Special Report: Logistically Sound

It is safe to say that the key to future growth in South Africa is a functioning logistics industry – set in place to move millions of tonnes of freight in a country without a competitive rail network. Hence, the young nation at the southernmost tip of Africa relies almost solely a vast fleet of truck and trailer combinations to move all that is required to keep the world’s 29th largest economy* moving.

The Oppikoppi Festival, as unusual as it may seem, is a good example to grasp the full magnitude of that macroeconomic situation. Transporting more than 200 tonnes of lighting, staging, and rigging equipment to a remote location in the middle of nowhere is one of Africa’s most strenuous logistical challenges – not counting those 200 portable toilets and 1,900 bottles of Tequila that have to arrive in time as well.

In the month of August, 25,000 people descend upon a remote farm situated in the province of Limpopo, located 250km away from the nearest main town to celebrate the country’s largest music festival. The festival is not only South Africa’s biggest, but also the toughest both to set up and to endure, as Tony Groenewald, Logistics Manager at Hilltop Live Productions, can attest.

The Oppikoppi farm itself is a desolate and isolated place. There is no electricity and no water. The most abundant thing out here is dust – and lots of it. This makes the set up of Oppikoppi a taxing task for all those involved. To Groenewald, however, it’s a very special logistical experience.

“The entire experience starts when ticket sales commence,” he says. “People need a place to camp and park. They need power and water and shops to purchase food and drinks from. None of this exists out here initially.”

As a result, Hilltop Live has to make use of a wide array of vehicles to ensure the success of the festival year after year. The backline, the audio amplification equipment, is flown from the southern tip of South Africa, Cape Town, to Johannesburg in a cargo plane. All in all there are three intermodal freight containers that make the 1,300 km journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg via plane, with the last leg done on skeletal trailers.

“Oppikoppi is a monster, it’s all logistics,” says Groenewald. Equipping the bar, for instance, is one main challenge. After the festival, Jose Cuervo Tequila revealed they had sold over 48,000 shots of tequila, equating to about 1,900 bottles. And it is best not to forget South African’s penance for beer. Heineken brought four refrigerated semi-trailers along to the festival, as did Amstel Lager and Black Label.

Catering is another key ingredient to the festival – with no shade or seating available, it has to be trucked in from all around the country. Bedouin tents, benches and the all-important fridges are carted in medium-duty, eight-tonne trucks to ensure maximum flexibility.

Imperial Logistics have been contracted to handle much of the bar infrastructure – this comes as no surprise as they are South Africa’s biggest logistics company at present. Annually handling over 110 million tonnes of product and employing just over eleven thousand people, they utilise a wide array of vehicles, including a selection of articulated and rigid equipment.

The amount of locality on the farm is good to see – body building specialist TFM Holdings, who have been in business since the early 1960s, have a strong presence on the farm. Local opponent Royal Truck Bodies are also responsible for a many of the truck bodies at the scene.

On the refrigeration front, Thermo King supply most of the refrigeration units used in Limpopo. Regardless of the make, modern equipment that is offering less fuel consumption, quiet operation and a solid warranty is key to handle such a harsh job, according to Groenewald, who is constantly looking for that ideal compromise between sturdy equipment and energy-saving high technology.

After all, the terrain on the farm is unforgiving. The sand roads are littered with rocks and thorns the size of pencils; and it is easy to see why so much consideration goes into vehicle choice. A breakdown here would require many hours wait for the nearest available tow company or spares to be driven in.

“The small things tend to take up the most space,” notes Groenewald. “We take along over 40,000 plastic cups alone. They are essential, but they take up a lot of space in our Hino Dyna.” Groenewald says that Hilltop Live had to make more trips to and from their office than they can count. Coupled with the high price of petrol and diesel and the poor road infrastructure, this results in 20 per cent of the Oppikoppi budget being dedicated to logistics.

The staging, lighting and audio-visual equipment present by far the biggest challenge to make Groenewald’s Oppikoppi experience happen. The equipment used to get the festival up and running is worth millions, and not easy to transport.

Twenty-two 400kg-generators are needed to power the festival, all of which are brought to the farm on top of two flat top semi-trailers. The operation is so big that a separate transport company, Superloads, has to be involved. A Scania double-axle P-Series truck and a “super-link” flat top trailer by SA Truck Bodies (SATB) are tasked with the job of moving all the generators, but despite the highly specialised equipment two trips have to be made to complete the task.

On the sound side, Sound Stylists is one of two sound and staging companies brought on board. Groenewald says there are two reasons why they use two different companies. “Firstly, Oppikoppi is simply too big for one company to handle and secondly, we would prefer to not have all our eggs in one basket.”

Colin Loock, Managing Director of Sound Stylists, can draw on years of experience in planning music festivals. This year, he relies on a fleet of 5.3-tonne Mercedes-Benz Atego rigids, as the inter-link solution – also called B-double in Australia and Argentina – does not allow for constant loading and unloading. The new medium capacity Ategos are fitted with bodies made from mild steel or aluminium to keep weight down.

“We do about six trips with our Ategos to Oppikoppi and back. This may sound like a lot but you have to take into account what we are moving. The loads consist of scaffolding structures, PA systems and stage deck infrastructure.”

Wesley Groenewald, meanwhile, is a strong advocate of the oversized solution. Not related to Tony, Groenewald has been in the staging and lighting business for over 18 years, and his company, Orbit Staging, has gained a solid repute in the local transport industry. “The staging alone weighs about 40 tonnes – compounded with the sound and lighting that is another 50 tonnes. The easiest way to get all this equipment here is using two inter-link combinations. The terrain makes it difficult but it is either that or doing ten to twelve trips in a truck with a body.”

Orbit Staging use flat-deck inter-links built by SATB, who have secured a solid stake in South Africa’s trailer market over the past. Wesley Groenewald says the reason for choosing SATB was the competitive price and the availability of service vehicles when needed – a key factor if you plan one of Africa’s most challenging freight forwarding projects.

In fact, there is a vast assortment of vehicles involved in putting together the Oppikoppi event – ranging from Manitou forklifts specially designed for use in rough terrain to Bell 315SG 4×4 tractor loader backhoes capable of moving 7,000kg, and tippers carting up to 5,000 litres of water each.

Despite that technological edge, Tony Groenewald says organising the festival did not get easier over time. “We started it 18 years ago as an event for our university friends. We had no idea that it would grow into the monster that it did. Each year it’s just getting bigger and bigger and each year we have to plan for those extra few thousand people. It’s not easy.”

According to Groenewald, nine months of preparation and logistical planning all culminate in four days of raucous fun, but once the last car has left it only takes a few days to take it all down again and leave the farm to the red dust.

“We build it up from the dust, we party hard and we take it all down again. Then we rest for a few days before start planning the next one and think about how we get all the gear out here next year.”

A music fanatic himself, Groenewald knows both sides of the medal. “Watching your favourite guitarist on a perfectly well lit stage is a fantastic experience,” he says. “But, if that stage is in the middle of nowhere, making it happen can be one giant piece of work – especially in a country with a second-rate road network and virtually no rail system.”

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