In 1962, a few notable things were happening in the world: Dodger Stadium held its first game, Walmart store No. 1 opened, the Cuban Missile Crisis began, Jim Carrey was born, and the inaugural Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari took to the hills. For the purposes of Jp, we’re gonna focus on that last one. Alrighty, then.
The Desert Safari is pretty much an institution in the world of Southern California four wheeling, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an enthusiast in the state—or even the surrounding ones—who hasn’t gone to at least one in the past 50 years. So, with a tip of the dusty trail hat, we’re going to take a closer look at the event that has not only made 4x4 history (by reaching that milestone), but is a part of 4x4 history, too.
What Is TDS Desert Safari?
TDS is the Tierra Del Sol Four Wheel Drive Club (named by Roy Pruitt and Bozzy Willis) out of San Diego, California, which entered the world in 1962 as a not-for-profit organization and remains that. The Desert Safari was originally held off Hwy. 78, not in the area usually referred to as Truckhaven, in a place called Cricket Wash. Why that name? “Tons of crickets.” While it traditionally takes place the first weekend of March, in the old days it was also held in September and February (the latter being dumped when everyone decided it was too freakin’ cold).
The Desert Safari terrain includes sandy washes, hillclimbs, and undulating, off-camber notches and ridges. And it’s also such a beloved event, 4x4 clubs from all over California, Arizona, and beyond attend. For example, the San Diego 4 Wheelers club ran the RTI ramp for the 50th event, and has for several years.
Interestingly, every year the TDS club members vote on whether to hold the Safari again the following year. That means in any year it could be canceled. And since it takes about nine months to plan each Safari, and everyone working it is volunteering their time and efforts, be sure you all continue to be on your best behavior so they always vote yea.
How Have Vehicles Changed During the 50 Years?
As you would guess, it was naked wheeling in the early days—we mean, Jeeps were in their birthday suit: no lift kits, no big tires, no power parts, no rollcages, no nothing. “They pretty much came stock, with whitewall tires,” said Bob Alexander of TDS. “The whole aftermarket parts industry has grown up around the Safari.” Vendors, sponsors, and advertisers were indeed in existence even at the very first Safari, but in those beginning years, what they were hocking wasn’t always related to Jeeps. Case in point: There was a guy from a Sears and Roebuck refurbishing place who would bring old refrigerators and washers and dryers to be given away as prizes at the raffle.
Which Safari Was the Largest?
As you might imagine, 2012 was the top dog. While it’s unknown how many Jeeps have attended over the 50-year history, this year’s TDS did break the records for attendance overall, with 1,768 official registrants. However, the club guesstimates that over the course of the three days, there were more than 10,000 people. “We had 1,120 vehicles go through checkpoint one between 8 a.m. and noon,” said Alexander. Pretty impressive? “Pretty crazy.” For comparison, last year counted 1,127 registrants, and five or six years ago it was around 1,500 registrants, which at the time had been the largest attendance ever recorded. Naturally, there was a point in time when 200 was considered a huge crowd.
Weather and, to a smaller extent, the economy—notably gas prices—have been known to affect attendance, although some in the club believe a funky economy has been known to boost attendance; driving to the desert for a vacation is more affordable than a Griswald-style cross-country trip.
While the Safari has never been canceled, it has been known to rain so badly that mud became a four-letter word, causing RVs, vehicles, and people to get stuck. Speaking of motorhomes, that’s another vehicle that has made an appearance in bulk. While early TDS Safari events had people sleeping outdoors in tents and on the ground, and even digging their own toilets and building their own outhouses, more recent years have brought a sea of not-roughing-it accommodations. Seems like a good moment to reflect on the invention of the Porta-Potty—also in abundance.
Who Has Attended the Most Safaris?
This year, TDS handed out plaques to three members who have been attending the event pretty faithfully for about 45 years. While the club isn’t sure who has attended the most, Denny Londo, who is now 88, came back from the war and bought a Jeep around 1947, which he’s had since his first Safari—and still has. His brother, Bob, and Joe Branch, the other two recipients of plaques, are also part of the early days of the club.
Attendance must count, as Donnie was front-and center when Chrysler’s West Coast Region Communications dude, Scott Brown, handed over the keys to a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport to the club, which was accessorized with parts from Mopar, Katzkin, and Goodyear. For the next nine months, the up-fitted Wrangler will be transported to several locations and events throughout southern California, giving the club the opportunity to educate the public about land-use issues and sell raffle tickets for the vehicle’s eventual auction in December at the San Diego International Auto Show.
Said Jason Stoicevich, Director, Chrysler Group LLC’s California Business Center. “For more than 50 years, this club has been promoting the enjoyment and protection of our natural resources, family outdoor living and responsible trail use, values that the Jeep brand has also been supporting for more than 70 years.”
How Have Safety and Technology Changed in 50 Years?
While tech inspection has existed “forever” at the Safari, what’s considered safe sure has gotten better. “In the early days, you’d see people not wearing seatbelts, and standing in the Jeeps holding onto the rollbars. But now, it’s rollcages, rollbars, safety harnesses, shoulder straps, and fire extinguishers. Safety has evolved as vehicle capability has increased,” Alexander noted. So has technology—it’s all about GPS, CBs, and ham radios. “I don’t know many people who can actually read a compass.”
How Does TDS Win the Battle Against Land Closures
While the Safari may be what you associate with TDS, the club is equally active in the fight against land closures in California, with a portion of the proceeds from the Safari going toward keeping trails open (and the related issues), and also in the form of donations to orgs that support off-road recreation.
In fact, TDS found its own playground threatened, when, after 45 years, the event’s headquarters was moved from one side of county road S22 (Borrego-Salton Seaway) in the Truckhaven area to the other side in Ocotillo Wells SVRA, due to what the TDS folks say was a “lack of a general plan on the part of the Ocotillo Wells SVRA,” and with regard to issues with permits. “We remember an injunction filed by the Center for Biological Diversity against the California Off-Road Vehicle Association that year. The club then voted to continue to have the Safari, but move it to Main Street.” Moving inside a state recreation area “did not sit well,” said Alexander, since attendees liked the idea of “Truckhaven,” and this ended up reducing attendance to the Safari for a couple years. And now there’s a lawsuit pending over boundary lines that prevent some trail access, and also over some areas being completely fenced off. But there is a silver lining: Out of the HQ move came not only improved trails but the birth of the Truckhaven 4x4 Training Area, which opened last year and features manmade obstacles that allow four wheelers of every skill (or no skill) level to improve their driving techniques.
The club has also been active in the maintenance of trails, including the Corral Canyon OHV area, which was damaged by a wildfire a couple years back. The TDS crew got involved in the cleanup and in the building new trails.
A new fight the club is actively involved in is the effort to save Johnson Valley, which involves the Marine Corps wanting to expand in the Johnson Valley ORV area (home to the Hammers trails).