Land Cruiser Troopy

HOW KANGAROOS HELPED SHAPE SOUTH AFRICA’S 4X4 MARKET

By: Grant Spolander

 

“Blimey mate, that one sprayed all over the bull-bar!”

 

I wish I could tell you that the above statement refers to muddy puddles, but it doesn’t. We were about 3 000 km into our Outback trip and each one of those was decorated with a long line of kangaroo carcasses; our bull-bar had just added another corpse to the count.

 

It’s a helluva thing when you see a kangaroo for the first time. I’m so used to seeing antelope on safari that when I first laid eyes on a kangaroo it looked almost comical to me − like a cute Disney character. “Boing, boing, boing, hahaha, look at the little fella go.”

 

Splat!

 

I felt like I was 30 minutes into a Quentin Tarantino movie. You know, the story starts out like any other, but before you know it, it’s filled with lots and lots of dead things.

 

Each kilometre revealed a series of bleached bones gleaming in the sun. The invertebrates are what really grab your attention; thousands of them litter the road like a deadly game of Croquet hoops.

 

The further you venture into the Outback, the higher the death toll rises. Kangaroos aren’t the smartest roadside animals, but as you drive into deep, middle Australia, it’s like they get even more suicidal. You’ve probably seen squirrels do the same thing: they’ll zigzag clear of danger but then suddenly dart under your tyre after making it to safe ground on the other side.

 

I turned to my Australian co-driver, Justin, and said, “I get the impression you guys have no love for kangaroos.”

 

“Yeah; it’s not that we hate them, mate, it’s just that there are millions of the stupid buggers. You’d think that by now they would’ve evolved and recognised the dangers of the road, but they still jump in front of your vehicle.”

 

I feel guilty that we’ve added another corpse to the boundless expanse of the Outback, but I can’t argue. Australia has more kangaroos than most places have pigeons, and the latter are arguably street-smarter.

 

Eventually, I get used to the carnage, as if kangaroos naturally come in two species: dead and alive.

 

One thing’s for sure, when you couple the road-side bones with the desolate look of scorched red earth, you get a sense of what the apocalypse may look like. I suddenly feel a deeper connection to Mad Max.

 

Land Cruiser Prado 150 in Australia

Much like South Africa, Australia’s dirt roads can be tough on tyres, where loose stones cause severe cut & chip damage.

 

But I’m not doing the place any justice: the Outback, of course, is not all doom and gloom; it’s also a place of boundless beauty and solitude.

 

It’s the size of it that really gets you. The Outback is a big place, but it’s not North America big − it’s big in the sense that it’s mostly empty. It’s like running 10 miles in the city versus swimming 10 miles out to sea. You’re forced to take things slow out here, because there’s really no point in rushing. The place is too big to care, one way or another, time is all you’ve got to give.

“The place is too big to care,

one way or another,

time is all you’ve got to give”

 

Coming from Africa, there’s a temptation to compare the two continents: at first, I viewed the Australian Outback as a wasted wilderness. ‘Wasted’ in the sense that it’s largely desolate, but more so, wasted in that it has all this space, but there’s very little wildlife to enjoy it.

 

I think many South African tourists (and more recently, immigrants) make the same mistake. They’ll see a stretch of road in the Outback that reminds them of the Kalahari, and as a result, they’ll end up comparing wildlife score sheets.

 

Red dunes in Australia similar to South Africa

Parts of the Outback may remind you of the kalahari.

 

Souht Africa kalahari sand or australian outback sand

 

It’s a foolish mindset. Complaining about the Outback’s comparative “lack” of wildlife is no different to an American tourist moaning about the Kruger National Park’s lack of grizzly bears.

 

If you’re travelling to the Outback, you’re not there to compare wildlife numbers: you’re there to enjoy the region’s tasty off-road offerings, while being afforded the opportunity to legitimately claim: “We were in the middle of nowhere.”

 

This brings me to a completely anecdotal theory I have about our own 4x4-enthusiast market in South Africa. Namely, that we owe it all to Australians and kangaroos. Here’s how I see it…

 

Kangaroos = bull-bars = after-market suspension = importation to SA = the birth of the South African 4x4 enthusiast market.

 

Let me explain. Four-wheel drive vehicles have been around for quite some time in SA. These vehicles were predominantly used by farmers, hunters, fishermen and boat owners. It was probably not until the late 1990s that the 4x4 market began in South Africa, and grew to be what we know it as today.

 

Cooper AT3 in South Africa and Australia

 

So, what happened in the late 90s? Well, that’s when Desert Cool (a private SA company) imported and widely distributed the first Old Man Emu suspension systems from Australia.

 

Prior to this, the odd importer might have brought in a suspension kit or two, but in many respects, one could arguably say that the 4x4 enthusiast market really only kicked off (and radically expanded) with the nationwide success of aftermarket suspension from Aus.

 

After OME and ARB landed in South Africa, it wasn’t long before other leading brands like TJM and Ironman followed. This meant that more funds were pumped into advertising, and that the industry became clearly defined as a notable, recreational, enthusiast market. 4x4 owners were no longer defining themselves as fishermen or hunters; they were defining themselves as off-road travellers, overlanders, and 4x4 enthusiasts.

 

As this group of enthusiasts grew, so did its options in terms of products, accessories, 4x4 trails, off-road-focused accommodation, and an ever-expanding 4WD vehicle market.

 

Obviously, it would be naive to say that after-market suspension was the sole contributor to this growth, but it was unquestionably a major contributor, and a defining catalyst that exploded the trade.

 

This brings me back to how this all relates to kangaroos. Well, because of the prevalence of kangaroos in Australia, bull-bars are a near-necessity there, making it a multi-million-dollar industry in which companies like ARB are listed on the stock exchange.

 

These bars are fitted for collision protection against kangaroos; however, in most cases, the benefits are less about occupant protection, and more about radiator protection. That said, a broken radiator in the middle of the Outback could spell a fate worse than a face full of kangaroo guts and windshield glass.

 

Not surprisingly, bull-bar sales are notably higher than suspension sales in Australia – in South Africa it’s the other way around. All the same, there’s no denying that the fitment of bull-bars played a major role in the development of, and the need for, after-market suspension.

 

So… Kangaroos = bull-bars = after-market suspension = importation to SA = the birth of the South African 4x4 enthusiast market.

 

But perhaps I’m just clutching at straws here. Or perhaps I like the idea that millions of kangaroos haven’t died for nothing.

 

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that South Africa’s 4x4 market and the Australian 4x4 market are nearly identical. This has a lot to do with similarities between our lifestyles, our weather, our access to remote places, and the fact that our vehicle options are very much the same.

 

I think most of us will agree that there’s an unspoken rivalry between our two countries. Whether it’s competitiveness on a sporting level, or a comparison as to which is the better place to live, Aussies and Saffers have a love-hate relationship. Basically, we love to hate each other.

 

“Aussies and Saffers have a love-hate relationship.

Basically, we love to hate each other”

 

Although strong arguments can be made in favour of both countries, I felt very little habitat-envy. However… if you were to tie me to a chair, connect electrodes to my nippily bits, and administer a dose of truth serum, I might ( just possibly) admit to some jealousy.

 

My recent trip ‘down under’ included a sliver of the Outback, as well as a taste of some of the beaches and islands that can be driven in a 4x4. I also spent much of my time chatting to Aussies, as well as to SA immigrants. You’ll often hear Saffers (living in Aus) tell you, “Everything works here, you know; it just works!”

 

Mickey Thompson tires on sand

Australia is a beach-driving paradise for 4x4 enthusiasts. But they also have rock, mud, an infinite network of dirt roads, sand dunes, and even snow to play on.

 

To be honest, I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. What works? And what is ‘everything’? But you soon realise what they mean. Australia is a well-run country, and for that, we tend to criticise it as a nanny state. But the flip side to all the “nanny-ness” is that the Australian government goes out of its way to cater to its people. In many respects, Australia is one big adventure playground for boaters, 4x4ers, hikers, divers, fishermen, and everyone in between. And it’s all there, all year round, easy and safe to access, and well run and maintained.

 

But here’s the thing…

 

None of that made me jealous. What really stirred my envy was the sheer size and productivity of their 4x4 market. It’s massive! It’s bigger than massive. And because of its size, it’s completely self-perpetuated, like a giant enthusiast-snowball that keeps rolling and growing. And the reason that made me so jealous is that I see the same potential in SA.

 

The “problem” with South Africa’s 4x4 enthusiast market is that it’s very niche. Which means that there’s not much incentive for companies to R&D new products and concepts here. Pumping a million rand into the development of a new 4x4 product is a big risk in South Africa, but in places like Aus, (and even the US), that investment is relatively easy to recoup. In fact, you’ll probably find that many SA 4x4 companies pioneering new products are focusing strategically on Australian exports, rather than on local markets.

 

Truth be told, that kinda bums me out. Of course, I don’t begrudge these companies, if anything, I feel immensely proud that they’re South African. However, as I said, it’s frustrating to watch Aus enjoy such success, when we (as a country) have so much to offer. I mean, what continent on earth is better suited to the research and development of new 4x4 products, concepts, and accessories? Our slogan should be: ‘If it can break, we’ll break it.’

 

When I returned to SA – after two weeks in Aus for work and pleasure – the very first question I heard from… well, just about everyone, was: “So, are you immigrating?”

 

It was a bit of an oddball question, especially as I’ve never expressed any intention of doing so. But, what I’ve subsequently realised, is that if you travel to Aus (for whatever reason), people are going to assume that you’ve gone to scout the place out for possible relocation. The fact that so many people asked me this question is testament to what’s on their minds. In my case, however, my trip to Aus just reaffirmed everything I love about Africa.

 

Sure, the wildlife is great and the scenery is spectacular, but that’s not what draws me to this continent. For me, happiness is not a place, a destination, or even a state of mind, it’s a metric that has value only in the face of its opposite: it’s the thing you feel after conquering the things that challenge you. And Africa is full of challenges.

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