21 Feb

Indigo Skate Park is the perfect setting for a movie – a centre of skateboarding culture in the heart of a rural Zulu village, where the benefits extend way beyond the adrenaline rush

story hayley dennyson
pictures adi weerheim

As you leave the N2 at Hammarsdale and head into the Valley of 1 000 Hills, the landscape expands in front of you – rolling hills, dense, thorny bush and the occasional glimpse of water flowing through the Umgeni Valley. But then, there’s the unmistakeable sound of wheels on a halfpipe, excited chatter and laughter – lots of laughter. Tucked away, a short walk from the windy single-track road, is a halfpipe and pool, abuzz with eager skaters, some as young as four years old!

This setting is unmistakably Africa – the stuff of postcards and Instagram celebs. It’s not surprising then, that much of the interest in Indigo Skate Park is from international visitors, keen to combine their love of skateboarding and the desire to make a difference.

“We were a bit ahead of our time when we set up the camp at iSithumba Village in 2001, but things have changed and the time is right to spread the message of Indigo Youth Movement,” says founder and professional skateboarder Dallas Oberholzer. “Anyone who has been into skateboarding will know how you get hooked. This is my way of sharing that stoke and giving international skateboarders something truly African to experience when they visit.

“Life here is precarious and there’s no hiding the truth. Every time I visit, conversation starts with who has died. It’s a harsh reality. Indigo Youth Movement is, first and foremost, a social enterprise. Skateboarding is the hook, but there is potential to do so much with the youth. We aim to combat social ills, including drowning, traffic safety and other issues; to help the youth see beyond what is right in front of them.”

Dallas met a Mr Duma at the 2001 Tourism Indaba in Durban and, later, came to visit him at the iSithumba Tourism Centre. “It was only after I’d travelled the world that I worked up the courage to visit the Valley of 1 000 Hills, which I’d driven past a hundred times, growing up in Durban,” Dallas explains. “I wanted to create a reason for people to visit and was looking for the ideal spot for a skate park – somewhere with a wondrous natural environment, cheap land and the USP of a genuine Zulu village.” iSisithumba was that place.

Initially, Dallas ran youth camps for privileged kids, which would subsidise the camp’s activities year-round. “It was the early 2000s and Durban had a lively skateboarding scene – attracting fans from near and far. Despite our efforts to get local kids to come down here, the majority of visitors are from overseas – volunteers who share their skills (from art to English language and chess) to enrich the children’s lives.”

One of the more famous visitors was skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, who visited in 2008 and said: “Indigo is proof that skateboarding can change the world!”

The camp has also earned more than its fair share of international publicity, with teams from National Geographic and Al Jazeera spending time in the valley to create documentaries that have gained millions of views. “We are grateful for the exposure, but it’s local input that we’re really after. We want this to be a place of true integration and social upliftment.”

When Dallas first arrived in the valley, there was nothing on the site and he set about building a ramp himself. With the help of a few local guys, they figured it out as they went along and, today, they have one of the most renowned skatepark construction crews in South Africa, having built ramps across the country.

“There’s always something in the making,” says Dallas. “We speak with the community to see how we can fit in, to be productive. There are NGOs that visit the area, but not many are based here.”

What started with just one ramp has grown to two ramps and a pool, as well as a recycling station, resource library and plans for a computer learning centre to be opened in 2018. This will be open to the community, giving them a much-needed link to the outside world. At present, it’s not uncommon for local residents to travel to Pinetown to send an email!

Indigo Youth Movement also provides food and an after-school programme for the children of the village, encouraging them to engage with subject matter (from life skills to reading and English language) that could be quite grey. Each session starts with a welcome exercise, music and movement, and is designed to develop young leaders in all activities. The children are engaged and their healthy self-esteems are clear to see.

“Their parents are grateful that we provide a safe place for their children to go, where they are fed and are part of a bigger picture. There are opportunities for learning and for experiencing life beyond the valley,” Dallas says. “The biggest change that we have seen is that you don’t find children sitting around, staring into space anymore. Their brains are firing, they are engaged, stimulated and healthy.”

In 2007, The Laureus Sport For Good Foundation came on board as a patron, sharing the goal of using sport for social good.

The programme has already shown success, providing the children with the opportunity to imagine a different life, travel and expand their horizons. One such success story is Sihle “G” Ngubane, who started coming to the after-school programme 10 years ago. From there he was trained as a coach, and today he is the camp’s facilities manager. G lives in the village with his family and is passionate about the difference skateboarding has made in his community. “We have up to 45 kids a day, from the age of four to 15, and encourage them to be proactive, to think about the challenges facing them and figure out solutions.

“We have always run on what feels right and turned down offers of funding when it would jeopardise our goal to uplift the community,” Dallas continues. “The kids have seen us doing it for ourselves and they have been involved in that development. The movement is positive and growing. What we really need is shared expertise. We welcome other NGOs to join us and make use of the facilities, and on members of the wider community to come and visit. We’d love to see you here!

“It’s been a difficult journey, but there are some amazing young children who see a future for themselves here,” Dallas says with a smile. “In no time, we’ll have an airbnb on site. We’ve taken some steps back, but I think we’re in the clear now.”
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