitsikamma National Park. Photo – courtesy of Victor Mokoena, SANParks

He later designed and built the Dolphin Trail to the east of Storm’s River, and ‘Oom Popo’ was also instrumental in building the network of trails at the Storms River mouth, including the iconic pedestrian suspension bridge, tourism facilities and the first restaurant.

“We’re delighted with the consistent performance of our park,” said Mokoena, who joined Tsitsikamma four years ago. “Last year we won the Best Park award, and this year a number of our partners were able to celebrate.  That means we must be doing something right!  For me it is our approach to conservation inclusiveness – deliberately not excluding neighbouring communities from the park and its benefits.”

The Otter African Trail Run, presented by Easy Equities, has grown to become the country’s most prestigious marathon-distance trail race and has attracted the best in South Africa – and further abroad – to race the challenging 42km through the Tsitsikamma Forest, between Storms River and Nature’s Valley, since its inception in 2009.

The majesty of the Otter Trail is captured at the Bloukrans River mouth – an iconic feature of the Otter African Trail Run. Photo courtesy Magnetic South

From the outset, a feature of ‘The Otter’ has been the passionate commitment to conservation from race founders, the Collins Family, something which has provided a strong basis for their ongoing partnership with SANParks, and the Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park, in particular.

“It was great to receive this award which acknowledges our close partnership with SANParks, notably with Victor Mokoena and his Tsitsikamma National Park team,” said race director, Mark Collins, who received the award at the ceremony.

“I think we won it because of the impact the Otter African Trail Run has had on individuals taking part in the event. People who might never have done so, entered and enjoyed the park through their participation in the ‘Otter’.  We’ve seen changes in attitude and habits from people who have run the Otter African Trail Run and entered a national park for the first time!

On the beat – Otter African Trail race director Mark Collins is passionate about the conservation of the Tsitsikamma Coast. Photo – Stephen Granger

“We have always acknowledged the far-sighted conservationists who first saw the importance of securing the highest level of protection for the unique Tsitsikamma coastal system and took steps to ensure this would happen.

“We’ve followed in their footsteps but also recognise the need to ensure that neighbouring communities also benefit economically from the considerable tourism value the Tsitsikamma has to offer. The Otter African Trail Run is an important part of that.”

Mokoena, who previously held the position of Regional Manager: Tourism and Marketing for the Northern Region (Golden Gate Highlands, Marakele and Mapungubwe National Parks), was appointed Park Manager for the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park shortly before the COVID lockdown and started to engage with the Otter African Trail Team shortly afterwards.

Victor Mokoena, Tsitsikamma Park Manager with 2023 Otter African Trail winners Bianca Tarboton and Robbie Simpson. Photo – Stephen Granger

“One of best things about the trail running team was how seriously they took the SANParks brand and how closely their vision was aligned to our conservation pillars of  responsible tourism and socio-economic transformation,” Mokoena said. “Their sport was 110% aligned with our conservation values.

“They are not just running an event, but providing access to this special coastline to people who might not otherwise get there.  And part of our vision is that anyone should be able to enjoy the park in a sustainable way.”

While Mokoena praises the conservation passion of the Otter African Trail Run and its impact on the participants, he is equally enthusiastic about the contribution the trail running event has made to the economy of the surrounding communities.

“The Otter African Trail Run employs local people in a number of ways, including marshals, trail construction, chefs and other and this is part of the package of benefits we are looking to bring to our neighbouring communities.

“Previously our laws excluded people from land which was their heritage and made criminals of local citizens who felt they had no stake in the park. Now slowly, but surely, people are starting to appreciate the park as theirs.

The Otter African Trail Run has provided substantial advantages to local communities. Photo – Courtesy Magnetic South

“Local communities are starting to reap benefits,” Mokoena continued. “For example, three local residents have started a slackpacking business, providing new opportunities for those hiking the Otter Trail.  Their business has grown to include shuttle services, collecting hikers who fly into Gqeberha or George and then carrying their bags or packs between huts.

“Their business has made R1 million in the past year and they also employ more local people to enhance their delivery. They are building their business and it’s thriving.

“We used to experience incidents of crime through the mugging of hikers and illegal fishing.  Since we created opportunities for local communities, this has not happened once. These local people, who were pushed into crime through some of our exclusionary laws, are now our eyes and ears and helping us fight crime!

All the Kudu winners from the Garden Route National Park. Photo – Courtesy SANParks

“Increasingly local communities now see the park as an asset and are reaping the rewards as they get involved in the mainstream economy of SANParks.”