Legalising mountain bike guides

!activities mtb grassyfieldIt’s surprising, to say the least, that in South Africa – a country with a huge and fanatical following of mountain bikers – we don’t have an MTB Tourist Guide certificate. Well, time to change that. With thousands of tourists pouring in from abroad and many more locals wanting to be led on our wonderful single-track trails, the need for qualified professionals is increasing every year.

There are many actually working as MTB guides, illegally. Quite a few companies exist from the Cape to Cairo. In SA, the Tourism Act makes it clear that to be a guide of any kind, conducting tours for gain, you must be qualfied and officially registered. But here’s the catch: there’s no formal qualification for mountain biking (as well as numerous other adventure activities where people are being guided, such as river tubing). There are no specific MTB Unit Standards (US) under the National Qualifications FrameworMTB RECREATIONAL TRAIL DSCN3271k (NQF).

So guides are in double jeopardy: on the one hand you can be arrested, fined and even jailed for working illegally. On the other hand if you did have an accident of some kind the fact that you were not an officially registered guide could lead to punitive damages claimed by the offended party. They would win hands-down, especially if there was already a criminal judgement against the illegal guide.

I’m determined to pursue the issue and get our MTB fraternity onboard with tourist guiding. As I run trails myself, everything I’ve said applies to me too.

What’s the solution? Read on…

The need is not confined to South Africa alone. Throughout Africa there are wonderful cycling opportunites. There are also tourism authorities, laws and regulations.

I think of the trips I’ve done along Lake Malawi and up into the Nyika Plateau, on narrow, lonely tarred roads and very decent gravel as well as tracks in the mountains. It wasn’t all off-road biking but it was certainly off the beaten track. Beautiful stuff, but very remote – and if you were leading tourists, as I was, the risks were enormous. So we have to get legal and make sure our MTB guides know their stuff – bikes, trails, tourism, safety, regulations and ethics.


A solution is in sight thanks to the development of a skills programme in Adventure Guiding set up by Andrew Friedemann, director of the Adventure Qualifications Network (AQN), the details of what’s on offer are here. The activity of mountain biking is not specifically covered in the programme. No specialised activities are – it is left to the supervising associations or subject matter experts (SMEs) to train and qualify the candidates.

  • The intention of the programme is to provide recognition for generic guiding skills, from knowledge of adventure to client relations, risk management and such things as environmental care and campcraft. It allows one to become a professional adventure guide at a national level.
  • Most importantly, however, there is an opening here for so-called SMEs to design and run instructional courses for specialised guides. This in fact means that where no supervisory body exists the SME’s must come up with their plan for training and signing-off of guides. It is then up to the recognised Assessors of AQN to test and approve the competence of guides.

Hey presto, one can get legal!

How does one go about planning a training course for MTB Tourist Guides in SA and Africa? The first obvious step is to look for examples elsewhere. You find them in places like Tasmania and British Columbia where there is a demand for recreational MTB rather than pure racing. Tourists will do tough trails but they are looking for scenery, local lore, riding among the people, and getting back to nature. It’s a different attitude, and from the point of view of the guide it’s a service not a competition.


In South Africa the focus of Cycling SA is not on tourism but on racing; so while we would undoubtedly want to involve experts from the ranks of CSA we would need to develop our own MTB Tourist Guide I’ve done some research and come up with a formula for a course from guide entry level to advanced. It must comprise:

  • Basic adventure tourism knowledge and skills
  • MTB trail leadership from beginner through intermediate to advanced and extreme
  • Trail design, environmental principles, coaching and monitoring
  • Short tours and multi-day excursions, nutrition, transportation and permissions
  • Cycling products, quality, mechanical maintenance, repair and costings
  • Cycling risk management, regulations, legal requirements and professional ethics
  • Entrepreneurship and business sense to make a success of MTB tourism


I’ve been in this game for years since the 1980s when I started Funbikers with my wife Karen. We used to run trails on the Garden Route, in Namaqualand, in the Drakensberg and in the Graskop/Pilgrim’s Rest area.

!mtb dec 2012  damian fixing bikes IMG-20121218-00572We learnt plenty about what recreational cyclists really want, and the limits of their endurance. We also had to fix bikes on trail, manage accidents (all minor, fortunately), and deal with farmers and others (who obligingly gave us entry to offroad paths). Nowadays we’re based in the Vredefort Dome and have developed lots of trails here from easy to insane.

MTB has changed markedly in the three and a half decades since we began. Bikes, accessories, expert know-how, trails here there and everywhere, and books and websites proliferate. There’s no shortage of anything – except legalised guides!

Why do it and risk the penalities? Because it’s good business and above all it’s spiritually fulfilling. On two wheels you are one of the people. hey greet you as you pass; and in every village there is a “Doctor of Bicycle” (usually signalled by a cardboard notice outside a mud hut).Yet if you have an accident you may be for the high jump, not meaning a thrilling ride.

My own bicycle mechanic in Parys, SA, is a former Malawian. He knows just how to fix things cheaply and well, improvising where necessary.

You don’t learn those skills in a textbook. Like Land Rovers, cycles in various stages of disrepair are found scattered throughout Africa; as are the parts, on scrap heaps. I’m not suggesting we all need to be bush mechanics, but a little bit of MacGyver goes a long way in the outdoors.

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