Now the world can hike SA’s top trails — virtually
It’s an unexpected sight on the Tugela Falls Trail in Royal Natal National Park, KwaZulu-Natal. Slowly rising from the chain ladders on the Sentinel is a round, alien ball with 15 eyes, affectionately named Gary.
As it moves up another step, it becomes clear Gary is attached to a labouring human who is hauling the piece of technology up to the views at the top of the Amphitheatre.
Every two seconds, Gary the Google Trekker’s 15 cameras take a shot that is stitched into a 360-degree vista: it is the "4x4" version of a Google Street View camera, a 22kg backpack of gear that over the course of 12 months has recorded 170 trails and hikes in all 19 South African national parks, 17 reserves and six Unesco sites.
Anyone on the planet with an internet connection can now "walk" these routes usually seen only by hikers.
Viewers can be transported to Mkuze’s fig forest or the rugged Klipspringer trail in Augrabies National Park. They can even jump the queue to get onto the multiday Otter Trail on the Garden Route, which has a long waiting list.
Cultural and historical sites such as the Nelson Mandela capture site near Howick or Mapungubwe Hill have also been "mapped" by Google.
"We want to inspire people to travel to SA," says Andre van Kets, co-founder of Cape Town-based travel company Drive South Africa, which partnered with Google Street View for the project, organised the loan of the camera and co-ordinated logistics and travel.
"Tourism is hopefully going to take over the more established industries as the leading revenue driver in the country. On a more personal level, I just wanted to share SA’s beauty with the world. Being in nature’s good for people."
Drive South Africa has also developed a microsite, called South Africa in 360, using the imagery, says Van Kets. "It’s a little preview of SA’s top four locations … and a whole lot of hidden gems. We believe the online experience will inspire people to come out and see the real thing for themselves."
More than 200 volunteers, from hiking club members to SANParks rangers, helped haul Gary over all sorts of terrain to gather the imagery. They were aided by a core team of six who travelled 12,000km in seven months. All had to get used to quips from other park visitors, such as "Is that a coffee maker?" or "Is that the internet?"
Lead trekker Alistair Daynes says carrying the 22kg camera is "no walk in the park". Core team members all carried Gary and took on the burden whenever they encountered dangerous game.
Daynes was the porter for some of the Drakensberg routes. "The camera was heavy, but an amazing amount of peace came with it," he says.
"You’d walk about 30m behind to be sure no one else was in shot, so you’d have this time to yourself, walking in the wild and listening to nature. It became a meditation; something that we longed to do."
It was a nice experience, knowing it would help international tourists go online and have a visual tour of SA, wherever they areRendani Mudavu
Daynes also carried Gary in the Mountain Zebra National Park, when the team tracked a collared cheetah.
"We came across a mother and three cubs and I needed to walk around her to get the images," he says.
"The cheetah got an extreme fright – this was something she’d never seen before. It mock-charged me with a growl that really reverberated through the soul. And the chances of outrunning a cheetah? Zero."
Volunteer Rendani Mudavu, at the time an intern with SANParks who helped lug Gary up Lion’s Head and on Noordhoek beach, first thought the camera would be difficult to carry, but found it to be comfortable.
"It was a nice experience, knowing it would help international tourists go online and have a visual tour of SA, wherever they are," Mudavu said.
"One day maybe I can tell my kids I was part of this project and click online to show them."
Liam Kelly, a videographer from Kelly and Woods and member of the core team, says all six got very fit; it was "physically very straining". They travelled in two vehicles and moved on to new sites every few days.
In each park, they would meet the managers and then rangers to discuss trail options, before heading out with guides or rangers. Coupled with all the volunteers and lots of curious visitors, this made for a lot of social interaction.
"It was very challenging at times, but the project was greater than all of us," says Kelly. "People were so proud of their land and what they were protecting. And excited by this phenomenal piece of technology.
"People were always sort of surprised by it – by its size and weight and colour – this 15-eyed alien that sits above your head."
SANParks has shared the imagery on social media and its website, eliciting questions on whether it could aid the battle against poaching. Van Kets says that as the imagery essentially offers only a fixed moment in time recorded months ago, any animals recorded would be long gone. They did, however, decide to edit out the footage of a section of a park where rhinos were encountered.
But otherwise, Van Kets says, "real crooks" already have methods of obtaining information and the imagery won’t pose a risk to animals.
The footage illustrates how spectacular places such as the Richtersveld and Lanner’s Gorge near Pafuri, Kruger Park are — and the diversity of biomes in SA. But could the online exposure of these places make people a little more blasé about experiencing them in reality?
Van Ketz doesn’t think so.
"Well, after seeing [a place], no one’s going to move it off their bucket list, it’s going to move higher up.
"There’s almost a dichotomy here in that technology is consuming so much of our daily lives that at times it may even pull us away from nature, or from stepping into nature," Van Ketz says.
"Perhaps what this imagery does is that while looking down at our screens, we see something that awakens something inside and tells us to get outside. That’s what this is all about."
• To search all 170 new trails, click here.