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SARZA can trace its origins to the late 1980s as part of the Four Wheel Drive Club (FWDC) of South Africa.

In the late 1980’s when a prospective member joined the 4WDC he/she filled in a form; on the form one of the questions that was asked was “Will you be willing to assist in times of national or civil emergency?”. As a result of this question, the Club had an indication of who amongst the membership was prepared to assist in an emergency situation.

During the mid-1990 an aircraft went missing in the Black Umfolozi River valley of Northern Kwazulu Natal (KZN). After an extended search for the aircraft turned up nothing, the official search was called off. However, the family of the missing people decided to continue the search and put out the word for private assistance. The local parachute club, the local hiking club, and the local police force made themselves available. One of the family members was also a member of the KZN chapter of the 4WDC and asked the club if they could assist. This request ended up at the 4WDC in Johannesburg and members willing to assist were called up, based on what they had filled in on their application forms.

From this, a group of 6 vehicles under the leadership of the then 4WDC Chairman Neville Marsh, left Johannesburg on a Thursday morning and drove down to assist in the search activities in KZN. Using only 29 mHz CB radios as communications (there were only 3 hams in the convoy so VHF was not an option) the party’s search was unsuccessful and they returned to Johannesburg on the Monday evening. Unfortunately, the aircraft was not found (in fact the wreckage was discovered in the Southern Drakensberg area hundreds of kilometers away a number of years later by some backpackers).

The organisation of that search, the logistics behind it, and the processes and procedures were all rather haphazard and very disorganised. It became apparent to Neville and some other members of the team that this could be done much more efficiently and professionally if people were correctly trained, correct search management techniques were practiced and a structured command process was in place. A decision was made to call a meeting in Johannesburg to see who would be interested in forming a volunteer rescue organisation.

The first meeting was held at Sturrock Park close to Wits and the organisation was formed with an interim committee to get it off the ground. A number of those founding members are still active in ORRU today and one of them still serves on the committee. In the weeks and months that followed a constitution was drafted and SARZA was formed as a division of the 4WDC of SA. In later years the unit would also start accepting members from other 4×4 clubs, in some regions SARZA functions independently from the 4WDC.

Initial training was based on map reading and navigation (this was 1991 – before cell phones and GPS’s were around), radio procedures, off-road driving, convoy driving, vehicle maintenance, camping self-sufficiency, and basic first aid. Training was initiated on one Saturday and one Wednesday per month, much as we still do today.

In addition, the Unit makes a further contribution to the community at large by offering communications, management, and medical infrastructure to organisers of outdoor sporting events such as road-running marathons, cycle races, mountain bike challenges, and off-road motor racing events. These events generate income for the Unit which is used to maintain our Mobile Command Post trailers and the wide range of expensive communications and medical equipment they contain.